The Leash Communicates–But What Does It Say?

Golden Retriever
Whatcha up to back there? Anything I need to know about? Does it involve peanut butter?

Honey off leash

Runs up to twenty steps past me before looking back to see where I am. If I’m doing anything remotely interesting to her like digging in my pocket (“do you have a treats?”) or turning around (“where are you going?”), she comes running back to my side.

I’m like a planet and Honey is a satellite in orbit around me. I’m not sure when she’ll come back around but it won’t be too long.

Honey on leash (wearing a front fastening Easy Walk Harness)

Occasionally moves ahead so she can capture all the best smells first but will often walk by my side and look up at me occasionally, just to check in. Honey never pulls so she doesn’t really experience the  motion of the leash pulling her off center because it’s attached to the harness at the front of her chest.

I’m still a planet and Honey’s still a satellite. But this time, we’re in synchronous orbit.

Honey on leash (attached to her collar)

Nearly always out in front, periodically pulling. I have to work hard to get any eye contact at all. It feels as if she’s doing her thing while I’m doing mine.

Yep, I’m still a planet but now Honey is a meteorite on an entirely different path.

Do you ever see such radical differences in behavior based on the leash and collar you’re using?

I’ve had two severe “pullers” in my life and I know that Honey’s pulling is very mild. Christie used to pull so hard she’d choke herself if we didn’t stop. Shadow had a stronger trachea. She’d just pull until my hands were bleeding from trying to keep hold of the leash.

I know that to teach Honey how to walk nicely on a loose leash I need to do the following things:

  • Be more interesting than other things on the walk (you’d think I was more interesting than a dead mouse but apparently that’s up for debate).
  • Walk faster (don’t you wonder if 90% of pulling problems could be solved if people just went a little faster to keep up with their dogs?).
  • Act unpredictably. If Honey has no idea which way I’m going to turn at any given time, she has to keep an eye on me.

That’s what I try to bring to every walk, especially when Honey’s leash is simply attached to her collar.

But why is it so hard to get her attention when we’re walking with a regular leash and collar?

Golden Retriever Sitting

I am a riddle wrapped around a cookie inside of some bacon.

I understand that the uncertainty of being off leash matched with Honey’s connection to me will keep her focused on me much of the time.

But does Honey take me for granted when we’re attached by a leash? And if so, why does she pay more attention to me when she’s wearing a harness than when she’s just wearing her collar?

I used the same Easy Walk Harness with Shadow. It did eliminate the pulling. But Shadow never paid much attention to me while wearing it–or ever when we were outdoors with lots of interesting smells.

So I’m puzzled by Honey’s attentiveness to me when she’s wearing the harness while I have to work so hard to get her focus when she’s just wearing her collar.

Maybe I’ll figure it out someday. Or maybe a little mystery is good for a relationship.


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  1. It took us a little over a year before we finally got Shiva to cease pulling on the leash. She still does sometimes but her focus on me is 100% better.

    I hate when people say I need to be the most interesting thing out there. It’s so impossible and so defeating. I am never going to be more interesting than other dogs, cats, or that cheeseburger wrapper. It’s something I hear all the time, especially when working on recalls, and it depresses me. Maybe the key isn’t to be the more interesting thing, maybe it’s just to be the most important thing.

    This is just my experience, but I found when I walked faster, Shiva would just pull faster. The best thing that worked for us, and it may not help you, was the second I felt her pulling, I would stop. Just not move at all. That way the pulling wasn’t getting her anywhere. What she wants most is to move forward and the only way she gets to do that is when she stops pulling. Now every time I stop Shiva knows to come back to me and sit down. When she looks at me, we continue on our way so that the walking is a reward for her attention.
    I also spent a lot of time rewarding her for just looking at me while on a leash. Even if she was a few feet ahead, every time she glanced in my direction I would reward her by my side.

    I’ve never used a harness with Shiva and kind of wish I had in that first year. I think it would have prevented my hands from leash injuries!

  2. Isn’t it amazing how individual every dog is? And how stupid we are to assume that we just have to find the “trick” and everything will work out?

    I’m glad to have the reminder that it takes a good long time to teach a dog not to pull if she wants to do it. If you say that Shiva pulled more when you walked faster, it sounds like she really likes to run. Have you ever tried running with her or bicycling? Could be great or really, really dangerous.

    I haven’t found just stopping to be the great tool promised with any of my dogs (or maybe I’m just not doing it right). We end up stopping and starting over and over without seeming to make any progress.

    But I’ve had good luck with “being interesting” with Honey. She’s very toy motivated so just picking a dandelion or a stick off the ground can usually turn her attention to me from nearly anything–even another dog. Unless I’ve waited too long and the dog is too close and I’ve already totally lost her focus.

    Once again, it’s really about building that relationship more than training a behavior, isn’t it?

    Thanks for the great comment, Kristine.

    • LOL. For the first few months of actual leash training we could walk for an hour and only progress a couple blocks down the street. I felt kind of ridiculous. And definitely frustrated! But it did pay off for us in the end.

      Every dog – and every human – is so different that I do think you really have to find something that will work with your personality as well as Honey’s. You are so right that it’s all about the relationship. Once we stared working more as a team, things got easier. It’s when I lose my focus that she tends to do the same.

      I love that Honey is so toy motivated! That’s so awesome.

  3. We’ve never been able to stop Sam from pulling, and my experience was much like yours and Shadow’s. My hands would be raw by the end of the walk. The best thing we’ve used on him is a Gentle Leader (over the nose). Even in the Easy Walk Harness he pulled – he just learned to walk sideways. Sam is great in every other manner, we’ve never figured out the pulling. He has been in numerous training classes, and they’ve never been able to figure him out!


    • Y’know I always suspected that some dogs would adopt a sideways walk when confronted with the Easy Walk. Sounds like Sam was just the one to figure that out.

      I be Sam frustrated a lot of trainers. In the end, however, you just gotta work with the dog ya got. :)

  4. So here’s my question. If Honey wearing a harness walks in harmony with you exactly as you like, why would you walk her with a collar?

    I agree with Kristine about not having to be the most interesting thing in the world. I speak from the opposite experience. Frankie always walks behind me, whether on or off leash. He doesn’t roll in stuff or try to chase rabbits; he very rarely even stops to smell anything. He certainly doesn’t approach other dogs or other people. He likes his walks. He’s very perky as he prances along, ears bouncing, and it’s good exercise for him. But it’s a responsibility and a bit of a burden for me to never get a break from being the center of his universe, his protector.

    • Good question, Edie. It’s one I’ve asked myself over the years but it’s good to get it from someone else.

      1) The harness isn’t ideal for every day, full-time use. It will eventually start to chafe under the legs or cause mattes. I use it only when I really need better control (like at the vet; Honey loves it so much she’d go crazy spinning on the end of her collar) or don’t have time to do the training I’m supposed to.
      2) I’d like to pass the CGC with Honey and I don’t believe gizmos are allowed.
      3) I went against my principles when I adopted Honey from a breeder instead of going to a shelter. I wanted to have one chance in my life to work with a dog who had the best start in life–to see what we could do together.

      My dream, upon bringing Honey home, was to create a life for myself that would allow me to spend more of my regular time working with dogs. Honey would be my partner in that–whether it was raising guide dogs or fostering.

      Holding to this higher standard is part of aiming for that dream (although I despair of ever reaching it with my recent schedule). :(

      As for being the center of a puppy universe, I understand. I’ve dealt with separation anxiety in the past and I know that burden of responsibility. But someday, you may find an “aloof” dog in your life and miss those days of being the center of a dog’s universe.

  5. I think a little mystery is good for the relationship!

    When we got Bunny at eighteen months old, she’d never walked on a leash. Trying to walk her was like having a landed Trout on the end of the leash. We used a Freedom Harness on her and it worked wonders! I still use one when we’re going to be in a place that’s really busy and distracting. She walks like an angel in the harness and I don’t have to worry about crushing her trachea or injuring her neck if I pull on her collar a lot. I think part of it is that I’m steering her from a different place, if that makes sense!

    • I always see nice pictures of Bunny with just her collar and leash. I’d love to know more about how long it took before you could walk her that way easily. Do you think the freedom harness did anything to teach her to walk without pulling? I mean, when you went to only using the martingale collar?

  6. I don’t know what the difference is with a collar/leash and a no-stop harness, because I have never experienced any difference with any of my dogs. BOL! Even though I had great success my first time with Blaze and a head halter, the second time we were right back where we started. She just wanted to pull.

    I know a dog’s neck’s are one of the strongest parts of their body, so there is no pressure when they to pull. Maybe if they wear a collar all the time, it ends up meaning nothing to them when they pull on it and so they feel a sense of freedom that is more like an off leash walk with a bit of a restraint.

    Does Honey seem to get more excited when you walk her on a collar as opposed to the harness? To you find her demeanor change as soon as you hook on her collar? Or does she go along fine at first and then when something grabs her attention she begins to orbit out? At what point does her behavior begin to change?

    I don’t know what to do when you figure it out, but maybe it will help you notice when the change begins. And I agree with Kristine, you are never going to be more interesting than all of the sights and smells, but I think she said it best that you are the most important.

    • Y’know, I’ve experienced the same thing with the head halter. I continued to use it with Christie because it kept her from choking herself. But it didn’t really stop the pulling.

      Honey doesn’t usually wear a collar around the house. She’s a naked pup. And I haven’t noticed any difference when putting on the collar or harness to go for a walk.

      She’s actually the most serene dog I’ve ever had before a walk. Honey will calmly move into position to get leashed up, walk quietly to the door, and gently look up to ask me to open the door. She doesn’t jump around or bark or charge the door or any of those things.

      Now that you’re asking, I think she starts to pull when she needs to go faster. It happens a lot when we’re crossing the street because the good smells are on the other side. And that’s the biggest problem–I want her to be with me and under control when we cross the streets. Living in town, we cross a lot of streets on a regular walk.

      I know I’m holding her to a pretty high standard. Anyone else walking her probably wouldn’t notice the pulling at all–my husband doesn’t.

      • Maybe you are hurrying to get across the street and she’s anticipating that? If she knows your routines and you are always speeding up to cross a street, she just getting ahead of the game a little. Just a thought.

        It’s possible she doesn’t do it with your husband, like maybe he’s a little calmer when he’s crossing. Just another thought. :)

  7. Good questions I would also like to know the answer to. Kenzo tends to pull whatever harness, leash or halter we use when the path is predictable. Going down the road to the supermarket, the children’s play garden, etc. Being unprectibale does the trick and restores our planet – satellite relationship :)

    One of the things that always makes me wonder is that when we walk to dog training obedience class he pulls whatever I would try. As soon as we are on the grounds of the school, and he knows we are training, there is not the slightest pull for the remainder of training class. Both are predictable, what is he thinking? Trying to be unpredictable doesn’t help. He knows, eventually we will wind up on the training premises.

  8. George is the only whippet or greyhound around here who wears a harness. All the others go for a walk at the end of a lead attached to their collar. When we got George, we tried to do the same, since ‘experienced’ sighthound owners explained to us that that’s the proper way to walk these dogs. So we got George a whippet collar, attached a lead to it and tried to walk him. And he hated it. We carried on for a few weeks to give him time to get used to it, but he still didn’t like it. Then we tried a harness and it was an instant hit. He enjoyed the relative freedom the harness and flexi-lead gave him and probably felt more comfortable than being ‘dragged’ around by the neck (which we never did, of course, it’s just a figure of speech).
    Now that he’s an adult, we use the harness 99% of the time, and only attach the lead to his collar when the situation requires it (in busy places with lots of people, for example). The difference in his behaviour is completely different when switching from harness to collar. There’s a lot of communication between us when he’s using the harness, pretty much like what you’re describing with Honey (a lot of eye contact, no pulling, a smile on his face, tail up, etc.). When we’re only using the collar, he almost never looks up, his tail is down, no smile. I’ve always thought that he resents the collar-walk because he’s not really used to it. It’s interesting to me that Honey behaves the same. Maybe all dogs would choose the harness over the collar if given the chance.

  9. Miss Stella is still working on learning about her leash. We have not tried a harness on any of our dogs. Sadie Lou and Maggie Mae did fine with their leashes so we are hoping Miss Stella will too! : )

  10. Hmmm… lots to think about! Sometimes I do wonder how to keep Bella from pulling. She goes through phases – at times she’s great on walks, but then something catches her attention and we’re back to square one. I wonder if there’s something about the harness that helps pull focus to you?

  11. I can so relate to this. I’ve tried all the halti type things on Frankie, he hates them, quite a few harnesses and the easy walk has been the most successful. A simple collar is a waste of our time as he just pulls from peemail to peemail and lamp post to lamp post. I’m never going to be more interesting to him than peemail etc. But when he’s got the easy walk on he is aware of me and more subdued and pulling is easily stopped and doesn’t happen much anyway. Having said that, we rarely go for walks around the town as we both much prefer our off leash walks at the river. But I am also trying to do a few street walks now as I haven’t given up on him eventually walking nicely on a loose lead, looking up at me adoringly of course, lol. Dreams are free:)

    Now, don’t take this the wrong way, but I’m quite surprised to read about the way Honey is on collar and lead. I thought Golden Retrievers came with built in adoration and velcro-ness:)