Why use a dog lead?
A dog lead is essential during recovery from any operation on the joints, bones or spine. This is the case even if your dog is more used to being let outdoors off-lead.
Until your dog is all healed up, you will need some way to prevent him or her from rushing about. You may have been asked to restrict your dog’s exercise to a few minutes of lead-walking at a time, perhaps just enough to act as toilet-breaks to start with.
The main purpose of the lead is to make absolutely sure that your dog does not run. Even a few steps of running may cause great damage to the operated area. Many dogs will leap about if they get over-excited and can even take off and run if they see a pigeon, squirrel, or cat. So do use the lead every time you take your recovering dog outdoors, and choose one strong enough to keep your dog safe.
Above: This very strong and bouncy young Airedale was well-controlled on a harness and lead. We chose a 1in-wide lead with a very sturdy clip.
If your dog is on crate-rest, then you may have been instructed to put him or her straight onto the lead as soon as they step out of the recovery crate. This would be to prevent your dog from dashing across the room or leaping onto the sofa, etc. Walking, whether indoors or out, should initially be very slow.
Which type of lead is best?
In most cases, the best and safest system during recovery is a fixed-length lead clipped to the top of a good walking harness. This is because it gives you close control over your dog without pulling on his or her neck.
Following spinal surgery, a harness and clip-on lead are essential. This is because the neck is part of the spine, and pulling on the neck via neck leads, collars and slip-leads must be avoided for safety reasons.
A fixed-length single or double lead clipped to the top of a good harness is also the best option following limb surgery. Firstly, you can slow your dog down by checking back on this type of lead without yanking on the dog’s neck. Secondly, this system helps to spread the dog’s body-weight more evenly between all four limbs. Thirdly, a lead clipped to the harness is positioned closer to your dog’s centre of gravity than is a neck lead, collar or slip lead. If your dog is feeling unsettled, restless or sore, or is struggling to balance, then something tightening around their neck will in some cases cause them to panic. Using a fixed-length lead attached to a harness helps the dog to balance more calmly.
Choose a lead that feels comfortable in your hands. While walking your recovering dog, you will need to use your free hand to “check back” now and again on the lead. Most leather or chunky nylon leads are fine for this purpose. A chain lead is not recommended, as it is very difficult to check back on this with good control. To make the experience of caring for your recovering dog more pleasant for yourself, it can even be worth spending a little extra on a lead that feels particularly comfortable in the hand, such as a fleece-lined lead or one made of Softex.
Above: Use your free hand to “check back” now and again on the lead. This dog had recovered from cruciate disease months before and was by this stage safe to be walked at any pace.
Above: A lead attached to a neck collar. Whether or not your dog has a harness, a lead is essential during recovery to prevent the dog from rushing off or moving too fast.
A double-ended lead
A double-ended lead has a clip at either end. During recovery, these two clips can each be attached to separate points on the harness. If used correctly, this lead system discourages leaning and helps the recovering dog to balance better over all four limbs. A double-ended lead is also useful if your dog now and again comes to a standstill and needs to be coaxed forward when walking.
The main clip attaches to the top of the harness, with the other clip attaching to the ring at the front of the harness. When walking your dog on a double-ended lead, you will have one section of the lead in each hand, and you will need to keep a position level with your dog’s shoulder. When used well, this system gives that bit more control than the single lead and is therefore ideal for recovering dogs.
Some dog owners enjoy using the double-ended lead system,while others find it over-complicated. For advice on how to use the double-ended lead as part of a recovery program, e.g. for cruciate ligament disease or for spinal disease such as IVDD, you are welcome to contact me.
Above: Saffy the standard schnauzer is going through a non-surgical program of recovery for cruciate ligament disease. Here Sophie is doing a great job of helping Saffy with her exercises. She is using a 2m long, 1in wide double-ended Softex lead. The double-ended lead offers precise control for changes of speed and direction. Saffy is about 4 weeks into her recovery program and is doing very well.
Above: Archie the Scottish terrier was recovering from cruciate disease in both knees (stifle joints), one worse affected than the other. The harness and double-ended lead helped to spread his body weight more evenly so as to keep the muscles strong on both sides of his body.
Leads that are best avoided during recovery
The retractable lead
The retractable (extendable) lead is a nylon cord extending out from a large plastic handle. To slow the dog down, the handler sets the cord to a fixed length and pulls backward on the plastic handle. It is not possible to put a free hand onto this type of lead to “check back” on it. The nylon cord is thin and can cut or burn you if you try to grasp it, especially if the dog darts forward at the same time. There is no easy way to slow your dog’s pace using a retractable lead. The plastic handle is large and cumbersome, and it is easy to end up in a poorly-controlled tugging match against the dog once this lead is locked to a set length.
If you want to have your dog on a long lead at times, then it is best to buy a long (e.g. 2.5-3.5m) fixed-length lead. For those occasions when you need to shorten the lead, then you can simply bunch its unused length up into your hand. Some double-ended leads can also be used as a variable-length single lead. You achieve this by attaching the second clip onto one of several rings on the lead.
Above: Bella the spaniel tended to pull forward when on a retractable lead. Having already had several operations, she continued to go repeatedly lame on one leg and then another. Bella eventually did much better on a fixed-length lead which encouraged her to spread her body-weight more evenly.
The slip lead
Often made of soft rope or nylon, a slip lead has a loop that goes around the dog’s neck. Pulling on the lead will tighten the loop. If positioned correctly, then the loop should loosen as soon as the owner or dog stop pulling. As with a choke chain, incorrect use will cause the dog a lot of discomfort.
In skilled hands, the one advantage of the slip lead is that it can be put on and removed quickly as the dog enters and leaves a recovery crate.However, when walking needs to be kept ultra-slow and balanced during recovery, this lead does not offer fine enough control without pulling on the dog’s neck. What is more, if your dog either accidentally loses balance or is having trouble walking on their operated leg, then they will have to go through the unpleasant experience of the slip lead tightening around their neck. Slip leads are therefore generally best avoided, at least during the early stages of recovery.
A lead attached to a head-collar
If either dog or owner pull against a head-collar then, rather than slowing the dog’s body directly, the dog’s head tends to be pulled backwards or to one side first. This pull on the neck can be quite sudden in some cases, e.g. if the dog tries to chase a cat. Neck strains or other injury can result.
“My dog will pull me over if I use a harness and lead”
Safety is essential for both you and your dog. If you have had a previous bad experience of your dog dragging you or pulling you over, then you need to be sure that the lead system is safe for you both. I often come across owners who only feel confident when walking their dog on a head-collar or choke chain. Perhaps the dog has grown bigger and more willful than the owner ever expected.
For a dog recovering from surgery in this situation, I generally recommend trying a lead attached to a comfortable harness initially in an enclosed space (e.g. in the garden). Some dogs surprise the owner by pulling less once fitted with a harness. In a few cases, pain and discomfort may make the dog pull even more strongly when they are wearing a neck collar, head-collar, or slip lead.
If there is still an ongoing concern about safety, then a further option is to attach a double-ended lead with one end clipped to the top of the harness, and the other end to the dog’s collar or head-collar. The owner walks next to the dog with one hand on each section of the lead. The harness section of the lead is used to slow the dog down. The end attaching to the dog’s head or neck is usually left fairly loose but is there for back-up just in case the dog tries to chase something.
Above: This very strong young Labrador is being walked safely on a double-ended lead. One end of this lead is attached to the front ring of his harness to give a little extra control. In preventing the dog from running off, the most important part of the lead is the section that clips to the top of the harness.
Above: Harry had to be kept on the lead for a few months because of a spinal disc problem. However, he used to pull uncontrollably when on a collar and lead. His owner found him much easier to control once she switched to using a 1 inch-wide Softex lead clipped to the top of a harness, as shown below. This is actually a double-ended lead, but used here as a simple single lead. For most dogs of this size, a 3/4 inch-wide lead is sufficient. Harry’s owner tried both and found that the thicker lead gave her more control.
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