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The other day I was walking through a large pet-supply retail store (the kitties needed food, again!) when I spotted a beautiful black lab puppy. Immediately, my “squee” alert went off… this puppy was so adorable, I think I might have actually gone a little weak in the knees.
But that moment was short-lived when my gaze went straight to the metal contraption around his neck. This little puppy, who couldn’t have been more than 5 months old, was sporting a rather large prong collar.
The person attached to the other end of the leash was male, appeared to be mid-60’s, and couldn’t have looked more kindly. In fact, he reminded me of my own Grandpa. The puppy was walking very quietly, not frantically pulling or scrambling against the leash, and the entire scenario reminded me of the old analogy about using an AK-47 to kill a mosquito. It made my heart sink.
Somewhere along the way, this gentleman had obviously been told that prong collars were an effective training method for puppies. As you’ve probably already guessed from the title of this article, I happen to disagree. Do I think this man was being intentionally cruel? Absolutely not. Do I think there are several outdated training collars still available that people have been told are safe and effective for their dogs? You betcha.
I realize there are many people, including some dog trainers, who would disagree with that belief. So let’s take a look at 3 of the most common aversive training collars – choke collars, prong collars, and shock collars – and you can draw your own conclusions.
Choke collars (also called “choke chains” or “slip chains”) consist of a long metal chain with rings at either end that can be formed into a loop that slips over a dog’s head and rests high up on his neck, just behind the ears. The chain adjusts tighter when pulled and looser when released. Training with this collar involves giving a quick, sharp jerk on the leash (called a pop or correction) to get the dog to stop whatever unwanted behavior he’s doing.
The idea behind the choke collar is that once the dog knows he’ll get a strong correction when he does something undesirable, you’ll be able to give him “lighter” corrections to remind him that a stronger, more painful one will soon follow if he doesn’t comply.
Some people say that choke collars are effective because dogs don’t like the metallic sound of the collar being jerked, and this is enough to get them to behave. However, there’s no evidence to support this. If this were true, you should simply be able to play a recording of a sound a dog doesn’t like to get him to behave, instead of having to make the sound yourself – and we know that’s not going to be very effective.
What the dog actually is responding to is the sensation of increasing pressure against his neck and the feeling of discomfort or pain caused by the sharp jerk of the leash. Even if used without corrections, choke collars can still cause damage to a dog’s head, neck and spinal cord simply from him pulling against the leash and tightening the noose. Documented damage from choke collars has included:
- Injuries to the thyroid gland, trachea (windpipe), and esophagus.
- Damage to nerves in the neck and spinal cord.
- A rise in intraocular pressure (pressure inside the eyeballs) from pressure against the neck, resulting in eye injury or worsening of glaucoma.
- Neck sprain.
- Fractured neck vertebrae.
- Temporary paralysis.
- Tracheal collapse (especially in brachycephalic breeds with short noses, protruding eyes, and small tracheas, like Pugs and Bulldogs).
- Neurological damage leading to Horner’s Syndrome, a condition that can cause changes to the pupils of the eye and lameness in the front legs.
Additionally, there have been tragic cases where people have left choke collars on their unsupervised dogs, who got the collars caught on fencing or other objects. The more they struggled to get free, the tighter the collars became until the dogs ultimately strangled to death.
Prong, or “pinch” collars, are a made up of a series of chain links with blunted, open ends shaped like spikes that turn inwards against the dog’s neck. The prong collar is designed to prevent the dog from pulling on the leash by applying uncomfortable, pinching pressure at each of these pronged points as they push into his loose skin.
Prong collars function similarly to choke collars; they are placed high up on the most sensitive part of the dog’s neck, just behind the ears. However, prong collars are believed to distribute pressure somewhat more evenly around the neck than choke collars. Some prong collar advocates state that the pinching action of the collar mimics the teeth of a mother dog grabbing a puppy’s neck to make a correction. However, there is no scientific evidence to support this claim.
In addition to causing pain and discomfort while walking (which can create even more fear, anxiety, and aggression in dogs who are already reactive), prong collars can also cause the same physical damage as choke collars, especially if they are placed too low on the neck.
In dogs who are already nervous and reactive, prong collars can make behavioral situations worse. For example, if a dog is fearful of other dogs, and he encounters one coming towards him and begins pulling against the leash, the pain from the prong collar will serve to negatively reinforce his fear of the other dog. He may come to associate the pain of the collar with the presence of other dogs, making him even more fearful.
Even friendly dogs who are not reactive can get mixed signals from a prong collar. If a dog sees his playmate approaching and begins to pull on the leash, the pain he feels can increase his excitement and arousal level, causing him to bark and lunge even more.
Shock collars, also called “e-collars”, “static”, or “stimulation” collars, work by using an electric current passing through metal contact points on the collar to administer an electronic signal to your dog’s neck. This “signal” can range from a mildly uncomfortable prickling sensation to a painful shock. These collars are sold as training devices, to stop unwanted barking, or as part of pet containment (electronic fencing) systems.
The most controversial use of the shock collar is as a training device. The trainer uses a remote control to deliver a shock to the dog from a distance. Shock collars are considered inhumane by many due to the fact that they offer the greatest likelihood of abuse (trainers using shocks as punishment) and misuse (poor timing of shocks, which can be confusing to the dog).
There is no doubt that shock collars are effective – this has been readily proven. The question is, at what cost to the dog?
For decades, studies have shown that administering electric shocks to dogs (and other animals) results in a phenomenon called “learned helplessness” (as documented by Martin Seligman’s well-known study conducted in 1971). This is a state where the dog receives inescapable shocks, and after a period of time, the dog is no longer able to engage in behavior to avoid the shock. The dogs in this study simply just lay down and gave up any attempts to escape, even when they were still receiving shocks and the cage doors were wide open. Learned helplessness leads to an ongoing release of stress hormones that dramatically impact a dog’s neurophysiology and immune system. You can learn more about these studies in this article from the COAPE website.
There are also other problems with the use of shock collars:
- A shocked dog may associate painful shock with certain people or other experiences, leading to fearful or aggressive behavior.
- A U.K. study done in 2007 found big inconsistencies among shock collar manufacturers when it comes to the levels of shock being delivered. Two of the collars tested in the study actually had electrical faults, causing them to deliver the maximum shock regardless of which setting was chosen. Since there are no regulations requiring companies to comply with standardizing shock levels, this can range from being confusing to the dog to downright cruel.
- According to COAPE, an educational organization for companion animal behavior and psychology, fear conditioning such as that used by shock collar advocates is “not like any other kind of learning. It uses different neural pathways and invokes different memory systems that often have life-long, negative effects on a dog’s well-being.”
Fortunately, there are much safer and gentler alternatives to using a choke, prong, or shock collar on your dog.
Standard harnesses not only cut down on the risk of injuries to dogs who pull on the leash (while not causing dogs pain or discomfort), but there are no-pull harnesses that can actually help you train your dog not to pull at all.
There are 3 main types of harnesses used for walking dogs:
1. Back-clipping Harness
These connect to the leash on the dog’s back, at a spot between his shoulders. This takes pressure off the dog’s neck, eliminating coughing and choking. These are excellent for small dogs, or dogs who don’t tend to pull hard or lunge on the leash.
However, for dogs that tend to pull, these harnesses can actually encourage pulling by engaging the dog’s opposition reflex. In this case, a chest-led harness is a better option.
2. Chest-led Harness
These harnesses have a clip located on a strap that goes across the dog’s chest. Since a dog’s center of gravity is located in his chest, whenever he pulls, this harness will simply turn him around. He’ll soon figure out that pulling equates to not going forward – pretty boring!
Used in conjunction with positive training, dogs figure these out fairly quickly, and soon learn to stop pulling in order to get where they want to go.
3. Harnesses that connect to the back and chest
Some harnesses, such as the Positively No Pull Harness, have a clip located on both the front and the back of the harness. This provides even greater control over a leash-reactive dog who tends to lunge while pulling on the leash.
Head collars, or head halters, are similar in function to a horse’s halter. One strap of the collar fits around the dog’s neck, and the other strap forms a loop around the dog’s muzzle. The leash attaches to a ring at the bottom of the muzzle loop.
Head collars work well for large, energetic, strong dogs who jump and pull. They help control the dog by guiding his head – where the head goes, the body follows. When the dog exerts pressure, the collar pulls his head back towards the handler. You may have seen head collars sold under the names “Halti”, “Gentle Leader”, or “Snoot Loop”.
Head collars, when used correctly, are much safer than aversive training collars. According to Dr. Sophia Yin:
If this were a person, flailing on the end of a leash attached to an apparatus on his head, he’d surely have a neck injury. But anyone who has seen a dog that goes to town playing tug-o-war knows that a dog’s neck is built differently.
Because of this neck strength, few cases of injury due to head collars have been proven or medically documented (I actually haven’t seen any). Not to say injury could not happen. However, veterinary documented injuries caused or exacerbated by choke chain corrections and electronic collars are easy to find.
Here are additional tips on the safe use of head collars from the Humane Society of the U.S.:
- Make sure the head collar is fitted properly to your dog.
- NEVER use a hard jerk with the head collar.
- Fit the collar so it’s snug around your dog’s neck and high behind his ears, but loose enough around his nose so that the nose strap can slide easily down to the fleshy part of his nose.
- Never use the head collar with a retractable lead.
- Outfit your dog with the head collar only during on-leash walks with you and when you’re directly supervising him.
- Don’t allow your dog to wear the head collar around the house; he’ll have plenty of time to work at getting it off, and will eventually succeed.
- Be sure to read the information sheet that comes with the head collar.
The only catch with head collars is that you’ll need to acclimate your dog to wearing one before you begin using it, which takes some additional time. But with positive reinforcement and treats, most dogs learn to quickly associate the head collar with good things (treats and walks!) You can find detailed tips on how to safely train your dog to use a head collar on the Positively.com website.
Are Choke, Prong and Shock Collars Humane If Used Properly?
There are many people, including a few popular dog trainers, who still defend the use of choke, prong, and shock collars. These advocates maintain that, when used correctly, these devices are not painful or uncomfortable, they’re simply used to get your dog’s attention.
As for me, I’d prefer to “get my dog’s attention” in a different way. To again quote the great veterinarian and animal behaviorist Dr. Sophia Yin,
So why do I avoid the choke chain? Besides the fact that my philosophy of training is to focus on rewarding the dog’s good behaviors and removing rewards for unwanted ones until the dog forms good habits, there are many medical and safety reasons too.
So are these devices humane if used properly? I suppose the answer to that question depends on your personal definition of “humane”. Choke, prong, and shock collars work by inflicting discomfort and pain on dogs. It’s been proven that they contribute to neck, back and spinal injuries, as well as exacerbating behavioral issues such as fear and aggression because they don’t address the root of the dog’s issue.
Through aversive training methods, dogs may learn to suppress their behavior long enough to avoid the discomfort of the consequences, but it won’t truly change their behavior. That only happens with time, effort, positive reinforcement, and patience on the part of the dog parent.
With safer and more humane alternatives available, why wouldn’t we use them?
For more information on dog behavior and the use of aversive training tools like choke, prong, and shock collars, please visit these pages:
Have you ever used training harnesses or head collars with your dog? What were the pros and cons? Please share your thoughts with us in the comments below!
1 Photo Credit: The Company of Animals