The Definitive Guide to Dog Collars and Leashes
Katelyn Macmillan - Unspal

alking your dog should be a pleasurable moment, and an opportunity to bond with your four-legged companion. But from what I observe every day, instead of a leisure stroll it often looks like a tug-of-war. Many dog owners are tense or anxious, and struggle to restrain their dog from pulling and tugging in all directions.

Walking on a leash does not come naturally to a dog. It requires patient training, and the right equipment. In 30 years of training police dogs and pet dogs alike, I have encountered very few that could not be trained to walk calmly without pulling.

A collar and a leash are usually the first tools you buy when you get a dog. There are many different types of collars, and the options can be overwhelming and confusing. 

Walking you dog should not turn into a tug-of-war - Dog Learner

Why is there so much bad advice given about dog training accessories?

The first reason is simply a commercial one. Some dog accessories cost three to five times more than others for the same function. Don’t be surprised if the salesman at the pet store advises you to purchase the most expensive item, that's what he is asked to do.

The second reason is monkey-see, monkey-do. If you see everyone walking his dog with a harness you tend to assume that a harness must be the best choice. Unfortunately, that's flawed reasoning. The other guy does not have a clue either, and he too got advised by the pet store salesman.

Teaching your dog to heel and walk without leash tension - Dog Learner
Leash training teaches your dog to walk without leash tension

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

The job of a collar and a leash is to let you walk your dog calmly, and comfortably. The goal is to control the dog for his safety and yours without restraining him, and to teach him to enjoy the walk.

Some dog accessories are dangerous or abusive and should not be allowed on the shelves of pet stores. Others have specific training functions but get bad press because of their potential for misuse. Many can be detrimental to positive training. Some are best-sellers, but they may be not be adapted to your dog's breed. Let's clarify which one is which.

The Good

Good collars are the ones that keep your dog safe, that are conducive to positive and respectful training, and that can help teach your dog to walk calmly without tension. They are often the most simple, most robust and cheapest options.

Flat collars 

This is the standard dog collar. It has either a buckle or a plastic quick-release closure, and a metal ring for attaching the leash. Flat collars can be made of leather, nylon, or neoprene.

Leather collars are more durable than nylon. A leather collar should be supple, well stitched and riveted, and should be fitted with a chrome or brass buckle and ring. Leerburg sell beautifully made handcrafted Amish leather collars that are very durable.

Nylon collars are light and flexible, but their durability depends on the quality of the stitching. Their weak point is often the plastic quick-release closure. Waterproof neoprene collars stay dry and are great for dogs like my Golden Retriever Nelson who jumps into anything with water in it.

For most medium and large dogs, it’s best to choose a wide collar (1 to 2 inches-wide) that  protects the trachea if your dog pulls. Narrow collars that are loosely fitted are not safe.

The main drawback of using a flat collar with a buckle is that the fit is not always perfect. My advice is to buy a good quality leather flat collar once your dog has reached an adult size.

Martingale collars

Martingale collars, also called no-slip collars, provide more control than a flat collar, and prevent dogs from backing or slipping out. They were originally designed for dogs with slender necks such as greyhounds, but they work well for any type of dog, provided they are sized and fitted properly.

The martingale consists of a length of nylon with a metal ring at each end. A separate loop of material or chain passes through both rings. The leash attaches to a ring on this loop. When the dog pulls or tries to back out, the collar tightens. If a martingale collar is well-sized and adjusted, it offers comfortable security without the risk of choking your dog.

Because martingale collars are often made of stitched nylon, they are not as resistant as leather collars. I prefer to avoid martingales fitted with a plastic quick-release closure, as the closure is usually the first thing that breaks. I also recommend martingale collars with a nylon loop instead of a metal chain, as chains tend to get caught in things. You should not keep a martingale collar on when your dog is at home or in his crate.

Both flat collars and martingales are best used with a strong 6 foot leather or well-stitched nylon leash equipped with a chrome or brass bolt snap. The brand Keeper make great quality martingale collars and leashes made of nylon and leather.

To measure your dog for a correctly fitting collar, measure around the base of the skull just behind the ears. This measurement is the same as the collar when it’s fully tightened or closed. The collar should be snug, not tight. 

Measure your dog for a correctly fitting collar - Dog Learner
Measure your dog for a correctly fitting collar

Slip collars

A slip collar —also called slip leash— does not have a traditional buckle closure. It is designed as a loop, and just fits around the top of the dog’s neck without the need for a fixed collar. You can see slip collars being used at dog shows because they allow handlers to control the dog with precision and little effort by using gentle leash pressure. It is the favorite training tool of the Dog Whisperer, Cesar Millan. When training dogs that tend to pull a lot, a slip collar can be a very effective tool if used correctly.

Slip collars should only be used for training. I don’t recommend them until you have been shown its correct use by a trainer and you understand the principles of leash pressure.

A flat buckle collar, the martingale, and a slip collar - Dog Learner
The flat collar, the martingale and the slip collar

The Bad

In that category, I include collars that have a potential for being misused. They are often 3 to 5 times more expensive than flat collars or martingales, and may cause injuries to your dog.


In theory, harnesses are meant to provide more control for the handler, and relieve pressure on the dog’s trachea. Two main types of harnesses are available. Back-clip harnesses have a D-ring attachment on the dog’s back and are the most common. Front-clip harnesses are less common and are supposed to prevent a dog from pulling.

A back-clip harness is a great tool if you want your dog to pull. Indeed, pulling is what harnesses are designed for (think sled dogs). Dogs have a reflex to pull whenever tension is exerted on a leash. It's called the opposition reflex. Because of the way a harness fits around the chest, it triggers the opposition reflex and makes the dog want to pull harder.

Harnesses that don’t fit properly can either cause discomfort if they are too tight, or rubbing if they are loose. With a harness, you may be under the impression that you have more control over your dog, but it’s actually the other way around, your dog takes you for a walk. 

A back-clip harness encouraged a dog to pull - Dog Learner
Back-clip harnesses encourage dogs to pull

Back-clip harnesses can be a safe option for smaller breeds or with flat-faced dogs that breathe with difficulties such as Pugs, Shih Tzus, or Bulldogs. You should also use a harness with breeds with trachea problems such as the Pomeranian, and small dogs with elongated and slender necks, such as Whippets or Italian Greyhounds.

Front-clip harnesses, on the other hand, are designed to prevent the dog from pulling. The front position of the leash attachment makes it harder for the dog to pull as the tension pulls the dog towards the owner rather than forward.

In my opinion as a trainer, front-clip harnesses are actually worse than letting the dog pull. They are highly uncomfortable and unnatural for the dog, and the leash can get tangled around the dog’s legs. Many vets have reported that front-clip harnesses can affect your dog’s natural gait, potentially leading to chronic pain or injury. By using these harnesses as dissuasive pulling devices you never actually train the dog to walk properly. 

Retractable leashes

A retractable leash is a thin length of cord wrapped around a spring-loaded device housed inside a plastic handle. A button placed on the handle controls the amount of cord that extends.

Cords are thin and can easily break. Sturdier retractable leashes can extend dangerously quickly and are still only held by the mechanism inside the grip. Retractable leashes have the potential for causing serious injuries to humans and dogs alike. When a retractable leash cord breaks, it can cause handlers severe burns, cuts, and even amputation of a finger. When the leash runs out of line, there is a sudden jerk on the dog’s neck that may cause neck or spinal injury. Dogs have been hit by cars darting into the road at the end of retractable leashes. Others have been injured getting tangled up with other dogs and bicycles. A dog can get far enough away from its handler to run into the street or to make uninvited contact with other dogs and people. 

By their nature, retractable leashes teach dogs to pull when they’re on a leash because they quickly learn that pulling extends the lead. 

A much better alternative for giving your dog some freedom while staying in control is to carry a simple 30 foot nylon leash that you can use in between walking sessions.

Headcollars or head halters

A head halter is similar to a horse's halter and placed around the muzzle. Head halters are often used for strong and reactive dogs who jump around and pull a lot. Because the halter is placed around the dog's muzzle instead of the neck, the dog is unable to pull on the leash with the full weight of his body. 

To say that I am not a big fan of head halters is an understatement. While I don’t consider them as dangerous or aversive as choke chains, and despite the fact that halters can be effective at restraining a dog's movements, I think they should be a last resort choice.

Head halters have many drawbacks and much potential for pain and discomfort. They can cause resistance, distress, and injuries to a dog. Inexperienced handlers are often too rough in reaction to the dog’s resistance, and yanking too hard on the leash with a head halter can cause serious injuries to the dog’s cervicals, as reported by veterinarians.

Contrary to horses, dogs have a very sensitive muzzle and a vulnerable neck. Even if the halter does not always create much fighting and resistance, it can have a damaging psychological effect on a dog. Some handlers choose halters as an easy fix to mechanically control a dog that they otherwise could not control, but proper leash training with a martingale is a much better and safer option.

Choke chains and head-halters can be aversive and harmful - Dog Learner
Choke chains and head-halters can be aversive and harmful

The Ugly

Choke chains

Simply put, choke chains are aversive, inhumane and dangerous accessories that in my opinion should be banned from pet stores.

As the name implies, this type of collar is made of metal chain links designed to control a dog by tightening around the neck and choking him. It is supposed to sit high up on the dog's neck just behind the ears, but because it goes loose, it always ends up slipping down on the neck, and can collapse the trachea if the dog pulls violently.

Unlike the martingale collar, there is no way to control how much the choke chain tightens, so it's possible to actually choke or strangle the dog. A choke chain can cause severe injuries to the trachea and esophagus, injuries to blood vessels in the eyes, neck sprains, nerve damage, fainting, transient paralysis and even death.

A dominant and reactive dog can react violently to an aggressive pull from a choke chain, and turn against the handler. Whether on a walk, or in a training situation, there is never any justification for using choke chains.

‍The case of e-collars and prongs

You may wonder why I have not included electronic shock collars and prong collars in one of the above categories. The reason is that I consider that e-collars and prongs are not walking accessories. They should be used strictly for training purpose, and only by professionals or by trained and experienced handlers.

Prongs and e-collars can be effective and safe if they are carefully used in specific circumstances. Used on the wrong dog, or by an inexperienced handler, they have the potential to hurt the dog, make him more reactive or even “break him” psychologically.


My approach to dog training is to engage the dog as a willing partner. In my actions and choice of training gear, I avoid anything that can create resistance in the dog or anything aversive. Resistance generates fear, discomfort, distrust and defensiveness. It is not conducive to learning, and can damage the relationship with a dog.

Tools such as head halters and front-clipped harnesses that do not allow a dog to walk on a leash naturally, should be considered counterproductive and potentially unsafe.

As dog owners, we must realize that it is the relationship, not the training equipment, that allows us to gain a dog's voluntary cooperation.

The best training equipment is a relationship built on trust and respect, backed up with a martingale collar and a strong leash to keep your dog safe.

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