What Collar Should I Use?  - By Roger Hild

On a daily basis, dogs arrive here for training wearing a variety of head and neck gear.  Most of the owners are very well informed having sought information from a variety of sources.  They have made their purchases with the best of intentions, based on everything from the advice of store employees to the latest sage recommendations found in print.  However, almost without exception the question I am asked by nearly everyone is, “what collar should I use?”

In examining that question it is important to realize that all collars, halters and harnesses are simply tools designed for specific purposes.  Knowing what result you are looking for will help to determine the tool best designed for the job.  It is unfortunate indeed that in discussions about training tools, facts that could help the consumer make the best choice are obscured.  Instead of an honest exploration of the subject, many offer only their own moralistic and slanted views in the guise of “fact,” and then proceed to offer an assortment of hearsay and myths as supporting evidence.  What should be a dispassionate discussion, often ends up as a manipulative, highly emotional argument, in which the consumer invariably gets caught.

Confronted with indisputable evidence, some will grudgingly acknowledge the effectiveness that a tool, while not fitting within their moralistic framework, does indeed work, - usually with a qualifier such as, “well yes it works, but you must be very careful about using it properly.”  What is being subtly implied is that proper use is too difficult and therefore using the tool is “risky.”  Their suggestion of some poorly defined risk is designed to frighten off further exploration of this option.  However, that idea of a tool’s effectiveness being related to its proper use applies to all tools - including those they readily endorse.

A great number of dogs arrive here on a flat nylon collar with a snap-together fastener.  Invariably the collar will be far too loose, and to make matters worse, it will frequently be attached to some kind of retractable leash.  In my opinion this is the worse possible combination when it comes to safety; and for training this combination is next to useless.  The number of incidents where dogs get loose while wearing these collars (sometimes with disastrous results) is far too high.  A properly fitting plain buckle collar, with no excess slack, on a regular leash would be a far safer choice.  As a training tool however, the flat collar is terribly inefficient and often ineffective.  Personally the flat collar is a management tool that I use between walks or training sessions.

The body harness is a tool gaining in popularity.  When properly fit, the harness is usually safe.  As a tool, it is very effective at harnessing the dog’s energy so they can pull much more effectively.  Draft dogs such as sled dogs would not be able to pull such great loads without a good harness.  Around town however, we see more dogs in harness simply as a management tool.  Owners of these dogs have very often given up on trying to get their dogs to stop pulling, and so have decided to make the pulling more comfortable for the dog.  If one thinks about it, it’s really sad because these owners have in essence written their dogs off as being incapable of learning to walk beside them on a nice loose leash. 

Next we have an assortment of head halters.  As training tools, I would rate the head halters as poor to fair.  These devices are fairly effective as management tools in that they make it difficult for a dog to pull.  It should be noted, however, that they are not nearly as gentle or benign as their manufacturers like to claim and when attached to a retractable leash they can pose a serious risk of injury.  It is also worthy of note that almost without exception, dogs do not readily accept the device and many will actively fight it for a very long time. 

Makers of various head halters are very adept at playing the emotion card to make their product more desirable while attempting to restrict or eliminate tools used primarily for training (as opposed to managing).  Suggesting that a nose leash leads in a gentle manner while the alternative only chokes or causes pain is typical of the sort of arguments being offered in attempts to have the consumer choose their product.  I wonder if the tactic were reversed and these tools were labeled differently if it would make a difference to the consumer.  Suppose the head halter was referred to as an “adjustable slip muzzle,” or possibly as a “face restraint,” or how about “a neck twister?”

If you are at all uncertain how to use any piece of equipment properly, you should seek instruction from a professional trainer adept at its use.

The most common training collar remains the slip collar, followed by the pinch collar.  While the Martingale is also promoted as a training collar, it really is nothing more than a “politically correct” slip collar that has been compromised in its effectiveness for the sake of appearances.   Remote training collars are also a training option.  Other than state that when properly used they are safe, fast and effective, I will not discuss them here as I have already written about them at length in other articles which the reader is free to read.

The slip collar (either chain or fabric) is probably the most maligned piece of training equipment there is.  Despite the fact that it is one of the oldest training collars still available, when properly used it remains one of dog-training’s most effective tools, despite all the negative comments.   Using their labeling strategy and emotional arguments, our friends who don’t like to see any unpleasant consequences, refer to it as a choker or strangle collar.  The idea of choking or strangling your dog is clearly distasteful to anyone - including those of us who regularly use this collar.   For the record, I have used slip collars for well over twenty years and have never caused a dog to experience such untoward effects. 

Perhaps we should learn a lesson from the nose leash crowd and instead of giving the double ring training collar a functional name (such as a slip collar) we should upgrade its image.  Perhaps we should begin calling it a “Positive choice collar” or maybe a “Pro-Results collar.”  I can make this claim because, with a high degree of regularity, I have taken a nose leash wearing dog - fighting with its owner, slipped on a training collar, and had the dog walking calmly at my side within minutes.  The process has been professional and the results positive.

Recently I joined a discussion which a group of professional trainers was having on the topic of slip collars versus buckle collars.  Among some of the observations being reported (from places that had adopted a “no training collar” rule) was the effect a leash jerk has on a flat buckle collar.  It is readily apparent that it has to be applied with a great deal more force than would have been needed with a slip or pinch collar.

One of the participants in the discussion, Chad Mackin, reports discussing this with an engineering friend as to what is happening at the mechanical level.  He reports:

“When a dog is on a static collar and pulls, there will be a gap at the back of the neck between the collar and the dog's flesh.  This means that all of his force is being distributed across the front of the neck.  With a chain training collar there is no such gap.  The force is distributed around the entire circumference of the dog's neck. Pressure is the measure of force over area (pounds per square inch).  Equal force over a smaller area means greater pressure.   Same force over a greater area means less pressure.  The so-called choke collar actually puts LESS pressure on the dog's trachea because the force of the dog pulling is spread out rather than being isolated directly on the front of the neck.”

Chad concludes by saying, “You do not do a dog a kindness by giving leash corrections on a buckle collar.  Instead, you are needlessly endangering them.” 

“If one cannot bear the thought of using a "choke" collar, then one should abandon the idea of leash corrections altogether.  But for the love of the noble and patient dog, don't increase the pressure on their trachea and call it a kindness.   It is not an act of love for the dog.  Perhaps love for an ideal, but not for the dog.  It is a sad thing when dogs are made to suffer because people of otherwise reasonable intelligence can't see beyond their ideals and insist on following a course of action that, as idealistic as it seems, has no relation with reality whatsoever.” 

The final training collar I will discuss in this article is the pinch or “prong” collar.  When properly used, the pinch collar is a highly effective collar that is quite safe.  It has certain advantages and some disadvantages over the simple slip collar.  Generally it requires less corrective pressure and for some touch insensitive dogs it is more easily noticed.  Usually, however, it is a bit more difficult for some to fit correctly and some owners find that getting it on and off can be awkward.  It is also a bit more cumbersome and the action not quite as ‘clean.’

There are some who suggest the pinch is a more humane collar than the slip collar.  In some instances it may be.  Personally, I see both collars as useful tools.  However, a few years ago there was a myth circulating about a study comparing the safety of slip collars to pinch collars.  The myth is that there was supposed to have been a post mortem study which demonstrated tracheal damage in those dogs trained with choke chains.  The myth goes on to suggest that no such damage could be demonstrated in dogs that had been trained with pinch collars.  Usually the study is said to have been conducted in Germany, though variations of this myth report it as a Swiss or sometimes a British study.

A large number of people have looked for the source of this reported study - specifically looking for the evidence it is said to contain.  There are peripheral references to such a study (such as I am making in this article) but NO ACTUAL STUDY HAS EVER BEEN FOUND!  Keep in mind that all reputable studies will have actual researchers and authors listed along with the place where the research was conducted (university, hospital, research lab etc.) 

Now look at what is generally reported on the web sites that claim such a study has been done.  The first two lines usually report some variation of:
- One hundred dogs were in the study.  Fifty used choke chains and fifty used prong collars. 
- The dogs were studied for their entire lives. As the dogs died, autopsies were performed. 

Presumably the point here is that the dogs would have to be studied “cradle to grave” in order to rule out other causes for any injury which might show up on an autopsy.  Had they used stray dogs it would be impossible to say if any condition was preexisting or had been caused during the study.  Assuming the “cradle to grave” scenario for one hundred dogs (a number that often comes up - anything less lack’s credibility) the study would take anywhere from twelve to as much as twenty years.  What would it cost to keep 100 dogs for this length of time?  What would the costs be for legitimate researchers?  Such a study would be a very expensive one and need funding from somewhere.  If there was such an expensive study surely to God it would not be so well hidden.  Myths such as this spread because the people hearing them are usually honest folk, who accept the credibility of the source from which they hear the information. 

So getting back to the original question, “What collar should I use?”  I can only say that the choice is yours - as it should be.  I simply urge you to open your mind, determine what your needs are, look at your options and then choose the equipment that will give you the best results.  Once you have made your decision, look for a trainer that will respect your choice and who is skilled in using the tools you have chosen.  Do this, and you will be off to a really good start.

April 16, 2005 

Roger Hild, Tsuro Dog Training
A Personalized Approach to Training Your Dog
Chairman, Canadian Association of Professional Pet Dog Trainers
Member and founding member CAPPDT,

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