Is a Hands-free Leash The Right Tool for You and Your Service Dog?
Some service dog handler’s prefer to use a leash they don’t have to hold in their hands. Some benefits for the handler include having your hands-free to hold other objects, manipulate crutches or walker or to hold the clicker and deliver treats. But, using one may not be in the long-term best interests of your dog.
Hands-Free Leash is NOT a Training Tool
The first thing you need to understand is that a hands-free leash is not a training tool. Training tools are used to teach the dog a new behavior, then faded as quickly as possible once the dog understands and has generalized the behavior. A hands-free leash should only be used AFTER the dog has been taught to reliably walk close to the handler and keeping the leash loose.
Let’s dig into what a hands-free leash is to find out more. There are two kinds of hands-free leash: a shoulder leash that loops over one shoulder and clips on the dog’s harness on one side of the handler, and a waist leash which goes around the handler’s waist and clips on the harness. We do not recommend the use of collars for leash attachment due to the real possibility of injury to a dog’s back and neck even after the dog is trained to walk well.
Some Challenges When Using a Hands-free Leash
*Finding just the right standard length of leash for the specific dog can be tricky. If it’s left too long, the handler or dog may get tangled in it, trip on it or it gets caught under wheels (for a wheelchair). If too short, the dog has only a small space to move and small margin of error before he gets pulled by the leash. The dog then has to be hyperaware of where he is in space. This is mentally stressful especially when worn for long periods.
*Most hands-free leashes have set lengths so are not adaptable to the ideal length for you and your dog.
*Most leashes too heavy. To adjust the length, some handlers double up a part of the leash but they add unnecessary extra weight (in the case where the leash has rings to allow shortening).
As a result the dog either trend to learn to ignore pressure (pull) or become sensitized to it (hyper-aware). He also may move in and out of a safe position for them both such a crossing behind or in front of the handler.
The bungy type leashes attached to the hands-free part are heavy. A lighter thinner leash is better to communicate with your dog and help him be aware of pressure changes.
*A waist leash can be hard to twist around your body if you are wearing multiple layers. Dogs will need to move around you at some point and you may need to unclip the leash to get it back into a good position.
*Waist leashes are not suitable for people wth lower back issues as that is where the waist part of the leash rests and pulls. This is especially true for handlers with large dogs.
*Shoulder leashes are not suitable for people with shoulder or neck issues as that is where the leash rests and pulls. This is especially true for handlers with large dogs.
*If hip padding is added for handler comfort, that adds weight and is harder to rotate around your body.
handle in the middle of the leash adds weight
*The dog gets a harder jerk when you stop or change directions suddenly on a waist leash than if you are holding a leash. Your arms gives more gradual direction to your dog.
*There is a limitation to the weight of the dog attached to the hands-free leash. A large dog may drag you if you can't release the leash.
*The handler will still need to manipulate the hands-free leash in some situations. The manipulation will just be different than for a hand-held leash.
*Some leashes have a quick release. These malfunction or get released when you don't intent it to and your dog is running free when you don’t want him to be.
Hands-Free Leashes Condition Handlers To Not Pay Attention to Their Dogs Needs as They Move
The biggest challenge to using a hands-free leash is that having the leash attached to the shoulder or waist removes the more subtle communication that holding the leash in your hands allows. This usually results in the handler not paying attention to the dog or his needs as he moves along. The dog receives no subtle information about direction, speed or changes or enough time to make those changes like he would with proper leash handling. This adds stress to the dog’s daily job of helping the handler.
What Situations Can a Hands-Free Leash Be Useful?
With service dogs, there are some situations where a hands-free leash can be helpful such as hand dexterity limitations or attaching the leash to a wheelchair.
Some tips for these situations:
*Make sure you dog can move normally. If you notice a “pace” gait then your dog is likely feeling restricted. A pace gait is when the two legs on the same side move together in the same direction. Dogs will often use it when they are tired or cannot match your speed. In this case, a speed that is comfortable for you may be too slow for your dog's natural trot but too fast for their walk.
*Use a slightly longer leash, not shorter, to give the dog more freedom.
*Experiment with where you attach the leash to the dog’s equipment. Attaching the leash to the back clip of a walking harness may work better than attaching it to the front loop.
*Find a way to lift the leash when needed to prevent tangling (if the handler is able to use their hand or arm to lift it for example).
*Make sure the leash is attached to a secure attachment location on the wheelchair that is safe and prevents leash tangling. For heavy electric wheelchairs this may even be a proper bicycle attachment that attaches to the side or back of the chair.
*Specifically teach your dog how to deal with obstacles such as posts and poles when on leash.
*Stop and remove the leash from hands-free attachment in situations where the dog needs more length to move such as a wheelchair going through a doorway or loading into vehicle. This might mean attaching the leash in another location for better mobility in that situation.
*Give the dog frequent breaks from the hands-free leash. Stop and either lengthen or unlatch the leash to give the dog more space to move around to potty, sniff and be a dog.
Hands-free leashes are best used in specific situations and for short periods. Like all other behaviors, teach the dog to walk on a loose leash, add fluency to the leash walking behavior, generalize it to a variety of locations, and do maintainance training. Specific desensitization needs to be done for higher level distractions (other dogs, people, vehicles, road grates etc) that you may encounter while leashed before asking the dog to generally ignore them as he moves past them with you. Only then is it wise to add a hands-free leash to the situation.
Life Hack: Try Before You Buy
If you want to try a hands-free leash before buying one, use an old belt or the belt from a treat pouch and tie your regular leash to the belt. Or attach the leash to the waist belt via a carabiner clip. Experiment with the length before you start. Then set up some obstacles to move around (cones or chairs for example). Pay attention to how your dog does without your hands guiding the leash or taking up the slack.