Animals roam free in the wild, but when interacting with human society, domesticated animals need to be kept under control. Dogs don’t understand the need to stay on pavements in busy traffic, to keep themselves to themselves when someone is frightened of animals, or to avoid the temptation of jumping on a passing pet belonging to someone else.
There are different methods of restraining pets, each with its own pros and cons.
The classic collar – for dogs and cats – is most commonly used. The most appropriate use for a collar is to carry identification: indeed, under Irish law, all dogs must wear a collar at all times. A collar must have the name and the address of its owner (usually on an ID tag). If your dog doesn’t have this identification, a dog warden can issue an on-the-spot fine.
Cats aren’t obliged to wear a collar, and there are potential hazards linked to cats being injured from collars getting caught in branches, or cats getting their front legs stuck inside a collar. Quick-release catches reduce the risks of these problems, but many people now choose to have their cats microchipped instead: it’s a more reliable way of identifying cats, and chips can also be used in helpful ways, such as enabling cats to unlock cat flaps and feeding bowls.
As a way of controlling pets’ activities, collars are far from ideal.
Cats hate being restrained at all, and trying to walk a cat using a collar is almost guaranteed to fail. Cats are able to move up, down, sideways, and forwards, rapidly and with strength. They’re able to slip out of collars that are marginally too loose, and they’ll get themselves dangerously tangled up if the collar’s too tight.
Most people prefer to leave their pet cats as free-ranging creatures who are never controlled on a leash, but some folk have indoors-only cats who do enjoy going outside with their owners for short spells. Generally, harnesses work better in such situations: they can be fitted like waistcoats, secure enough so that the cat cannot escape, with pressure points around the shoulders, chest, abdomen and hips, rather than the neck. This means that if cats wriggle, they can’t escape so easily, and they’re less likely to hurt themselves than they are if a collar is used.
Collars have a limited role in controlling dogs too. Their best use is as a general guide for a dog that wants to walk beside you anyway, as an emergency stop if they try to bolt for any reason. Other than this, their value is limited. As one behaviourist put it: “We call dogs ‘man’s best friend’, then we drag them around by a loop around their neck”.
Harnesses are far more effective and humane as a means of restraining dogs, and there are several different types.
Head halters, similar to those used for horses, can be very effective. These have a connecting metal ring that sits under the dog’s chin: the leash clips onto this. The main advantage is that if you pull on the leash, the dog’s head is redirected towards you: this forces them to look straight at you, and you are able to engage their attention.
In contrast, if you pull on a dog collar, the dog’s head remains pointing towards any object that interests them, so their attention remains fixed on whatever has distracted them. It’s far more difficult to get them to look at you and to listen to you.
So for walking dogs, and training dogs, a head halter is a useful tool. It must, however, be used with great care, and only after lessons from someone experienced in their use. All too often, inexperienced owners are too harsh, too strong, and too quick in the way that they use a halter. They whip their dog’s head around in a way that could cause an injury.
Body harnesses are safer for inexperienced dog owners. They work in a different way: they are like a lattice-type of arrangement of straps and buckles, with the leash clipping onto a metal loop which is usually on the midline of the upper part of the dog’s back.
Harnesses are similar in principle to those used in larger animals, like draught Clydesdale horses or oxen: the pressure points on the animal tend to be anatomical features that are more robust. Dogs can pull on a harness and they won’t be choked, and their neck won’t be twisted harshly.
There are different types of harnesses. The most basic are cheap nylon straps that resemble string puzzles, requiring a combination of imagination, logic and intelligence to attach to your pet in the correct way. My favourite type of harnesses are pricier, but worth it: a sturdy, solid combination of thick webbing straps, strong plastic clips and broad nylon sheets or pads.
These are easy to put on your dog: you just slide them over the head, like putting on a jersey, then click two or three fastening clips into place. They are well designed, comfortable and effective. They are fun too: you can get velcro-attached strips with messages on them so that your dog can have his or her name emblazoned on their harness.
It’s important to choose the right sort of leash too: the standard-issue one metre is too short if you want to let your dogs sniff around while on a walk. Instead, choose a two-metre lead for daily use, and invest in a five or ten-metre long training leash to allow you to give your dog more freedom, while still having control if there’s an unexpected distraction.
For pets, as much as for any part of life, choosing the right tools, and knowing how to use them, is crucial.