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?
This 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.
So 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.