Leash pulling: How a canny collar helped us

Disclaimer:

One “gentleman” yesterday took it upon himself to tell me that my post was crap, I knew nothing about dominance, and I shouldn’t be writing articles when I clearly have no idea what I’m talking about.

I’m a first-time puppy mama learning things as I’m going along. I’m not an expert. I’m not a professional. But I am a writer, and I like to write. Since Ladybug takes almost all of my time and thoughts these days, why not write about her? If the writing can be helpful to someone else, yay! If not…there’s the door. You can leave without being nasty. Or–IDEA–you could post helpful suggestions to add to the discussion. Maybe this hasn’t worked in your experience, but you’ve found something else that has. Maybe your dog responded to a different approach. ADD something to the discussion. Don’t just tear down what’s already there. I may post a further discussion about this another time, how our current culture of keyboard warriors is so intent on destroying everyone else that we destroy relationships and people in the process.

Ahem. Back to the topic.

A lot of my friends have new dogs (as I’ve made more connections in the dog world, particularly with border collies), and a common question is, “How can I get my dog to stop pulling on the leash?” Or lead, as I’m now in England. 😀

The most common advice is, “When your dog pulls, stop. Wait until your dog stops pulling, and then continue. As soon as your dog pulls again, stop again. Reverse directions if you have to. Turn right or left. Always make sure you are ahead of your dog, so you show that you are in charge [more dominance theory].”

This may work for some dogs. For Ladybug and me, though, it was hopeless. I could have reversed directions fifty times in five minutes, and she still would have lunged ahead. Why? Her pulling had nothing to do with dominance. She was excited, she was an eager young puppy, and her energy exceeded her self-control.

Strategies such as reversing direction, stopping and starting, and even yanking on the leash (another failed strategy recommended by an armchair expert) accomplished nothing. Maybe for a lower energy dog, or for an obedient dog, they work well. Maybe if I’d had Ladybug to myself from the beginning so no one else countermanded or undermined my training methods, it could have worked. The world will never know. But I tried this strategy for months. The result?

I gave up.

She walked reasonably well on her flexi (extendable) leash, and I drew her next to me when joggers, bikers, or other dogs passed us. I had her focus on me by having her touch my hand (one of the cutest and easiest things to teach a dog!), and I held out tiny bits of treats for her to follow.

She wasn’t perfect, but she managed. And I really didn’t care if she walked to heel. I like to take long walks to relax and mull over the problems in my life, and I want her walks to be relaxing as well. As long as she was reasonably well behaved, and as long as I kept alert for oncoming distractions, I was satisfied.

Then we were attacked, and our world changed.

The first incident was from someone I thought I trusted. She grabbed Ladybug, shook her, and held her down against her will. She didn’t give me the chance to remove my dog, she didn’t respect either of our space, and she didn’t respect that both my dog and I had been traumatized by months of physical, emotional, and sexual abuse.

The second incident occurred in the park. A man came after me, shouting racist epithets and threatening to kill me. Smart little Ladybug didn’t so much as snarl or show her teeth (that would have put her in danger, as a dog deemed dangerous can be killed), but she barked at him. When she barks, she means it. She also circled away from me rather than toward me, in effect drawing my attacker away. He switched to chasing her and threatening to kill her, instead. Once she was satisfied that he was far enough away from me that I was safe, she ran to my side and we escaped. She may have saved my life, and I will forever be grateful. No one else has ever protected me the way she has.

The cost was high, though. She’s an intelligent, high-strung, and emotionally in tune dog who took the toll on herself–and was affected by the toll on me. We were both a wreck. (Meanwhile, my car was broken into. Boys on bikes catcalled racist, sexist slurs. What should have been an ordinary doctor’s visit became a reenactment of trauma I’d tried to forget. I became ill, and so did she.)

Suddenly, I had a frightened dog who jumped out at strangers. Screamed if a dog came too close. Trembled if someone shouted, even if they weren’t near to her. She became so scared that her claws dug into my legs as she tried to get away from anything coming near her.

It’s no way for a dog to live, and we needed help.

You’ll get a lot of people, in these situations, who offer you lazy, simplistic advice with absolutely no value:

You’re the problem, not your dog! Stop transmitting your anxiety, and she’ll be fine.

You have to show her who’s boss. Tell her that you won’t allow this nonsense.

Give her a good, hard yank on the leash so she knows she can’t pull.

Everything your dog is doing is wrong, and it’s all your fault…so fix it by being more confident.

Uh…what?

No.

Fortunately, I got advice from someone who had actually been there. I was looking for a halti (I’d never liked the look, but I was desperate), but she wouldn’t even let me try one. Instead, she pulled out a canny collar. (Full disclosure: I’m not connected with the Canny Company, I haven’t received a free product, and I don’t receive any compensation for recommending their collar.)

My initial reaction was frustration. (Polite, well-hidden, and unspoken frustration, of course. After all, I am in England now. 😛 ) I didn’t want this complicated affair that required fitting and adjusting. I wanted a halti! The nose loop kept sliding off, I couldn’t figure out how to adjust the “reins,” and it all seemed needlessly work-intensive.

Then I took Ladybug for her first walk in the canny collar, and all of my protests disappeared. She walked perfectly. Instantly.

Now, don’t think that this is an instant fix for the long-term. It’s not. And even if your dog walks perfectly the second you put the collar on (as mine did, but many don’t), you may find negative reactions in a day or two (I did). It’s also not a substitute for regular, consistent leash training.

BUT.

Wow.

We went from uncontrolled fear/unmanageable pulling and lunging…to perfect loose leash walking. Okay, only in a controlled environment. Okay, only if I can have her in the right setting and mood. Okay, maybe the bronze exam was an exception. Still, it’s something I hadn’t even dreamed of two weeks ago!

If you’d like to see video footage of how to introduce your dog to the collar, please send me a friend request on Facebook. I have three uncut live videos demonstrating how I got Ladybug used to the collar, taught her to walk with it, and (as soon as it’s not raining intermittently) I’ve promised to shoot another video showing her walking with the collar now.

Please note a few things:

  1. How would you feel if someone handcuffed you and thrust you into a room full of strangers, and you didn’t know whether they would hurt you?When we put on a canny collar or anything that restricts movement, we are essentially handcuffing our dog. It’s natural for your dog to feel frightened when wearing the collar at first, and it’s natural for your dog to transfer that fear to the collar itself. Ladybug became skittish around the collar after two days of walking perfectly with it, and her reaction to other dogs was off the charts. For a day or two, I had a dog who nearly jumped vertically from her fear at dogs approaching her.

    REASSURE YOUR DOG. This is not coddling. It’s responsible dog handling. Your dog has just lost a basic freedom (ability to turn her head at will), and you now have extra responsibility to ensure her safety (and, by extension, your own). Be vigilant about people approaching. In my case, we attached a bright yellow leash scarf to warn people to give her (and me) space. Ours said in bold letters, “I NEED SPACE.” While not everyone respects this, many did. That made me feel less stressed, and in turn I was better able to keep Ladybug calm.

    INTRODUCE THE COLLAR GRADUALLY. In one of the videos I shot, you’ll see me offering Ladybug clicks (positive reinforcement with a clicker) for putting her nose to the collar. Gradually, we worked up to giving her a click and treat for letting me put the collar on and off. This training is well worth the time and effort. If your dog shows any sign of nervousness, wariness, or skittishness about the collar at any time, please immediately back up. Give your dog time and space to recognize the canny collar as something positive. Ladybug was fine with the collar for two days. Then she got scared, so I backed up and trained her with clicks and treats for a day or two. Pretty soon, she was putting her nose to the collar (when I wasn’t even asking her to, and the collar was just lying on the bed) and looking at me for a treat. 😀

    Because I restrained my dog’s movements with the canny collar, I offered consistent, genuine, and soothing praise and reassurance. I praised Ladybug while taking out the collar, putting it on, fitting the nose loop, taking her outside, and walking her in various areas. Never use this as a punishment.

  2. The nose loop is designed to slip off. This is a safety feature. That means if your dog put her nose to the ground, or if she puts her head down and backs up, she can slip the nose loop off. It took me quite a long time to figure out how to handle this. You have to hold the leash high enough that the nose loop will stay in place. For normal walking, just a regular leash position will be fine.
  3. The collar stays on your dog, even if the nose loop slips off. This is also a safety feature. The collar will come with two clips to fasten the loose nose loop ends (the “reins,” as I call them) for when you don’t need the extra head control.
  4. The collar will “ride” higher than a normal collar (Ladybug wears two collars when she goes out now. One is her everyday collar with tags, and the other is the canny collar. The canny collar is too big and heavy for us to use every day, and I’m concerned about irritation around her shaved area where she had bloodwork taken last week.) This means you’ll have to fit it very carefully, and it may be a smaller size than your dog’s normal collar.
  5. The nose loop “reins” have to be centered, or the leash will tug your dog’s head to one side. This was the hardest thing for me to figure out. Picture them as drawstrings on a hooded sweatshirt, and you’ll get the concept. Hold the reins behind your dog’s head and center the yellow plastic bit underneath your dog’s chin. Then pull the reins through the center of the yellow plastic piece, and loop that part over your dog’s nose.It’s frustrating and fiddly for the first few times, but it’s quite easy once you figure it out. And remember, you have to hold the reins high enough so the nose loop doesn’t slip off (NOT high enough to pull on your dog’s neck, of course!)

This is an uncut five-minute video sequence showing an untrained volunteer “forcing” a canny collar onto a lunging, jumping dog. It’s painful to watch because the RSPCA simply doesn’t have enough volunteers or resources to devote time for gentle introductions. It’s worth watching, however, because it shows the enormous power this collar has over a dog. It also shows you the potential negative reactions your dog may display.

A canny collar, like any other head collar, is a tool. Only a tool. It is not training, and it shouldn’t be used instead of training. It gives you, the human, yet one more advantage over something smaller than you are.

When Ladybug and I went on our first canny collar walks, she got treats practically every other step. I talked to her, praised her, had her touch her nose to my hand, and focused on her. Even though I could have just put the collar on her and had a perfectly obedient dog, I wanted her to be happy. I didn’t want a subdued, cowed dog with ears flat against her head. (They were flat against her head for a while, and it almost broke my heart.)

So for the next few weeks, we did training of all sorts. I took her to quiet place, busy places, crowded places, and in all kinds of weathers. At first, when people approached I put a leg over her, held her close to me, and soothed her. No one was going to hurt her, and she needed to know that. I don’t care if it was coddling. She felt vulnerable and defensive because she couldn’t move as normal (on a leash PLUS head collar), so she could have my reassurances for as long as she needed them.

In the beginning, I only took her for walks with the canny collar. None of the long, glorious flexi-leash romps we both loved. It was too confusing for her to go back and forth. Plus, the canny collar kept her on high alert. She became tired quickly. We had to limit our walks to 10 or 15 minutes at first, and the stimulation was plenty.

As she got better and better, I slowly reintroduced off-leash and flexi leash walking. At this point, two weeks later, we can take one flexi leash walk per day (which we both love), and depending on the circumstances I may be able to let her off leash in controlled situations. These walks help to relax her. Then we take a canny collar walk, which is shorter and more controlled. We practice turns (right, left, about-turn), crossing the street, approaching strange people and dogs, and sitting and waiting. It’s a training walk, and it’s both short and focused. We are both exhausted afterward.

The great part? The better she’s become at walking with her canny collar, the more I’ve been able to trust her off leash. Right in the beginning, she was a maniac on the flexi leash. She was so excited to be off her head collar that she went wild! I nearly threw the towel in then, as I pictured myself walking this poor dog on a canny collar for the rest of her life. I hated it even more than she did! But with time, patience, and consistency/firmness, she learned to separate “fun walks” (on the flexi leash, with permission to sniff and run around) from “training walks” (shorter, serious, and close by my side). The fun walks helped her relax and get out her wiggles, and the training walks helped her to be more responsible on the fun walks.

I don’t plan to use the canny collar on her indefinitely. The person who recommended it to me used it off and on with her dogs for years. I find that just having it in my pocket helps. If I take Ladybug on a fun walk and she gets out of hand, I can swap collars. Maybe we come across unexpected traffic, or maybe someone shouts at her. I can pop the canny collar on her, and she’s settled and secure walking next to me. Even if I don’t have to put the collar on, just knowing that I can is a comfort.

Because for me, the worst part of having a lunging, pulling dog was the fear–for me. The uncertainty. How awful is it to drag a kicking, screaming, tantruming dog across the part? How embarrassing! It’s true that my calming down helped my dog, but empty, simplistic advice didn’t do it. Having an actual, effective tool helped.

Now, if I take Ladybug for a walk on her flexi leash, sometimes she pulls. Squirrels. Whatever. I’m not perfectly behaved, so why should she have to be? But it’s a pull now and then, and I can stop her if necessary.

I don’t want a cowed dog who obeys my every command.

I don’t want a dog frightened into submission.

I want a healthy, happy, joyous dog whose ears flip flop as she walks with me. I want her mouth half-open as she pants from the sheer joy at being outdoors. I want a dog who walks at my heel when there’s a crowd or a bike or an angry stranger, but a dog who can chase butterflies and sniff eagerly at a squirrel trail.

For me, a canny collar isn’t about instant obedience (even if it produced it for the short term)

It’s about helping my dog–and me–to feel safe and confident enough to enjoy our walks together.

After all, isn’t that what it’s all about?

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7 thoughts on “Leash pulling: How a canny collar helped us

  1. Laurel Lasky says:

    My dear Ana,

    It’s wonderful to see your blog again. The man who sent you that terrible post was a jerk. You are doing so well with yourself and Ladybug. Your training methods are brilliant and I thing you could eventually train other border collies, one at a time, and LB would help. I’m sorry that you are still being attacked by racial idiots. I know you don’t like cursing so I’m restrain myself, lol
    I love you both, Laurel 🤗💕❤️

    Like

  2. rozharrison says:

    Hi Ana,

    I totally agree with everything Laurel said. I think you are doing a wonderful job with Ladybug and think it’s great you are sharing your experiences in the hope of helping others. Borders are an extremely active breed and therefore require a lot of energy and training. What may work for more sedate breeds (for want of a better way to put it) won’t necessarily work for a Border. I’m glad you have had some success with the collar.

    I’m so sorry you received such a nasty response and that you and Ladybug have been attacked.

    Hugs
    Roz

    Like

    • Anastasia Vitsky says:

      Border collies can be called a lot of things, but sedate isn’t one of them. 😀 These days, we’re working up to longer relaxation walks with the regular collar. I’d love for her to graduate to the regular collar all the time!

      Always so nice to see you. ❤

      Like

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