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The Best Gear for Hiking with a Reactive Dog: Safe and Secure Leashes, Harnesses, Collars, and More

A couple of weeks ago, I started a “Living an Active Life with a Reactive Dog” series here on Pawsitively Intrepid. As a result, many of you may already know that my dog Glia is reactive. This is the dog who inspired and helped develop my love for hiking, so when she began developing reactive behaviors (barking, growling, lunging) towards other dogs later in life, I knew I couldn’t simply stop hiking with her.

As a result, we started some behavior modification/positive reinforcement training, chose less busy trails to hike, and upgraded Glia’s hiking gear.

Writing about hiking with a reactive dog could result in a book’s worth of information, so stay tuned for more blog posts focused on helping reactive dogs live active lives. The goal of this particular post is to discuss gear that can help keep your dog secure and that has made a difference for us when we are out hiking.

If you are interested in a basic overview of reactive dog behaviors and how to manage them, head over to our first post in this series “Living an Active Life with a Reactive Dog: The Basics.”

Best Gear for Hiking with a Reactive Dog

There is some gear that works great for any dog regardless of temperament. What water bowl you carry or which boots your dog wears is not impacted by his temperament. However, there are some items that can greatly impact how secure your dog is on a hike and how easily you can respond to an episode of reactivity.

The four pieces of gear that can make the biggest difference for your reactive dog are the leash, collar/ harness, possibly a muzzle, and your treat pouch.

Please be aware that this post contains affiliate links. As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases.

The Best Leash for a Reactive Dog

The best leash for hiking with a reactive dog is a solid leash, strong enough to restrain your dog, with a secure clip attachment to the collar/harness. I recommend not having a leash longer than 6 feet in length for a reactive dog (at least not until you have done a lot of behavior modification to help your dog reduce/manage their reactivity).

An example of this type of leash would be Ruffwear’s Front Range leash pictured below. Price is only accurate as of 3/4/2020.

$19.95 on Amazon.com

To be honest, most of our 4-6 foot nylon leashes are nothing special. They are just budget leashes we have picked up at pet stores or from amazon. And these standard leashes work just fine for an everyday hike on a crowded trail for a 40-lb dog. But you may have to pay extra attention to the strength of your leash if your dog is larger.

While we use standard nylon leashes from day to day, if we are going to spend an overnight on the trail, are hiking longer distances, or I have a reason I want my hands free for more of the hike, we use a hands-free leash.

Why choose a hands-free leash?

A short hands-free leash has a lot of advantages for those hiking with a reactive dog. Having a leash attached to your waist significantly limits the chances of you dropping the leash while picking up dog waste or taking photographs. It also keeps your hands free more often to dispense treats.

When we took a 3-month road trip to visit several of the United State’s National Parks 2 years ago, our TuffMutt Hands-Free Leash was my second favorite piece of gear that I packed for Glia. Right behind her harness, which will be discussed below.

Glia is sporting her TuffMutt leash attached to her Ruffwear Web Master Harness in this photo taken at the Grand Canyon.

I still often hold a hands-free leash in my hands, especially when passing other dogs. But I love being able to take pictures with my cell-phone without worrying about dropping the leash.

The TuffMutt leash does have a bungee, shock-absorbing part of the leash, so it may not be right for every reactive dog. Sometimes that bungee part can encourage more pulling. It can also make it harder to keep the leash short. But the TuffMutt leash has a handle near the dog which eliminated the bungee stretch when I held the handle close to Glia. For smaller dogs, this second handle might not be as ergonomic, but it works well for us.

We have a full review post of the TuffMutt Hands Free Leash in our gear reviews section.

We also recently purchased the Ruffwear Flat Out Leash, which does not have the bungee and it has been holding up well so far. We haven’t used it much yet this winter, as the trails have been quiet and I have hand Glia on a longer leash. But it will likely see more use as the trails get busier again this spring.

*Update from 2021: Zouga Dog Gear launched dog leashes tested to withstand 500 lbs of force and with an auto-locking carabiner. Leashes don’t get much more secure than this! Looking for a new dog leash? Read our review of Zouga Dog Gear leashes before you purchase your next leash.

A note about retractable leashes

People have very strong feelings about retractable leashes, with many trainers and veterinary staff strongly against the use of these leashes. Whatever your personal feelings about retractable leashes, they are NOT a good starting leash for reactive dogs.

The longer your leash, the more space your dog has to react. Please start training with a leash no longer than 4-6 feet. Once you and your dog have good skills to limit reactivity, you can decide if a longer leash is an option for you and your dog.

You may see a retractable leash in some of my photos, but please be aware that I am very selective about when I use the retractable leash. The retractable leash only works on minimally populated trails and after training a solid recall. Glia will never be able to hike off-leash, as I will never fully trust her not to react negatively to an approaching dog. But a retractable leash still gives her some freedom on the trail. This leash is really just a safety mechanism in case her recall fails.

A retractable leash is NOT a replacement for a good recall and retractable leashes should NOT be used on dogs that do not have good basic obedience skills. These leashes can be dangerous if used inappropriately. And retractable leashes have no place on crowded trails.

What Should You Attach the Leash To?

There are several items that dogs can wear that offer a secure place to attach a leash. Most dog guardians will choose from 3 main categories: collars, harnesses, or head collars/halters. Some may use a combination of these items.

For Glia, when we are out on a hike, we attach the leash to a secure harness. But Glia does also wear a martingale collar during hikes. Her collar has her identification tags and also provides another “handle” to hold if needed. On busy or more urban hiking trails, we may also add a head halter. Each of these three options is discussed in more detail below.

The Best Harness for a Reactive Dog

Regardless of which brand you choose, I highly recommend a full-body style harness for a reactive dog. My biggest fear with reactive dogs is that during an episode of reactivity, the dog gets loose. Since these dogs are in a state of over-arousal, they typically don’t think logically when reacting.

Some dogs may go on the offense and become aggressive towards other dogs or people, some may chase prey (like squirrels, rabbits, deer, or even worse, bear or large animals), and others may retreat and run away. No matter what your dog chooses to do, chances are that if your dog is in a state of reactivity, they are not able to listen to commands in this state of over-arousal.

An over-aroused dog that is not calm enough to listen to their handler can create dangerous situations for the dog and those around the dog.

Glia has hiked in several harnesses over the years, but the only harnesses that I have really felt that she couldn’t back out of are full-body style harnesses.

What is a full-body harness?

Fully-body harnesses are harnesses that have an extra strap around the belly/waist that a traditional harness does not have. Examples of full-body harnesses include the Ruffwear Web Master Harness, Ruffwear Flagline Harness, and custom-made Groundbird Gear Harness.

Glia has all three of the harnesses listed above. If I had to choose just one, from a security standpoint, the Ruffwear Web Master is the most secure harness on Glia. The belly strap is not attached to the paneling on the chest, so it can be adjusted further back along Glia’s waist. You can see the positioning of the belly strap well in the photo below.

Glia in Cuyahoga Valley National Park.

Although the Web Master is the most secure, she has never come close to slipping out of the other two either. So if you are interested in the Flagline Harness and want to read more about how the Web Master Harness differs from the Flagline Harness, head over to our comparison post. This post is designed to help you figure out which harness is right for your dog.

The Groundbird Gear harness is excellent also. If you are in the market for a high-end, custom harness from a great small American business, head over to Groundbird Gear’s website.

The picture below features Glia in her Groundbird Gear harness.

I do want to note that one disadvantage to a harness is that your leash is attached further back on your dog’s body. Some dogs can really lean into a harness, pulling and pivoting away from you when they are reactive. If your dog is really strong and you are not able to redirect their attention from a trigger, you may want to have a leash attached to your dog’s collar or head collar. As we will discuss below, a head collar helps turn your dog’s head (and hopefully attention) back to you.

The Best Collar for a Reactive Dog

There was a time when I walked Glia in the neighborhood on a traditional plastic buckle collar. Once a buckle unclipped when Glia lunged at the end of a leash. Another collar loosened up and slipped over her head. Both times I then had a loose reactive dog.

After the second incident, I swore off traditional collars and transitioned to martingale collars. And for a while, I paired the martingale collar with a harness or head halter for extra security on our walks.

What is a martingale collar?

Martingale collars, sometimes also called no-slip collars, are intended to reduce the chance of a dog slipping out of his or her collar. Glia is wearing a martingale collar in most of the pictures in this blog post. An example of a martingale collar (we have this collar in bright pink) is shown both above and below this paragraph.

As you can see above, martingale collars look similar to flat collars, but they have an extra loop of fabric with a D-ring attached. The leash is attached to this D-ring and when tension is placed on the leash, the extra loop tightens the collar by pulling the larger loop tighter.

Properly adjusted, martingale collars should NOT choke your dog. They are adjustable and should be adjusted to fit snuggly when tightened, but not to choke the dog.

This tightening method allows the collar to fit loosely and comfortably, but to tighten when a dog pulls on a leash. This is especially helpful when dogs with a smaller skull size pull backward. The tightening of the collar limits the chance of the collar slipping right over your dog’s head.

Additionally, by not having a buckle, it limits the chance of buckle failure.

The Best Head Collar for a Reactive Dog

Another piece of gear that I used frequently for Glia during early training walks, especially on busy neighborhood sidewalks, is a head halter. There are two main brands of head halters for dogs: the Gentle Leader and the Halti.

In the following image, the Gentle Leader is on the left and the Halti is on the right.

Both of these head collars are intended to help give you a better ability to direct your dog’s head. As with any species, where the eyes and the head go, the body will follow. These headcollars make it easier to turn your dog’s attention back to you, reduce pulling, and breaking eye contact between your dog and the trigger they are reacting to.

One note about the Gentle Leader vs. the Halti. As you can see above, the Halti has a clip below the leash attachment point under the dog’s chin. This is intended to clip to your dog’s collar. From a reactive dog walker’s perspective, I love this added safety feature. This clip means that even if your dog slides out of the Halti, your leash and Halti are still attached to the dog’s collar.

Like any piece of dog gear, some training is required to be able to use a head collar effectively and safely. Headcollars often take a little more training to get your dog used to. Many dogs will initially paw at a head collar or try to rub them off if not trained to wear them.

If you are interested in training your dog to wear a head collar, check out the Gentle Leader training video below:

One note about head collars is that they do bend a dog’s neck if a dog really pulls into it. Headcollars may not be appropriate for dogs at risk for neck or back injuries.

The Best Muzzle for a Reactive Dog

For some reactive dogs, muzzles are a very important part of the training process. If a dog is a bite risk, muzzles are a great way to keep everyone safe.

In addition to helping to physically prevent a bite, muzzles also help reduce the stress of the dog’s handler. If you are anxious and worried about if your dog will bite, it is hard to be calm when approaching your dog’s triggers. This anxiety is often felt on the dog’s end of the leash and can reinforce the dog’s anxiety.

For example, from a dog-reactive dog’s perspective, they see a dog approaching and then feel you become anxious. The dog thinks that you are worried about the other dog too. So your dog may react even sooner to scare that other dog away by barking and growling at the end of the leash.

It is hard to not have some worry when approaching your dog’s triggers, but a muzzle can help reduce your fear that your dog will hurt another dog or person.

So if a muzzle would make you feel better, don’t hesitate to train your dog to wear one. It will help both of you in the long run. And in a properly fitted muzzle, dogs can still pant, eat, drink, smell and overall enjoy the great outdoors.

Muzzles do have some stigma attached to them, but personally, when I see muzzled dogs I am happy that those dogs have owners who understand that their dog is an increased bite risk. I typically assume that muzzled dogs have owners who care about the safety of their dog and those around their dog. And typically dogs with muzzles live in homes that are doing an amazing job of helping these dogs live full and happy lives despite the dog’s reactivity/aggression.

If you are interested in muzzle training your dog, there are some amazing resources regarding muzzle training at The Muzzle Up Project. Or start with their video series on YouTube.

The Best Treat Pouch for a Reactive Dog

Part of any behavior modification/training program for dogs includes rewarding the behavior that you are trying to encourage. For many dogs, treats are a fantastic reward, so for those hiking or walking with a reactive dog, a treat pouch is an important investment.

There isn’t one perfect treat pouch for reactive dogs. A treat pouch can be as simple as a baggy in your pocket or as fancy as a multi-pocketed waistbelt. The important thing is to have a treat pouch. Regardless of what treat pouch you use, make sure it allows you to have a reward ready and easily accessible for your dog on your walks and hikes.

I highly recommend that you have a treat pouch that comes with on every hike. Glia and I have a simple and cost-effective treat pouch, called a Treat Tote, that we purchased on Amazon. It slides over the waistband of my pants or hooks onto my coat pocket and makes sure that I can grab a handle of treats quickly and easily at any point on our hikes.

Glia does much better passing other dogs if I have treats ready and can reward her for looking away from other dogs. We can pass much stronger triggers (like dogs who are pulling and barking at her) calmly if she has something positive to focus on.

So find the treat that your dog loves the most and keep it handy for those hard-to-focus situations. We will discuss more about positive reinforcement (like treats) and how that can help calm a reactive dog in more detail at some point during this blog series. But for now, take a look at Dr. Sophia Yin’s “Learn to Earn” program.

You can live an active life with your reactive dog

Overall, I want everyone to remember that it is possible to live an active life with a reactive dog. And when it comes to your dog’s gear, safe and secure hiking gear will help reduce your anxiety and set you and your dog up for a safe hike.

So find a good, strong leash with a secure attachment point. And make sure that your leash isn’t too long. You can work with your dog best when he or she is next to you.

Attach that leash to a secure harness, collar, or head collar. If your dog is highly reactive and strong, attaching a waist leash to a harness and a second hand-held leash to a head collar can make sure your dog is secure, but that you can still communicate down the leash to your dog.

If your dog is a bite risk, don’t be afraid to muzzle train your dog. A muzzle can be a great training aid.

And finally, don’t forget your treats. Positive reinforcement of calm behavior is key to helping your dog reduce his or her reactivity.

Are any readers out there hiking with a reactive dog? Do you have any gear that has made a difference on your hikes? We would love to hear your recommendations in the comments below.

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