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Must-Have Reactive Dog Walking Gear

Reactive dog wearing a harness lunging and pulling on the leash

The first step you should take towards better walks with your reactive dog is to make sure you are using the correct gear. Using the right tools will give you more security, more control, and will make both training and managing your dog much easier. And, chances are, you already have one or more of these items at home.

Standard Leash (Non-retractable)

First of all, make sure you are using the right kind of leash. I suggest a standard-length leash (typically 5 or 6 ft long). Popular materials include nylon, rope, leather, or my personal favorite, biothane. Any material is fine, as long as it is a set length. Having your dog close to you makes it easier to get your dog’s attention should you need to interrupt or redirect them. You also want your dog close to you for ease of training. If your dog is 15ft away from you and they see another dog, the odds of your dog responding when you cue them to sit or watch are much lower than if your dog is closer to you.
 
Plus, there are many other benefits from using a standard leash as opposed to a retractable one. You’ll avoid safety risks that come with retractable leashes, such as your dog getting whiplash from hitting the end of the leash too hard when excited, or yourself getting burned by a rapidly extending or retracting cord.
 
A standard leash also gives your dog an added element of consistency and predictability since the amount of leeway they have is constant – and consistency is always a plus for minimizing your dog’s stress level.
 
For these reasons, I recommend standard leashes to all dog owners, but especially to anyone dealing with leash reactivity.
Freedom no-pull dog walking harness

Harness or Head Halter

If you’re walking your dog on a collar, it’s time to make a switch. A well-fitted body harness (or head halter) are vital pieces of equipment. Making this one switch will instantly make walks more enjoyable for both you and your dog.
 
So why not use a collar? When your dog strains at the end of the leash (whether lunging or simply pulling), a collar places the entirety of that force onto your dog’s neck. Ever heard your dog cough or wheeze when walked on just a collar? Pulling on a collar is uncomfortable and can impede your dog’s breathing. This in turn can increase your dog’s feeling of stress, which can put your dog on edge even more. Definitely not what you want when trying to reduce reactivity!
 
A harness better distributes pressure from the leash, helps protect the dog’s neck and airway, and makes for a more comfortable, less stressful walk for your dog. Additionally, a front-clip harness makes evasive maneuvers, such as a Turn & Go, easier to pull off in a pinch.
 

What kind of dog walking harness is best?:

 
There so many different harnesses on the market that it can be tough to choose. So to make it easy, I put together my picks for the Best Walking Harnesses for All Dogs!
 
When considering which harness to get, the most important distinction is, is it a back-clip or front-clip style of harness? For an easier time managing and training your reactive dog, you want a harness with the option to attach the leash in the front. This is the key factor that will make maneuvering your dog away from their triggers significantly easier.
 

Should I use a harness or a head halter on my dog?

 
To determine this, the questions to ask yourself are: 
  1. How strong is your dog?
  2. And how much more control do you feel you need in order to walk your dog safely?

For example, if your dog is a 100+ pound German shepherd, then a head halter may be the wiser choice; whereas if your dog is a 5 pound chihuahua, you will likely be satisfied with a harness. So make the decision you feel most comfortable with.

 
One important note: Head halters require dedicated training sessions before using them. Your dog must be trained to feel comfortable wearing a head halter in small, gradual steps. On the other hand, most dogs will take to wearing a body harness straight away, allowing you to skip these acclimation steps and get right to walking with it. In general, I suggest trying a harness first, and if you still want more control after that, then move up to a head halter. Contact a positive reinforcement trainer for help; Or see the Resources section below for videos demonstrating how to acclimate your dog to a head halter.

Treats!

Treats are absolutely essential to promote your dog’s best behavior. Treats are a convenient way to reward good behaviors, and they’re useful for getting your dog out of potentially sticky situations. For example, feed your dog a treat for calmly looking at their triggers without reacting. You can also use treats to guide your dog behind a barrier or to change directions so that you can avoid your dog’s triggers.
 

What kind of treats should I use?

  • Use treats your dog doesn’t just like, but LOVES. They must be valuable enough to capture your dog’s attention even in distracting environments (I.e. a walk)
  • Soft, small store-bought training treats are easy to find and a good choice for most dogs.
  • Beware that treats your dog seems to like when you’re at home might become much less interesting when you’re outdoors on a walk. A good test is to offer your dog a “Freebie” when you’re on your usual walk – will they take the treat? Or do they turn up their nose and go back to sniffing? This will tell if you need to up your treat-game or not.
  • For pickier eaters, I like to use small bits of real meat or cheese.

Treat Pouch (Optional)

This last item is optional but extremely useful. Consider wearing a treat bag on every walk. You can get a bag like this one, which has space to store training treats, poo bags, keys, and a cell phone with room to spare. When walking a reactive dog, that extra couple of seconds it takes to fumble through your pockets for treats could be the sole difference between your dog barking and lunging or passing by calmly. And, once you own a treat pouch, you’ll never have an excuse to be caught walking your dog without treats again.

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Mara Clare Van Valzah, CTC, PNWI

Mara Clare Van Valzah, CTC, PNWI

Dog Trainer & Behavior Consultant

I founded Collaborative Canines to help dog owners to better understand, communicate with, and coexist with their pets. Here, I share my dog training stories, tips, and tricks with you and other dog lovers all over the world. 

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I help dog owners just like you find better lives with their dogs every day. If you and your pup could use some guidance, contact me!

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