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How to Choose the Right Collar, Harness, Leash or Lead (and Why it Matters)

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cute puppy on a leash
If you're like me, the variety of leashes, leads, collars, and harnesses can make shopping for them an incredibly overwhelming experienceAlso if you're like me, you may be left scratching your head as to why there are so many options.

So, I asked Dr. J to tell me a bit more about the variety of products on the market, why you would want to choose one over another, and why you should absolutely stay away from certain products like retractable leashes, choke & prong collars.

Transcript below

Mia: All right, welcome back to episode 13 of Paws and Play with Dr. J, this is your cohost, Mia, and I'm here with Dr. J, how are you doing?

Dr. J: I am very well, thank you. Didn't realize this was lucky number. 13. Maybe we should've saved this one for Halloween.

Mia: Maybe. Whoops. Really, screwed that one up. Oh well. I mean this will be, I believe going out in October, so, you know, it fits anyway. And who knows, we might get into some spooky things.

Dr. J: Yeah.

Dr. J: Yeah, no, definitely there is. There are things that you want to look for and things that you want to avoid and it really depends on your dog or your cat if you're going to leash train your cat, which is awesome. But yeah, there are definitely differences. I mean, for little dogs, like Yorkshire Terriers and some of the other small dogs, that have a higher probability of having neck problems or collapsing trachea, you definitely don't want to use a collar that goes around the neck. And so for those guys, you definitely want to use more of a head collar or potentially even better, if they've got a neck issue, is to use a harness. For older dogs that maybe have Laryngeal Paralysis, again, you want to avoid a neck collar. You may still be able to do the head collar or a harness.

So it really just depends on your dog and your situation. And I think in answer to your first part of the question, as to why there are so many options, I mean I think everyone's just trying to build a better mouse trap or you know, different designs, you know, you've got the ones that are licensed by the NFL so they've got the different football teams on them or you see the Harley Davidson ones. Like there's all kinds of different leashes and a lot of them, once you sort of figure out the type you need, and then you look at sort of the build quality as far as where you attach the leash to the collar. So once you sort of equalize all of those things — and a lot of it is just gimmicky and what you want because it's a great way to express your personality and, of course your pet's personality. I think that's why there's so many options.

Mia: All those Harley riding pets out there motorcycle. Yeah. There's actually, there's actually a documentary that I saw, I think it was a short one, that was actually about dogs in sidecars or something. It was pretty cool.

So I guess I don't even know what the different kinds are except to say the kind that...

Dr. J: That goes over the face? That was pretty awesome.

Mia: That and what's the difference between a leash and a lead.

Dr. J: Well a leash and a lead is pretty much the same thing for the most part. Just different terminology. As far as the leashes, you've got your fixed length, which basically means it doesn't retract. Which, I'll start off the show with saying highly caution against retractable, flexi- type leads because they're dangerous and they can actually encourage pulling. So I would encourage against those.

But fixed length leashes, which can range from pretty much any length, I mean the standard is kind of six feet, but then you've also got leashes that have a handle halfway down that are really good for walking, especially in cities where you might be coming across a bunch of different intersections and such, and or need, at times, a little bit better, tighter control.

And then when you look at the collars, harnesses, head collars, I mean, head collars are basically what you're talking about, the collars that go over the face, which makes him sound like some villain from a Batman movie.

But head collars are basically kind of like what you use on horses, but obviously designed for dogs and they have a little loop of fabric that goes over their muzzle. And then that's what the leash attaches to as opposed to the neck. And then they snap around at the back of the neck. And that gives some really good control and can really help with dogs that tug on their leash because if they tug then it exerts some gentle pressure downward on their muzzle. And so that's a bit of a negative reinforcement that encourages them ideally not to do it.

Most dogs after very very short training period on them, just having it there, they tend to not pull as much on their leash. But that is still a little bit of negative reinforcement. But the other positive side of the head collars is that if you have a dog that is prone to scavenging stuff off the ground on your walks, going around, whether it be eating dirt and grass or potentially toxic things like, you know, trash or if people drop their gum or something like that, it gives you a little bit better control over their muzzle.

So they're less inclined, less likely, less able to eat those things. So those are the head colors, the ones that go over the face.

And then you've got your traditional neck collars, which, you know, most people are used to seeing, but even within that, there's different types. So you've got your breakaway collars for dogs (and cats), like if they ever get their collar caught, which happens, I don't know how regularly, but it does happen, whether it be on another dog's mouth or on a fence post or in their kennel or something like that, that'll just break off and prevent them from getting strangled, which is really nice.

And then you've got your Martingale collars, which are, you know, fabric, so they're nice and they have a little open ended loop that can kind of self tighten if they pull, so those are really good for dogs that maybe are inclined to sneak out of their collar or maybe have a narrow head, like you'll see them a lot on greyhounds because they have a very narrow, of course, aerodynamic shaped head. And so by fitting a collar properly on them, they may still be able to slip out. So Martingales help with that.

martingale dog collarExample of a Martingale dog collar (image via Wikipedia)

And then you've got your ones that I tend to caution against, so your choke chains, prong collars —also called pinch collars — and then of course the electric shock collars, which just should be no nos. And then you've got your harnesses and you've got your, uh, Kinda back or top clip harnesses.

And then you've got your front clip harnesses, which can be great for helping to teach loose leash walking for dogs and to prevent them from pulling, which is great. And then those, of course put no pressure on the neck. So again, for dogs with neck issues, collapsing trachea, laryngeal paralysis, things like that, or flat squishy faces like your guy's.

Mia: I was gonna say.

Dr. J: Then harnesses are great, and harnesses on cats is fantastic. We've got the article on the site about a lease training and walking cats. And of course it involves a harness.

Mia: Yes, I would love to see Mazel in one, but I just would never let him outside because he would just, the birds would pick him up. He's so little and I'm sure that they would enjoy playing with him very much. I'll say play.

Mazel the cat being cute
Who wouldn't want to play with this guy?

You briefly mentioned, you know, not liking retractable leashes. I still see them everywhere. Can you tell us a little bit more about why you hate them?

Dr. J: Do you want just a little more?

Mia: I mean, the most important thing. Is there something that you've seen in the E.R., maybe let's say?

Dr. J: Yeah, totally. Well let me start by saying first is just a pedestrian, somebody walking down the sidewalk. It's not uncommon to come across somebody with a dog on a flex, a retractable leash or multiple dogs on retractable leashes, and the person's on one side of the sidewalk, the dog's on the other side or maybe even around the corner, and then it's just, you know, they trip people. They're not considerate.

But there is also a safety hazard. So we've definitely seen dogs that have gotten injured by these. So the flexi, the retractable leash, the coil part, the strand, if you will, and even the tape ones can get wrapped around their legs. Can get wrapped around their necks. They can cause, cut and laceration injuries.

I actually saw, actually it was probably a couple years back, but a dog that was on a retractable leash that was tied to a chair, like outside of a restaurant, something completely mobile. The dog got freaked out, ran dragging the chair with him and between the chair and then the handle of the retractable leash clanking, just kept panicking. So he just kept running and fortunately he didn't get hit by a car but it was close.

And then people who have been injured by these things. I mean if you look on the Internet, there are stories of these, you know, the handles breaking open and the little springs kind of hitting people in the eye. There are stories of the hard plastic handles hitting people.

Mia: I think I've had one to the face way back in the day.

Dr. J: Yeah, I mean not fun. And then people have also gotten cuts and even kind of rope burns on their legs, their fingers. I think I saw a story semi-recently even, of somebody losing part of their finger. I think, don't quote me on that. Off the record. But, I think that I saw one about somebody losing part of their finger.

So retractable leashes just look convenient, they look fun and there are some places where maybe, you know, they're a little bit safer than others, maybe like on the beach or if there's no other people around, but honestly there's better alternatives. Even just longer leashes that are going to be less dangerous.

And I'll tell you one of the funniest combinations that I always laugh at when I see it. I mean I cringe, but I laugh because it makes no sense — is a retractable leash attached to like a prong collar or a choke chain. Those two things separately should really never be used. And certainly not together.

I mean I always liken it to jumping in a pool with a towel to stay dry, like it's just not gonna be effective.

choke chains with retractable leashes is like jumping into a pool with a towel to stay dry

So that's a chunk of why I'm not a big fan of retractable leashes and I would posit that most vets and most veterinary technicians or nurses also are not big fans of retractable leashes.

Mia: That's great to know. So keep those off of your shopping lists! And you know, just speaking of what to consider when shopping for leashes or leads, what are some things that we should keep in mind?

It obviously sounds like, you know, you mentioned that for some, like the Greyhound, having a collar that will kind of adjust to its neck, so it can't slip out of it, what are some other considerations? Is there something that would be better for a puppy versus an adult dog? Is this something that should kind of be changed throughout their lifetime?

Dr. J: Yeah, I mean, the first part obviously the size. So if you've got a large breed dog that's a puppy, at some point you're going to need to change their collar just for size. Puppies might do better with a breakaway type collar because puppies tend to get themselves in a little bit more trouble and awkward situations.

So breakaway collars there might be quite useful, but again, if they have congenital neck issues, which your vet would potentially point you in the direction of, you'd want to avoid a collar, full stop.

But in terms of looking for, you know, what you should be looking for, definitely build quality is important, especially with the leash and where it attaches. You want to make sure that it's well secured. You want to make sure that clip or whatever mechanism is used to attach the leash to the head collar, neck collar, harness, whatever, isn't cheaply made because those things can break down, and that can cause a pretty catastrophic failure depending on when and where it happens.

You want something that's comfortable too, because you're going to be carrying it around, you're gonna be holding it, as far as the leash is concerned. When it comes to the collars and/or harnesses, having something that you could easily throw in the washing machine is a nice idea if possible, or wash in the kitchen sink or bathroom sink with some soap and water. And then to dry it really well because of course, these things can get a funk on them.

If your dog is gonna be spending plenty of time in the water, something that's water more waterproof. There are also light up LED and self illuminating collars and harnesses and leashes that you can get  for dogs that are walking, you know, when you're taking them out for their evening walks or even if you're just letting them out your back door in the evening and you've got property that's fenced in, or not. Something on them that'll kind of help you find them more easily and keep track of them. And also help people who are driving on the roads, see them and avoid them.

Wendy-Glow-Nighttime-Collar

So that's another consideration for collars and leashes. Those don't have to be your every day kind of around the clock neckwear, but those could be really good supplements for early morning and late evening time walks. And of course we're getting to that time of year where those evening hours are expanding.

Mia: Yeah, I was just thinking I need to break out the headlamp, because it gets so dark here in the Pacific Northwest. It's really remarkable actually for anybody that is not from here. I thought that the rain would be the biggest change, but nope, it's the darkness.

Dr. J: But on the bright side, on the flip side in the summer, we get lots of daylight hours.

Mia: Indeed, it makes it worth it. Yes. When you're waking up at like 4:30 in the morning because the sun is coming out.

Dr. J: Sun's already up. Yeah.

Mia: But so, you brought up kind of, times to be wearing this, like at night or you know, wearing something different. But what about like the car versus walking? Is there something we should be choosing differently when traveling?

Dr. J: Yeah, great question. So when restraining them in the car, really to do so safely they should have a harness on. You don't want to attach their leash to their collar, even neck collar, even head collar. It should be attached to a harness, and there are specific pet travel restraint harnesses, which are great.

And I'll give a shout out to Sleepypod because they really do make some of the best pet travel gear, so they deserve a shout out. But you know, and some of the harnesses out there that are good for travel in the car are also comfortable enough for them to be walked around on when you're stopped for their potty breaks on your travels, or even just on any given day. But really you want to be doing it with a harness as opposed to attaching anything to the collar or head collar.

Mia: So is there anything, I guess since it's really never just the animal that is going for the walk on the leash and harness or collar, is there something that we should take into consideration about ourselves? And I'm just trying to think like for let's say an older person or somebody with maybe their own mobility issues, would there be a benefit in choosing one thing over another?

Dr. J: Well, I think really getting, having your dog well trained to do good loose leash walking — so they're not constantly putting pressure on the leash, they're not tugging, they're not pulling zigging and zagging all over the place. So training is critically important and old dogs can learn new tricks. More often than not, you do not need a prong collar. You do not need a shock collar. You do not need a pinch collar or a choke chain or anything like that. So, you know, if you're having trouble getting those loose, those loose loose leash walking skills —

Mia: Say that 10 times fast.

Dr. J: I can't even say it one time slow. Work with a good trainer and work with a positive reward based trainer. If you are working with a trainer that says, "Let's put on this prong collar or this shock collar," to get your dog walking better, just walk away, go to a different trainer, there's better options.

But I digress. So I think for people with their own mobility problems and certainly elderly folks who are more at risk of say, falling and breaking a hip, which can be disastrous, or having their shoulder dislocated, really, again, working on those loose leash walking skills — there, I got it — but I think a harness like a front clip harness or a head collar like a Halty or gentle lead, can be really helpful and useful to minimize the risk of injury to people.

And then same thing, what happened, you know, because a lot of young kids love to walk the family dog and my daughters love to do it and you know, I've been teaching them to do it properly since the time they could walk themselves — not on a leash of course, but um...

Mia: Baby leashes are pretty fun though.

Dr. J: Yeah. But no. But, you know, making sure that they've got something that is not going to slip out of their hands. Again, definitely no retractable leashes for kids walking the family pet because it could be disastrous either way. And then making sure that, especially if it's a very young child that you've got a part of the leash that you can hold onto as well, so it's not just them walking the dog. So I think those would be some of the main considerations.

Mia: Okay. Awesome. I think those are great tips. Is there — just one final one, I mean you kind of mentioned it earlier in terms of like the harness for cats, but is there anything else to consider when it comes to dogs versus cats and making a purchase like this? I mean, I'm trying to think of like a cat pulling on their leash. I guess I haven't had much experience with this.

Dr. J:  No, I mean when you're first training a cat to walk on a harness, and leash, I mean they will pull, or they'll just become, pardon the pun, catatonic, and just kind of lay there like dead weight, some of them, because they're just, it's different to them.

You know, if you do a good job of acclimating them to it, then they're less likely to do that, but they certainly can pull. But really for cats, the only option is a harness. The safest option is a harness and those aren't typically front clip harnesses, they're more of the sort of soft harnesses that clip on the back.

And there are some specialty cat ones, but also the ones for small dogs that you oftentimes see a lot of pugs walking around with, those can be great for cats. And then again, no retractable leash and a fixed length leash that's comfortable that you can hold onto. And one that is sturdy enough that you're not going to get into problems.

And of course, one other consideration for walking cats on leashes, which I think we cover in the article on this site is, another reason why you wouldn't want a retractable leash and you don't want a super long leash for your cat, is that while they're out exploring, cats are still preyed upon by certain dogs, you know, unruly and unsocialized dogs and other animals outside.

You had mentioned with Mazel, and the birds and you know, there's plenty of places where there's falcons and hawks and eagles and stuff like that. So you want to have them close enough so that if there is a problem, you can get them up and protected as quickly and as safely as possible. So really with cats it's a harness and then a fixed length, relatively short leash and lots of training and patience, and treats.

Mia: Yes. Treats are always good for everyone involved. Treat yourself after too!

Dr. J: Exactly.

Mia: Awesome. Well thank you so much Dr. J, this has been quite insightful, and I need to get Marshall a new harness because his getting holey. He deserves a new one. So thank you for all of this and we'll be back with another podcast very soon.

Topics: Leashes, Dog Collars, Loose-leash Walking, Walking on a Leash, Harness, Dangers of retractable leashes, Dog Tips, Cat Tips, Cat Collars, paws and play, Best pet products

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