A-Z of dog wellbeing: Neck

Your dog’s neck may be a ‘useful’ part of their form that allows you to tag them with a collar and provide somewhere to clip a lead on to, but a dog’s neck is a delicate piece of machinery and it’s not as tough as you think.

Chronic pulling on a dog’s neck from their collar, regardless of their size, will put undue stress on their neck vertebrae and muscles, and it also has the potential to cause a lifetime of painful disc disease, shoulder ailments or tracheal problems. If you have ever had a sore neck or back, you may understand the effect it can have throughout your whole body and chronic pain can easily make you feel a decade older.

Why dogs pull on the lead

Puppies and dogs can understandably get really excited when they are out for walks with lots of fun things going on around them that they will be keen to explore.

Dogs pull on the lead for one very simple reason, because they’ve learned that’s how they get to move forward. When your dog pulls and you take one step in the direction they want to go, that gives your dog a clear signal that pulling works, and so the cycle begins!

Vet reported problems from pulling

The neck and cervical spine is one of the most important energy channels in the body, responsible for the safe passage of information from the brain, and for unimpeded transmission of energy and fluids such as blood and lymph which are essential for wellbeing.

When a dog pulls on the collar, there is a range of potential problems seen by vets:

Muscle and cervical disc problem
If a dog is pulled back on the collar to stop them from pulling and running, or in many cases, to get them to move along if they’ve stopped to sniff something, this yanking will cause tremendous muscle tightening in the cervical neck area, which in turn results in cervical subluxations (a misalignment of the neck vertebrae) or what we would think of as whiplash.

This is one of the largest causes of disc and other neck problems in dogs. Unfortunately, most of these disc problems don’t show up until much later in life. At this point, dog owners either put their dogs on medication for pain control and muscle relaxation or resort to surgery to try to repair the damage of degenerating discs.

Throat damage
Laryngeal paralysis is dysfunction of the nerves that control the muscles and cartilage that open and close the larynx and, although it can be inherited, it is most often seen in dogs as a trauma resulting from an acute neck injury in dogs who pull on the collar or receive a jerk to the neck as a training aid (from old-school trainers who still use ‘neck pops’) or when getting to the end of their lead attached to their collar.  Even one traumatic event can cause damage, sometimes years later.

Continuous tension on the collar can cause chronic, low-grade stress to the neck area. This is why veterinarians are so adamant that dogs learn to walk with slack in the leash as severe laryngeal paralysis is a life-threatening emergency, and surgery required to permanently open the larynx to air flow.

Paw licking or chewing
Pulling on the lead often causes an abnormal sensation, like pins and needles, in the feet. Dogs may lick or chew their feet not knowing what else to do, but  this may incorrectly be diagnosed as an allergy, so it’s worth trying a harness to see if it clears up.

Ear and eye issues
When a dog pulls on its collar, it restricts blood flow to its eyes and ears. When blood flow is cut off on a regular basis, it causes swelling, and constant swelling damages a dog’s organs and appendages, which can trigger to ear and eye conditions and susceptibility to infections.

Thyroid problems
Dog breeds that pull on their leashes a lot tend to have a lot of thyroid issues. Vets speculate that thyroid problems happen when a collar pulls on a dog’s thyroid regularly and this consistent trauma can eventually lead to inflammation and bruising.

When a dog’s thyroid gets inflamed, its immune system sends white blood cells to the area to remove the inflammation. The white blood cells do get rid of the inflammation, but they eventually start to wear down the thyroid. Over a long period of time, this leads to a lot of thyroid issues resulting in low energy, weight gain, skin problems, hair loss, a tendency for ear infections and organ failure to name a few.

It’s important to speak to your vet about these symptoms if your dog is a puller. You may want to get his thyroid level measured or speak to an animal chiropractor to have their neck and back checked for any signs of injuries. If you are looking for gentle and effective treatment methods in conjunction with veterinary advice, you could consider herbal self-medication, physiotherapy, red light therapy, or massage.

Either way, a change of equipment away from the collar is recommended to help avoid any further or future issues.

How to stop your dog pulling

Firstly, I should be clear and say there are no quick fixes here – no magic wand.  No product will ‘cure’ your dog instantly, but some will help.

As a dog trainer, I strongly urge owners to learn how to teach their dogs not to pull – but this can be a long, slow process and in the training period it’s important that you feel secure in your ability to control your dog, otherwise walks become torturous and avoided.  If you’d like help from an expert then I’d highly recommend Abbey Dog Training as they have proven expertise, and offer a range of 1:1 or class-based options.

I usually recommend a fixed harness instead of a stop-pull harness, flat collar or head halter, during this training window because it distributes the possible tugs and strain throughout the whole body.  A correctly used harness will give you a small window of opportunity to reinforce good behaviour, and therefore train polite loose-lead walking.

I also highly recommend the use of a flat lead rather than an extendable one, partly because I’ve seen far too many injuries to humans and dogs from extendable leads, but also the constant tension on a dog’s harness or collar makes them more inclined to pull.

There are many types of harnesses out there, finding the best one for your dog can seem like a daunting task.  Let’s take a look at the pros and cons of each option:

Avoid this type of pain-causing harness

Stop-pull harness
Many stop-pull harnesses (including brands like Halti, Sporn and Pets at Home) work by ‘squeezing’ or ‘tightening’ – they are designed to work by actually causing discomfort and pain. Look out for ones that feature a “sliding security cord lock which prevents over-tightening”.  The point is that as the dog pulls, they tighten up under their armpits and cause sufficient discomfort that the dog avoids pulling.  They are designed to hurt, and the straps are so thin that they cut like a cheese-wire.

I consider these harnesses to be inhumane but also, they can actually make pulling even worse as the dog tries to escape the fear, discomfort or pain.

Harness with a single clip on the back (top)
The back is where all of your dogs’ pulling power is, so you are potentially providing your dog with more power to pull so a back clip can make the pulling worse, however this is are ideal if you are doing dog sports like Canicross or Bikejor with your dog where pulling is actually desired but be sure to get a harness specifically designed for the job.

Some back clip harnesses still restrict the front portion of the neck, which presses on major veins, arteries and the thyroid gland, which is what we are trying to avoid.

Harness with a clip on the chest (front)
A well-fitting fixed front-attachment harness may help to reduce pulling by putting tension on the front of the dog’s chest. Poorly fitted and adjusted however, they can affect a dog’s natural gait and hinder shoulder movement, causing discomfort and chafing even when they are walking without pulling. They may not be a good choice for dogs who engage in athletic activities.

Avoid any harness with thin, un-padded straps or a horizontal front strap that droops down significantly as straps that sag (or are fitted too low) are a major source of injuries to dogs’ forelimb tendons, due to interference with the dog’s natural gait.

Some harnesses will also have a clip on the front and using these two anchor points in tandem with a dual-clip training leash means you can ‘steer’ your dog a little so when they pull, they just circle round, right back to you.

The Perfect Fit modular harness is constructed from three pieces that are chosen individually, based on your dog’s unique measurements so it can be designed to fit your dog exactly, making it an ideal choice for all shapes and sizes, escapologists and even tripawd dogs (those who are missing a front limb) because of its modular design. It has both front and back lead attachment points and so gives you a range of usage options.

Head collar or halter
head halters can work well for some dogs (with the proper introduction), especially if they are strong as it removes some of their power when compared to a harness. It allows them to have their head (and eyes) redirected and focused on their owner for training and improved focus but some dogs hate them and will try to get them off by rolling, pawing or rubbing their faces.  Never use a long line or extendable lead on a headcollar, or jerk on the lead as it can cause whiplash.  Speak to an expert to test the correct fit and to learn how to introduce the headcollar with the best chance of success.

Fitting a harness

A well-fitting harness won’t gap, pull, chafe, or otherwise irritate the dog and will stay put with minimal movement or rotation as the dog walks. A properly fitted harness also won’t cause rolls of skin to bunch up around the dog’s neck or shoulders, which indicate that it is too tight. And when you take the harness off, you shouldn’t see indentations in the fur where the harness sat.

To ensure the fit is not too tight or too loose, you should be able to fit two fingers snugly between the harness and your dog. If the harness is for a young, growing dog, it is vital to check the fit frequently to be sure your puppy has not outgrown it.

Monitor hidden areas such as armpits and under the chest a few times a week to make sure that the harness is not causing skin irritation or bald patches from rubbing.

If your dog is an ‘unusual’ shape or barrel-chested (like English Bulldogs or Boxers) then invest in a harness where you can buy each piece (chest, belly band, back piece) separately so you can get the fit exactly correct, such as the Perfect Fit modular harness.

The greatest risk of an ill-fitting harness is the dog slipping out of it during a walk. Some dog body shapes don’t suit certain harness types and your dog able to wiggle or reverse out if it doesn’t fit properly.  Your dog should still be wearing their collar with a legal ID tag as well as their harness so they can be returned to you if they escape.