The Gentle Leader


As a dog mom, I am 100% convinced that my Phineas is, in the words of Mary Poppins, Practically Perfect in Every Way.

As a responsible dog owner, I know that he is more like Michael Banks than Mary Poppins: Extremely Stubborn and Suspicious. He’s likely to lash out at any dog or child who comes up to him, especially if there is someone or something to protect. When I am out walking him, he can only partly enjoy himself: part of him is always concerned that Rosie or I am in danger, and though (I believe) he enjoys his walks, I know a part of him is always on the lookout for threats.

Finn is 70 lbs and extremely strong. If he wants to pull me to attack a dog or a child, I can hold him, but it puts an astonishing amount of pressure on his neck, and my hand and arm. He also terrifies his target, and sometimes enrages them. Rosie feels his rage and whines and yelps while leaping up to nip my elbow. For a while, I started to dread walking him.

But now—cue singing angels—now that he’s used to his gentle leader, oh my gosh, everything is much nicer and less stressful and exhausting for me.

English Springer Spaniel with a purple nylon strap over his nose, panting.
With the gentle leader, his attention is focused back on me if he pulls.

Instead of a useless yank on his throat, the gentle leader actually turns his head—and his attention—back to me. In this way, if he is lunging at a dog, I can say “leave it!” When he turns away from the dog, even slightly, I reinforce this behavior with a “yes!” Sometimes I have to do this repeatedly, but his attention always comes back to me. And I don’t even have to strangle him! Once he calms down and directs his attention forward, he gets pets and more “yes!” reinforcement.

And slowly…slowly…he is improving. He doesn’t lunge at every single dog now. Some he completely ignores. Some he notices but lets go by without comment. Some dogs he feels he needs to destroy—for some reason these are usually doodle-type dogs.

For a while, my mom, who is technically Rosie’s owner, was hesitant to get a gentle leader for Rosie too. She felt that Rosie didn’t need it. But Rosie has her own triggers. She has a much higher prey drive than Finn, and she can’t resist a scampering woodland creature. This past week, we started using a gentle leader with Rosie, and it’s been a great success. She’s a little more annoyed by it at first than Finn ever was, but as soon as she gets going, she forgets about it in favor of enjoying her walk.

Rosie with her gentle leader.

I’m so happy with these gentle leaders. My walks with the pups are so much nicer! And I know it’s much safer for them, me, other dogs, children, and woodland creatures.


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