Unfortunately, by now, most of us are familiar with prong or choke collars. In fact, they are so widely used by dog guardians that it’s difficult to walk down the street without spotting a dog decked out in one of these intimidating looking devices.

The collars may look like they are for show, like the spiked collars and leather harnesses we see on large, muscular dogs frequently used as status symbols. However, these collars are also used on dogs of all shapes and sizes – from Jack Russells to Golden Retrievers – so what are they really for?

Sadly, prong collars and choke chains are a means of controlling dogs used in training methods called positive punishment and negative reinforcement, which are based on coercion and force. When the dog pulls on the leash, they experience unpleasant pain or discomfort (positive punishment). When they stop pulling, the pain stops (negative reinforcement). The dog eventually associates pulling on the leash with being in pain and so stops this behavior. Makes sense, right? So what’s the problem?

Let’s start by going over what exactly these collars are.

Prong/Pinch Collars

A prong collar is a metal link collar which fits around the dogs’ neck with a series of blunted points or “fangs” facing inwards. When an attached leash is pulled, it causes constriction and pressure on the neck, accompanied by pinching of the skin. The painful sensation elicits a fearful response in the dog, who may pause from shock. Upon that pause, the pain disappears as the collar loosens, and the associative learning process has begun.

Choke Chains

Choke chains operate in largely the same way as prong collars, though they apply more concentrated pressure on the dogs’ neck without the pinch: sensation. The chain tightens around the dogs throat, obstructing the airway and causing the dog to slow or stop in order to avoid asphyxiation.

Concerns Over Using Prong Collars and Choke Chains

Thankfully, it is becoming less and less acceptable to train animals using punishment, however, many guardians continue to use these devices.

Both prong collars and choke chains are known to cause nerve damage as well as  injuries to the thyroid gland (which is located at the base of the neck), the trachea, and eyes. These collars can also cause your dog to faint or even worse, experience strangulation.

So why do so many of us make an exception for this type of training with our dogs? Because it works. Training that elicits a strong fearful response in animals is often very effective; it gives us the quick result we want. However, here are just a few of the problems associated with aversive collars.

  1. The results may be short lived. Some dogs’ threshold for pain will increase, and they will return to the pulling behavior. This means that more force must be exerted, putting the dog in more severe pain and at serious risk of asphyxiation or other injuries.
  2. Due to the fear of sudden pain while out on a walk, the dog may develop anxiety about walking. This can even escalate into aggression towards you, other people or dogs. The anxiety can occur as soon as the dog picks up on signals that a walk is about to commence – you grabbing your keys, the leash, or any activity you consistently undertake before a dog walk. Resulting aggression can be far more difficult to fix than pulling on the leash.
  3. Each time your dog experiences the sharp tug of an aversive collar while our walking, you’re right there with them. It is almost inevitable that your dog will associate a shocking, painful experience with your presence. This may lead to more general anxiety and fear anytime the dog is around you, not just in the time leading up to a walk. In 2004, a study published in the UK journal Applied Animal Behaviour Science concluded that dogs trained using aversive collars (shock collars were utilized in the study, which operate by the same means) showed more signs of stress in the presence of their owner than those trained without.

Positive Reinforcement for Happy Dogs and Humans

There is no way around the fact that using one of these collars on your pup causes them both physical and mental distress. Further, negative enforcement training only teaches a dog what it shouldn’t do but does not teach them what they should, which can lead to further frustration and confusion. While a painful collar can teach a dog not to pull, they do not learn that what you want them to do is walk happily beside you.

Dogs benefit hugely from consistent and clear positive reinforcement training that rewards them when a desired behavior is performed. Rather than punishing them for pulling, try using a treat to focus their attention. The treat will make them stop and slow down. Once they do, you can reward by giving them the treat along with the verbal command “heel.” Not only will your pup learn quickly what the word “heel” means, but they are also more likely to repeat the behavior if they know there is a reward on the other end. To learn more about positive training methods, click here.

Our dogs bring us so much pleasure – don’t we owe it to them to treat them right?

Image source: Smerikal/Flickr