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Thinking about balance

Can dogs pulling on lead hurt their neck?

04 Aug, 2016

A while ago I wrote a blog (see “Dangers of dogs pulling on lead”) about the health risks of dogs pulling on lead. In this blog, I highlighted the potential for muscle strain when a dog is pulling on a lead and off balance.

Over the weekend I attended a very interesting seminar with the speaker Els Vidts from Belgium that discussed the same topic. The key message from the seminar was that dogs pulling against a collar or receiving leash corrections from check chains, flat collars or slip collars can damage the dog’s neck in many ways.

  • Skin – A collar rubbing against the dog’s coat or skin can cause irritation and discomfort.
    Muscles and cartilage – Despite the muscles in some dogs’ necks being very powerful, their role is to cause movement not to protect internal organs. The muscles in the dogs’ neck flex, extend and rotate the head and facilitate forelimb movement. If these muscles are damaged or strained then the dog’s movement can be affected.

Further, the trachea and oesophagus are musculocartilaginous structures that extend from the back of the dogs’ mouth down the neck into the lungs and stomach. Pressure on these structure can damage them and affect respiratory and digestive systems.

  • Skeletal – Straining against a collar can damage the skeletal structure in a number of ways.

Firstly, long term, constant pressure on the neck can stretch and damage the ligaments that hold the cervical vertebrae, particularly the axis and atlas bones (C1 & C2) in alignment. If these vertebrae are misaligned, this can result in damage to the discs cushioning the vertebrae and cause bone spurs to develop, both of which can put pressure on spinal nerves.

Secondly, the hyoid apparatus or tongue bones are very small and delicate bones that play a very important role in the functioning of the dogs’ mouth. Firstly, the muscles that control tongue movement are attached to it. These muscles draw the tongue in and out of the mouth. They depress the tongue during mastication and food manipulation. Secondly, the hyoid apparatus articulates with the larynx. The larynx guards the entrance of the trachea (airway) to prevent foreign substances entering the airway. (Evans & de Lahunta 2013) If the hyoid apparatus is damaged then this can affect the digestive and respiratory systems too.

  • Endocrine system – There are a myriad of glands located throughout the dog’s neck including the important thyroid gland. Long term pressure of these glands can affect their function.
  • Circulatory system – Collars pulled tight can constrict venous blood flow (de-oxygenated blood travelling back to the heart) from the head including the brain, down the neck to the heart. The venous system has less pressure then the arterial system and therefore is more likely to be affected by a pressure on the neck. An accumulation of blood in the brain can cause the smallest blood vessels to rupture.
  • Nervous system – All neural signals from the dogs’ body must pass through the neck to reach the brain. Constriction of nerves can affect these signals as well as affecting the function of the sympathetic (flight / fright) and parasympathetic (rest / digest) nervous systems.

What are the signs of physical trauma from a collar?

  • Red and irritated skin and loss of coat from a collar rubbing on the neck.
  • Change in gait and head movement – resistance to movement in a particular direction.
  • Licking feet after a walk may be a sign of numbness (due to circulatory or nervous system damage). It could also mean your dog walked through something that caused itchiness or an allergic reaction!
  • Behaviour changes in response to pain, irritation, dizziness or frustration from pulling on the lead.
  • Lameness in forelimbs or hindlimbs
  • Coughing, wheezing or difficulty chewing and swallowing
  • Digestion problems

Are head halters and harnesses safer to use?

Training devices (such as some head halters and front connecting harnesses) that flex the dog’s neck or body in one direction while they are moving forward can damage the musculoskeletal structures of the neck and lumbar vertebrae.

Harnesses that restrict shoulder movement either with straps across the chest or over the shoulder joint alters the dog’s gait. The dog compensates for the change in gait by unevenly loading other muscles resulting in tension, discomfort and increases the risk of muscle injury.

Depending on the harness design, when a dog pulls against the harness it pulls up arounds the dog’s neck and can place similar strain on the neck as a collar.

How to walk your dog without risking injury?

The first option is to teach your dog to walk with you, without pulling on their lead and placing pressure on the neck.

Another option is to use a well fitted harness that keeps the shoulder and neck area free, even if the dog pulls. Look out for a follow up blog for harness reviews.

For more information about how canine massage can help to ease muscle tension from pulling on the lead, please contact me at

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Until next time, enjoy your dogs.


Evans, H & de Lahunta, A, 2013, Miller’s Anatomy of the Dog (4th ed), Elsevier Saunders, Missouri.