Choke collars, prong collars or flat collars are harmful training tools

prong collar (pinch collar)Since dogs aren’t allowed to walk around the world freely, our canines are required to wear some kind of equipment that we can hook the leash to. For many guardians, taking a walk with their dog is often quite challenging due to this very unnatural demand. Without proper training, dogs are likely to pull their guardian around during the entire walk. With smaller dogs, pulling is somewhat manageable since our weight and strength far exceeds their own, although even small dogs can sometimes pull surprisingly hard! With medium to large dogs, some guardians give up on walking them altogether. After all, why subject our self to such a stressful experience? As intelligent and creative creatures as we are, over millenniums of living with dogs, we’ve come up with an assortment of devices intended to stop the pulling and gain more control. From regular flat collars, to choke collars, prong collars, head halters and harnesses, we now have many choices. But these choices are not all equal in their efficiency or on their effect on the dog.

When I first started training dogs, some 30 years ago, choke or prong collars were the only way we had to manage dogs and train them to walk on leash without pulling. Today, many guardians and dog professionals still rely on these devices to control their dog. Their use however has now become the subject of much controversy between their advocates and those who see them as instruments of torture that should simply be banned from the market. Many consider that, when applied according to certain guidelines, they are acceptable and essential training tools for good compliance. Let’s not forget however that far from benign, these devices are designed to punish by choking or hurting the dog. The principle is quite simple in theory, not so much in practice though. Whenever the dog gets out of position, the handler promptly delivers a leash jerk, also referred to as a leash pop or leash correction: a sharp tightening followed by an immediate release of the collar. Over many repetitions and trial and error, the dog learns how to avoid the correction and where to walk to stay comfortable.

Choke collars, more than any other tools, require that the handler develop strong technique or they won’t provide more control than a flat collar. Most of the time, beginner users will practice on their dog until they can get the right amount of speed and strength to get the dog’s attention. But even with experience and perfect know-how, these devices present serious behavior and health consequences to the dog that should not be ignored. Let’s take a moment to think about what these collars are designed to do to the dog: they tighten around their neck, they constrict their airway and compress they jugular vein. They are called choke chains after all for a reason. Is this really what we intend to do to our canine companion?

choke chainThis should not come to any surprise: jerking and pulling on the leash can result in injuries to the dog’s neck and throat. A study of 424 dogs seen by chiropractors revealed that 91% of them who had neck injuries were pullers or had experienced jerking on the leash by the guardian (Hallgren, 1991). Everything the body needs has to go through the dog’s neck and cervical spine from the nerves that control the internal organs to the thyroid glands that regulate the dog’s metabolism. According to Dr. Dobias, if you restrict the flow of energy in the dog’s neck, you could end up with all sorts of problems ‘including lameness, skin issues, allergies, lung and heart problems, digestive issues, ear and eye conditions, thyroid gland dysfunctions to name a few’ (Blog, by Dr. Peter Dobias). Compression on the jugular vein from any device can lead to vascular engorgement in the eye, which could lead to problems in dogs with weak or thin corneas, glaucoma or any condition that increased intraocular pressure can harm (Pauli & al., 2006). Reports today are showing that it’s not just the choke chains that cause physical damage. Constant pressure on the dog’s neck and jerking on the leash, even with a simple flat collar can cause serious and even fatal injuries.

So how about prong collars (also referred to as pinch collars)? This type of device works with the same principle as the choke chain, but due to its design, prong collars do not require as much strength to be effective and the force is spread out across all of its prongs. So in many ways, the prong collar doesn’t produce as much pressure on the dog’s neck than the choke chain, or even the flat collar. For the beginner handler, they can provide a sense of immediate control as the dog will self-correct. In other words, when the dog pulls, it hurts! Even without the need for the handler to jerk the leash. These devices still offer better results with a quick, although lighter leash correction and release than choke chains. Otherwise the dog is more likely to get desensitized to the feeling on their neck. Prong collars also present a list of problems. Even if they don’t require as much jerking to be effective, they still rely on the restriction of the dog’s neck. Again, choking, in any way, can result in soft tissue damage, eye problems, tracheal/esophageal problems and neurological problems that can sometimes lead to death. Not to mention potential skin injuries from the prongs themselves.

dog pulling on leashSo are collars of any sort acceptable restraining tools? We’ve seen how harmful these devices can be from a physical perspective alone. Their use however, also has potential consequences on our dog’s behavior. While our focus is on applying correction for pulling, getting out of position, lunging or barking at another dog, we never took the time to teach the dog to behave differently. It would be like yelling at a young child anytime she sticks her hands in her applesauce, but never taking the time to teach her the use of a spoon. She’ll eventually learn through trial and error, but in the process, with repeated experience of being yelled at, will she still enjoy eating applesauce? In the same way, with constant jerking, choking, or pain, what is the dog learning along with not pulling on the leash? We can sometimes get so goal oriented that we forget that there is much more to the experience than just what happens to the leash, and just because something works, doesn’t mean that it’s the best way to get the result we’re looking for. The dog may see a person and pull to investigate, triggering an immediate correction. The resulting memory will be that of an unpleasant experience in the presence of a stranger. With repetition, this may generate anxiety around people with a chance that the dog will, over time, develop reactivity. Before the dog finally learns to avoid the unpleasant feeling, there may be hundreds, if not thousands of leash corrections. Confident dogs are calm, comfortable, curious, engaged and happy. What state of mind is a dog likely to develop while constantly corrected this way?

There are many other devices on the market today that allow for safer, effective and more humane alternatives. Harnesses with front attachments not only prevent the potential effects of the pressure on the dog’s neck, they also provide better control. When the dog pulls ahead, the leash will pull him/her sideways, preventing the dog from putting all his/her strength forward and facilitating the redirection of the dog towards you. Head halters, when used correctly, also offer an immediate sense of control. Their downside however is that preliminary training is needed before you can use such a device. It’s also important to avoid using a head halter with a long leash or a retractable leash to avoid neck injuries from the dog darting after a squirrel and suddenly hitting the end of the leash. Here again, jerking the dog with a head halter is not an acceptable use of the device and can result in problems too. No matter what we use, we need to take the time to teach the dog without force or punishment.

As long as we are looking for shortcuts to proper training, both the dog and the guardian will likely suffer long term consequences from a poor choice of training tools, a poor use of these tools and the negative side effects from their aversive properties. We have unfortunately become so accustomed to seeing choke chains or prong collars on dogs that it’s become difficult for many to realize the risk they can present for our beloved companion. As long as these devices are promoted by TV personalities, professional dog trainers, store salespeople, well intended neighbors and friends, they will continue to be accepted as just another training tool. It’s then up to us to take the time to educate ourselves, to stay informed of new data and open and willing to adjust. It’s also up to us to refuse following advice, even from those who claim to be specialists, when the methods promoted involve, physical/emotional discomfort or pain to the animal. In the end, what risks we are willing to take with our canine companion?

Jennifer Cattet Ph.D.

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Jennifer Cattet Ph.D. has been working with dogs for over 30 years, as an ethologist with the University of Geneva (Switzerland), a trainer and a behaviorist (in both Europe and the US). As Director of Training for a service dog organization in the U.S, she supervised and taught offenders in the training of service dogs. Today she's the owner of Medical Mutts (MedicalMutts.com), a company dedicated in the training of rescue dogs as service dogs for conditions such as diabetes, seizures, PTSD, autism, etc. She's also part of a research team working on understanding the ability of dogs to detect changes in blood glucose levels through scent. Jennifer also works with Smart Animal Training System on the promotion of reward based training and the development of technology to support it (SmartAnimalTraining.com).

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Posted in Dog behavior, Dog training, Dog/human relationship, Misc, Training tools
14 comments on “Choke collars, prong collars or flat collars are harmful training tools
  1. k2k9dogs says:

    I use the Easy-Walk harness — it hooks in front of the dog’s chest. No more pulling! It’s like a miracle!

  2. William Dotson says:

    The state of dog training has gone down hill at the same rate that the “all positive” has risen! You claim a PhD, in my world that means that you should be a scientist. But you reference BLOGS! Where are the scientific, double blind studies? I do agree that, in the wrong hands, that any tool can be injurious. Even “click and treat” can be injurious in that with poor timing the dog can become psychologically damaged through “conflict”! However, I feel ( I get to interject my “feelings” too) that the so-called “haltees” and “gentle leaders” are also conflicting and potentially injurious, just as a choke or pinch collar. I train working dogs, i use as much positive technique as is possible! But our dogs are NOT pets and have strengths ( physical and mental) that most dogs do not have. They must understand that they have a “duty” to perform. I do not understand that so called trainers these days claim that “scientific training” is ONLY positive. There is much more. Check the literature. There will always be a right way and a wrong way, but the PETA Positives are not the “correct” way. You’l probably just delete this, but I have trained dogs successfully ( happy to perform, not injured, high performers) for over 40 years. The behaviorists ( especially the “British invasion) are the worse of the lot. I have known some personally. Many did not even own a dog and couldn’t train one. OK back to your already in-progress program. You won’t change, but I hope that folks like you will come to understand a properly “balanced training”. By the way, I also learned some of my training techniques in Switzerland from my mentor – Urs Ochsenbein

    • I appreciate hearing about your experience. I am a scientist and yes we could use more data. If you click on all the links however, you will see that only one of them references a blog, written by a veterinarian who really looked into the subject, the other two were actual studies (although one of them is the preliminary from the published study).

      I have trained dogs for about 30 years now and have myself worked with prong collars and choke chains for a very long time. Yes you are right, they are effective. I also train service dogs for people with medical conditions. Many are labradors. I have one right now that weights 75 lbs and is very strong, so needless to say that I too am looking for maximum performance and control.

      I would also agree with you that no one uses all positive. Taking the food away isn’t positive, even just putting a leash on a dog is a restriction of their freedom. However, over the years, we have developed methods that are both scientifically validated in their efficiency and less harmful to the dog. I believe that, as trainers, behaviorists and dog lovers, we should always choose tools, techniques or protocols that present the least harm to the animal. Choke chains and prong collars have many negative effects and cause pain and discomfort. That’s they’re job. The head halter, like anything else, may also be misused, but, when applied correctly, these devices do not hurt or strangle the dog. We cannot say the same about collars.

      I spend most of my life in Europe, right next to Geneva Switzerland, so I became a trainer in that school of thought. I’m a crossover trainer, so I’m familiar with both approaches and to your comment, I have changed, but in doing so, I have turned my back to methods that I consider outdated. Things progress all the time and even with my degrees and experience, I’m still always learning and strive to always continue to improve. The last 15 years have been rich in new findings on dog behavior and there is much more to come. These are exciting times and it’s important to keep up with this more modern perspective on animal training.

      I also understand the difficulty of challenging our own methods, especially when we have become experts in their applications. However, science today offers tools and protocols that bring better results with less constraint on the dog. Dogs can perform at very high levels and in very stressful and diverse situation without having been forced to do so. When you really start understanding how it affects the dog, from a physical and behavioral perspective, there is no question that these tools should never be used.

    • Richard says:

      I agree with you as well. I use a prong collar, and my dog is very eager to train with me. He can walk with me off leash very well. There is no damage to his skin, muscle at all.
      I want to say some assumptions in the article is not what I would agree with. First of all, I used treat, and also pop when I first use a prong collar, I did not just checked without letting the dog know what was required. The message was very clear: stay close, positive reward; stay away, pop. It is not like telling a child not to do something but never tell the him what to do. No good trainer would do such a thing.
      I made it very clear to the dog what is the right way to walk as I rewarded him when he was close by me. My dog loved to stay close to me and looked at me when we walked. Using prong is just easier, and in my opinion, make much more sense than other collars, and it is not harmful. I also trained engagement so my dog always focus on me.
      Another assumption is how it would cause more damage than other collars. Actually, if the dog pulls, the owner would pull back or jerk or whatever so there is always a reaction from the owner to the action from the dog. With a flat collar the dog is still being pulled, but since the reaction is not as effective, the pressure from the pulling would last longer on the dog, and cause more pressure which is solely focused on one single point on the neck to press down on the tissue of the dog. Checking on a flat collar is also correction, no different from checking with a choke collar as far as the application of the concept of correction is concerned.
      With a prong, the response is usually very quick, and the pressure is spread out. So, less pressure, shorter duration.
      From personally experience I see no ill result from prong and I actually feel it is more humane than buckle.
      In the animal world, mother dog would use her bite to correct the puppies. This action is very similar to the gentle pop of a prong collar. Dogs response to their mothers’ bite for many years without ill effect. It is something they understand.
      A vet is not a always a good dog trainer, the opinion of a vet is just an opinion. I have not seen any peer reviewed scientific studies that have shown these ill effects specifically only related to prong collars.
      Asking a vet about how to train a dog is not a bad idea but their opinion is not the authority. Vets are not expert in dog training–either are a lot of so called dog trainers.Asking a vet about how to train a dog is like asking your family doctor about how to pick up a girl in a bar.
      In general, those who train working dog successfully have a much better understanding of dog language in my opinion. They are people who can develop and bring out the full potential of a dog. They need to know and experience may aspects of a dog than a regular all-positive dog trainer (e.g. pet smart) can never understand.
      From personal experience, I have seen choke chain and flat collar causing more problems on a dog–although I think the cause of the problem is the poor skill of the handler.
      Correction is needed with dog training just like how teaching consequence to one’s action is needed in teaching your children. There is nothing cruel about telling your children consequence. Once a dog understands obedience is mandatory it is when he can perform under heavy distraction.
      Let me end my long wind reply with a little story. I once was asked with a very questionable tone why I used a prong collar by a trainer in pet smart. She said she could train her dog, and any dog, to do everything that I could with a prong collar without having to cause the dog any “pain.” I did not want to give her a lecture so I said let’s prove it. I asked her if she could walk her dog off leash to the coffee shop on the other side of the parking lot. I said I could do it first to show her how my dog could walk under distraction trained with my “inhumane” method and then she could show me how well her motivation method worked. Let’s not even put collar into the equation as she may feel that prong collar was an advantage so I suggested to do it completely off leash. She declined. Then I dropped the leash, walked out the door with my dog, off leash, among many ill-mannered dogs (her students), and many people, got to the other side of the parking lot, sat down, had my dog down next to my feet, and waited for her at the Starbucks. She never came.

    • EJH says:

      I REALLY disagree that the rate of dog training has gone ‘downhill’. Have you seen the numerous videos of ordinary people with ordinary dogs participating in Canine Musical Freestyle, Dog Agility, and Obedience Trials?
      I’m also pretty proud of our New South Wales Police Dogs who I KNOW are trained now “positively”
      Not all that happy thought about One US State’s Police Dogs who despite wearing Electric Shock (remote) collars seem to be shown to be out of control of their handlers.

  3. I just can’t see how halters and harnesses are any better than collars. They still result in some sort of constriction of part of the body, and cause an unnatural movement that can cause chiropractic problems. A dog that runs into any sort of device is going to have some sort of whiplash. Like you mention, the key is in using the tool correctly. Again it is the trainer who is abusive or humane, it has nothing to do with what tool they use. A trainer can use their hand in a humane or abusive manner.

  4. EJH says:

    I worry about the premisesmade in this article.

    I agree w.r.t. slip collars and prong collars. Unfortunately they tend to NOT increase ‘control’ — in my experience they actually cause the dog to pull to avoid the ‘jerk (aka ‘correction’).

    As for front attach harnesses — I have found these worse than useless. Yes they cause the dog to ‘crab’ but they do not stop pulling — they also get the lead tangled in the dog’s feet unless you have the dog beside you or behind you and help tautly.
    Not much use for letting a dog enjoy its walk.

    Head halters can help but should NEVER be used alone — I always recommend thatm used in conjunction with a flot collarr — hold the leash attached to the flat collat, and then IF the dog wals far enough ahead to move th clip from the freely-dangling down’ position, then gently turn the dogs head back towards you with the lead attached to the head halter. This means that with an inveterate ‘puller’ you can begin to teach Loose Leash Walking, using the clip hanging loosely as the cue for ‘being in th right position’.

    Back attach harnesses work well — for dogs who will tolerate them.

    But to me flat collars are the best, sfest and most efficient. The thing to remember though is to use as broad a collar as you can for that dog. This means in general that I personally buy a collar one size up, and cut it shorter for the dog in question. I far and away prefer real leather, but chip-board-leather (ie reconstitued) will do.

    The broadness of the collar means that any pull on th collar is distributed even over the neck as the dog pulls against it. Though in general I’ve found dogs very unlikely to pull when wearing them. The broadness of the collar, and it being leather also means that you can slip your hand in under the collar to help calm the dog in stressful situations. (Well I have even once used such a collar to pull a dog out of a pool in which it was drowning!! And no harm done other than the unexpected bath 🙂

    Cheers 🙂

  5. MAH says:

    All of these are tools and for safety sake, I can argue the use of several front harnesses and head halters) though I no longer will use prong or choke collars. The real key is to teach your dog to walk politiely and not to pull. Traditional or rear attachment harness are designed to teach a dog to pull, (carting, sleds, tracking, etc). Retractable leashes also help teach a dog to pull by keeping the pressure on the collar. I find that when we become reliant on a tool, we don’t put the work into training.

    • EJH says:

      MAH,

      I too used to arge that harnesses were designed to majke the dog pull.

      but I discivered differenty when I needed to se a harness on one of mydogs, (due to a gask injury on her neck).

      She actually walked much better — she kept the leash semi-taut, so that it didn’t leave a loop to tangle in her legs, but she definitely did not pull.

      My only real complain with harnesses of any sort, is that they ae a pain to put on your dog — a vital factor for thse of us with bad backs 🙁

      Not to mention that they are not ‘daily wear’ and so are no use for attching the compulsory identification tags, or contact detail shoulld your dog soomehow get lost.

  6. mj moss says:

    — read their agenda.I have been a dog trainer for over 50 yeats, am a crossover from ” correction” training and will not use choke or prong collars. Halters, inc. correctly fitted front connect. are much safer for all. The real key is early ” let’s go” training, off lead and sny restraint. At 6 wks pups can eadily learn to ” hang” with in the house or fenced yard before any equipment gets in the way of learning the behavior.
    I am NOT a ” guardian” I am an owner, a critical distinction in respinsibility and rights for both me and the other species that share my life
    The AR movement is disgusting–read ttheir real agenda.

    • And articles like this divide dog owners and trainers and help to further the AR agenda. Articles should provide pros and cons to pieces of equipment and educate to the best use, not outlaw and vilify those who use certain tools. This is how the AR movement will take ALL our dogs away, by driving a wedge further into these kind of divisive topics.

    • EJH says:

      mj moss,
      Whose agenda??
      Please 🙂

  7. Nowadays led dog collars are used largely to provide training to the dogs. The collars that are displayed here will increase the level of discomfort for the dog. I prefer purchasing led glow collars from Squeaker Dogs as they have the exquisite range of dog accessory.

    • EJH says:

      I had to look up led collars — I thought it was a typo for “lead” collars 🙁

      I can see no benefit for lighted collars at all for training. Unless you choose to walk in the dark with your dog.

      For REAL training I prefer no collar and no lead. Since the Cuncil requires dog to be on lead, whrn off your own property, a broad flat collar with a reasonable length lead so the dog can set its own pace, and stop and investigate when and where it wants are best.

      When you need to walk the dog lclose to you, you can just take up the slack in the lead.

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