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SLIP LEADS: Are they ever an ethical option?

Updated: Mar 11, 2023



I consider myself lucky to live in rural Norfolk, UK, and have always been grateful that I’ve never witnessed a shock or prong collar in use. However, it is hugely concerning that trainers who are very local to me are posting photos and videos of dogs being exercised and worked in aversive equipment. One particularly worrying trend is the use of slip leads for reactivity classes. I find this upsetting, not only because they are using aversive equipment and handling methods, but there is clearly no understanding of emotional needs whatsoever. In these videos, I don’t see what others might see: well-behaved, quiet dogs. What I see is behaviour suppressed through punishment and flooding; I see stressed dogs who look very unhappy, and who are being physically, emotionally and psychologically damaged. From experience with my own reactive dogs, I know that what they wear is hugely important in helping them feel safe. I can only imagine the panic a frightened dog must experience when they feel the tightening of equipment on their throats or bodies when they are already scared, thus impacting their breathing and their ability to think clearly. With this type of training on the increase, we should be more vocal than ever in opposing the use of aversive training tools, and unite in promoting a kind and ethical approach in all that we do.






SAFETY AND EMERGENCY SITUATIONS


At this point I feel I have to say that, for the sake of safety and emergency use, there are a few situations in which it might be appropriate to use a slip lead. I kept one in my car for a while, having been involved in helping to search for several lost dogs. On a visit to see my parents one day, I arrived to find a loose dog running around in the road, with no collar on and no owner in sight. To keep him safe, my Mum and I herded him in through their garden gate, keeping an eye out to see if anyone was looking for him. As nobody appeared, I decided to retrieve the slip lead I had in the back of the car so that we could secure him and take him to the local veterinary clinic for scanning. Thankfully, he was microchipped, and was quickly reunited with his family.


As the guardian of two reactive dogs, I’ve dedicated a lot of time and effort to behaviour modification. Anyone in the same position will be familiar with the dreaded yell of “it’s okay, he’s friendly!”, as an off-lead dog gallops towards yours at speed, in that moment risking all that you have achieved in helping your dog learn to feel safe and enjoy their walks. Taking along a slip lead can come in handy if you are unlucky enough to fall victim to a “friendly” dog with no recall, hell-bent on pestering yours. Securing them while you wait for their human to eventually catch up with them could help to protect your dog if you have a spare pair of hands.


Another situation where it could be useful to carry one is to provide a safety back-up if your equipment were to fail while out and about.




According to the Control of Dogs Order 1992, “every dog while in a highway or in a place of public resort shall wear a collar with the name and address of the owner inscribed on the collar or on a plate or badge attached to it.” I believe that an ID tag attached to a harness is also an acceptable option now, but we have it in writing: a dog must wear their ID clearly displayed. However, it is not always safe for dogs to wear a collar, such as in the case of some working dogs, who need to be “naked” to prevent them from getting caught up in undergrowth. For these dogs, who are highly trained on and off the lead, a slip lead is often used to temporarily secure them.


My dogs very rarely spend the night at boarding kennels. When we go on our summer holidays, they come along with us. However, sometimes there are occasions when it can’t be avoided and they have to stay in kennels. In Trigger’s first home, he was tethered in the garden for much of the time and, consequently, was very collar-shy when he came to live with us. He would bite if his collar were touched, held, or he was restrained in any way. It took me a very long time to work on this with him and reach the point where he was happy to have a lead clipped on and unclipped, and to have his collar taken off and replaced. Although he is perfectly happy for me to do this now, he still won’t tolerate it from others, which presents a problem for the kennel staff. In order to keep themselves safe, they use a slip lead to move him between the kennel and exercise area. I would really prefer that they didn’t have to resort to this, but it enables the staff to manage him safely, and it also avoids any unnecessary stress for Trigger.





One of my earliest photos of Trigger, who has taught me a huge amount, mainly patience!




Having outlined a few of the ways that a slip lead can be used when there is no safer option, let’s look into the scenario of using one as a training tool.


Following a study carried out by Nottingham Trent University, there is scientific evidence which demonstrates that attaching a lead to even a padded or wide fitting collar poses a risk of injury to the delicate structures found in the dog’s neck, including the thyroid gland, mandibular gland, trachea, oesophagus, lymph nodes, veins, arteries and nerves. Compression and restriction of the neck area can even cause eye problems because of intraocular pressure. If you then consider what the impact might be on the neck of a reactive dog who might pull, twist, spin, or lunge, the risk of damage to the neck increases further.





You can read more about the Nottingham Trent University study here:


A common misconception is that the dog’s neck is tougher than our own, with a thicker layer of skin, but it is, in fact, much thinner, and far more sensitive than the human neck; it needs to be protected. When you then add into the equation the impact of a slip lead also tightening, often made quite slimline, the potential for damage increases further.


I was horrified the other day to be told by my neighbours that the breeder of the eight-week-old golden retriever pup they had just brought home advised them that under no circumstances should they put him in a harness, but always use a slip lead. The potential for damage to a growing puppy does not bear thinking about. Even when used with care, it is impossible to manage the environment at all times to prevent the possibility of the lead tightening, and the science tells us that there is risk from even a wide collar. Is it really worth it?





There has been a lot of recent discussion on social media surrounding the topic of slip leads, and I have to say that I have been very disappointed with some of the comments and viewpoints put forward. Bearing in mind the recent increase in the number of aversive tools in use by trainers, on both their own dogs and on those of their clients, I have felt let down when seeing trainers from the force free community openly using and defending slip lead use. Working in education with young people, I find the “do as I say, not as I do” stance is simply not acceptable; in a teaching and caring profession, I’m expected to lead by example and to be fair in my approach. Any rules and guidance in place serve the purpose of keeping everyone safe; it is not for individuals to pick and choose which they will abide by.


For those professionals who say “it’s okay for my dogs, but not for yours,” I’m afraid this just doesn’t cut it. Even if there is a stop on the lead to prevent it from tightening and performing its intended use, what the general public see is a well-behaved dog in a slip lead, a tool which is designed to function by causing discomfort, hence the reason it is classified as an aversive in the first place. We cannot expect those who witness well-trained dogs on a slip lead to know that a lot of work and effort has been dedicated to achieve what they are seeing- there are far too many who fall foul of the allure of the quick fix, and will believe that if professionals are using them, then it must be okay. The fact that they may be more convenient at times is neither here nor there; our convenience should not be taking precedence over flying the flag for force free training equipment and maintaining the highest ethical standards possible. We cannot leave ourselves open to accusations from those who choose to use equipment aversively of not practising what we preach.




After some consideration, I would like to add some further context to this post. In writing this, my aim was to highlight the increase in use of slip leads amongst trainers who intentionally use them aversively, and to point out the potential for damage, bearing in mind that my focus is fearful, anxious and reactive dogs.

Lately, there has been a lot of anger within the industry due to a certain influential figure in the R+ world being accused of not taking a balanced trainer to task during an interview over his use of aversives, whilst giving him a platform to voice his views. An agreement was reached between the two trainers that, in certain situations, the use of aversives may not only be an option, but could be the only way to save a dog. This has caused a lot of upset, and coincides with a few well-known R+ trainers openly advertising their use of slip leads, at a time when things are already fraught. I believe that the only way to bring about a complete ban on the use of aversives is to demonstrate that there is no place for them, and in order to achieve this, we need to be a united front.

From an ethics point of view, most professional bodies have a very clear stance on slip leads, and specify that they should only be used by their members in certain situations. To provide an example, here are a few sections from PACT's code of conduct:


"Professional Association of Canine Trainers (PACT) Code of Conduct


The Professional Association of Canine Trainers (PACT) code sets out to establish and maintain the minimum standards for conduct with which members are required to comply with. Members (PACT-KSAs) must abide by this code and are required to sign a Code of Conduct statement in acceptance of the rules defined in the code. Members (PACT-KSAs) must comply with all aspects of the Code."


"2. Ethics 2.1 • Refrain from using punitive techniques or any article listed in Appendix 1. • Any training method and/or equipment recommended, promoted, used or sold by members will be consistent with the principles of positive and force-free training."


"Appendix 1 The use of the following articles and methods/techniques is strictly prohibited by the PACT: • Prong or spike collars • Hanging collars • Slip leads or check /choke chains or half-check/choke chains (NB there are specific circumstances we will permit the use of slip leads where they are specified - for example in a working environment or ringcraft or for safety when transporting rescue dogs. However, the lead must be loose at all times, the dog must be trained using +R without this equipment and the lead must have a blocker to prevent it from tightening further than a fixed collar would. This exception does not apply to any training situations, only where it is specified by competition rules.)"


I hope that this further context helps to explain my point of view a little better, and why I have questioned the ethical use and promotion of slip leads amongst professionals.



Why not check out my blog on the science behind the best choices for walkies wear: https://www.trailiepawsforthought.com/post/walkies-wear-what-the-science-says


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2 Comments


Slip leads have their place depending on so many factors - breed, training, handler ability etc - we have a trailie and also working cockers - I wouldn’t dream of using a slip lead on the trailhound however don’t hesitate to use them on my Cockers who don’t pull - it’s surely down to common sense which sadly is anything but common now but don’t tar all slip leads with the same brush - it’s like anything the hands they are used in makes the difference of how harsh they are!

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Emily Savage
Emily Savage
Jan 30, 2023
Replying to

Hi Amy. The aim of my post was to highlight the increase in use of slip leads amongst trainers who intentionally use them aversively, and to point out the potential for damage, bearing in mind that my focus is fearful, anxious and reactive dogs.


Lately, there has been a lot of unrest and anger within the industry due to a certain influential figure in the R+ world being accused of not taking a balanced trainer to task during an interview over their use of aversives, whilst giving them a platform to voice their views. This has caused a lot of upset, and coincides with a few well-known R+ trainers openly advertising their use of slip leads, at a time when…


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