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Choke and Prong Collars: Health Concerns Call for Equipment Change in Dog Training

By Angelica Steinker and Niki Tudge © 2012

Training should be conducted in a manner that encourages animals to enjoy training and become more confident and well-adjusted pets. Photo (c) CanStock Photo
Training should be conducted in a manner that encourages animals to enjoy training and become more confident and well-adjusted pets. Photo (c) CanStock Photo

Effective training procedures lay the foundation for an animal’s healthy socialization, capacity for learning and will help prevent behavior problems.  Since a wide variety of equipment and tools are commonly used when training pets and in their daily activities, the pet-owning public needs to be aware of the potential problems and dangers some equipment may pose.

Specifically, the use of collars and leads that are intended to apply constriction, pressure, pain or force around a dog’s neck (such as ‘choke chains’ and ‘prong collars’) should be avoided. Consistent with their commitment to ‘force-free’ training and pet care methods, the Pet Professional Guild, the Association of Force Free Dog Training and Pet Care Professionals (PPG), does not support the use of choke and prong collars and, rather, recommends the use of flat buckle collars, head halters, harnesses and other types of control equipment that are safer for the animal and the handler.

While precise data is not yet complete, there are many documented cases of injuries to dogs caused by the use of choke/prong collars.  These injuries include, but are not limited to, soft tissue damage, eye problems, strangulation (in some cases leading to death), tracheal/esophageal damage and neurological problems.  Many vets have treated such injuries and are aware of resulting deaths.

As more research accumulates on the hazards of choke and prong collars and more data is compiled documenting the damage these types of collars can cause, distinguished veterinarians world-wide are joining the discussion and are calling for professional dog trainers to commit to eliminating choke and prong collars from their training programs.  Niki Tudge, founder and president of the PPG, states “training should be conducted in a manner that encourages animals to enjoy training and become more confident and well-adjusted pets.”

Respected veterinarian and thyroid expert, Dr. Jean Dodds, recommends against choke or prong collars “as they can easily injure the delicate butterfly-shaped thyroid gland that sits just below the larynx and in front of the trachea.  These collars can also injure the salivary glands and salivary lymph nodes on the side of the face underneath both ears.”

In addition, notable veterinarian, Dr. Karen Overall, VMD, PhD, Diplomate ACVB offers the following guidance from her client handout,  Protocol for choosing collars, head collars, harnesses and leads and in her book,  Manual of Clinical Behavioral Medicine for Dogs and Cats (Overall, K.L., 2012, St. Louis, MO: Elsevier)

Choker collars

“Dogs are often routinely fitted with something like a choker collar as part of a training program.  Choker collars are usually either made from chain, leather or a rolled, braided nylon.  When used correctly, choker collars are actually one of the best examples of true ‘negative reinforcement’: when the dog pulls, the collar tightens and either the sound or smallest amounts of pressure indicates that dog has engaged in an undesirable behavior; when the dog stops – that pressure is released (and in the case of a chain the sound of slippage occurs) and the dog is unimpeded.  It is the release from the negative stimulus (the tightening of the collar) that is the reward.

Unfortunately, virtually no one uses choke collars in the described manner.  Instead, most dogs placed on chokers, ‘choke.’  When they are allowed to pull on the collar and permitted to sustain the pull these dogs learn to override the choker.  In doing so they are also at risk for laryngeal damage, esophageal damage, and ocular damage (change in the blood vessels in the eye).  The dog that pulls harder has no choice: dogs will always push against pressure which means they all pull harder.

Traditional choke collars are a concept whose time has passed.  

When clients can get past their own misconceptions about how they look or what they mean, they will, with ever increasing frequency, choose a head collar or a no-pull harness for their dog.  Used correctly these are safer, easier to use, and help to teach the dog better behaviors.  They are a winning solution that could, and perhaps should, eclipse the choker.

For people whose dogs don’t bite but who dislike the idea of harnesses and head collars, a modified neck collar with a baffle is now available.  The Scruffy Guider® has 2 neck straps that can be adjusted for a snug fit.  The collar tightens down when the dog pulls in a manner similar to a fabric choke collar, but there is a baffle that prevents the collar from tightening beyond the point where it is just flush to neck.  This is not the solution for an out of control dog, but it is another tool that may work for some dogs.

Prong or pinch collars

Prong collars are subject to all of the same criticisms as are chokers.  Furthermore, they can do incredible damage to the dog’s neck since they can become imbedded in the skin if the dog learns to over-ride them.  Most dogs learn to over-ride these collars and people who use them often voluntarily comment that they need to use some degree of pain to control their animals under some circumstances.  These collars, if sharpened – as is often the case, are intended to employ pain to encourage the dog to attend to the person.  If left unsharpened, these collars are intended to provide more uniform pressure than a choke collar.  Oddly, prong collars were intended to be a safer improvement over choke collars.  That’s not how it has worked.  For aggressive dogs, this the uniform pressure response – especially if accompanied by pain – can worsen their aggression, and for dominantly aggressive dogs, this response can not only worsen their aggression, but endanger the client.  Were people to understand more about how dogs communicate and how these collars work, they would appreciate that responses other than pain and pressure are more desirable for changing an animal’s behavior.  These collars are no substitute for early intervention and the treatment of problem behaviors.  For every situation which clients claim control is provided by a prong collar, a head collar is the better, safer and more humane choice, although it requires some investment of time to use correctly.  Some dogs are fitted with prong or spike collars because they make the dog look ‘tough’.  The problem, here, does not lie with the dog.”

From a strictly physical perspective, Jim Casey, Mechanical Engineer, explains that, “A dog can pull against its leash/collar with more force than its own weight and can exert even more force if it gets a running start before it reaches the end of its leash.  Considering a typical flat collar, an 80-pound dog can cause a contact force of approximately 5 pounds per square inch (psi) to be exerted on its neck.  This force increases to 32 psi if a typical nylon choke collar is used and to an incredible 579 psi per prong if a typical prong collar is used.  This represents over 100 times the force exerted on the dog’s neck compared to a typical flat collar greatly increasing the possibility of damage or injury to the dog.  For this very reason, many countries with a progressive approach to pet safety and health, such as Austria and Switzerland, have already banned prong collars.

Psychological and Behavioral Effects

In addition to possible physical damage choke and prong collars may cause there are also potential side effects that may lead to more extensive behavioral problems than simply leash pulling.

According to Dr. Soraya V. Juarbe-Diaz, DVM, DACVB, CAAB, “Using punishment to stop behaviors is not new. Notice I say ‘stop’ rather than ‘teach’ — I can stop any behavior, but I am more interested in teaching my students, animal or human, to choose the behavior I want them to perform because they can trust me, because I do not hurt them and they are safe with me, and because the outcome is something they enjoy. Mistakes are inherent in any type of learning — if I continually frighten or hurt my students when they get something wrong, eventually they will be afraid to try anything new and will not want to learn from me any longer.

What most surprises me about the use of collars that choke (i.e. tighten around the neck so it is painful to swallow, difficult to breathe and could damage the tissue underlying the collar) is that people think it is OK to use them in animals, whereas they would recoil in horror if teachers in schools were to use them in human pupils. We use force, pain and fear to train animals because we can get away with it, in spite of sufficient scientific data in both humans and dogs that such methods are damaging and produce short term cessation of behaviors at the expense of durable learning and the desire to learn more in the future. You can go with so-called tradition or you can follow the ever expanding body of evidence in canine cognition that supports teaching methods that encourage a calm, unafraid and enthusiastic canine companion.”

James O’Heare, professional Animal Behavior Consultant, states, Choke chains, prong collars and other devices like it are intended to cause pain or discomfort. They operate on the principle of making the dog experience pain when they perform some unacceptable behavior. Any kind of training operating on this principle suffers from various pitfalls. One such problem is that it simply fails to address the fact that the behavior is being performed for a reason (reinforcement) and without addressing that reinforcement you simply have pain competing with pleasure, which rarely solves the problem. Even if pain does win out over pleasure in this case, you merely temporarily suppress the problem–it is a Band-Aid solution that, again, does not address the actual problem (why the dog performs that behavior to begin with). Another problem with training techniques and tools that operate on this principle are that punishment generates a number of robust and resilient side effects such as depression, disempowerment, redirected aggression, deterioration of social relationships etc. Better all the way around is to use a flat buckle collar or better yet a body harness and choose training techniques that operate on addressing the actual cause of the problem behavior. In other words, dogs do what works to get them what they want. Identify what they get out of the behavior and make that available where possible only for some other more acceptable behavior. Does the dog want to sniff a fire hydrant? Fine, they can have that, as long as they walk with a slack leash instead of pulling for instance. It’s all about the reinforcers. Find out what they are and control them and you can train the dog without jeopardizing your relationship with them and their mental health.”

Bestselling author and dog behaviorist, Jean Donaldson, puts it like this: “These devices (choke and prong collars), when they work, do so to the degree that they hurt.  With the advent of modern methods and tools they are irrelevant.”

PPG encourages all pet owners and pet professionals to embrace modern, scientifically based, training techniques and tools, especially the latest generation of no-pull harnesses which are free of the risks posed by traditional collars and offer far more benefits. By working together and voluntarily eliminating dangerous and cruel training equipment from our training programs, individuals, organizations and associations can help ensure our pets enjoy a nurturing, safe and stable environment better suited to prevent behavior problems and protect the overall well-being of the animal.

Need to cite this article in your essay, paper, or report? Use the following format: Steinker, A., & Tudge, N. (2012, November). Choke and Prong Collars: Health Concerns Call for Equipment Change in Dog Training. BARKS from the Guild (3) 11-12.

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