Your dog’s collar is more than just a part of his or her wardrobe. Collars are tools used to send messages to your four-legged friend and modify behavior as necessary. Choosing the right collar starts with one simple question: How do you want to communicate with your dog?
Like many animal training topics, the subject of collars is surrounded by emotion and debate. Trainers have varying philosophies, methods, and explanations for why one way is better than the other. But like most things in life, there is no “one size fits all” solution. Ultimately, it’s up to each individual to decide what is right for their dog. To make that decision, it’s important to know how each type of collar works.
The head harness, commonly referred to as a gentle leader or a Halti collar, goes around the back of a dog’s head and around her muzzle. A ring hangs down below the muzzle to attach to the leash. The idea is that where the nose goes the body will follow.
• Reduces a dog’s ability to pull strongly forward.
• Takes the pressure off of the throat, eliminating a chance of injuring the trachea.
• Gentle pressure around the muzzle and the back of the head encourages a relaxed response.
• Some dogs struggle to acclimate to a head harness, and a period of desensitization may be necessary.
• Can rub bald patches on the muzzle of short hair dogs.
• Attempting repetitive leash corrections can cause damage to the neck or spine.
This device goes around the body, clips behind the front legs and lies across the chest where a metal ring attaches to the leash. Attaching the leash at the front of the body allows easier redirection when dogs start to pull.
• Reduces a dog’s ability to strongly pull forward.
• No risk of unintentional damage to the throat, since nothing is around the neck.
• Can get in the way of a dog’s natural gait and cause structural issues over time.
• Leash often gets caught under the dog’s front legs.
• Getting it fitted properly can take several adjustments.
The choke collar is a chain-linked slip collar. The prong collar has blunt, metal prongs that pinch the loose skin around a dog’s neck when the collar is tightened. Both create pressure or discomfort around the neck to stop behavior and release pressure when the dog complies. Because of the widespread shift towards positive and humane methods of behavior modification, these types of collars are slowly losing popularity for training purposes. If you do choose to go this route, exercise caution and never leave a chain collar on an unattended dog, as they pose a strangulation hazard.
• Reduces strong pulling.
• Reduces the reliability on food rewards by using leash corrections to communicate.
• If fitted or used improperly, they can do serious damage to the trachea and/or puncture the skin.
• If used to modify aggressive behavior, they can backfire and exacerbate issues.
If your dog is a well-behaved and reliable walker, there’s no reason to get fancy with special collars. For many dogs, a simple, around-the-neck collar is sufficient. Be sure it fits well and that the locking mechanism is solid and safe, to avoid the dog accidentally slipping out or the collar coming undone.
• Basic collars come in every color and print imaginable, allowing you to express your (or your pet’s) personal style, whatever that may be.
• They don’t offer a ton of control on your end. If your dog has obedience or anxiety issues, opt for a collar that allows you to better redirect behavior.
As a professional dog trainer, I use and recommend the head harness and front-clip harness. For pet parents training on their own, I refer them to The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior’s position statement on training. It opens with:
…Punishment (e.g. choke chains, pinch collars, and electronic collars) should not be used as a first-line or early-use treatment for behavior problems. This is due to the potential adverse effects which include but are not limited to: inhibition of learning, increased fear-related and aggressive behaviors, and injury to animals and people interacting with animals.
It continues by discussing if and/or when there is a proper time to use punishment techniques, and is well worth the read.
Once you know how a collar works, you need to figure out how you want to teach your dog to walk nicely on a leash. Each of these types of collars has philosophies and methods behind them. Some collars, like harnesses, manage a dog’s pulling strength and make room for opportunities to reward behavior you like. Prong and chain collars use corrections and negative consequences to stop dogs from doing what you don’t want them to do.
There is no magic pill to teaching a dog to walk nicely on the leash. Regardless of your collar choice, to be effective, any equipment you use must be coupled with skill, timing, and consistency. Any collar can be used incorrectly, so it’s important to learn proper techniques from an experienced professional who can set you up with an effective leash-walking program.
Nicole Stewart strongly believes that dog training is as much about the people as it is about the dogs. Her first introduction to training came after an inspiring meeting with Paul Owens, co-author of The ‘Original’ Dog Whisperer. After studying with and working for Owens she furthered her education by attending various conferences throughout the country, which she continues to do today. In 2010, Nicole joined AnimalSense Canine Training and Behavior, Inc. as the Director of Training.