Should these types of dog collars be banned in favor of force-free alternatives?
“Collars are a vital part of dog ownership. They allow pet parents to walk their pup on a leash and they provide a place to hang ID and vaccination tags. However, if used in the wrong way, collars can lead to serious or even fatal injury.” —Lindsay Lowe, “5 Ways Collars Can Harm Your Dog“
Dog collars can cause a good deal of physical and psychological harm to dogs.
Numerous people who choose to share their lives with a dog also choose to use various types of collars, including electric shock collars (e-collars), choke collars, or prong collars that are connected to different sorts of leashes, both of which give people varying degrees of control over their canine companions. The use of any type of restraint, whether a collar that goes around a dog’s neck or a front-clip harness, is elective. Their use is discretionary, optional, or voluntary. This essay was written with Boulder (Colorado) force-free certified dog trainer, Mary Angilly, who, in December 2017, started a campaign to ban shock, choke, and prong collars in the city.
We mediate and control access to the physical and social worlds of our dogs quite a bit. We decide when they eat, what they eat, when and with whom they play and also decide when, where, and for how long dogs get to be outside each day and, perhaps more subtly, by imposing the physical constraints of collars and leashes, which guide the speed and direction of a dog’s movements. These tools of control are often necessary, but we should remain alert to the diverse ways in which they can inhibit a dog’s freedoms and the ways these devices can themselves be harmful to our dogs and to us. Our goal should be to use these tools to facilitate access to a wide variety of positive physical and social experiences and to allow our dogs as much agency as possible so that they can control and make choices that suit them.
Why do so many people choose to use various devices that make direct contact with a dog’s neck and are known to inflict stress, discomfort, and pain, and potentially have long-term negative effects on dogs? Collars are known to be associated with whiplash, fainting, spinal cord injuries, paralysis, crushing of the trachea, partial or complete asphyxiation, crushing or fracture of the bones in the larynx, dislocation of the vertebrae in the neck, bruising of the esophagus, damage to the skin and tissue of the neck, prolapsed eyeballs, and brain damage. (See “Is Your Dog’s Collar Dangerous?“) Dr. Jennifer Cattet notes, “A study of 424 dogs seen by chiropractors revealed that 91% of them who had neck injuries were pullers or had experienced jerking on the leash by the guardian (Hallgren, 1991).”
Along these lines, Mary told me that while she was working as a veterinary technician, before she had much knowledge of training or behavior, a dog was rushed into the vet clinic with a prolapsed eye. When the client was asked what happened to her dog, she frantically told us that she was just walking him and it happened out of nowhere. We found out that her dog, while on a choke collar, started pulling when he saw another dog across the street, so much so that his paws came off the ground. The guardian did not want to lose control of her dog, so she pulled him back toward her and continued to do so until the dog across the street was out of sight. When she looked down, her dog’s eye had prolapsed. The veterinarian was ultimately able to save the dog’s eye. They got lucky. The woman left her choke collar at the vet clinic and took with her a donated harness.
It seems like the use of collars is a readily accepted part of dog guardianship. When asked why they use a particular type of restraint, people often say something like, “It’s the thing to do,” or someone who knows about dogs told them to do so. Another story that came our way involved a woman who discovered that a doggy day care center was using a prong collar on her dog without her permission. At first she thought it was okay, but she had a bad feeling about it. It is not okay. Doing this is utterly unacceptable and thoroughly unprofessional. And, while it’s very clear that e-collars and prong collars are used because they cause psychological stress and pain, many people don’t realize that choke collars also can cause a good deal of pain, suffering, and injury to dogs who wear them.
If you choose to use a restraining collar, why do you do so? If you were told you had the option to teach a child how to read by physically punishing them for every word they said incorrectly (option A) or by working incrementally and rewarding the words they got correct (option B), and that you could achieve the same results no matter which way you taught the child, which would you choose? Why? The answer may seem quite obvious, yet every day we choose option A via aversive devices like electric, choke, and prong collars for our companion dogs when successful, force-free alternatives are readily available. Choke collars and collars with sharp prongs, which are designed to make pulling painful, can also do serious damage if not used with extreme caution and under carefully controlled conditions.
Many trainers advise against these types of collars altogether, in part because the risk of injury to dogs is significant. Contrary to popular belief, dogs don’t have thick skin on their necks, nor does their fur protect them from pressure on the neck. The San Francisco SPCA’s website points out that the skin on a human’s neck is ten to fifteen cells thick, whereas the skin on a dog’s neck is only three to five cells thick. “So,” they write, “if you think wearing a prong collar would hurt, imagine how your dog feels.”
Along these lines, Dr. Zazie Todd, who runs the Companion Animal Psychology website, notes, “We tend to think that since dogs have fur they must be more protected from these things than us with just our skin. But a dog’s neck is a very sensitive area. If you think about the anatomy of the neck, it contains essential things like the windpipe. Applying pressure to the windpipe is not good for any dog but can be especially serious in brachycephalic dogs who already struggle to breathe.”
Prong and choke collars are typically placed on dogs with serious pulling issues. Many dogs will still pull, despite the discomfort, and are at risk of injury to their necks. Chest harnesses that clip in the front are a better choice for hard-pulling dogs because dogs generally dislike the sensation of being pulled to one side. It’s always good to remember that a dog’s neck is delicate and can be injured by violent jerks on a neck collar and even, presumably, by sustained hard pulling. Most of us have seen dogs straining so hard against their collar in their excitement to move forward that they can hardly breathe and sound a bit like Darth Vader. For this reason, more and more trainers and veterinarians are recommending that a dog be walked or run on a chest harness.
Leashes restrict dogs’ ability to have control of their lives and to make choices
Ultimately, a leash is simply a tool, a kind of umbilical cord between human and dog that can be used well or poorly. Used well, it gives dogs access to their world and can be a critically important freedom enhancer. Without leashes, dogs wouldn’t be able to go many places with us. Used poorly, the leash can become a source of severe physical and sensory deprivation and harm. We need to be responsive to what’s happening on both ends of the leash, and a walk should involve ongoing negotiations and mutual tolerance between dog and human.
Leash pulling is certainly one of the most frequent points of contention between human and dog, and it may be one reason that many dogs don’t get walked: It can become a real headache for someone to try to walk a dog who constantly tugs and pulls and strains. Walking on a leash is not a natural behavior for a dog, and indeed it goes against their natural instincts to run and explore. This is why we often need to devote considerable time and attention to training dogs how to walk nicely when on lead. This leash training is extremely important for puppies, but even adult dogs who haven’t been properly schooled in polite leash walking can learn to accommodate their human. For their part, humans will be well rewarded for time spent helping their dog understand the how and why of leashes with many happy miles of walking together as a team.
Leashes and collars are tools of control and should be used very carefully
In Unleashing Your Dog: A Field Guide to Giving Your Canine Companion the Best Life Possible, Jessica Pierce and I write that while “tools of control are often necessary, we should remain alert to the diverse ways in which they can inhibit a dog’s freedoms and the ways these devices themselves can be harmful.”
Research tells us that the use of force via aversive equipment is not only ineffective but can be psychologically and physically damaging. According to a review article published by Gal Ziv, “the results show that using aversive training methods (e.g., positive punishment and negative reinforcement) can jeopardize both the physical and mental health of dogs. In addition, although positive punishment can be effective, there is no evidence that it is more effective than positive reinforcement-based training. In fact, there is some evidence that the opposite is true.”
Research showing that force-free, positive reinforcement-based techniques are better for both human and dog is overwhelming, so much so that there is a growing list of countries that have banned shock collars, for example, Wales, Scotland, Switzerland, Slovenia, Germany, Austria, Sweden, Slovenia, and some territories in Australia. The United States is yet to follow. Toronto (Canada) attempted a ban on prong and choke collars, and it passed, but was then turned over within the next month. Quebec will institute a ban on choke, prong, and shock collars in 2020.
Why are these collars still so popular in 2019 when we “know” better?
Whether or not a dog wearing an e-collar, prong collar, or shock collar is largely “happy” or living a “good life,” the reason these devices work is that they cause some degree of discomfort, pain, or distress (regardless of the level of intensity). Otherwise, they wouldn’t work. Period. In an essay called “What is Positive Punishment in Dog Training?” Dr. Zazie Todd writes, “Lack of control over something can in itself be a source of stress. The other thing to remember is the way it works. If it works to stop a behaviour, it must be because the animal found it aversive (if they liked it or didn’t notice it, it wouldn’t reduce the frequency of the behaviour).”
Do the ends really justify the means? Is it worth it to subdue and suppress behavior, to use the threat of pain to train a dog? Where do we draw the line?
“As long as we are looking for shortcuts to proper training, both the dog and the guardian will likely suffer long term consequences from a poor choice of training tools, a poor use of these tools and the negative side effects from their aversive properties.” —Jennifer Cattet, “Choke collars, prong collars or flat collars are harmful training tools.”)
There are few quick fixes with dog training. Truly modifying behavior takes time and consistency. Punishment often appears to work quickly (who wouldn’t want to avoid a painful or uncomfortable correction?) but the fallout can be significant. Another point that is important to stress—a larger systemic issue facing dogs, their guardians, and dog trainers—is that there is no regulation in the dog training industry. (See “Choose a Dog Trainer as Carefully as You Would a Surgeon” and “Dog Training’s Dirty Little Secret: Anyone Can Legally Do It.”)
Due to the lack of oversight and requirement for education, certification, or professional standards, as well as the often ambiguous language used by various dog trainers, many well-meaning dog guardians who just want the best for their dogs are being misled and often talked into using force, fear, and pain to train. Sometimes they don’t even know this is happening. When presented with alternative methods, many dog guardians are not only readily willing to discontinue the use of force, but relieved to do so. That should tell us something. Consider the woman about whom Mary wrote who chose to leave her choke collar at the veterinary clinic after her dog suffered from a prolapsed eye.
It’s important to keep in mind that using harmful collars are elective. As eloquently put by Jean Donaldson of The Academy for Dog Trainers in an essay called “If They Could March,” “They’re elective on easy dogs and they’re elective on dogs with behaviors we dislike, including dogs who lunge and pull on leash and growl and snap and bite. More sophisticated behavior modification and management technology that is without any violence has been widely disseminated. Thousands of trainers and I’d wager millions of owners train their dogs—easy dogs and challenging dogs—and manage their behavior without any of this stuff. They don’t hurt them at all to train them. Not once. In other words, the use of violence in dog training is not correlated with particular dogs or with particular behavior problems. It’s practitioner-correlated.”
On the other end of the spectrum, there are also dog trainers who are force-free and rewards-based who lack the education and knowledge base to be effective concerning choices of neck restraints. This muddies the water for guardians seeking help with their companion dogs: If a force-free trainer with whom they worked didn’t help them, does that push them to work with a trainer who uses force?
Should e-collars, prong collars, or choke collars be banned?
As we were completing this essay, Mary told me the following story that horrified me. Just last week, while at a local dog park, she saw a very social puppy who was running up to every strange human and dog she passed, excitedly soliciting attention, with a loose, exuberantly waggy body. When shown attention, she licked human hands and dog faces with something that could only be described as joy. Mary saw her guardian, who looked upset, pick her up and take her to the car after a solid ten minutes of yelling, “Down!” How, Mary wondered, can anyone be upset with having a social puppy? As a trainer, Mary sees many dogs struggling with fear, reactivity, and aggression toward unfamiliar people and dogs. This puppy’s social behavior was a gift!
A short time later, Mary saw the puppy and guardian re-enter the park, with the puppy wearing an e-collar. The puppy resumed her buoyant behavior, this time heading toward Mary and her dog, Buster. She jumped up to greet Mary and her owner shocked her for jumping while she was trying to say hello. Mary writes, “I’ve seen situations like this more times than I can count at local dog parks and trails. As a trainer, it breaks my heart, because I know how the story often goes…while the owner may have been intending to diminish and disrupt jumping, she was likely unintentionally building an association between strangers, dogs, and shock. This can create a scenario in which, at best, a dog doesn’t offer any behaviors due to fear, and at worst, a dog who becomes more reactive, worried, and overtly aggressive, leading to bites.”
Aversive collars are unfortunately just one side effect of antiquated dog training practices and lack of regulation in the industry. While establishing a governing body regulating the dog training industry is essential and necessary now, it will take time. At the very least, as a thoughtful species, we can most certainly begin to question and ponder the use of clearly aversive equipment such as electric, choke, and prong collars. If we love our companion animals so very much, the call to treat them kindly should be paramount, and there’s no reason why these devices shouldn’t be banned in favor of readily available and less aversive force-free alternatives. It’s good to know that when many people learn how bad they really are, they stop using them. This surely is a win-win for all.
As in all different sorts of dog-human interactions, what’s good for the human must be good for the dog.
Some of the above is excerpted from Unleashing Your Dog: A Field Guide to Giving Your Canine Companion the Best Life Possible. Marc thanks Jessica Pierce for her collaboration on this and other projects.
Note: I just received an interesting email asking if it’s possible that some dogs hold grudges against their guardians and trainers who mistreat them with aversive collars and “other abusive training techniques.” We suppose it’s possible because dogs surely are not unconditional “love muffins.” (See “Do Dogs Hold Grudges?” and links therein.) Another asked if perhaps dogs, because they read human faces, including angry faces, very well, might get a “bad feeling” from their human when they choose to use something that causes them pain. They also wondered if this could have long-term “trust issues.” This also could be possible. (See “Dogs Watch Us Carefully and Read Our Faces Very Well.“) And Tom asked, “Why do so-called ‘balanced trainers’ get so cavalier about causing dogs harm? Is it because it works so rapidly and they don’t care what the dog thinks and feels?”
Bekoff, Marc. Is It Time to Ban Shock Collars for Dogs In All Situations? Psychology Today, June 22, 2018.
_____. Science Shows Positive Reward-Based Dog Training is Best. Psychology Today, January 29, 2019.
_____. What and Who Dogs Want and Need: Love, Not Shocks. Psychology Today, January 25, 2018.
_____. Living With a Dog Is Good, If It’s Good for You and the Dog. Psychology Today, December 4, 2017.
Ziv, Gal. “The Effects of Using Aversive Training Methods in Dogs: A Review.” Journal of Veterinary Behavior 19 (2017): 50–60. .