August 27, 2013

Raisa Stone: Which Dog Collar or Harness is Right For You?


I get a lot of questions about the effect and purpose of various types of gear for dogs. I'm also the type of person who'll walk up to strangers and say politely, "May I show you how to use that?"

And once in a while, "Um, you have your choke chain on backwards." It's always some big blustery dude, but I brave on anyway, for the poor dog's sake.

I started in "old school" Kennel Club Obedience classes with my Dad, our two Great Danes and Boston when I was seven.

I've shown and trained dogs of many descriptions and temperaments, and worked with countless rescue and shelter animals. I was privileged to learn from German trainer Otto Prockert, who worked almost exclusively telepathically and with "a quiet word," and also from Chuck Eisenmann, beloved trainer of The Littlest Hobo.

I routinely work with Animal Communication clients who also request assistance with training tips. My practice successfully helps animals who range from ultra-timid, to ones on death row due to aggression.

I've tried just about every type of collar. No matter which you use, the better part of training is first explaining and visualizing what you want your pet to do. It's important to figure out what motivates them, too. Some dogs love an energetic, playful tone, while others prefer you to be serious and focused.

You can't just fasten any type of collar or harness on them, yell, "Heel!" and expect them to understand. Training is an art and a science. This article is meant to briefly describe commonly used tools, and clear up confusion about these.

Here's a rundown: 

Martingale: This is a flat collar with a built in safety chain. It tightens the collar when the dog pulls, but does not squeeze the neck. 

Pros: No strain on neck, if dog doesn't pull. A great choice if your dog walks easily at your side, and you just want the assurance of a collar that will not easily slip over her head if she backs up. Strictly a safety collar.

Cons: The martingale is often misunderstood as a training tool, a sort of "half choke chain." Snapping it does nothing to correct a dog's behavior, teach her to heel, etc. I've seen too many people snapping the martingale, as if it's supposed to have a training effect. The noise just annoys the dog.

Choke chain: A short term training tool, for experienced hands. Used correctly, it gives a little "zip" to the large exterior neck muscle. 

Pros: Used correctly, it can work. I prefer the very thin chain, which I test on my own skin.

Cons: Used incorrectly or long term, it literally chokes, bruises and can permanently damage the windpipe. For short term use only. Should never be left on dog, as she can strangle. Seen applied backwards too many darn times. If so, the chain never releases, and the poor dog is in a state of constant discomfort and confusion.

Prong collar: Digs blunted points into the neck. Usually used for particularly strong pullers who are resistant to the "zip" of the milder choke chain. 

Pros: Gives the user a false sense of security that the dog has been trained. 

Cons: It hurts! Can cause long term damage. Points can damage eyes. Many people pull it on and off over the head, rather than unfasten. Pulled hard enough, can damage the neck.  

Instilling fear of pain is not good training. It creates fear and resentment, and as soon as an animal figures out they can either resist or get away from pain, they'll rebel against you.

Haltie: Fashioned after horse halters, to control the dog's head, rather than neck. 

Pros: Gives better control than a flat collar. Doesn't usually slip off. Looks cool.

Cons: Dogs do not have thick, strong necks like horses. A sudden run to the end of the leash can snap the neck and cause both vertebral and muscular injury.

Top clip harness: Used by people who don't like putting a collar on the neck. Also for tiny dogs whose fragile necks can't withstand pulling.

Pros: Hard to squirm out of, so high safety factor in public. Comfy for small dogs, especially if padded. The only option for cats.

Cons: Dog harnesses were invented for pulling heavy loads, like carts and sleds. In modern society, that heavy load is usually YOU. Dogs like to brace against them. Not a training tool in the least. Not for medium to large dogs, anyway. 

Many tiny dogs get along with a harness just fine. Harnesses are the only option I know of for leash training cats.

Fitting must be ultra careful, as potential for rub sores and even dislocating leg and shoulder joints exist. Harness must be routinely checked for sizing, as a small weight loss or gain (the dog's) can cause fit and comfort problems. The sling type with velcro can come undone.

Front clip harness: I'm a fan.These work by giving the dog's ribs a squeeze when he pulls. He immediately looks up at you for guidance. 

Pros: Trains the worst pullers to stop this, in short order. I worked with a big, unruly adult Mastiff/Pit X at Animal Control who'd never been leash trained. 

She liked constantly leaping up at her handler, which could be injurious. Everyone at the shelter was at wits' end. She was unadoptable as she was, but too sweet to give up on.

I explained what I wanted from her, and gave two small tugs on the front clip harness when she jumped and pulled. Lots of praise when she heeled and sat. By the end of a half hour, we were really in synch, and I didn't even need to tug.

I'm physically disabled with a spinal crush injury. With the front clip, I can work with even dogs like this, without exacerbating my chronic pain.

Cons: Prolonged use can damage the dog's spine and ribs, and create joint problems. This is a powerful tool. Not for people who use a leash like they're starting a lawn mower, when a simple gesture with two fingers will do. 

As with any tool, you must have lessons to use the front clip. Judiciousness and delicacy with your hands are a must. 

Millan's Illusion collar: Works like a choke chain, but not as "zippy." 

Pros: It does work as described. It keeps the collar behind the dog's ears for the duration of the training session. You don't have to reach down and adjust it, like a chain.

Cons: May provide a minutely longer choke effect due to fabric instead of chain.  The pro is also the con. If you want to take a leisurely walk before or after your training session, this collar doesn't relax lower on the neck. 

Because it looks cool, is celebrity-related and costs significantly more than a chain choke, may stay in use much longer than is warranted for training. I'm a fan of removing a training tool AS SOON as no longer needed.

Flat/rolled leather or web: These collars are for puppies and well trained dogs who will heel, or walk obediently beside you. 

Pros: No strain on neck, if the dog doesn't pull. If you're blessed to meet a trainer who can show you how to genuinely train your dog without the need for a choke chain or front clip---hang on and don't let go.

I like training dogs to heel in a flat or martingale collar by doing exercises around trees, lamp posts, mailboxes, etc. I make it a game, and make it seem spontaneous. I also heel them along a fence, and if they barge ahead, I just step my left leg in front and box them in. Then praise when they fall back to heel.

By the way, this is the only way to leash train cats. I use a harness, and would never dream of a corrective device. Cats don't forgive like dogs. Give cats plenty of time to roll around and ignore you during lessons.

Cons: Big strain on neck muscles and larynx (voice box), if dog does pull. Not a correction device. Can be wiggled out of. Of the incidents where dogs escape the leash, a flat collar is usually involved.

I've met people who think it's humane to use a flat collar and endlessly tug on it while the dog gags. They're usually the ones loudly proclaiming the inhumane nature of any other type of training tool. We've all seen these folks. They need lessons, badly. A briefly used choke chain or front clip harness is much more humane than months or years being "softly choked" with a collar.

Please don't leave collars on unsupervised. A dog can get hung up and choke. If you rely on the collar to i.d. your dog in case of loss, you're much better off to get her microchipped.

A word about leashes: Use a six-twelve foot leather, web or vinyl lead, folded in your hand. Cotton horse lead shanks also look cool on big dogs, are very sturdy, and feel nice in your hand. Avoid the nylon ones.

If you have one of those trendy leashes that come slithering out of a toilet paper dispenser (sorry, that's what it looks like to me), promise me you'll cut it up and recycle it. It's not only a deadly fashion faux pas, but more dogs have been hurt and killed from getting out of control with those things...

I always knew they belong in the bathroom

Shock collar: Just. Don't. Whether for "training" or as part of your electric fence system.There are so many things that can go wrong with an electronic device. These things can get stuck to deliver long term shock, or stuck on High. 

Dogs have been permanently damaged, physically and psychologically. Sometimes, dogs don't heed the shock, so people tighten the collar. The dog ends up with holes burned in his neck. Electricity is too risky to use on a living creature's body!

In conclusion:

I strongly recommend enrolling in obedience classes. It's possible to train a dog to heel, sit, stay and come without ever using a collar at all, but you need instruction. It's fun, and will create a life long bond. You can choose from private sessions with a trainer, to community based programs.

If you're wondering how your pet is enjoying their current training, book a session with me to speak with them. I can help you with suggestions for the best methods, as well as find out what kind of activities your dog would enjoy, e.g. would they like agility or tracking? Herding or protection work? Or are they a natural babysitter? 

Yours in the love of animals,
Raisa Stone
Expert Animal Communicator

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