This was one of those strange weeks filled with horror stories. The kind of stories where people get seriously injured by their dogs. Each one was a dangerous, potentially life-threatening accident that was preventable with the right tools and techniques.
A woman walked down a flight of stairs with her young, teenage Rottweiler. The dog became excitable and rushed down the stairs causing her to fall. As she tumbled down, she hit a wooden spindle at the base of the staircase with enough force that it broke. She was extremely fortunate to only escape with a sprained wrist. The day we met she showed me the staircase and her now-bandaged wrist. It was obvious that we needed to work on teaching her dog to walk slowly down stairs, as all dogs should.
I met with a client who has two beautiful standard poodles. A few months ago he had been out for a nice walk. Suddenly the dogs caught sight of a squirrel and took off. Unfortunately, his arm had been anchored through the handles of leashes. He took the full impact of their collective weight which caused him to be yanked to the ground. The subsequent impact broke his shoulder in four places. He now has titanium plates and screws holding his shoulder together.
Unfortunately, these types of incidents happen all the time. But they offer us a few valuable lessons.
The first lesson is to use the correct tools for the temperament of your dog. All three of these dogs now wear prong collars. These are miracle tools for strong-willed, born-and-bred working dogs. However, they were not developed for use on every dog. No tool works for all dogs. For that reason I only recommend their use on a narrow segment of the canine population.
Prong collars have been stigmatized by those who are not fully educated on their proper use -- when to use them, for what reasons, and for what population of dogs. Many detractors are also uneducated as to the theoretical underpinnings of how they work, the benefits in outcomes, and safety added to dog handlers.
Contrary to popular belief, the prongs do not cause pain, do not pierce the skin, and do not cause emotional instability. They simply amplify, or make more acute, the energy needed for leash corrections. While they are not particularly beautiful tool, the result is a net reduction in the amount of energy or force needed to prevent being pulled by our dogs. That's a good thing. Especially for people who are physically challenged.
Another lesson to be gleaned from these unfortunate stories is in leash handling technique. When we have tension in the leash we cause our dogs to drive into the leash. In other words, pulling causes pulling. It is largely a self-created problem. Great slack leash technique and timing skills will help overcome this issue.
Moreover, when holding a leash it is advisable to have an escape plan. In Story #2 the leash had been held by his arm rather than his hand. I recommend holding a leash with the thumb as an anchor (see below). However, I have heard of people breaking thumbs with this technique. So, for those with powerful dogs and brittle bones, I would not recommend the thumb technique, but instead using an entire hand to hold the leash by the handle. That way if things get crazy and we lose control we can escape the leash by letting go. Of course, dropping the leash is not always safe for the dogs, but it could save our own life. Be careful out there!
To learn more about this topic and canine cognition order the book Three Dimensional Dog, A Unified Theory of Canine Behavior, and learn to see dog behavior in a new way.