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Tools of the Trade: How to Choose a Dog Collar

Choose your dog's collar carefully for the right fit.

 

I am often asked what the best training collar is for class participation or to accomplish a specific training task.

A tool is “a device or implement used to carry out a particular function”. We all know that the right tools make any job easier. In the hands of a skilled painter, a paint brush can create a priceless painting. That same brush will produce an abstract mess when in the hands of a 5 year old.

There is no single tool that works for every dog in every situation, even when trying to teach the same behavior. Some tools may make learning a new behavior easy for one dog, but create undesirable and sometimes more lasting behaviors in another.

The following is a guide to some of the more common collars along with a description of how they are used:

A collar is simply a band around the neck, which gives the owner to a place to attach a leash and/or identification tags. There are a variety of collars available:

  • Buckle Collar – A buckle collar should be the only tool needed if a dog learns how to properly walk on a loose leash. When a dog is allowed to continously pull against the collar the resulting pressure on the trachea produces a cough or gag reflex. Some recent studies suggest that ocular health in some dogs may be negatively affected if, over time, pressure is applied to the sensitive vessels that lead to the eyes.

When a dog fails to learn how to properly walk on a loose lead, owners often resort to the following choices:

  • Choke Collar (Slip Collar) – The choke collar is thought to be the very first “training collar”. Choke collars are most often chain collars that apply pressure to the trachea when tightened. The choke collar makes it uncomfortable for the dog to pull by constricting the airway. Most owners do not use it correctly, still allowing the dog to pull against it, placing the dog at risk for permanent tracheal damage. Choke collars should never be left on unsupervised, or be used to attach the dog’s tags, as accidental strangulation can occur!
  • Martingale Collar – A Martingale collar combines the band width of a buckle collar with a small amount of chain, allowing the collar to be tightened around the neck. It is most often used for sight hounds that have a larger head size and smaller neck size. Without tension on the collar it fits loosely on the neck. A Martingale collar generally does not apply the same amount of pressure as a choke collar but is used in the same manner. Never leave a martingale collar on unattended as accidental strangulation may occur!
  • Prong (Pinch Collar) –A prong or pinch collar is most often a metal collar that is designed to apply pressure and a “pinch” whenever the dog pulls, or leash pressure is applied. When fitted properly all of the prongs maintain contact with the skin. Prong collars that are too loose will not give the desired pinch sensation, therefore rendering the collar ineffective. Prong collars should never be left on a dog as wounds from the prongs can occur.
  • Electronic Stimulation Collar (Shock) and Electronic Spray Collar – Electronic collars may be owner activated with a remote device, or activated by the dog’s behavior in some cases. An unpleasant (spray of air, scent, or vibration) or painful (shock) event occurs when these collars are used to interrupt undesirable behaviors. Electronic shock collars can cause burns to the neck when left on for too long or when the level of stimulation is too high.

When considering whether a training collar is needed owners should first identify whether the dog has actually learned that there are other options that can be rewarding.

For the dog that pulls, for example, has he been taught to follow the owner’s hand forward a few steps for a treat? Has he been taught to pay attention to the owner instead of all of the distractions around him? Ask yourself this question “Is it really fair to punish a dog that has never had sufficient training to learn how we want him to walk?”

Unfortunately far too many owners reach for prong collars, choke collars, or electronic stimulation collars to punish a dog for a specific behavior. Aversive tools, which use pain or discomfort in an attempt to change a behavior, should never be used as a way to “break” a dog from a behavior.

If the aversive stimulus is not applied consistently, every time the behavior occurs, and immediately, it will not change the behavior. In most cases the behavior is only suppressed in the presence of the aversive (i.e. the dog that only walks nicely if the pinch collar is on). Without also rewarding the dog for walking nicely on a leash, the dog only learns that it has to maintain a loose leash when the pinch collar is on to avoid the discomfort.

There is also the very real possibility that the dog may associate the painful stimuli with something other than the intended behavior. An example of this is the dog that receives a shock for moving too close to the electronic fence each time he sees another dog. The result may be a dog that believes that the sight of an unfamiliar dog produces pain, creating a dog that is now aggressive toward other dogs. There is sufficient data to support that pain, when combined with aggression, increases the aggressive response.

When the aversive stimulus is not at a level sufficient enough to change the behavior through punishment, the result is a dog that becomes conditioned to ignore the aversive. I routinely see dogs clearly being walked on pinch collars that are pulling against them as if they didn’t exist. Now what?

The most important question when considering what collar to use is “what type of relationship you want to have with your dog?”

Do you want a relationship based on fear or one built on trust? Can you teach your dog what it is you want him to do instead of trying to punish him?

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