Most people envision or hope for a picture of harmony when walking their dog: The dog is leisurely strolling along next to them, with no pulling, no zigzagging, and no charging at other dogs or people. Unfortunately, adjusting to their human pace is something that dogs rarely do by default. To rectify this, the dog training profession has developed a range of measures, from choke chains and prong collars to various harnesses and head halters. Equipment of that type can be more or less successful in thwarting the dog’s efforts to follow their own agenda, but it doesn’t necessarily result in harmony. A better, more cooperative approach is leash training.


When I was younger I had a friend with an annoying habit. Her pace was slower than mine, so every time I walked ahead of her she tugged at my sleeve to slow me down. But only seconds later, I would again be a few steps ahead since my friend’s pace wasn’t mine. In fact, I’m convinced that it costs me more energy to keep a slower pace than to trot along at my own natural pace, apart from the frequent tugging irritating the $@#% out of me. Of course my friend was also clearly annoyed by having to try and keep up with me all the time.

Maybe because of this personal experience, I sympathize with dogs on leashes. If I find it so difficult to match my pace to that of another human, how hard must it be for a dog to fall in line with one of those slow-moving humans? Unless a dog is old, sick or otherwise impaired, they usually walk faster than we do. They don’t walk; they trot. They are like window shoppers. Instead of moving consistently in one direction, they trot from smell to smell and linger until they have collected all the information that can be found there. If they do happen to keep to a straight path, it typically involves a clear goal, for example, the dog park or some other irresistible attraction.

Of course, I also understand the frustration of humans when their dogs seem to ignore them in favour of smells, other dogs or whatever the environment has to offer. Having your arm pulled out or tripped up by your dog zooming in front of you is no fun.


According to traditional dog training, my friend used the wrong technique. Instead of nagging me with those frequent sleeve tugs, she should have grabbed me by the collar – just once – and pulled it tight so violently that I’d gag and struggle for air. Apparently, this rather shocking experience would have forced me to walk at my friend’s slower pace for good. Somehow, I doubt she would have been a friend for much longer after that.

Causing a one-off traumatic experience is exactly the philosophy behind choke and prong collars. You are supposed to yank at your dog’s neck so hard the first time you use the collar that you will never have to yank again. One massive yank and your dog’s pulling on lead will have been solved for life. Apart from the fact that this treatment risks the dog’s health and even life, how could anyone actually want to do this to their dog? One explanation for why this technique is still widely used could be the desensitization of people to violence in dog training.

I had to witness a demonstration of the “correct technique” to use a choke chain when a former instructor of mine yanked a client’s dog around in front of the whole class. Today, under the same circumstances, I suggest the client quickly take their dog and get as far away from that person as possible. Instead, I stood silently with everyone else while we were lectured on the dog’s experience. It didn’t matter that the dog yelped every time he was catapulted backwards. It wasn’t pain we were told, the dog was just surprised.

We will never know What a dog feels when the chain around their neck suddenly tightens, digs into their throat and hurls their body back. But we can make an educated guess that the experience is unpleasant. If the procedure stops the dog from pulling, it must have been painful or frightening enough so the dog will want to avoid the experience in the future. Chances are the dog will also become wary of the person holding the leash.


Moving forward, there are more humane solutions these days to stop a dog from pulling. However, even harnesses and head halters rely on thwarting rather than training. Front clip harnesses with the leash attached to a clip on the dog’s chest rather than their back, work by pulling the dog’s body sideways when the dog pulls forward. Some dogs learn to walk that way, i.e. they still pull but walk sideways at the same time, leading to an awkward gait, which could cause health problems in the long term. Other harnesses tighten around the body or even the throat to prevent pulling.

Head halters are generally not readily accepted by dogs, and it’s better to desensitize them to wearing this equipment (preferably in combination with counter-conditioning). Otherwise, the dog may try to get the thing off their face rather than enjoy the walk. Head halters can be dangerous if the dog still pulls or the leash suddenly stops the dog’s forward movement with a violent head turn.

Compared to choke and prong collars, these types of walking aids are clearly preferable, but a thoughtful approach is required. As long as the dog seems comfortable and doesn’t suffer side effects, harnesses and head halters can be a good solution. It can even mean the difference between the dog being walked or not. Ideally, though, the use of these mechanical aids is partnered with training, so the dog doesn’t feel the need to pull anymore in the first place.


Truly walking together in harmony requires that dogs and humans pay attention to each other. Neither dragging a dog nor being dragged results in a pleasant outing. It’s worth reminding ourselves that dog walking is primarily for the dog’s benefit. It’s about sniffing and investigating, taking in sights and sounds, marking here and there and having toilet breaks. These are important activities for a dog, and given that many dogs spend countless hours alone in their homes, a “walk around the block” in the evening is often the only daily excursion they get.

For us humans, walking the dog clearly has benefits, too. It gets us outside, moving, and a chance to have some “us” time with our dogs. If we tune in to our dog’s activities and experiences on walks, we can learn more about them and increase our bond. We can make our dog and other dogs and people feel safe by keeping an eye on our surroundings, moving away from situations if required and monitoring our dog’s interaction with others. Paying attention is, of course, also useful in preventing doggy stomach aches due to ingestion of unidentified objects.

Teaching a dog to walk at our pace makes it attractive for them to adjust their natural movements and slow down*. It requires time and patience. If the dog is a strong puller, it’s a good idea to start off with a harness or head halter to get a foot in the door. Otherwise the frustration levels – especially the human’s – might be too much to do effective training. The dog must then be heavily rewarded, starting in a no-distraction environment and with tasty treats, for walking within a given semi-circle next to our leg. The most important thing is frequently allowing the dog to do all those worthwhile things on walks, like visiting a tree or lifting a leg. If these are used as rewards for not pulling, everyone wins.

Another important point is not to use the leash to move the dog around. A leash is simply a safety device, nothing more. To move the dog about, we are much better off verbally encouraging the dog to come to or with us or directing them with hand targeting**.

In another world, in a parallel universe, dogs may be walking and running freely without the need to be tethered to us. Unfortunately ours is a dangerous world and full of restrictions. But with some thought and effort, we can make walking together a more enjoyable experience for us and the dogs. There is no need to punish dogs for being dogs.

* In case a dog moves slower than their handler, the human must also slow down. Unless the dog is old, disabled or injured, a dog can be encouraged verbally or with treats to pick up pace. However, it’s important to be mindful of possible reasons the dog is unable or unwilling to walk or walk faster. These can be physical health reasons or even fear or anxiety. A vet check should be considered, and – if this does not result in anything – a veterinary behaviourist or good dog trainer may help.

** Hand targeting is a useful behaviour where the dog aims for and touches the outstretched hand of their handler.