Not so gentle dog training

I used to carefully observe the dogs I meet on the road, both because I try to read their communication messages and because I’m curious about their interaction. I often pause to observe the people and  their dogs while walking out together.

During this observations I happened to notice what types of dog accessories the owners are using for their animals here in Ireland. The classic collar is the most worn along with a leash that can have a maximum length of 1.5 meters

collar

or an extensible one that, in theory, should allow greater freedom of movement.

flexi

Many dogs are wearing training harnesses, a type of harness with a hook on the front where you can clasp the lead, this way the dog is a little hampered in its walk and will pull less on the leash. This type of harness is used for medium and large breed dogs of an exuberant nature.

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Many dogs, compared to Italy, wear the Halti head collar, a kind of soft muzzle with the task of turning the animal’s muzzle toward the owner as it starts to pull, to slow its pace .

haltiheadcollar

A few people, fewer than in Italy, use the interscapular harness harness-interscapolare

especially for small and medium-sized dogs, fewer still use the H-harness

horness

and no one of those I observed uses a soft long lead.

longlead

These reflections about the use of dogs accessories here in Ireland came to my mind when I saw some dogs walking with a Halti head and a Flexi leash  type. These two objects have very different purposes: the halti aims to control and restrain the dog, the Flexi on the contrary is used to give it greater freedom while keeping it under control. I wondered what was the point of using them together? Where was the consistency of the message sent to that dog? In addition, the simultaneous use of these two tools, because they are designed for opposite purposes, can be dangerous for the animal, both from a behavioral point of view and from an health point of view.

The Halti Head is an accessory widely used in schools following the Obedience philosophy. It was designed to have a lateral attachment to the dog’s snout from the owner side. Using this tool, the dog should not pull  when it is on a leash, because when it does, its head is turned slightly towards the owner, causing an uncomfortable feeling; in order to avoid this feeling the dog needs to slow the pace and give attention to whoever leads it. This doesn’t  always work: I saw many dogs continuing to pull on the leash even when having the Halti Head. Moreover this result, when obtained, has a high emotional cost to be paid by the dog. The muzzle zone is a very sensitive and delicate body part, essential for communication with other dogs, with people and with the world surrounding it. When a dog is wearing the Halti Head it cannot smell the ground properly, because lowering its head  shortens the distance from the owner and the muzzle is pulled to the side. In the long run this causes in the animals a great deal of frustration and stress. We will end up with a dog that will be probably walking close, and please remember this is not a given, but at the same time we brought our dog to have behavioral problems and later also health problems: chronic stress damages the dog’s physical well-being, weakens the immune system, it can cause other problems like dermatological, intestinal and cardiovascular diseases.

Going back to our previous example,  in addition to issues related to the use of a Halti Head  we need to add those concerning the use of a Flexi lead.

This type of leash gives the dog a false sense of freedom: I say false because, while  it is true that the dog can get away from us for several meters to smell, explore and even run, the spring used to rewind keeps the leash taut; this tension is felt by the dog who keeps feeling like it’s being pulled, even when physically far from us. The alternative would be to stretch it and leave it locked to a certain length, but at that point it would become unwieldy because the owner or the dog would risk tripping over it. A much better option would be to use a soft long lead, which allows the dog to explore the world at ease, without feeling a continuous pull on itself.

If individually Halti Head and Flexi lead can create a long-term damage in the dog’s behavior, using them together can become potentially very harmful to the dog’s health.

In fact, if the Flexi lead is kept short but unlocked, the dog will feel a continuous pull on a delicate part of its body like the muzzle and will suffer a strong emotional stress at each step: if the dog then takes a sudden leap forward and the owner locks the leash instinctively, this may give a sharp tug at the dog’s head that could cause it serious problems on the neck’s vertebrae.

All the instruments used to conduct a walking animal are required to keep it under control. Some do so  through the use of force such as the electric collar ,

elettric

the spiked collar,

punte danno

choke collar,

strozzo

some through the use of gentle training: training harness, halti, flexi leashes.

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The last ones are the most insidious and at the same time the most used, because their pitfalls are not easily recognizable, if we do not think about their purpose and their use.

It’s easy to shiver and condemn the use of the electric collar or a spiked collar when we are shown the damage they cause. Other gentle training tools focused on Obedience do the same amount of damage, yet  it is less visible , it is an  emotional damage, caused from the frustration of the dog of being unable to communicate and express its desire to explore and interact with the world. This damage is just as severe and long lasting, it can weaken the health of our dog and it’s almost impossible  to detect, which is why I ask you to put yourself in the paws of your dog and what you would do if you were in its place.

Imagine you’re walking, maybe in a beautiful meadow. You walk by having the feet bound like a prisoner, with the ability to take a few short steps at a time.  Would you like to walk with a person who, as soon as you stop to look at something that attracts your curiosity, pulls on you and turns your head so that you return your attention to the road you’re on? How would you like to be stopped in your tracks by someone while you are enjoying the thrill of a good run? I don’t think you would like it too much, but that’s what you do to your dog, every day.

The real purpose of the walking tools for a dog should be to keep your dog safe and not to suppress its nature, to do this we should use tools that are the least invasive for the dog when worn while  walking.

The use of a H-harness is a good compromise that takes into account the health and well being of our dog. The mid-back coupling allows the pulling forces that act on it from the leash to be well balanced on the spine without creating harmful injuries. This is not the case with a classic collar, which in the long run can lead to damage to the cervical vertebrae and some local organs such as the thyroid and esophagus.  Furthermore the H-harness takes into account the behavioral welfare of the dog. To wear it, in fact, we do not lift it by its feet, as is the case with the interscapular harness. This way we avoid a first cause of discomfort to the dog by not manipulating the legs, the delicate part of the body, which not all dogs like to be touched. Also with a H-harness we can create less interference in the communication between dogs.

When we conduct a dog  with collar and a short leash, pulling the leash on the neck means that this will raise the dog and make it assume unwillingly an assertive position: neck erect, head held high. This is read by another dog as an aggressive attitude, and likely the behavior of our dog will be misunderstood by the other: this can give origin to a fights. All this could be avoided by the use of an H-harness. With it the dog is free to interact with other dogs if and how he wants  and even if we inadvertently pull on the leash  it will not make the dog assume involuntary assertive positions.

Using the correct accessories, H-harness and a soft Long Lead, means having the right tools to allow our dog a peaceful, comfortable and relaxed exploration to our dog.

Now let’s go and enjoy your walk together.