The physical and psychological dangers of jerking on the leash

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This article explains how jerking on the leash suppresses, instead of corrects, behavior - and what you can do to solve problems permanently.

We’ve always been taught that when a dog does something we don’t like, it’s appropriate to jerk his collar. We jerk when we want him to behave, we jerk when we don’t want him to eat something on the ground, we jerk if he pulls on the leash, we jerk if he barks and so on and so on.

Jerking has become so ingrained in many of us that we don’t think about it anymore, we just react. We never stop to find out why the dog behaves the way he does.

So what’s the problem?

The big problem with this approach is that it never does anything to solve the underlying cause of a problem, rather, it simply suppresses it. For example: a lot of dogs act out against other dogs when they are on leash. They may bark, growl or lunge etc. In almost all cases, this is because your dog feels threatened. He has some sort of insecurity about another dog, which leads to anxiety, which leads to displays of aggressive behavior.

Most humans will just label the dog as “aggressive on leash”, and while that can be considered and accurate description, it is not complete in describing the problem. A more accurate way of describing it would be “fear based aggression due to feeling threatened”. In other words, the dog acts out in response to feeling threatened and insecure. This is very important to understand.

As you may know, dogs have an innate fight or flight response to protect them from what they consider dangerous situations. Since the dog is on leash, flight is not an option, leaving the dog with “fight”. In the dog’s mind, the logic goes “if I growl at the other dog, maybe he will go away”. In all likelihood, the dog has experienced success with this in the past, thus making the behavior even more likely to occur - it reinforces itself.

So what causes aggression? Aggression is a response to something/someone the animal perceives as a threat. Aggression is used to protect the animal through the use of aggressive displays (growling, barking, tooth displays, etc.) or protect the animal through aggressive acts (biting). Source

Aggression is not based in “dominance”, as many may think. This misconception stems from a flawed and outdated understanding of how dogs work, but sadly, it is still cited today.

What happens when you jerk?

What a lot of us do, because that’s what we’ve been taught to do in response to this type of behavior, is to jerk. And sometimes, it produces a desired result: the dog stops acting out. You may have to jerk a few times, but often a dog will stop displaying the undesired behavior then and there. (In other cases though, the situation just escalates).

When we see this, we think: “alright, so this works, this is what i’ll do”.

But ask yourself this: does it solve the problem permanently? I mean, the next time you meet a dog, is your dog “completely fine”, or do you have to jerk again?

If the answer is you have to jerk again, it’s not a very effective solution, is it? And even if you don’t have to jerk next time, it is still a very unfair thing to do to your dog, and here’s why.

When you jerk a dogs leash, you may suppress a behavior, but you certainly won’t correct it. There’s a significant difference between the two, but they often get mixed up. Many say that jerking on a leash is a way of “correcting” behavior, when in reality, what they’re doing is suppressing, not correcting.

Because your dog is anxious, and then acts out towards another dog, and stops when you jerk on the leash - he stops because he feels discomfort/pain around his neck - the anxiety is still there. You’ve done nothing to make the dog feel safe. Think about this logically, how will jerking on the leash help a dog become less anxious? In fact, behavioral science consistently show that it might lead to the opposite - increased anxiety. You can easily put yourself in the dogs shoes, and consider what it would be like if somebody slapped you across the face in order to help you become less stressed about something. It wouldn’t work.

Think about this logically, how will jerking on the leash help a dog become less anxious?

If we look at this through the eyes of a dog, instead of just superficially from the outside, the dog feels something like this.

Dog thinking: “Okay, so i feel anxious about this other dog, and since my owner has me on leash, I can’t get away. Instead, I’ll try to bark/growl at it to make it go away. But when I do that, my owner starts jerking me around! So not only am I still scared of this other dog, my owner is treating me badly!”

Do you see how that works? It’s not a good thing to do to a dog, and it won’t help him overcome the problem.

Jerking has become so ingrained in many of us that we don’t think about it anymore, we just react.

So what should you do?


- Counter Condition

A very effective method is through something called counter conditioning, in which you turn a negative into a positive. For example, when a dog is scared of other dogs, creating positive experiences with other dogs let’s the dog learn that there is nothing to be afraid of, turning the anxiety into something positive instead.

This is done by gradually exposing the dog to what it is afraid of, while introducing positive stimuli, so the dog over time learns that there is no reason to be afraid. Yes, it does take a little more time than simply jerking the leash, however it produces a lasting result! And moreover, it is healthy for the dog.

This is not to be confused with a technique called “flooding”, in which the dog is thrown into a scary situation all at once, “flooding the senses” to a point where many dogs shut down. While it is sometimes successful, it is a dangerous (and controversial) technique due to the high risks involved. Imagine if you were afraid of spiders and to cure it, somebody locked you in a room full of them with no way to get out. That’s pretty much what flooding is to a dog.

In counter conditioning, everything must happen at a pace that is comfortable for the individual dog.

One of the things that makes this technique so fantastic, is that not only is an unwanted response removed, it is replaced by a wanted response as well.

More incentive to stop jerking

If the above isn’t good enough reason to stop jerking, then the following information might be persuasive.

In 1991, Anders Hallgren did an extensive study on the physical injuries related to jerking and pulling on leash. The results were gathered from more than 400 dogs, and were far more alarming than anticipated.

91% of the dogs who had neck injuries had also been exposed to jerking and pulling on the lead by the owner or had been allowed to pull hard on the leash for long periods of time. source

Many people think that a dogs neck is very rough and can handle jerking. This is not true.

That dogs are so similar to humans may come as a surprise to many. It is common knowledge that dogs with long spines (e.g., dachshunds) are highly susceptible to [ .. ] problems, but now we know that these (problems) can strike any dog! source

Further more, if you use a choke chain, you may be shocked to learn of its effects here.

Finally, countless veterinarians, researchers and other professionals have found an incredible number of physical injuries directly related pulling and jerking! The evidence is quite clear, but I don’t expect you to take my word for it.

Start by reading the 1991 study referenced above, then do some research on google if you still want more.

Author: Stian Karlsen

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