When the Tellington TTouch Method first began working with dogs in the 1990s one of the first concepts carried over from horses was the connection between physical, mental and emotional balance.
It was noted how many dogs seemed to be pulled out of balance when on one point of contact from the collar very similarly to how foals reacted when first being haltered.
Collars did not provide the handler with many options when it came to influencing the animal’s balance or directing their movement from their feet. Our solution with foals was to make a Figure 8 around their body out of rope to help guide and feel their body, for dogs, the solution was harnesses.
Many people will make the claim that it’s not the equipment, it’s how it’s used, when defending any number of training tools. This is true, however, there are varying degrees as to what kind of harm any piece of equipment can inflict in the wrong hands. There is no doubt that head collars on dogs can be misused and cause neck damage, and some harnesses sit very low in front can cause shoulder injury.
Having said that, neither head collars, nor harnesses are specifically designed to inflict pain as a way of influencing behavior. Conversely, no matter how they are used, choke chains, prong collars, and e-collars are designed to work, to some extent, because they cause discomfort and pain in the form of punishment.
One of the biggest triggers for leash pulling can be the collar. This is contrary to the popular but out dated belief that harnesses will “make” your dog pull.
Some harnesses are meant to encourage your dog to pull, as is the case with a sled dog harness or a tracking harness; the further back the point of contact with the leash, the more it encourages the dog to pull.
The opposite is also true – the further forward the point of contact with the leash, the less it encourages pulling. The challenge with having just one point of contact on the front is that often restricts shoulder movement and pulls into the off-side. Any piece of equipment can encourage pulling if there is pressure on the leash.
Pressure on the collar can have physiological and postural implications that are far reaching and usually make the overall cycle of pulling more extreme.
Just imagine wearing a collar with an external force pulling on you; or worse yet, a choke collar that is pulling and tightening like a noose around your neck. Rather than make you feel safe, or like you had any control in the situation, it is more likely to create tension or increased anxiety.
For many dogs pressure on the collar does seem to increase anxiety, reactivity and arousal levels. There are several reasons for this:
First: The single point of contact on a collar can have a “fish on the end of the line effect” as a dog fidgets and fights to move away or towards an object of concern or interest. With only one point of leash connection there is very little influence on the dog’s body. The handler can only limit the distance of travel.
Second: The placement of the collar on most dogs means that any pressure will lift their heads, drop their backs and effectively place more weight onto their front legs, or forehand. This is an excellent way to trigger the “opposition reflex” which causes dogs to pull in the first place.
Third: The reason that collars can potentially cause an increased reaction in pulling and reactivity is a physiological one. Dr. Peter Dobias DVM, a veterinarian in Vancouver, British Columbia, states that collars can lead to “hypothyroidism, ear and eye problems, paw licking, Wobbler’s Syndrome and general health deterioration.” (see box) Physiological repercussions are also a very big reason
This is not to say that dogs cannot learn to walk politely on a loose leash and be okay on a flat collar, but the reality is that a dog who learns to walk politely in class, in a controlled setting, will not always be able to do so in the world outside the class setting.
There are many positive ways to teach good leash manners and obedience that encourage loose leash walking. Tellington TTouch goes beyond just training the behavior and considers the experience from the dog’s perspective. Our hope is that you are able to take your dog for a walk, allow him some sniffing time and enjoy the experience without either of you pulling on the leash. The exercises and techniques outlined in this book will provide the foundations for enjoyable, enriching, and cooperative communication between you and your dog and can also be a supplement for any training you may choose to pursue.
When a dog is on leash they do not have much choice in terms of where they can go or when they can leave a potentially stressful situation. If a dog is nervous or fearful of other dogs, and is not in control of where he can go, it is not surprising that he may have an “I’ll get you before you get me” response. This starts the cycle of pulling on the leash, the handler in turns stops the forward motion, giving the dog something to pull against. When dogs are in better balance physically, with their weight equally over all four feet instead of leaning forward and find self-carriage, they feel safer (have more self-confidence) and can act instead of react (make better choices). This is the philosophical basis for all of the Tellington TTouch exercises.
The combination of a well-fitted harness and two points of contact provides the handler with the possibility of enhancing a dog’s balance rather than just correcting or distracting a behavior. This addresses the most common root cause of leash pulling, physical imbalance.
Decades ago, well-designed dog harnesses were few and far between. The first harnesses we used were the step-in harnesses in conjunction with either a head collar or a flat collar, so that we had two points of influence to help balance the dog. Then the harness revolution really began. ‘Sensation’ harnesses came on the market and provided a good option. Its designer realized that the further forward the point of contact was on the dog, the less likely they were to pull, placing the leash ring attachment on the front of the chest. Unfortunately the harnesses did not have a top ring, which did not offer a second point of contact.
From the ‘Sensation’ a number of variations were developed – the ‘Sensible’; ‘Easy Walk’ by Premier and the ‘Halti’ harness became the best known. While these can be effective, their fit around the dog’s barrel and chest sits very low on the dog’s shoulders (inhibiting some leg movement, which may be why it reduces pulling) and they generally pull forward into the elbows of the dog. Asymmetrical soreness, rubbing and gait irregularity has been reported in some dogs.
Today the most important criteria for any harness we use are; that it fits correctly, is comfortable for the dog and that there are suitable points for lead attachment. Harnesses that have rings too far back will often trigger pulling by creating a backward pressure to the leash.
Every harness has pluses and minuses – look for a harness that gives room for the dog’s shoulders to move freely and has a front and back ring, ensuring that the ring on the dog’s back is not too far back.
It is also important to consider your dog’s individual needs when choosing a harness. Some short haired breeds may prefer a very soft material. Dogs who are head shy or sensitive about having their paws touched will prefer harnesses that can completely open to be put on (as opposed to having to put it over their heads, or lift their feet into the harness.
Today we are fortunate enough to have a market full of different harnesses so that dogs of all shapes and sizes can find one with an ideal fit and comfort. Our Tellington TTouch Harmony Harnesses are versatile and are designed to integrate with two points of contact without impeding shoulder movement or putting excessive pressure on one area.
To read more about harnesses, leash configurations, and other exercises designed to foster easy, fun, on leash walks with your dog, please check out “Harnessing Your Dog’s Perfection” by Robyn Hood and Mandy Pretty, available in our store.