Are Slip Leads Cruel?

May 27, 2022
20221006 175603

Is it OK to Use a Slip Lead?

When I was at a large dog event recently I noticed an increase in the number of people walking their dogs on slip leads. The scary fact is that every single one of those dogs was at risk of injury or worse as a result.

Now, there is a place for slip leads – sometimes they are a necessary evil in the case of scared foreign rescue dogs who are a huge flight risk and who can escape from most harnesses and have a tendency to “death roll” during lead training putting handlers and dogs at risk where harnesses are used. 

However, it soon became clear that the reason people were using slip leads was because they had been taught to use them as a training aid by trainers in the local area.  Of course this is not the fault of the owners.  They are using them with the absolute best of intentions after having been told by unscrupulous / ignorant trainers that they are the best possible solution to get their dog to walk on a loose lead.

Should you use slip leads?

What is a Slip Lead?

It is a lead which is made with just a loop of rope. When the dog pulls on the lead, the rope tightens around the dog’s neck.

The dog then learns not to pull as it really hurts. However for many dogs this takes time and most reactive or pully dogs will still pull some of the time. Each pull risks injury.

How to Use a Slip Lead Correctly

The argument given is that where they are used “properly” they are quick and effective.  

Unfortunately them being used “properly” depends on the dog not pulling on the lead and even if they don’t, slip leads never stay in the correct position around a dog’s neck for long.

The method I saw being used for “training” was walking with the dog on the slip lead.  If the lead went tight the handler “checked” (in other words, yanked) the lead and walked in the other direction thereby constricting the lead around the dog’s neck causing discomfort and even pain – not to mention fear.  This is an aversive method and as such is based on training a dog by intimidation and inflicting pain.  We know from numerous studies (eg Vieira de Castro et al 2016, Rooney et al 2011, Ziv et al 2017, Hallgren 1992 – I could go on) that not only are aversive methods more effective than reward based methods in ANY training or behavioural situation, they also increase cortisol levels (the stress hormone) in dogs which can lead to increases in unwanted behaviours such as aggression.  I know this from my own experience of training dogs who have previously gone to an aversive trainer and their behaviour has deteriorated considerably.  

There is NO empirical data to suggest that aversives are ever more effective and now organisations such as the police, army etc are using reward based methods more and more. 

But there is evidence to suggest that using reward based training is the best way to achieve loose lead walking – one of the reasons guide dogs are trained that way! If you want to find out more about how you can train your dog safely and effectively, have a look at our 121 training.


Do Slip Lead Hurt Dogs

There are physical consequences of trying to train a loose lead using a slip lead.

1. Neck injuries

You only have to yank on the slip lead ONCE to risk  bruising, whiplash, headaches, crushed trachea, damage to larynx, and fractured vertebrae.

The longer the lead, the worse the injuries could be, potentially with permanent or even fatal injuries.

2. Damage to the thyroid gland

In a study by Dobias (2018) he looked at why dog breeds renowned for pulling, such as Labradors, golden retrievers and German shepherd dogs, also had higher rates of thyroid problems. He realised that the dog’s collar or slip lead rests right where the thyroid gland is located. When dogs pull, the thyroid gland becomes inflamed and is attacked and destroyed by the dog’s own immune system. This damage causes a deficit of thyroid hormone and is termed “hypothyroidism”. The symptoms include weight gain, a lack of energy, hair loss and skin problems.

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Loose lead walking training??

3. Dogs that pull on the lead can develop ear and eye issues

Pauli AM, Bentley, E Diehl, KA, Miller, PE investigated eye pressure of dogs in their study ‘Effects of the application of neck pressure by a collar or harness on intraocular pressure in dogs’. They found that pressure inside the eye was significantly increased when pressure was applied to a dog’s neck from its collar. Increased eye pressure can create additional problems for dogs already suffering thin corneas, glaucoma, or eye injuries. Pulling on the lead can also affect the blood and lymphatic flow to and from the head, which can cause issues with the eyes or ears, which some studies have even linked to cancer.

Additionally, dogs with collar and lead injuries that have damaged their upper cervical spine are particularly prone to ear scratching or even severe ear infections.

4. Damage to the nerves in the neck that go down to the paws.

The nervous system in the front legs leading down to the feet can be damaged, causing a sensation that the dog doesn’t recognise and can lead to symptoms such as paw licking, scratching the “armpits” or foreleg lameness. Paw licking is often misdiagnosed as allergies when in fact it is excessive pulling on the lead that is causing the issues.

5. Epilepsy or seizures

Pulling on the neck increases pressure on the jugular vein. This can cause a build-up of pressure around the brain or can affect the flow of cerebral-spinal fluid, either of which can lead to epilepsy in pre-disposed dogs

What about if you use your slip lead as a figure 8 head collar?

Slip leads are not designed to be used as a figure 8 head collar.  So, the first issue is that they never stay where they are supposed to!  The cross under the dogs neck is thick and causes rubbing injuries as well as choking.  The rope over the dog’s nose also causes discomfort, andit also constricts the vision of the dog.  Not only that slip leads worn like this move up the nose towards the eyes, and as eyes and nose are connected this can interfere with the dog’s sense of smell – their most important sense.

Even if we set all this aside, using a slip lead does not address the reasons why the dog is pulling in the first place.  is it avoiding or even lunging at another dog/ person because its fearful? Is the dog just excited to be going on his favourite walk? Maybe he is just walking faster than you are? Is the dog showing stress and being hyperactive? Have you shown the dog how to walk by your side positively as (unfortunately) dogs aren’t born with the knowledge we want them to walk with us?

Now think, would adding pain and discomfort onto these experience help any of those situations? .  

You are adding negative associations to every single one of these experiences. Using a ‘correction’ (which is another word for punishment, is in its self unpleasant and potentially harmful whether you are ‘using it correctly’ or not.

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So when I saw another trainer who claims, on his website, to use positive methods pulling dogs around with a slip lead to show how brilliant he was a teaching loose lead walking, given the overwhelming evidence above I can only conclude that he didn’t know HOW to teach loose lead walking using positive methods, or that he was only concerned with looking like he had a macho quick fix.

Moral of the story is only to use a slip lead if there is no other option, and never to use it to train loose lead walking.  End of.

Oh, and if you come across a trainer using this method, run like the wind!

Training a Puppy to use a Slip Lead

Quite simply, don’t. There’s absolutely no need at all!

You want your puppy to walk nicely next to you without pulling on the lead – I totally get that! But the solution to this is never to use a tool which can be so physically damaging and cruel to your dog.

What is the Best Thing for a Dog That Pulls?

Training, training, training.

Not only that, study after study has shown that the most effective way to train a dog to do ANYTHING is using positive, reward based training methods.

If your dog pulls, the best way to minimise harm and pain to them is to use a harness. You may have heard reasons not to use one which I address here:

1. Harnesses encourage dogs to pull.

Put very simply this is just total, complete and utter nonsense. Just look at the next assistance dog you see walking perfectly on the harness and you’ll see what I mean!

There are harnesses which are designed, for example, for sled dogs, which help to shift weight forwards and make it easier to pull. This type of harness has the lead connected really far back and have a large chest plate and that is what enables (not encourages) the dog to pull. I can only assume that this is where this particular myth comes from.

2. Wearing harnesses can cause injury.

Some harnesses absolutely can cause problems. Some restrict shoulder movement which can lead to issues in the shoulder joints later in life. To minimise this risk, choose a harness which is a y or x shape and which allows full shoulder movement. The added advantage to these types of harness is that they don’t tend to have a large chest plate.

3. Harnesses aren’t designed for large dogs.

There are some harnesses which are designed for smaller dogs, and some which are designed for larger dogs. This is a myth which I have hear many times and for which I can find no evidence in favour of it what so ever, but loads against it! In fact, as large dogs are often stronger, pulling on something around their neck is far more likely to cause damage to them than it would to smaller dogs.

4. You don’t get as good control with a harness.

Again this is something which is at odds with my own experience. The best “control” is probably with a harness with 2 points of contact, one on the back and one on the front. Thankfully fewer and fewer dog experts these days are talking about “controlling” our dogs. We are working towards having a cooperative relationship which results in far better results than control and with far fewer negative consequences.

Let’s have a chat about a better way to stop your dog pulling on lead – one which is backed by science and is kind to you and your dog. Book a call here.

Positive, force free methods for training loose lead walking are so simple to do – yes they do use treats, which is infinitely better than the alternative! Find out more how we can help

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