A Hot Training Debate: Six Experts Discuss Training Collars

Mention the subject of training tools – especially collars – to a group of dog owners and a hot debate will immediately ensue. People feel strongly about these tools so for this article six experts who are highly regarded in their fields were invited to comment on training collars and tools. These experts (see sidebar) explain their thoughts on these training tools, training techniques, and even when a dog can be considered ‘trained’.

Our Experts

Mychelle Blake, MSW, CDBC, of Las Vegas, NV, is the Director of Communications for the Association of Pet Dog Trainers, the Editor-in-Chief of their award winning journal, The APDT Chronicle of the Dog, and a Community Training Partner with Best Friends Animal Society in Las Vegas, NV. She is a dog trainer and Certified Behavior Consultant. Martin Deeley, of Montverde, FL, is a renowned gundog trainer. He is a sought after speaker who has been a commentator at Crufts as well as numerous gundog events. He is the co-founder of the International Association of Canine Professionals. For more on Deeley go to http://www.martindeeley.com/. Ian Dunbar, PhD, M.R.C.V.S., of Berkeley, CA, a veterinarian, animal behaviorist, author, and dog trainer, is also the scientific director at www.dogstardaily.com. A well known author, he is also a highly sought after public speaker. Deb Eldredge, DVM, of Vernon, NY, is a veterinarian and a performance sports trainer and competitor. She has competed with several dogs but her current competition dog is a Belgian Tervuren, CH CT Summerstorm Coyote Dancing, CDX AX MXJ HSAs RAE OFP NAP AJP. Her website is www.coyote-run.net. Jan Gribble, CDT, of Socorro, NM, is an endorsed member of the National Association of Dog Obedience Instructors, Inc (NADOI) where she is currently serving as President. Gribble is also a professional member if the International Association of Canine Professionals (IACP). Her business is ABC Dog Training LLC. Cheryl S. Smith, CDBC, of Port Angeles, WA, is a dog trainer and a Certified Behavior Consultant. She has competed in obedience, agility, freestyle, and numerous talent competitions. Smith is also an evaluator for Delta Pet Partners Program, the AKC CGC, and she’s a judge for 4-H Rally. For more on her work go to www.writedog.com.

Training Tools

Most trainers have certain training tools that they use on a regular basis as well as special tools that can be pulled out of the tool bag for unique situations. Dr. Ian Dunbar says, “Training tools are anything that is used to train a dog, from lures, rewards, clickers, treats, leashes, collars, head halters, harnesses, to prong collars and electronic collars.” Training tools can help the dog’s owner train the dog by providing assistance so the owner can control the dog, communicate with the dog, or even speed up the process. Dr. Ian Dunbar, of Berkeley, CA, adds, “The dog cannot be considered trained if the training tool is still being actively used. Training tools then become management tools. A trained dog is a dog under good verbal off leash control even when distracted and at a distance.” Jan Gribble, ABC Dog Training LLC of Socorro, NM, agrees, “Relying upon equipment as a management device causes me great concern as and equipment can fail and such failures run the potential risk of injury or death if the owner does not have control over their dog without that management device.” Therefore, any tool should not be looked upon as the sole solution to a problem behavior. When using the tool, the owner should include specific training or behavior modification techniques so the dog’s behavior actually changes and eventually the tool is no longer needed.

Slip Collars

Slip collars are made of chain or nylon rope with a ring at each end. The collar is fed back through one ring (called the dead ring) and the leash is attached to the free ring (called the live ring). The collar constricts around the dog’s neck should the dog pull on it or the owner tighten the leash. Used correctly, this collar is never allowed to tighten and remain tight as the dog can then choke – hence the other name for this collar – choke chain. Instead, the owner should give a pop with the leash; an attention getting pop rather than a corrective jerk. Gribble says, “If used properly, the dog quickly learns how to ‘operate’ the collar and keep it loose, making the dog then responsible for its own actions.” Martin Deeley, of Montverde, FL, says, “My favorite collar is still the slip chain or rope slip leash. There are so many variations of touch, pressure and finesse you can apply with them. The dog learns the subtleties of the collar and reacts accordingly; much like a dressage horse does to the slightest weight change and pressures from the rider.” Gribble adds, “Slip collars are probably the most common training collar and yet they are sold without any instructions on how to properly size or how to use them. Thus many owners do not know how to use them correctly.” Cheryl Smith, of Port Angeles, WA, says, “A slip collar is a very difficult tool to use well. Timing has to be impeccable, amount of force has to suit the dog and the circumstances, and the tension has to be released immediately.”

Martingale

This collar is much like a buckle collar except that instead of having a buckle, a section of the collar is a free moving circle of either the collar material or chain. When fitted correctly, the dog should not be able to back out of the collar. Mychelle Blake, of Las Vegas, NV, says, “The Association of Pet Dog Trainers (APDT) does not recommend the use of training tools that cause unnecessary pain or fear to the animal because this can lead to additional undesirable behavior issues.” She adds that one of the training tools APDT might recommend – depending upon the dog and the situation – is the martingale collar. Gribble doesn’t necessarily consider the martingale a training collar but instead classifies it as a management tool. However, she says, “This is a safer collar (than many other choices) to use on a dog that is easily spooked and more likely to slip out of a regular buckle or quick release collar.” It is also her collar of choice for puppies. Smith disagrees about the effectiveness of this training tool, “Martingales have traditionally been used in the show ring, both to keep the dog from slipping its lead and to help keep the dog’s head up so the dog is showing prettily. In training, the leash should not be kept taut, so the martingale has no function beyond attaching a leash to the dog.” Gribble adds, “Most people have difficulty properly fitting a martingale collar, thus negating its safety features.” Deb Eldredge, DVM, of Vernon, NY, recommends that the collar should be as wide as possible to reduce any harm to the throat, particularly for smaller dogs.

Head Halters

Head halters have been made by several companies but all have a strap around the dog’s muzzle and one behind the head and ears. The dog is guided by the leash attached to the head halter; much like a halter on a horse. Dr. Eldredge says, “My daughter Kate (who also trains and competes in performance sports) has used head halters on her Australian Shepherd and Belgian Tervuren with success.” Deeley says, “The head halter is very good when the owner is small and the dog is strong.” Blake agrees that an owner with a large strong dog may need the extra control that a head halter might provide. Deeley and Blake also agree that a head halter might be the tool of choice for dogs with aggressive tendencies. Deeley says, “With a head halter I have the ability to control the mouth and close it for safety should the need arise.” Dr. Eldredge says, “One of the drawbacks to the head halter is correctly fitting it. Plus, I’ve talked to quite a few people who have trouble getting the head halters on their rambunctious dogs, or on correctly.” Gribble says, “If properly fitted, the head halter is very useful when working with reactive dogs.” She adds, “But the head halter can be depressing for some dogs and can take quite a bit of time to accustom the dog to it.” She also recommends that head halters be fitted correctly, and that it be used with a buckle collar as a back up in case the dog paws the head halter off.

No Pull Chest Harnesses

Harnesses made so that a dog could pull a wagon or sled allow the dog to pull freely and easily. The more recently invented no pull harnesses are designed to curtail the dog’s pulling with the goal of the dog walking more nicely on a leash. Smith says, “For no pull harnesses I prefer the design that has a front attachment and pulls the dog off stride if he pulls rather than the designs that tighten around the shoulders. For dogs that pull with less vigor than a steamroller, they seem to work well.” Deeley, however, likes the restrictive harness and says, “No pull harnesses have their limitations but there is a new one that applies gentle pressure around the body. The dog learns to work within that feeling.” However, he admits these are not perfect tools, “There are dangers associated with any training tool. In this case, when the tool is fitted and used incorrectly it can create fear and/or even aggression in a dog. The biggest problem here is that no pull harnesses can be difficult to put on the dog; especially a reactive dog.” Gribble has nothing positive to say about the no pull harnesses, “Every no pull harness I have seen demonstrated has been designed to cause discomfort when the dog pulls and yet does not offer a release from pressure when the dog is not pulling.” She adds they are also difficult for the owners to correctly fit.

Prong or Pinch Collars

Prong collars (also called pinch collars) are either metal or plastic, and have inward facing protrusions. When pressure is on the collar – from the dog or owner – the protrusions are pushed against the dog’s neck. “I have found both metal and plastic prongs very effective,” says Deeley. “Both can be self correcting for the dog and therefore need little technique to achieve success.” Dr. Eldredge feels the prong collar can be a problem solver for some owners and dogs, “The 90 year old frail grandmother who was given a young male black field type Labrador Retriever (honestly, this is a frequent Christmas gift) is much better off with a prong collar than a broken hip!” Gribble adds, “The prong collars give the owner extra control (power steering) especially if working with a large, rambunctious dog with no self control. Unfortunately, I have never seen instructions on how to properly fit or use prong collars attached to the collars in retail stores.” Gribble also emphasizes that a back up collar should also be used just in case the prongs come apart. Blake stresses that dog owners should, “Make training fun for all involved and use the least aversive tool possible.” She adds that certain tools that are aversive to the dog can potentially make fear and aggression problems worse. Smith agrees, “Because the prong collar can cause pain, it can create unwanted side effects.”

Vibrating Collar

The vibrating collar is an electronic collar that vibrates against the dog’s neck when triggered by the remote controlled by the owner. Several of our experts agreed that these collars have benefits for hearing impaired or deaf dogs. Smith says, “I’ve recommended the vibrating collar for deaf dogs; the vibration can be used as a signal when the dog is not facing the owner or when it is out of sight.” Gribble adds, “The vibrating collar is very useful for teaching attention when working with deaf dogs.” She continues by saying that this can also be a beneficial training tool when working a dog at a distance. She cautions that some dogs can have an extreme reaction to the vibration, thereby negating any training benefits the collar may have had. Deeley says, “I have used all of the training tools mentioned here and the one I like the least is the vibration collar. Variations in levels cannot be easily applied so there is no real ability to apply guidance and correction.”

All Our Experts Agree on Several Points

All of our experts agree that no matter what training tool is chosen, the dog’s owner must know how to fit the tool correctly to the dog. A slip collar that is too loose will be ineffective, for example, and the dog may easily back out of it. A head halter not fitted correctly could rub hair off the dog’s nose and irritate the eyes. There was also no debate that dog owners must use the training tool correctly and that training should accompany the use of the tool. These tools should not be used with the intention of using them for the dog’s lifetime but instead just until the dog can be taught alternative behaviors. 

Originally published in Dog World magazine, June 2010