Training tools - The Good, The Bad, and the Downright Ugly....
Updated: Dec 3
Now, settle in for a bit of a read, because I’m going to be talking for a while about what equipment there is to help you train your dog, what is best to use and what I don’t recommend you use. I’ve found that a lot of my students have questions about these and so I thought I would address it in a blog.
There are many items you can buy:
· harnesses and flat buckle collars
· head collars
· slip leashes/collars
· choke collars
· prong collars
· shock collars
· Various other dubious devices and strangely named “collars”
Before we go any further, there’s a piece of information you should know about. It’s relevant and important and you probably haven’t heard of it before. That is:
The skin of a dog is 3 to 5 cells thick. The skin of a human is 10 to 15 cells thick. This means that if you put something around a dog’s neck, it’s going to be far more uncomfortable than if a human put something around their neck or other part of their body. Therefore, if a human says “oh, I put a prong/shock/choke collar around my arm and it didn’t hurt so it doesn’t hurt dogs” (and this is something that people who like these kinds of tools will say) then they are not giving you accurate information.
If the dog’s skin is so much thinner than a human, that means the nerves are closer to the
surface and they feel things much more than we do. So, for this reason, you can imagine how a prong, choke or shock collar will feel to a dog. Please keep this in mind, while reading the rest of this.
HARNESSES: THE BEST CHOICE?
Yes! But it needs to be the right type of harness….
FIRST THING TO SAY IS a harness will NOT stop your dog from pulling. A harness is a tool to help you and to protect the dog’s neck. A harness may well “discourage” pulling in various ways, but the only way to stop your dog from pulling on leash is to teach it not to pull!
The above diagram shows why a proper harness (a “Y” shaped harness) is best for your dog. If you look at the diagram you can see the issues that can arise when using even a flat collar to walk your dog. Now if you don’t have a puller, then the potential issues may be minimised, but there’s always a chance your nicely walking dog could suddenly lunge to the end of the leash if he sees a squirrel, a bird, another dog, something fast moving etc. Having read on the diagram what issues may be caused, imagine if the dog is wearing a prong or choke collar and is a constant puller. Who hasn’t seen a typical Labrador wearing a choke/prong collar, dragging its owner behind it while all the time, struggling to breathe while pulling on leash? I’m betting you’ve seen plenty. I know I have. Look at the issues that the dog could
experience, all the while bearing in mind that little nugget of information I passed along at the beginning of this, i.e. the thickness of the skin of a dog compared to us. Many trainers who use punishment recommend putting the collar up high around the dog’s neck, right under the jaw where it’s most painful in order to stop pulling. Look at the damage that can cause!! It really doesn’t bear thinking about. To be honest, it’s not really rocket science is it? It doesn’t take much common sense to realise that doing this to a dog can have an injurious effect.
This is why using a Y shaped harness is much better for your dog and protects your dog’s neck from potential damage.
There are lots of different harnesses on the market, some of them not so desirable. The undesirable harnesses are what we call “T” shaped. That means that the bar of the “T” lays across the front of the dog’s chest and can impede the shoulder movement. This may cause issues in the joints and muscles. Puppies might be especially vulnerable in this regard while their growth plates have not yet closed, but it’s possible even once that happens the T shaped harness may affect the joints.
Here's an example of a “Y” shaped harness.
There are many different Y shaped harnesses available; two of my favourites are the Ruffwear Harness and the Perfect Fit Harness. I also like the Blue K9 Balance harness. They are Y shaped and are comfortable for the dog. You can see from this photo that there is no danger of the dog’s neck being damaged by the Y shaped harness, nor are the front legs impeded in movement. If you have a puller, then you should use a harness like this that has a leash connection on the chest, and not on the dog’s back. If you use a connection on the dog’s back he may suddenly believe he’s a sled dog, lean into the harness, and will be able to drag you along behind him quite comfortably!
A flat buckle collar? Well yes, many dogs are walked and trained using one. However, if the dog repeatedly lunges and pulls while wearing one of these, he may still end up injuring the delicate structures in his neck.
HEAD COLLARS: WHYS AND WHY NOTS
Can a head collar help to stop pulling?
Yes, it can, BUT head collars are only something I would only be OK with if a client has a
dog that is bigger, heavier or stronger than them. Maybe the client is frail, has balance issues etc. There are times when it might be necessary to use a head collar until such time as we can get the dog under more control and get it walking nicely on leash. Some people with giant breeds feel safer using a head collar on their dog. As I'm someone who has giant breeds, I understand this.
There are a lot of positive trainers who will not use a head collar as they feel it is an aversive. Therefore I am probably going to get a lot of stick from other positive trainers for talking about head collars. That's fine. I'm allowed to have an opinion and so are they...
I too,class myself as a force free (positive) trainer. However, there are times when the safety
of the client takes precedence and if I feel that the client may be in danger of being pulled over
or injured by their dog and a head collar helps avoid that, then I am OK with it. But I will make sure that the client knows exactly how to use it, and it’s always my goal to get the dog off the head collar as soon as I can if it is at all possible. Now, it’s a fact that a head collar is going to be regarded as aversive by most dogs. Some may try to constantly get it off, and may even refuse to walk with it on. For this reason, if you are going to use one, you will need to introduce the dog to it gradually and gently with a liberal use of treats.
The head collar in the photo is a Halti.
The loop on the left of the photo goes over the dog’s nose, while the strap coming off it to the right with a clip goes behind the dog’s ears. On the piece hanging downwards you can see a ring, which is where the leash clips on, and at the very end of that is a clip to attach to the dog’s collar as a safety measure. The way a halti works is that if the dog pulls, the loop tightens on the dog’s muzzle and turns the dog’s head around. If the dog is walking beside you, the loop is loose on the muzzle. I prefer the halti to the gentle leader which remains tight around the muzzle all the time.
The best headcollar by far in my opinion is the Dogmatic (photo below) which I believe in Canada can only
be bought online. This is a much better fitting headcollar.
It can take a couple of weeks or more to desensitise a dog to wearing a head collar. But if it’s done gently and with treats, you may be able to teach the dog to accept it. Be aware though that some dogs may never accept it.
There is one important issue with the head collar; that is if it isn’t used properly the dog is in danger of sustaining a neck injury. The head collar should NEVER be used with a long leash or a long line, and certainly never with a retractable leash. If you are using a halti, you must make sure that you have a short leash. This is so that if the dog should suddenly lunge forward, there is no room for the dog to lunge ahead and suddenly come to an abrupt end with the dog’s weight behind it sothe dog’s head be pulled around very suddenly. You can see how this might happen if you had, say a 6ft leash. If the leash is short, the dog is less likely to have his head pulled round suddenly.
You should never use a head collar if your dog is reactive because this may well make the reactivity worse, and also it is dangerous for the dog if he is lunging at other dogs or various other triggers.
PRONGS AND CHOKES
So, what’s wrong with a prong or a choke collar?
I NEVER recommend prong or choke collars. Here’s why…
You will be able to tell from the diagram entitled “why a harness” the very reasons why we should not be using prong collars, choke collars or slip collars/leashes on our dog. Again this is especially true for pups.
PRONG COLLARS are designed to CAUSE PAIN. That is how it works. This photo of a prong collar and what looks like a Doberman in a prong clearly shows how the prongs work.
There are people out there who will claim that “a prong collar if used/fitted properly doesn’t hurt”. That is a LIE.
You can see how the prongs on the inside of the collar dig in to the dog’s neck. This prong collar happens to have tips on the end of the prongs but I don't see those very often. Usually it's just the metal digging in to the neck. If the dog pulls, the prongs dig into the dog’s neck even harder. It obviously causes pain and can affect the dog's ability to breathe. Therefore the dog learns to avoid the pain by not pulling if it can help it. The dog isn’t actually learning to walk nicely on leash, far from it. The dog is simply learning to avoid pain. If the prong collar didn’t hurt, it wouldn’t work; that’s not hard to understand. Some dogs can sustain nasty puncture injuries on their necks if a prong collar is used repeatedly and constantly being yanked on. This is especially true of dogs that have not much in the way of coat, such as this Doberman. Nothing there to cushion the prongs.
CHOKE COLLARS: The same is true of the choke collar, which does “exactly what it says on the tin”. It chokes. It cuts off the airway so the dog can’t breathe.
It also cuts into the dog’s neck. This with the intention of discouraging the dog from pulling. But I’ve not met a dog that was discouraged from pulling with a choke collar. Again, this can damage the dog’s neck and it’s not hard to see why. If a dog is subjected to a choke collar constantly, damage can be caused to nerves in the neck, affecting the legs. It can also cause pressure behind the eyes and glaucoma. Slip leashes/collars work in the same way by tightening around the dog’s throat. True, there are some slip leashes/collars that have a “stop” on them to prevent them tightening. However, I still don’t recommend them.
It is especially important to note that if you have a dog that is susceptible to laryngeal paralysis you should definitely NEVER use a choke or prong collar. There are several breeds that can suffer from this. My own breed, the Leonberger, is susceptable. My elderly girl Juno has a mild laryngeal paralysis and incidentally, she's never worn a choke or prong collar in her life. Years ago, our Labrador began to suffer from mild laryngeal paralysis. Among other breeds that can suffer from it congenitally are Labradors, Bouviers, Dalmations, Huskies, Rotties, Staffies and Black Russian Terriers. Prolonged lunging and pulling on a choke collar can damage the very important laryngeal nerve, which is one of the longest nerves in the dog's body. Please click HERE to learn more about laryngeal paralysis which can be life threatening.
There’s another nasty little training tool called a shock collar. Some people try to make it sound less nasty than it is by calling it an “e-collar” or a “stim collar” or various other things. They will say things such as “oh, it’s like a TENS machine” or “it’s only like static electricity”. Neither of these claims are accurate. At the end of the day it gives your dog an electric shock and it works by causing pain which is sudden and unexpected. I don’t propose here to go deeply into why nobody should use a shock collar on a dog, and how its completely unnecessary.
Here's a photo of a small dog that looks like a Jack Russell wearing a shock collar.
I cannot imagine anyone needing a shock collar to train a small dog like this ,or any dog actually. This looks a bit like a puppy with the shock device being the same size as it's head almost.
These devices cause pain to your dog to get him to comply. Look at this little dog and remember the information I gave you at the beginning of this blog about the thickness of the dog’s skin and the nerves being closer to the surface.
They do not teach the dog anything. They simply suppress behaviour as all punishment-based training does. These tools can damage your dog physically AND mentally. It can also be dangerous for any dog or person who is near the dog who receives the shock. This is because a dog might be so traumatised by the sudden pain that he redirects on to the nearest thing which could be another dog, or person. He may also after that, associate other dogs or people with the pain of the shock and become reactive towards them. There was a news story a few years ago about a trainer who was with a client in a public park training their German Shepherd using a shock collar. The dog was a distance away from them and I presume the trainer was using the shock as a recall . However, when the shock was given to the dog, it was so painful and traumatic that the dog redirected in fear on to the closest thing to him which happened to be a woman with a small child in a stroller. This is an example of what can happen when using a shock collar.
Apart from causing physical and mental distress, using this kind of training on your dog can be damaging to your relationship. Any kind of harsh training where punishment is used can damage the relationship and the trust between you and your dog. It might also cause your dog to be afraid of you. I cannot imagine any scenario in which I would not want my dogs to trust me with their lives or for my dogs to be afraid of me.
So, my go to recommendation is always going to be a Y shaped harness. I recommend them to my class students and my private clients, especially those with reactive dogs. If they don't have a Y shaped harness already, I ask them to get a harness before we start working together.
I've put all this information out there for you to be able to make a decision on what tools you do or don't use to train your dog.
What I will say with utter conviction is that any person who calls themselves a trainer and tells you that you need to use a shock collar, prong collar, a choke collar, is a person who is uneducated as a trainer. My advice would be not to hire that person.