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Choke Is No Joke

Do not reuse. Copyright Susan Nilson/LBWF
There is no need to use aversive devices just because a dog is big, strong or of a “certain breed”

Recently there was a great blog posted to the Pet Professional Guild called Why Prong Is Wrong. I am a big fan of the author, Diane Garrod. Diane is an awesome positive dog trainer, behavior consultant and one of the most passionate people I know about getting truthful information out to dog guardians so their lives are better with their dogs. That blog offered very good information, and some great perspectives from people that have seen the negative outcomes of choke and prong devices. Additionally, I am a big fan of Dr. Peter Dobias as well. He was quoted throughout the Prong Is Wrong blog. Dr. Dobias is a very knowledgeable, well-informed veterinarian, and a passionate dog advocate. We should all be grateful for his work in getting the information out as far and wide as possible about the harmful effects of the prong and choke collars. It needs to be said and he’s been saying it a long time.

There is always more information that is necessary to educate dog guardians as to the harmful affects of these devices that choke dogs. The prong and choke devices seems especially prevalent in the stronger, larger, and or more energetic and young juvenile dogs. Some dog guardians are convinced that these are the only devices that can “control” their dogs. While that may be the case to some extent at the moment that can change, it does not have to be the case, there are alternatives.

I work primarily with Pit Bull type dogs. Also larger stronger dogs, such as German Shepherds or the Rottweiler, and all of the larger stronger dogs are all able to learn to walk in concert with their humans 95%of the time and the remaining 5% of the time the people and the dogs are facing the same challenges that all dog walks consist of, distractions that are too close to too sudden.

The key component of gaining control for a leashed dog is proper conditioning, not choking, not scolding, and not making the dog “heel” for the whole walk. Scent is a big part of the success, and the humans’ having good leash skills is also crucial. Neither is difficult. The key is controlled freedom.

In regards to choke devices I will focus on the behavioral, cognitive and immune health fallouts from the stress of these harmful devices.  Additionally, I will touch on the social implications of these scary looking collars and offer alternatives to the choke and prong options.
The goal here is to give an even wider perspective and perhaps provide even more evidence that these devices are harmful on many levels. Hopefully this will get the humans to remove the harmful collars from the dog’s life. After all, dogs are considered family and friends.

Prong and Choke Collars are Physically Damaging

Trachea & Wind pipe damage. The dog needs X-ray to determine. How often do people do this? Avoid these choke tools and you don’t need to worry about it.

Neck alignment and back alignment can be compromised. People may not know and over time as it persists this mis alignment of the back and or neck, can cause a pinched nerve, which could cause long-term physical ailments. Additionally the dog is not feeling well so behavioral fallout’s from the pain also play into the dogs on leash pathology. Again, how often do people have their dogs looked at from a chiropractic perspective? By using a well-fitted and secure harness the dog should be more than safe and secure while not being harmed emotionally or physically.

Eyesight damage – occipital nerve endings go down side of the dog’s neck. Many dogs may be partially blind due to the damaging of the occipital nerves, Again, it’s hard to tell, or not, depends on the dog, depends on the connection that the handler has to the dog. How aware they to the possible signs of blindness or partial blindness, but an increase in blindness may also be the cause for an increase in fear or aggression, as eye sight diminishes the animal will feel less safe.

Lymph node damage – These are under the jaw and on the side of the neck. Any damages to this area affect the immune system negatively. The immune system is the foundation for the dogs overall health and soundness. When the immune system is hampered in any way the dogs over all health deteriorates rapidly, thus behavioral fallout’s such as increased fear, aggression or increased reactivity may be seen.

Possible choking death due to prongs or choke collars being caught on something such as door handle or gate / fencing. It happens quite a bit. A flat collar with a quick or easy release, not a buckle, and made of plastic is a very good way to have a safe collar and a safe break away if needed. No collar is “perfect”, but at least a flat collar with a plastic clasp will not harm your dog. Many dogs run around properties and yards with choke chain collars dangling in a loos fitted manner, perfect for the agile dog that jumps to get it caught on a fence or gate. It happens.

Prong and Choke collars creates a dangerous “training” environment, as the humans may become stressed or angry, or feel the need to ramp up the level of aversive, and the tool will be used excessively and in an extremely harsh manner.

When you add in kids and teens and lots of tactile interactions with dogs on prong and choke devices, there could also be some unintended negative consequences if the kids are “playing” with the choke and prong collars. Many people’s first reaction when wrangling dogs is to go for the collar and that could cause an injury to a hand. The kids, especially smaller and the more precocious kids, could also be unintentionally choking the dog as they are playing or simply holding on to the collars.

Behavioral Implications of choke devices for dogs

Prong and choke collars can cause fear of collars in general, and fear of hands and reaches. Many dogs I have worked with over the years that had extensive histories with prong or choke displayed apprehensions with reaches and when putting on a harness or flat collar some would freeze or flee.

The main way people interact with dogs is some form or other is a reach and pet or hand to sniff, lean over slightly or not so slightly. It is imperative that all those associations that are in the category of humans are bending over dog and putting on equipment or reaching to touch be associated as safe and having a positive outcome.

Prong and Choke collars causes negative associations to the handlers, the leash, other dogs, people, and kids, if the dog has a general fear of environments it will be exacerbated. When the prong or choke closes or is jerked or employed as an aversive consequence the dog will associate it to the stimuli that is most salient and that is usually a human or another dog. Dogs generalize fear easily. Dogs that shut down are dogs that are processing stress to some degree.

Some dog science

–       All dogs learn through associations and consequences, they do not have sufficient serial memory to form a moral imperative, so let’s take any domin nonsense off the table. That is a major myth that becomes part of the narrative as to why the dog “needs” the choke prong collar, they are “dominant”.

When a dog pulls or reacts it is mainly due to olfactory impulses being triggered by scent and or a sudden environmental change that excites the Septohippocampal system which mediates startle and novelty, which gives the dog that “stop & think” behavior we see when the environment changes and the dog orients to the change. When the handler learns about proper conditioning, and how to motivate the dog through scent and some food, the dog can learn to control their impulses, and you can actually teach the dog and work with the dog, not shut the dog down with choking.

–       Dogs generalize fear easily, as a matter of course. This cannot be overstated. It is one of the main reasons early humans prized dogs so much, they make good watchers of the environment, that is because that is what matters to them. This is due to the amygdala centric perception of all stimuli, as a safe, unsafe, or a neutral association. The handlers that work to create purely positive associations or at the very least create associations so the dog is tolerant and under threshold; are handlers working in the right direction.

–       Dogs associate to ALL stimuli that is present when they receive an aversive – pain / fear / startle. The most salient, meaning the stuff that matters most, which again is usually humans or other dogs, is what the dog will most likely associate the choke to, many times it is both, as dogs can learn and associate about multiple forms of stimuli.

–       Extinction alone or mainly using an aversive, will not fully reduce behaviors due to spontaneous recovery. There has to be more counter conditioning in the dog’s learning process than extinctions / punishments, in order to reduce unwanted behaviors and replace with other behaviors. Spontaneous recovery will come into play as time passes, environmental contexts change and stimuli will at some point be too much too soon, it is just a matter of time.  Unless the dog is so shut down from the choke “training” that they are in a state of learned helplessness as a matter of course, which while on the prong or choke collar out on a walk, many dogs are.

–       Again, dogs assess and associate ALL stimuli as safe, unsafe, or neutral, Many of the first learned things about an environment or the first associations made by dogs are apprehensions, fear or frustrations, thus if the dog is met with choke, fear, pain startle etc…the dog will associate the environment as such, even if it is safe. This will be a false memory, as 99% of events in life that the dog faces are sudden environmental stimuli and they are not dangerous, they are simply perceived as such by the dog. This is due to dogs attending changes that occur suddenly as a matter of potential prey acquisition, or for their safety; as animals are concerned first about safety, then everything else.

–       ALL dogs pull it is always a matter of degrees. The dogs natural sequence for scent detections is called search decide, track, when the dog is choked the dog may shut down and not gather scents much, or at all, thus the dog is now stressed as gathering scents is how the dogs controls the environment and reduces stress.

The choke collars and prong collars “work” by shutting down the dog’s limbic system, and the dog stops doing much of anything. The limbic system is comprised of areas that handle stress, fear, learning new information and storing information in the long term.

When the brain cannot dump excess stress hormones called glucocorticoids, theses extra GLC’s in the brain produces extra beta amyloid, this can be neurotoxic to the hippocampus. This will have a cumulative effect on the dogs ability to process information and store it long term, especially new information. When dogs are on a walk there is lots of “new information”, if they are not processing it naturally in the least stressful ways, or they are shut down and just walking and not doing too much scent detection, it could be a sign that the dog is stressed. Later I will discuss why this is so important in adolescent dogs.

The Limbic system’s main job is to tell the hypothalamus what to do, how to feel, this is where much of the emotional information is processed and tells the body how to respond.

The Thalamus has much to do with stalking, prey drive, emotions, general pleasure, goal directed behavior, and intrinsic positive reinforcement, mainly from scent detections and moving running, walking at a brisk pace and being a “dog” in as natural a way as they are allowed. The more so the better, as that will yield the best results as far as training and the dog learning.
When those natural processes are shut down by way of choke and prong collars, by restricting air and or being jerked as a way to “train”, the dog has not learned the dog has simply shut down.

Another area of the limbic system that is affected by choke and prongs from loss of air is the ventrotegmental area. This has quite a bit to do with dopamine, an important chemical that is needed for learning, and to be excited about learning.  If dopamine production goes down the dog will loose motivation. Also, the Frontal Cortex of the brain is where the anticipation of reward is processed, when that is thwarted it has detrimental affects on learning in general, as that anticipatory stage of the event is where the dog learns the most, especially impulse control, and this learning to control impulses is by way of human directives.

This is sadly why many dogs that have a long history or a harsh history of being choked are often slower, very lethargic, less sharp when learning new information, and seemingly “docile”, to the point of having brain damage, and many may have it from loss of oxygen due to being choked one way or the other at some point for some reason.

There are many narratives about the choke and prong collars.

SOME dogs will seemingly be “fine”. In my experience that signals the dog is shut down to some degree. It seemingly “fine” does not mean the dog is not stressed. The dog is stressed, but many dogs are really great at pushing through that stress. Many dogs tough it out, focus on the ground and walk along. They may be met with something that motivates them to pull or react and now they will be choked and pronged, even if the handler just holds on, this is creating a further negative association and further neuronal damage and or physical damages that result from being choked. It can also be a sign that the dog has developed a specific negative association to perhaps people, passing cars, bikes, other dogs etc, as when those forms of stimuli get “too close” or appear “too suddenly” that is too much, and these are fearful so the dog reacts, lunges, barks, and gets choked and the negative associations are made to the stimuli that preceded the event.

The dogs that seemingly do not care about the choking

SOME dogs will not care, they pull past the pain and pull and react despite being choked. This means the dog is being flooded with stress hormones known as Glucocorticoids, and these are very harmful to the dog’s immune system. It means the dog is stressed, not being “bad”. It means that the dog needs help not pain.

The dogs in this category are on a trajectory for aggression and all manner of potential immune disorders from stress. These dogs are usually adolescents.

This phase of adolescent development is when dogs are very much shedding and growing new neurons; the brain chemistry that modulates frustration and stress are a big aspect of the juvenile dog’s cognitive development. Sadly this is when many dogs start to receive choke as a form of “training”.

This is especially precarious in terms of behavioral and cognitive developments as during adolescent phases the brain is in it’s final stages of development and there are some specific occurrences intrinsic to the juvenile period that are crucial for proper neurological development.
In the research paper Old Dogs Learning New Tricks: Neuroplasticity Beyond the Juvenile Period by Angeline S. Lillard and Alev Erisir they state the following;

“Sensitive and critical periods are times when a change in environmental input from what is normal for the organism leads to consequential changes in the brain and behavior, when that same input during a different developmental period would likely lead to much less or even no change at all. Such periods are critical when a specific development must occur or it never would occur at all, and sensitive when it simply requires much more input later to change”.

I am sure that choking is not considered “normal for the organism” and what does choking aid in as far as it “leads to consequential changes in the brain and behavior”….

In a section of the paper titled The Importance of Attention, Lillard and Arisir state the following “A distinguishing feature of development in the juvenile period appears to be that passively experienced stimuli can shape the brain so it is especially tuned to those stimuli”.

This is especially interesting for juvenile dogs, as it shows that when humans are proactively counter conditioning dogs in some manner to feel good about a situation the brain is actually reorganizing itself to process that as a good experience, not a stressful one. Thus the stress hormones will be processed more efficiently and the dog will bounce back form stressful events and learn more effectively.

They go on to state “some studies have found that exercise alone did result in neuroplastic change in the hippocampus.

The hippocampus is a memory indexer, it modulates and regulates stress, habituation and learning., This is a very crucial area of the brain for reduction of stress responses and the proper releasing and  modulating of stress hormone Glucocorticoids.

This means that when a dog is excited, or fearful and they are choked or pronged, thus stopped form moving or exercising, they are releasing even more stress hormones and at the juvenile stage of development this is potentially damaging to their long-term abilities to process stress effectively and or learn efficiently when under stress.  If the hippocampus area is not developed properly or has too much stress it can result in major cognitive setbacks.

When the dog is allowed to react somewhat within reason to release the stress somewhat, and is also reassured and counter conditioned, essentially not scolded or caused pain, given some distance perhaps the dog is learning to regulate stress along with some human intervention, hence the dog is learning to cope by processing the stress in an efficient manner, which is what animals are naturally designed to do, have short bursts of stress, regain composure and get back to a form of homeostasis. Humans can help dogs process stress by learning how to implement some simple behavior modification techniques.

This stress and potential damaging of a dog’s brain translates to the principal of “choke as a way to train” in this manner; if the dog is choked and that is the result of the exposure to the stimuli then that stimuli will predict choke or fear or apprehension, then that releases stress hormones upon exposure of the stimuli, or even a context that may be similar to the choke contexts. Distance and duration and salience (how attractive) of stimuli will also factor in and determine how much stress is being created in the brain.

The choke is considered to be “working” to shut the dog down, so the dog “learns” to stop attending, but they still feel the stress. Many dogs feel the stress internally and do not outwardly show it after they have had a number of choking events. The brain and the body are still releasing stress hormones when the stimuli is present, say other dogs, or the context that has antecedents that trigger stress, say people appearing, thus the dog is having it’s immune system compromised with each choke or exposure to the stressful event.

Dr. Robert Sapolsky of Stanford University, whom I shamelessly quote as often as I can due to his amazing work in the area of stress and cognition, he explains from his Washington State University guest lecture, “stress hormones” are “not a bad thing in the right amount”, short-term stress he says is “good for animals”, it actually “sharpens cognition”.

However, long term stress is bad, even he says “if it is purely psychological”, meaning the dog that shuts down at the sight of the prong or choke, or when it goes over their head, are dogs releasing extra glucocorticoids and this is not good.

Too many of these stress hormones GLC’s, and the immune system is suppressed. This means the dog is more prone to “infections, ulcers, as the system did not evolve for chronic psychic activation” Dr. Sapolsky states.

Hopefully this gives a new perspective of the dog on a choke device.

SOME people may never jerk or pull the choke collar or use the prong harshly, but they will hold on when the dog pulls to gather scents, and the dog’s air way will still be compromised, hence oxygen will be prevented from being released into the dogs’ brain. This also may cause unintended behavioral fallouts in the form of fear and apprehensions. Again, how much stress is this causing?

Over time this “hold and scold” approach is detrimental even if the dog is not being “choked” by the handler, the dogs are being choked by the device and, the opposition reflex that all dogs have will intrinsically enact, and that is never going to ever really go away, it will be enacted when there is sufficient motivation to pull, and another prong or choke will be implemented.

MANY dogs just shut down when the prong or choke collar is put on. This is not a sign of the collar “working” in terms of making the dog happy about the experience, it means the dog has back chained the walking event and is already shutting down at the start. This means the dog is going to be stressed for the whole walk. Stress is not always outwardly shown, but it is always inwardly felt.

Another excuse people use is; some dogs “need” the prong collars due to the people that are walking the dog are not strong enough. While that may be true, and there are dogs that are at various stages of learning to walk on leash, and some dogs can be challenging and some people are not “strong” per say.

When they learn how to train the dog and use the leash properly most people can actually walk a strong dog. I have never seen someone not be able to walk a dog as long as they were invested in the process and they were getting the proper information on how to address leash-walking issues without force or fear and work at improving their skills.

SOME dogs are so excited for a walk at the start; they pull and react until they are “reminded” by the closing of the prongs or choke collar. Dogs that are wearing the device do so as it supposed to cause them pain, or discomfort of some kind, in order to shut them down, that is how the device works, it does not “teach” them how to control their impulses, it shuts them down, or not. This is done by way of stress. Again, many dogs are in a state of excitement, frustrations and fear when on a walk, however…no dogs anywhere at anytime need to be led around by their neck and potentially choked or stuck with metal prongs, ever.

Social Implications of Prong and Choke collars

  • With prong collars your dog looks scary, mean, threatening and or dangerous. You play into the stereotype if you have a dog that may be looked upon intrinsically as “big” “scary” etc…
  • Choke and Prong collars sends the message that the dog is “different” and needs to be treated with force.
  • It creates an image that will lead some to think the dog’s handler is possibly a harsh person with the dog.

People that like to look at dogs will make a judgment about all dogs on leash no matter what the dog is doing. The dog may be perceived as scary when it fact the dog is just wearing a scary collar and shut down, or not, many dogs still react on the prong or choke collars, and that will assuredly create an atmosphere of concern for most people witnessing it.

Here are some suggestions to improve your leash walking experience. If you know someone that has a dog on a choke or a prong collar suggest these options.

1 – The Freedom Harness by 2 Hounds is the only piece of gear I have ever used that I can across the board recommend for all dogs. It is secure and it is comfortable for most dogs. It has a clip on the front and the back. When a dog has their body weight evenly distributed and the handler feels secure the dog will not get loose, proper work can be accomplished be it leash walking or counter conditioning to reduce reactivity.

2 – Learn how to handle a leash. Learn how to maneuver your feet, work on your hands, and learn how to teach the dog a series of cues, leave it, touch, wait, stay and heel in order to orchestrate the walk in a communicative way. Find someone in your area that uses all positive methods and has great leash mechanics. There are instructional videos at the end of this blog as well.

3 – Learn about the dog’s natural scent detection sequence. This is called Search Decide Track. Once you know the dog’s patterns and sequences and intrinsic way the dog likes to gather scent, your dog will love you for it and you will see a less stressed dog. Gather scents is why the dog s out there to begin with. There will be a link for a video for scent at the end of this blog.

4 – Reactive dogs are either fearful or frustrated, and that frustration may be in the excitation category or in the apprehensions category, and some dogs may be a bit of both, it translates into stress. Much of the behavioral pathology of leash reactive dogs depends on the distance of the stimuli be it humans, other dogs or environmental stuff like bikes or skateboards, and of course prey can be challenging. The big variable is the human that is counter conditioning the dog. When they are using proper safe methods to train and condition the dog they are going to be getting better results each day and the dog will stay healthier all around.

All of theses scenarios that the dog may react in by barking and or lunging can be reduced by way of counter conditioning. See the link to a video on counter conditioning at the end of blog.

5 – Remember; some dogs, and perhaps more than we’d all like to admit, are already a bit intrinsically stressed by way of being contained and not having the ability to enact the Fight Flight Freeze responses in a way they naturally would. So go easy, and be empathetic to this fact, the dog is working to control the environment as best as they can. Humans can really help dogs by learning about how they see the world and process information. It makes all the difference to them and the handlers of them that “get it” really have less stress and more success.

Leash walking is a dance, and for the reactive dogs it is a sport, and the opponent is the environment. In order for the dog and the human to do well they both need to have some behavioral leeway and flexibility as far as training criteria and managing away from some scenarios ahead of time. There is never any harm in noticing something potentially challenging and managing the dog away.

This is especially true if you feel that the dog or yourself may not be able to finesse the event safely or without a reactive episode being rehearsed, behavior that is rehearsed becomes stronger; so rehearse the behavior you like.

Stay safe, have fun and work with your dog’s natural abilities and work on your skills not with a tool or a “system”.

Below are some helpful links. Thanks for reading!

Freedom Harness by 2 Hounds

Less Stress More Success Leash Walking and Leash Reactivity videos


Leash Mechanics

Reducing Pulling

Counter ConditioningReducing Leash Reactivity

Cognition & Memory – What is your dog learning and remembering on a walk?

Dr. Robert Sapolsky The Limbic System lecture April 30th 2010

Old Dogs Learning New Tricks: Neuroplasticity Beyond the Juvenile Period. Angeline S. Lillard and Alev Ersir University Of Virginia 2011

This research paper makes a great case for many aspects of behavior modification and counter conditioning dogs on leash. One of the old adages is that the dog is “too old to learn” or “Stubborn”, thus the dog is not given any training or has harsh training. These determinations of the dogs motivations are human constructed narratives and not founded in any factual basis.

Neuroscience confirms the “instantaneous” learning seen in dogs and backs up, for me, any doubt that indeed dogs can learn at any age or stage as long as the humans are obtaining the proper information and implementing it. This is a very good read fo all dog trainers and behaviorists.

Applied Dog Behavior and Training Volume 1. Adaptation & Learning. Steven R. Lindsay (2000)

Used as a cross reference with research and behavior studies and or lectures of Dr. Sapolsky.

Prong is Wrong



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