Head collars, harnesses, slip chains, martingales and “pokey” styles – so many collars, so little information!
How do we choose the RIGHT collar to train our dog? In case you haven’t noticed, trainer recommendations differ widely when it comes to dog training collars. One will advise a head halter, another will prefer a classic slip chain, while still another will recommend either a metal or plastic “pokey” style for your dog. The nerve-wracking part for the dog owner is that each trainer often condemns all other collars when they are recommending their favorite style. If a head collar is preferred, they warn against the evils of slip chains or pokey styles; if pokey styles are preferred, the trainer may “pooh-pooh” head collars as ineffective. What gives, and how can the average dog owner make sense of it all??
A full, informative and fair review of training collars is way overdue, I think. Let me give it a whirl from what I hope will be a more broadminded, natural perspective. What I’ll do is review the major training collar styles from the DOG’S PERSPECTIVE, because the purpose of any training collar is to communicate with the dog: where you want him to go, where you don’t want him to go; what you want him to do or not do, etc. Collars are tools for communication. Which collar communicates what to the dog, and how? I’ll try to answer these questions and I hope you find my take on the subject interesting and insightful. I hope it inspires more questions and comments and opportunities for discussion. Drumroll, please…
Head Collars and Harnesses
You’ve seen dogs being walked in head collars. You may have even mistaken a head collar for a muzzle. There are several different brands on the market (IE: Halti, Gentle Leader), but they each have one thing in common: control through the physical restraint of a nose band. When the dog pulls ahead on the leash attached to a head collar, pressure is put on the dog’s muzzle (by the noseband) which slowly brings his head to the side and interrupts the physics of pulling. Harnesses also utilize physical restraint as their modus operandi, whether the leash attaches classically on top of the back, or in front of the chest.
From the dog’s perspective, head collars and harnesses mimic the mother dog, who uses physical restraint to teach her young pups boundaries and to stop behaviors she does not approve of. Before weaning age, she will often put the pup’s muzzle in her mouth to restrain him until he stops whatever he is doing. (This is the rationale behind head collars). Or, she will use her legs and paws or body to physically restrain the wayward youngster. (Like a harness stops a dog’s body). As the pups mature, however, these maternal maneuvers become less and less effective – like trying to hold a child’s hand to cross the street when they are 12 instead of 3. It works for the 3 year old, but the 12 year old will have none of it. Once a puppy has left the mother and entered life in the adult dog world, simple physical restraint is not very effective. He is now learning his boundaries from older dogs who use growls, barks and nips. Mother dogs, by the way, also teach their puppies this adult dog “language” before weaning age to prepare them for this next developmental life stage. They will curl their lip, growl, bark and even nip their puppies. It is their way of teaching their offspring the language of dogs (I call it Dogtalk) that they will need as they leave her and move on through their adult lives.
Because our pet dogs come into our families after weaning age, it is not unusual for head collars and harnesses to be ineffective, or marginally effective. The dog has already grown out of the developmental stage in which a head collar or harness could have been more clearly understood.
There is ONE EXCEPTION, though! Certain dogs retain their puppy-like personalities even after they mature physically. The scientific term for this phenomenon is “neoteny”. It means the retention of juvenile characteristics into adulthood. These neotenized dogs are consistently sweet, submissive, compliant and eager to have their “mommy” tell them what to do, regardless of their age. Neotenized dogs can do GREAT on headcollars and in harnesses, because these speak to their juvenile characteristics. I have trained a number of adult dogs successfully on headcollars.
Slip Collars and Martingales
Now here we enter the swirling waters of disagreement between dog trainers.
Slip chains (also called choke chains) are a classic dog training tool that has been around for years and years. Because, however, slip chains can be used in a variety of ways – from benign to dangerous – most trainers are respectful of them, and some eschew them altogether. I’ve never liked extremes or sweeping generalizations because I don’t find them fair. That’s the case for me and slip collars. Can they be dangerous if used too roughly on tiny dogs? Yes! That’s why very few trainers recommend them for toy breeds. Can they be dangerous to larger dogs when used too strongly or in anger by the owner or trainer? Of course. Are they inherently dangerous? I don’t think so.
Properly used, a slip chain collar simply uses a combination of sound and physical sensation to communicate boundaries to your dog. A quick, but light snap of the leash makes a “zip” sound as the chain runs through the ring (like a “bark” in Dogtalk), and the quick tightening of the collar also sends a light “nip” message. The adult dog is naturally controlled by the barks and nips of his pack mates in Dogtalk everyday, so a slip chain is potentially an effective communication tool. If your dog responds to this light “bark and nip” message from the slip chain collar, it might be a great choice for you. I’m using a slip chain to train a Doberman right now, and a light touch from it is perfect for his sensitive personality.
A Martingale collar is sort of a cross between and normal flat collar and a slip chain. The part of the martingale that goes around the front of the dog’s neck is usually flat nylon webbing, with a tightening chain portion across the back of the neck. When the leash is snapped, it makes only the “zip” sound. The “nip” is not there. Because there is no chain in contact with the dog’s throat or trachea, a martingale collar does not have the same potential for dangerous misuse as its classic slip chain cousin.
Dare I speak of these? There are no collars on the market more controversial than “pokey” styles, so I’ll cover them at length. I’m talking about the collars also referred to as “prong collars” or “pinch collars”. Traditionally, these were always metal, with “prongs” that apply quick, pinpoint pressure on the dog’s neck when the leash is snapped. The metal versions continue to be the most widely used, but recently a more dialed-down, plastic version has made its way onto the market for more sensitive dogs. Whether plastic or metal, both collars work on the same principle – translating a leash snap into a “nip” at the dog’s neck. This “nip” communicates a behavioral boundary to the dog, just like a canine pack mate would do in Dogtalk.
Can pokey collars be misused? Indeed! Are they evil? Do they cause aggression in dogs? Are they inhumane? Not if they are used correctly. What’s correct and what’s incorrect? Now THAT is where the discussion should be centered. Properly used, these collars can be a godsend for a dog owner; improperly used, they can be disastrous. The devil’s in the details. Like water – too little, we perish; too much, we drown.
The sole purpose of a pokey-style collar is to communicate a “nip” in Dogtalk. To use this collar correctly, it is imperative to understand, however, that when dogs nip each other they do not necessarily do it in anger or want to fight. A nip between dogs is just communication, as one dog defines a behavioral boundary for another. Once one dog’s boundary is understood by the other, both dogs resume their play. No harm, no foul. Life is good.
When humans use a pokey (nipping) collar in the correct matter-of-fact, non-emotional way, my experience is that this collar is not only safe but capable of producing profound results AND a happy dog. The dog understands exactly the boundary that is being communicated, whether it is to say “Don’t pull”, or “Please don’t get up when I’ve asked you to Stay”. On the other hand, I’ve seen these collars used to punish, to intimidate, to hurt or to confront – and when misused in this way, they can indeed create a defensive reaction in the dog. If someone were beating up on me instead of just talking, I’d fight back, too. In cases where the pokey-style collar is misused, I don’t blame the collar. I blame the “jerk” at the other end, pun intended.
Because pokey-style training collars can communicate so clearly, they are frequently useful at the beginning of a training program to quietly convey the leadership dynamic and basic boundaries. Once those are established, the trainer or dog owner is often able to transition down to a more subtle style of training collar for maintenance purposes. This might take the form of a slip chain, a martingale or head collar, depending on the dog.
It is a shame that this last category of training collars has been so vilified. It is almost routine to hear them referred to as “shock collars”, as if their very intent was to cause unspeakable pain and torture. Of course this is absurd, although the potential for misuse of an electronic collar is exponentially greater than for the misuse of other collar styles. The irony is that although the potential for misuse is high, the educated and correct use of this tool holds greater off leash and distance training potential than all other collars combined. It’s a conundrum.
A remote collar allows an owner (man or woman) to give a subtle, yet clear, I-still-control-you control signal to a dog that is off-leash, at a distance and otherwise unreachable and unmanageable. The signal is similar to that of a nip-like leash tug, only it is sent electronically. On one hand I have seen these collars abused by those who let anger infect their training, and on the other hand, I have seen the world of off-leash freedom opened up to dogs properly trained on remote collars. Certainly, ANY use of a remote collar MUST include professional guidance! If you are considering a remote collar, make an appointment with a trained professional that is familiar with their use.
All training collars are communication devices. The RIGHT training collar is the one that communicates most effectively with YOUR dog! It’s really that simple.
All training collars are communication devices. The RIGHT training collar is the one that communicates most effectively with YOUR dog. It’s really that simple!