Handling Large Dogs by Jacqueline Bunn

I recently read a book by a well-known dog behaviourist and trainer in which she teaches a dog how to walk on a loose lead. The methods were very kind, very positive and were based principally upon the assumption that your dog is unable physically to pull you around and that this behaviour hasn’t been reinforced to the extent that it has become extremely rewarding to the dog and subsequently extremely difficult to counteract.

There were two entire pages devoted to the equipment frowned upon, with red crosses against the use of prong/pinch collars, choke chains and any form of electronic device designed to stop pulling, big ‘no-no’s’ that I totally agree with. However, there were also big red crosses against the use of head-collars, half-check collars and anti-pull harnesses.

Now, while I agree that in a perfect world where everybody weighs twice as much as their dog (for reasons related to ‘ballast’), everybody has limitless amounts of time and a personal dog trainer at their side every moment of the day, the wonderfully kind and positive methods of stopping pulling in this book were ideal; unfortunately we don’t live in an ideal world. Most of us don’t have limitless amounts of time to devote to multiple training sessions every day, don’t have a personal dog trainer at our side to whisper in our ear and most owners of large dogs probably do not weigh twice as much as them so find it difficult, if not impossible, to hold them securely enough to initiate kind, positive training methods without the use of tools such as head-collars and anti-pull harnesses – at least at the beginning of a training regime.

We live in the real world, don’t we, fellow big dog owners?

We are the owners that go pale at the sight of a cat at twenty paces (in fact this behaviour can become such a conditioned emotional response that we feel the same panic even when we don’t have the dog with us…). We are the owners that dread icy pavements. We are the owners that dread walking around a blind corner. We are the owners that prefer to exercise our dogs in wide-open spaces so we can see ‘trouble’ coming from infinite distances away…

However, we are also the owners who get monster hugs, who don’t have to bend down to pat our dogs or put their collars on, who can have a kiss or cuddle from their dog while standing upright, who have a BIG love for and from their dog…

This probably explains why we tolerate big dog problems, such as elephant-proportioned poos, slipped discs and popped shoulders from pulling, never being able to see the TV, having to push food as far back on the kitchen counter as physically possible and learning how to sit comfortably on the floor, because we have lost our sofas to our best friends…

So, bearing in mind that we are in the real world where we fear our mighty dogs pulling us around like rag dolls, how do we make walks as rewarding and pleasant for us, as it is for our dogs, when we have TOTALLY different ideas of what is rewarding and pleasant?

When considering this, take into account the following:

My Dog…

  • I need to explore and sniff EVERYTHING.
  • I can happily shift from 1st gear to 5th in the blink of an eye.
  • I feel an overpowering need to meet other dogs.
  • Patience is not a virtue that I possess or get any reward from.
  • I am physically unable to walk past anything even remotely edible or cat looking.
  • I need to get there NOW, if not sooner.
  • I don’t care how silly I look.


  • I need to walk at an even pace.
  • I am legally and morally obliged to control you (my dog) so that you are not a nuisance to others or pose a risk to any dog or person.
  • I need to use a lead from time to time, if not always, to enforce the above point.
  • I am not necessarily always in a hurry to get from Point A to Point B.
  • I know that the park will still be there whether we get there in 10 minutes or 10 seconds.
  • I want the rest of the world to see I have my dog under control.

See how the viewpoints of ‘Them’ and ‘Us’ conflict?

Okay, so how to compromise, especially when you have a dog powerful enough to give a rhino a run for its money…

Assuming that you don’t weigh twice as much as your dog so can’t use the body weight/ballast option to hold them, you have to find a way of being able to control them when they pull, at least while you are training with positive reinforcement techniques to correct the problem. In these litigious days, if we can’t control our dogs with 100% effectiveness, we could end up in court. Those of us with dogs that already have a negative – and unfair – public image are half way there already (apparently).

We have been leading horses and other heavy animals by the head for thousands of years. It is considered the norm and nobody complains about the method being inhumane or dangerous to the animal.

It figures that the concept should also work with dogs and it does – with certain subtle tweaks made to the configuration of the set up, i.e. to prevent inadvertent strain or injury to the upper vertebrae and neck muscles, it is necessary to use a two point system of control: a lead attached to the head-collar AND a harness or neck collar. The reason for this caution being that dogs – yes, even mastiff-types, Staffies and other dogs that don’t seem to have necks – do not have the same strength in this area as do beasts of burden, so we need to protect against excess stress or injury.

A head-collar designed and fitted exclusively for dog use is not an inhumane device when used properly. It’s not even a particularly inhumane device when used improperly (with the exception of using with an extending lead – definite no-no…) although it can be a bit uncomfortable for the dog to have the nose strap pull up into the eyes. However, the very fact that they continue to pull despite the fact that the nose strap is pulling towards the eyes would indicate that the dog isn’t too uncomfortable with this, don’t you think?

Of course, a head-collar used properly does not pull towards the eyes, because the leading-from-the-side action that the correct method of use applies prevents this from happening. The other point used against this piece of equipment is that it is cruel to make the dog wear something across its nose and in its line of sight as it might never get used to it.

Okay, hands up all of you that have spent an entire afternoon looking for your glasses only to have someone tell you that they are on the end of your nose? You get used to them, because you get something back – clearer eyesight. A dog will get used to a head-collar if what it gets back is getting out of the house and maybe even being allowed to meet other dogs.

Anti-pull harnesses also have the capacity for misuse, especially if they are poorly designed. They work by transferring forward momentum in other directions, either to the side or upwards, which is unnatural for the dog and thereby ‘takes the wind out of his sails’. However, poor design can mean straps or even nylon cord fitting tightly under and between the front legs and the rib cage, risking chafing, rubbing and even restricting blood circulation in these areas. Switched on manufacturers have realised this problem and started to use comfort webbing, neoprene and fleece sheaths to protect the delicate area of the dog’s ‘armpit’, however, prolonged use could still cause problems.

The other newer design of anti-pull harness is even kinder, with the point of contact being at the front or side of the chest strap, diverting the forward momentum laterally. However, the general problem with anti-pull harnesses is that they do not control the head and if you have a problem with your dog diving to ground or snapping, an anti-pull on its own may not be sufficient to control the problem of pulling if there is an element of jaw control required.

It is definitely a case of ‘suck it and see’ with the variety of different manufacturers now cashing in on the new era of positive reinforcement and kind, gentle methods of control (hooray!) offering so many different designs to choose from, all looking so alike, but with subtle design alterations that can have enormously different effects on each dog.

As well as the tools, however, there is the question of actually implementing the correct technique, and this, I’m afraid, can very rarely be explained in a book or via photos. These tools have to be ‘felt’ while being used, they require practice to master the physical skills necessary to utilise them efficiently and get the required results. How many of us, for example, have seen a dog straining through a head-collar, charging like a rhino with the strap somewhere around the dog’s eyelashes, the owner jerking the dog back helplessly? How many of us have heard: “Tried them. Head-collars don’t work with my dog”?

That’s like trying to use a vacuum cleaner upside down and complaining that it doesn’t get your carpet clean…

No, we have to face it – the truth is that the only real way to get the best idea of how the tools now widely available can be used to best effect, is to be shown just how effective they can be through personal training via a training class or one-to-one sessions with an established trainer or behaviourist using kind, positive reinforcement techniques.

The author of the wonderfully motivational book on stopping your dog pulling mentioned earlier is an idealist and the world undoubtedly needs idealists to move forward, but the realists among us know that reaching the ideal sometimes needs compromise and innovation – not beating yourself up quite so hard for needing to resort to tools in the meantime to enable us to get there.

If you have a big dog and just occasionally you find yourself on your derriere being pulled across the grass at a speed that risks grabbing the attention of the local constabulary, don’t be too embarrassed to admit that kind, positive training just sometimes isn’t quite enough on its own. Find a dog education professional who can show you how to use a head-collar or a harness, just as kindly and effectively without shame, with your head held high, knowing you are doing the best thing for your dog and for you.

This article has been reproduced with the kind permission of Jacqueline Bunn for the CFBA, the CIDBT and their students of Dog Behaviour & Training