New Mexico's Pet Resource WINTER 2003


THE COLLAR CONTROVERSY

TRAINING COLLARS

Text and photos by Jan Gribble, ABC Dog Training LLC - Albuquerque, NM

There is no "one size fits all" training method. The technique used should take into consideration the dog, the handler and the handler's expectations. Training a puppy requires a different approach than training an adolescent or adult dog. While most puppies can be easily taught manners on a regular buckle collar, many guardians of adolescent and adult dogs find trying to train an out-of-control dog on a buckle collar to be frustrating and ineffective.

In these instances, one option is to use a training collar to help the guardian. A training collar is simply a tool and, like any tool, it can be misused. Properly used, training collars are effective and humane. Improperly used, any type of collar or restraint can cause injury or harm. Leaving any type of collar or head halter on an unsupervised dog can be dangerous. The potential for injury to a dog needs to be weighed against the benefits of leaving a buckle collar with identification tags on a dog. Under no circumstances should a training collar or head halter be left on an unsupervised dog.

The two most commonly used training collars are the prong or pinch collar and the slip collar (choke chain). Before using any type of collar, head halter or harness on a dog, the guardian needs to understand how to properly fit and use the equipment.

Prong or pinch collars are often referred to as "power steering." These collars can be very effective in situations where a dog is a confirmed puller or when the guardian needs added control. Prong collars are "self-correcting" collars in that when a dog pulls on a leash, the collar will automatically tighten around the dog's neck and provide a correction. However, if a guardian relies upon the collar without teaching the dog the desired behavior, a dog can become desensitized to a prong collar and it will be ineffective. Prong collars should never be used without the leash also being attached to a back-up safety collar, such as a slip collar. Some dogs are more reactive to tactile stimuli and will not respond well to a prong collar. These dogs usually respond well to training with a slip collar.

Prong collars are available in four link sizes - micro, small, medium and large. Links can be added or removed for a proper fit. To properly fit a prong collar, unlink two links in the middle of the collar, place the collar around the dog's neck and re-fasten the two links. The collar should be placed high on the dog's neck, just under the ears. It should be snug enough so it doesn't slide down, but not so tight that you cannot get two fingers under a prong on the collar. To remove the collar, unlink two links in the middle of the collar. The links should be periodically checked to make sure they are secure. Pliers can be used to spread the prongs apart or tighten the links as necessary.

Slip collars are commonly referred to as "choke chains." Improperly used, this type of collar can indeed choke a dog. However, used properly, this is one of the most effective training collars available. It is also the safest collar to use when dealing with an aggressive dog. This type of collar is not recommended for dogs with flat faces, protruding eyes and/or very short muzzles.

To properly size and fit a slip collar, first hold the collar by one ring so the chain hangs straight down. Pick up the ring on the bottom and thread the chain through the bottom ring. If the dog is going to be on your left side, face the dog and hold the collar so the live ring (the ring the leash attaches to) forms the bottom of a P. Slip the collar over the dog's head. The collar should be fitted high on the dog's neck, just under the ears. If the slip collar is the correct size there will only be 2 to 3 inches of chain hanging once the collar is on. If the collar is too large it will not be effective. Check to make sure that when the leash is attached to the live ring the collar will loosen after a correction is given. If the collar does not loosen it is on incorrectly.

Although some people claim that training collars are dangerous, properly fitted and used, training collars are no more likely to cause injury or harm than any other type of collar or head halter.

Jan Gribble has been training dogs since 1987 and instructing classes since 1991. She is a member of the National Association of Dog Obedience Instructors and the Dog Writers Association of America.


COLLARS FOR PROBLEM DOGS

by Robert A. Gruda, DVM, Gruda Veterinary Hospital, Santa Fe, NM

Most people who visit our clinic have obedience-trained dogs who don't require specialized collars. Regular collars that don't tighten around the neck when pulled work fine. Occasionally we see dogs who do not respond to regular collars and constantly pull on their guardians' arms. Either these dogs were not properly obedience trained or they have personalities that make them unresponsive to regular collars. These dogs come in with a variety of restraints and their guardians are asking for help.

Many problem dogs come in already wearing choke chains. We really don't advocate or use choke chains often. Obviously the choke chain, if pulled hard, can hurt the windpipe. Left unattended, dogs on choke chains can asphyxiate themselves. They can potentially cause much damage. Although thousands of dogs have been trained on choke chains without incident, we always advise that there's a chance for harm with problem dogs, and we advocate other methods.

First, we steer them toward a halter-style collar called the Gentle Leader. This collar fits around the muzzle and the neck. When the guardian pulls back on the leash, the collar brings the head down and provides good restraint. This collar works often, works well, and usually causes no harm to the animal's neck. The guardian does have to remember not to jerk and pull the neck down aggressively. This type of restraint does not work for dogs with short muzzles.

The other commonly used tightening collar that doesn't choke is called a prong or pinch collar. It looks pretty hideous. Often guardians are afraid to use it, and some people do not recommend it. In some cases it is effective, especially with large, broad dogs like Rottweilers, German Shepherds, Chows, and Pit Bulls who will not always respond to other control methods. Large breed dogs can exert great force on a regular collar and pull their guardians around. In these cases, a prong or pinch collar can work for the guardian without harming the dog. The paired prongs go around the neck, providing surface tension over a wide area. I've never seen a case where the prongs puncture the skin. They simply tighten around the neck in a uniform manner, resulting in very effective restraint in most cases. Although we recommend proper obedience training first, if this training has not been successful, prong collars can work very well to keep both dog and guardian safe.

Some choke-type collars are very effective. For breeds like greyhounds and other slender-necked dogs, a wide, soft collar called a martingale provides good restraint. When the collar is tightened and the leash pulled back, it will not choke the dog because it distributes tension over a large surface area. This is one type of tightening collar that seems to work well without hurting the dog.

Shock collars are also controversial. We don't recommend them often because in most situations they don't work. Shock collars are usually considered for anti-barking or perimeter fencing use. The guardians of barking dogs are usually at wits' end. Often, excessive barkers lose their homes and end up in shelters. To prevent that from happening, we are aggressive in getting the dogs on a citronella collar. This collar sprays the dog with citronella whenever it barks - a scent that is unpleasant to dogs. The citronella collar can be highly effective. However, if the citronella doesn't work, we will try an anti-bark shock collar. We don't rule out a shock collar if wearing it results in a happy home because the dog has learned not to bark inappropriately.

Harnesses, which fit around the body and the shoulders, do not usually help with problem dogs. The benefit is that they don't go around the neck, so they can't cause neck trauma. But they're not very effective in controlling an animal. When you strap a harness on a dog, he may want to pull something around, which becomes problematic for the guardian.

It's important to point out that no matter what type of collar is used, a dog can sometimes get a head start on the guardian, causing a big jerk on the leash. A new leash on the market called the Soft Touch Safety Leash has a kind of spring load at the end where it hooks up to the collar. If the dog starts moving before the guardian, it stretches to prevent that sudden jerk that can hurt both the dog and the guardian.

Regular collars that don't tighten around the neck are fine for most dogs. Dogs who are difficult to train on leash represent very specific cases. In general, we try not to use choke chains because of the potential for injury. Good obedience training is the best way for guardian and dog to learn to work together effectively.

Robert A. Gruda, D.V.M. owns and operates Gruda Veterinary Hospital, a small animal and equine veterinary practice at the Turquoise Trail Business Park on Highway 14 in Santa Fe (505-471-4400).


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