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October 5, 2011 at 6:00 AM

Veterinary Q&A: Prong collars are safe — fact or fiction?

Posted by Neena Pellegrini

alix.JPGDr. Alix Partnow, a neurologist at VCA Veterinary Specialty Center of Seattle, with her two dogs, in prong collars. Photo by VSC

Dr. Alix Partnow, a neurologist at VCA Veterinary Specialty Center of Seattle, and Grisha Stewart, a Seattle dog trainer and author, answer this week's questions.

Question: Prong collars, sometimes known as pinch collars, are made of metal interlocking links, each with two blunt prongs that pinch the dog's skin when the collar is tightened. Under what circumstances should prong collars be used?

Partnow: To start off, I will say that there is no official professional stance among veterinarians regarding prong collars specifically.

As a dog owner, I will say that I use prong collars on my two large-breed dogs, a German shepherd and a pointer-mix. When the prong collars are on my dogs, they rarely pull on the lead; however, without the feel of the collar they are much more likely to be straining their necks against their soft collars.

As with other training devices, when used under supervision and in combination with proper behavioral training, these collars can be quite effective. However, these collars should not be left on an unattended animal (such as one tethered in the yard) or to train by negative reinforcement/inflicting pain.

Stewart: Never, because of the possible fallout. For example, some dogs can become aggressive on leash because they make an association of other dogs with pain -- every time they see another dog, their neck feels like it has been bitten.

There are always other tools. Front-attachment harnesses, such as the Freedom harness and the Xtradog harness, have a ring at the dog's chest and another at the shoulders for the leash, so physics is on your side. When the leash tightens, the dog usually turns, pivoting around the leash clip.

These harnesses can be quite effective and are my go-to tool for dogs that are hard to control in a flat collar or regular rear-attachment harness.

grisha-with-peanut.jpgTrainer Grisha Stewart, left, with her dog, Peanut.

In a few cases, harnesses are not enough, so a head collar can be used in combination with a harness. A head collar (i.e., K9 Bridle, Comfort Trainer, Halti) is like a horse bridle, with a collar loop and a loop over the dog's nose. The leash slips behind the head or under the chin, depending on the brand.

Light pressure allows you to steer the dog's head, with one end of the leash, while the harness is attached to the other end for sudden stops or lunging. I don't recommend using head collars alone, only in this kind of configuration.

It's important to take some time to get a dog used to a head collar, though, as it feels odd to them at first.

You can reward a dog for going in the direction you want or for looking at you. Just use some sort of marker (a word like "yes" or a clicker) to tell the dog exactly when he is doing what you want. Give a treat or toy each time.

If the dog is not very motivated by food, then you have several choices:

-- The dog may be overweight and need to go on an diet. When he's at a regular weight, he may be more food-motivated.

-- The training may need to begin in less distracting places.

-- The dog can be exercised before the walk.

-- You can actually use distractions as a reinforcer.

That last part is really powerful. If the dog wants to get to a squirrel, then at the instant that he steps back toward you to loosen the leash, say "YES!" and take one step forward. Wait for loosening again and repeat the process. It may take half an hour to get to a tree that the squirrel was in the first time, but the process gets exponentially faster as the dog "gets it."

Teach your dog that he can only get where he wants to go on a loose leash. Dogs do whatever works and like instant feedback.

There are lots of positive ways to teach leash walking, so if this doesn't work for you, go online or find a trainer to get more ideas.

Question: On which dogs in particular should a prong collar never be used? What about puppies?

Stewart: Some dogs can tolerate prong collars, although I still wouldn't recommend them. You definitely don't want to use prong collars on dogs with aggression or fear issues or puppies -- who can easily develop such issues.

Puppies can be trained from the start that light pressure on the harness means to go in that direction. Just reward with praise and/or treats during your walks with the puppy.

Partnow: There is a time and a place for prong collars.

In dogs with a history of cervical pain for any reason, we advise against the use of head/neck leads in general. This includes not only prong collars but also soft collars and gentle leaders. We do not want to put any extra pressure on the neck and risk exacerbating an injury.

Likewise, animals with upper-airway problems, particularly tracheal collapse that is common in toy- and small-breed dogs, should not be walked with prong collars or other neck leads. (Gentle leads should not pose a specific risk.)

In addition, animals that recently have had surgery on their necks for other reasons (such as thyroid surgery or a skin-mass removal) should wear harnesses rather than collars to allow the surgical sites to heal.

I would not advocate using prong collars on puppies, especially when they are first getting used to the concept of the leash. Their bones and joints are not yet mature, and there certainly is the potential to "over do" it, with what may not seem like excessive force.

Young animals are traditionally the best to train with positive reinforcement. Food treats and praise are often enough motivation before poor habits have become ingrained.

Question: What role should a collar play in an owner's relationship with his/her dog?

Stewart: For me, the collar is a sort of force field that keeps the dog from running away when the training is not yet strong enough. It's not to be used for punishment. The relationship should be one of trust and mutual respect, not "do this or else I'll hurt you."

prong.jpgQuestion: The prong or pinch collars look like they would hurt when pulled. Do they cause pain?

Partnow: If you look in the pet stores you will notice a variety of lengths of collars and a variety of different thicknesses to the prongs.

When purchasing a prong collar it is important that you consult with a professional regarding the proper size and fit. If the prongs are too large for your dog there certainly is a chance that you could damage the skin.

A properly fitted prong collar should sit somewhat high on the neck where the soft-tissue structures have more protection from surrounding bone and where the collar can only be pulled to a specific tightness, so choking is avoided. When applied properly, these collars should pinch but not puncture or bruise.

Question: What physical problems can a prong collar cause?

Partnow: A well-fitted prong collar used with proper intent should carry minimal risk of physical injury in an otherwise healthy animal. However, in an animal that already has neck pain because of various conditions, such as intervertebral disc disease, vertebral body tumor or osteomyelitis/diskospondylitis (infection of the bone or intervertebral disk respectively), there is a higher risk of complications. Increased pain, development of neurological deficits (e.g. weakness or loss of coordination), or in the most severe cases pathologic fracture may occur.

This being said, please keep in mind that these are serious medical conditions that would require treatment at some level regardless of what kind of lead were used.

In animals with upper-airway disease any pressure on the trachea should be avoided because it may exacerbate signs, such as coughing or difficulty breathing.

On the other hand, overzealous use of a prong collar such as yanking or tugging at a dog's neck, or use of an oversized collar carry the risk of multiple soft-tissue injuries ranging from bruising to, in the most extreme cases, puncture of a vital structure or strangulation. However, it is hard to envision these scenarios without either malicious intent or underlying disease, such as esophageal cancer, making the tissue much more fragile to begin with.

Question: Are prong collars legitimate corrective tools? What about using one for a short time just while training, especially on a dog that won't focus?

Stewart: They are not. Focus, in particular, is easy to train with positive-reinforcement techniques. Here's a lovely quote from Dr. Ute Berthold-Blaschke, a trainer in Germany: "Whoever says that dependable compliance from this or that dog is not possible to achieve without punishment, isn't saying anything in particular about the dog, but rather is ascribing this to his own level of competence."

Question: Are pinch collars worse than say, choke chains, that can yank and jerk a dog's neck?

Partnow: I am much more concerned with the use of a choke chain versus a prong/pinch collar.

While prong collars may appear more barbaric, they actually have the built-in safety mechanism of the rigid links that limit how small the diameter of the collar can become.
With a choke collar there is no such limitation, and, as a result, there is a much higher risk of soft-tissue damage and strangulation, even in an otherwise healthy dog.

Also, given their relatively benign appearance, owners are most likely to unknowingly leave a choke collar on an unattended animal. Even if the collar is not attached to a leash, there is the risk of it becoming caught on a branch or other object and causing serious damage.

Question: Users have said that prong collars, if put on the dog properly - just below the ears - do not injure the dog. Do you agree?

Partnow: Yes, with the exceptions noted earlier. Of course once clinical signs of disease, such as pain or coughing, have been noted, it becomes easy to decide to switch restraint devices.

Unfortunately, certain conditions may put an individual pet at higher risk, which the owner will not know about until there is a problem.

While I will continue to use prong collars on my dogs, for the owner who is seeking the "safest" restraint device I would likely recommend a harness, where pressure is evenly distributed along the chest.

Stewart: Prong collars can sometimes cause injury in the sense of breaking or bruising the skin, and fitting it up higher does reduce injury to the dog's neck.

That said, a prong/pinch collar in any position on the neck causes pain when the leash tightens, even if it's not enough to cause an injury.

It is specifically put high up on the neck, below the ears, so that it is more painful to the dog, thus requiring less force from the handler. I dare you to put the prong collar on yourself in that position and attach a leash. Have a friend give you a "correction" by briefly tightening the leash and see how you feel.

The smaller prongs are sharper and hurt more than the blunt ones. At one point in our country's history, white plantation owners in the South claimed that their slaves did not feel pain because of how stoic they were during childbirth and beatings. I think nobody in their right mind would agree with that now.

That dogs are generally more stoic than people does not mean they do not feel pain.

Question: Some trainers say it may be better to use a pinch collar and tug a few times -- instead of a dozen times with a flat collar or choke chain -- and not be as violent with the dog. Thoughts?

Stewart: I don't think we should tug with any collars. I prefer to use the harness to guide the dog and primarily use my biggest tool, my brain, to find ways to get the dog to willingly cooperate without force.

Question: What if you've gone through umpteen training programs and the dog is still out of control? Should pinch collars be used as a last resort (the next step being euthanasia)?

Stewart: For most dogs that I've seen who have gone through a lot of different training programs, the owner is not actually following the protocols of the different trainers.

Training takes time to work, so if people just take a nibble of different training techniques, like a buffet, they may get their fill of training without actually having given any of them a chance to train the dog. It's also possible that the general technique was good, but the trainer was not.

I know people who have 'tried treats,' for example, but they didn't actually train effectively with them, so the poor dog didn't have a real shot at learning what to do using positive reinforcement.

Before using prong collars, the other thing to think about is whether the expectation is just too high for this particular dog.

Is there something you could easily change to make the dog more successful? Maybe the dog is reactive to other dogs, but only when they approach off leash. Does that dog have to be able to walk at the park for example, versus getting exercise inside and on walks like Green Lake, where running into off leash dogs is unlikely?

I've never needed to recommend a prong collar to a client, even in cases of extreme aggression.

Training via pain or intimidation (prong collar, shock) can be considered a last resort not because it's likely to work when all else fails, but rather because people want to try out all of their options. If you do resort to punishment, you should still make sure to reinforce good behaviors as well.

Prong collars are illegal in several countries (New Zealand, parts of Australia,
Switzerland, etc.) and there is a movement underway to make them illegal in Germany.

Question: Where does the use of shock collars fall in the mix?

Stewart: I strongly believe that shock collars should be made illegal in the United States, as they are in some other countries. At their very lowest settings, e-collars punish the dog's behavior, which is unnecessary because dogs can be trained in other ways, without force. At higher settings, they are torture. In all cases, the use of a remote-punishment device allows the person to distance him or herself from the knowledge of how much force is being exerted on the dog. At least with a prong collar, people know how hard they are yanking on the dog.

Dr. Alix Partnow received her veterinary degree at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine in 2007. She completed her residency in neurology/neurosurgery at the University of Missouri and joined VCA Veterinary Specialty Center of Seattle full time earlier this year. She owns two dogs, Gunner, a pointer-mix, and Denali, a German shepherd.

Grisha Stewart, MA, CPDT-KA is an author, dog trainer and seminar presenter who specializes in dog reactivity. She owns Ahimsa Dog Training in Seattle and has published four DVDs on dog reactivity and a book, "Behavior Adjustment Training: BAT for Aggression, Frustration, and Fear in Dogs."

•   •   •

Read our past Q&As:
Veterinary Q&A: Birth control for pets
Veterinary Q&A: How to find a good vet
Veterinary Q&A: Neutering your dog Part 2
Veterinary Q&A: Neutering your dog Part 1
Veterinary Q&A: Hyperthyroidism in cats
Veterinary Q&A: Incontinence in dogs
Veterinary Q&A: Hanging tongue syndrome
Veterinary Q&A: Bad breath in dogs
Veterinary Q&A: How much is too much exercise for my dog? Part 2
Veterinary Q&A: How much exercise does my dog need? Part I
Veterinary Q&A: A killer called bloat
Veterinary Q&A: Initial care for new puppies
Veterinary Q&A: Knee problems in dogs
Veterinary Q&A: Flea-control treatment
Veterinary Q&A: Bearded dragon lizards
Veterinary Q&A: Vaccinations for indoor cats
Veterinary Q&A: Lumps and bumps
Veterinary Q&A: More on aging dogs and arthritis
Veterinary Q&A: Aging dogs and arthritis
Veterinary Q&A: Puppy and geriatric exams
Veterinary QA: What dogs can safely chew
Veterinary QA: Why does it cost so much to clean a dog's teeth?
Veterinary QA follow-up: More on cleaning a dog's teeth
Veterinary QA: When to spay or neuter

•   •   •

Do you have a question about pet health? Ask now! We'll pose some of your questions to a local vet in an upcoming post.

Whether or not one uses a prong-collar for walks, everyone should take prong collars off dogs at the dog park as it poses a danger to the dog...  Posted on October 6, 2011 at 10:28 PM by PetrolHead&HuckNroller. Jump to comment
Tools are safe or unsafe depending on the knowledge of the user. Any tool can be misused or abused. It is up to an individual to learn about the...  Posted on October 6, 2011 at 6:47 AM by Robin MacFarlane. Jump to comment
Well, I have a 10 y.o. Lab/Newfie mix, app 100 ab male. I am retired so we get in at least a 5 mile off-leash walk every day. He is perfectly...  Posted on October 5, 2011 at 10:21 PM by principledatheist. Jump to comment

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