Is it time to stop using choke collars for dog training?

Guys, the basic slip or “choke collar” is one of my favorite dog training tools.

I’ve been thinking about how I will train my next dog, and what tools I’ll use for teaching a formal “heel.”

I love the structure of AKC-style obedience – the dog walking at a close heel, completing tight turns, watching the handler.

I worry this kind of training will become a lost art – things like the handler knowing to lead off with her left foot when she wants the dog to follow, her right when she wants him to stay. Or knowing her dog will obey “down” or “stay” or “come” when off leash using only a hand signal.

You don’t need a choke collar to achieve these things, of course, but most trainers who advocate for no-pull harnesses and Gentle Leaders are more focused on basic manners than competitive obedience.

This is totally fine. It’s what the average dog owner wants – a fairly well-behaved dog, or at least a manageable one.

I go way beyond that when I’m training my dog, and that’s probably why I can see the benefits to all types of collars (like shock and prong) when others can’t.

Ace wearing a choke collar

I’ll probably always have a chain collar on hand for obedience training, but I like using other tools like the no-pull harness for casual walks when I want to “check out” a bit but still discourage pulling.

As you might expect, I can’t even write about choke or prong collars without receiving a nasty email from someone. Most of these dog lovers seem to have good intentions, and I can tell they care deeply for dogs. A few seem out of touch with reality.

Frankly, I don’t really care what type of collar anyone uses, which is why I’ve recommended all of them. I love seeing dog owners out and about walking and training their dogs. If a choke collar helps them do that, then great.

Myths about choke collars

There are some myths out there about choke collars. I thought I’d address them briefly, although I think most of you are fully aware of these myths.

“Choke collars work because they cause pain.”

This one makes me sad.

If any type of collar is causing a dog pain or fear, then it’s not being used properly or is not a good fit for that particular dog.

I’ve worked with plenty of “extreme pullers” that do pull against choke collars, prong collars or Gentle Leaders so hard that I am concerned for their safety. For those dogs, a no-pull harness is best because it takes the pressure off the dog’s neck and face.

With a choke collar, the slight tug is mostly to get the dog’s attention, much like saying, “Hey there, this way!” but with consistency and better timing.

Meghan Finnegan maintains the blog K9 of Mine, and she stressed how important it is for dog owners to learn how to use a choke collar properly.

“If the dog is dragging the owner on the choke collar while huffing and puffing, something is definitely not right,” she said. “Using a choke collar incorrectly can be very damaging for a dog.”

If the collar is worn correctly – high on the dog’s neck, right behind his ears – all you need is the slightest tug. It should absolutely not cause pain or fear. If it does, then a martingale (limited slip collar) is a much better option.

Maddie-and-Ace

I tracked down a dog trainer who is an advocate of choke collars to get a couple of her thoughts.

Alexandra Allred is the author of the book “Dogs’ Most Wanted” and has trained dogs for 30 years.

“Every now and then I have the owner who sincerely believes that the chain is painful, torture, unfair, brutal,” she said. “No. The chain is so good because it offers cues to the pup.”

“With the ‘zzzzip’ sound behind the ear, the dogs self check,” she said. “Oh, you wanted me to heel? Yes. Yes. I see. Well, why didn’t you say so?”

This is exactly what works well for my dog Ace, and it’s why some of the martingale collars you see have a little chain portion on them. The dogs respond really well to that sound, just as they might respond to a sound like me clicking my tongue to get their attention.

I like to use a choke collar and highly valued jerky treats so it’s a little tug to get the dog’s attention, followed by a yummy treat as the reward.

“The choke collar could damage a dog’s throat.”

There is truth to this argument, but only if you’re going to be fair and question all collars in general. Of course, a dog could be injured from pulling on the leash or being jerked around by the neck. Just a couple of examples could include spinal-cord injuries, stress on the thyroid gland or damage to the trachea.

These are real concerns, and nearly all dogs pull at some point, even if it’s to get a good sniff or to greet a buddy. While my own dog does not seem to have any physical problems related to wearing a flat collar that I am aware of, it is something to think about.

Ace1

Note that this concern has nothing to do with choke collars, but collars in general. My dog currently wears a flat, buckle collar 99 percent of the time, and he does pull at times – he’s a dog, after all.

There is, unfortunately, a lot of fear mongering surrounding choke collars, which is not helpful.

“Maybe you’ve heard stories about dogs passing out, sometimes even dying, when wearing a choke collar,” Finnegan said. “These instances can potentially occur when a dog is allowed to roam off leash wearing a choke collar.”

She would like to remind people that choke collars are not intended to be worn all day but only during training and on-leash walking.

“Dangerous situations occur when dogs wear choke collars off-leash, as the looped segments of the collar can get stuck on another dog during play time or snagged on something around the home,” she said.

What do you think about choke collars?

Let me know in the comments.

For me, what it comes down to is each dog owner must make the best decision for his or her dog. Many of us depend on tools to manage and train our dogs, and what works best for my dog may not necessarily be the best option for everyone else.

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23 thoughts on “Is it time to stop using choke collars for dog training?”

  1. I believe that everyone should choose the right training tools for THEIR dog and their situation. With a previous dog, I worked with a trainer and we used a choke collar…it helped the dog understand the cue/command much better. After a while, the dog was able to understand the cues/commands without the collar…Duke was a smart dog. I have just begun using a remote training collar with Oz after learning that with proper techniques, it can be used positively as a cue for commands. With training tools such as these, it is not the tool that is hurtful it is the people who use them in the wrong way (or for the wrong reasons).

    1. Lindsay Stordahl

      Such a thoughtful comment. Thank you for your feedback. I know how much time and care you put into Oz’s training.

  2. I’ve never used a choke or prong collar but when Haley was younger she would pull so hard on her flat collar she would hack and choke herself at times (yeah, it was kind of embarrassing). Thanks for pointing out legitimate uses for a choke collar. I think most people have a negative view of them because they see so many people use them to try to keep their dogs from pulling so hard.

  3. Thought about a prong collar on Katie, but never got one. We have the chain choke collars and do use them on occasion. As long as they are used for the right purpose and correctly, they are fine in our book, but we also use flexi leashes often when we walk where no one else is around so we can sniff and stuff since we can’t be off leash. Most of the walking “tools” have their place and time and are wonderful if the humans using them know how to use them and when.

  4. Totally agree that all these training tools can be useful if used properly. I do think people forget that that’s what they are and just throw it on for life, not working on any obedience and letting the dog choke itself out all the time.

    I do find prong collars more helpful than choke collars personally. Just because the dogs respond to their own pressure and it stays up behind the ears easier. I used one on Kaya for a few weeks it helped a ton and I’ve been walking her on a flat collar ever since.

    People who are against these things don’t seem to realize that there’s a difference between fear & pain and getting a dog’s attention, as you said. It makes sense because Dogs do so much physical communicating using their necks, correcting each other, playing and even momma dogs picking up their puppies. People sometimes assume dogs feel things in their body the same way we do.

    1. Lindsay Stordahl

      I think prong collars are generally more helpful as well, mostly because they don’t slip down as easily on dogs with short fur like Kaya and Ace.

  5. I use a prong collar on my dog, and it stopped her from pulling so hard. she also pays more attention to me and less to the squirrels with it on. I loaned the collar to my sister one day for her dog who never would go far from her, but tended to wander all over in whatever radius the leash would allow, tangling up human legs. After trying the prong collar, her dog was awesome on the leash, so they bought one the next day. So, if a choke collar works for a dog, i think the owner should use it. With proper use, any of the training collars can work.

  6. According to http://leerburg.com/corrections.htm,
    “The mechanics of how [Choke collars] are used in obedience training (constantly popping the leash and collar) will do long term muscle damage to dogs’ neck muscles This damage occurs right at the spot where the chain slips through the ring on the collar. The entire force of the correction is applied to this one spot whereas with a prong collar the force of the correction is applied around the entire circumference of the dog’s neck. This has been proven through autopsies done in Germany on dogs that were trained their entire life with choke collars vs dogs trained with prong collars.”

    Thus, while I like the choke collar, I would opt for the prong collar.

    1. Lindsay Stordahl

      That’s terrible. I guess my opinion on that is those corrections were done way too hard. Good point about the prong collars. I think they are also easier to use than choke/slip collars.

      1. I was able to find a bit more information on the study; Apparently, “German researchers recently did autopsies on 100 dogs. They were amazed to find evidence of trauma to trachea and spine in over 90 per cent of the dogs that had worn choke collars all of their lives, but on less than 10 per cent of the dogs that had been trained on pinch collars (http://www.spca.bc.ca/assets/documents/youth/animal-issues/as-fall-2002-dog-collars.pdf)
        Perhaps extreme corrections were part of the problem – but I’m not terribly eager to test the boundaries of my dog’s neck strength.

  7. About 15 years ago, I used the chain choke collars all the time. They worked well. But then I got Maya and everything changed. Maya is one of those dogs that pulls so hard on a choke or prong collar that I worry for her safety. I understand why people can get defensive about their use. I too, have voiced my opinion, especially about prong collars. But it is mostly because I see too many people using them forcefully, using them incorrectly, or relying on them as the only training method when they should be combined with other training methods like positive reinforcement.

    Even though I have used choke collars in the past, I’m sure there were times when I did not use them properly. For the longest time, I didn’t know the right way to put one on and sometimes the choke didn’t work. I also left them on my dog all the time. It never occurred to me how dangerous this was. Luckily, nothing bad ever happened, but it does point out the possibility that people could easily use one of these without really knowing how they are supposed to work.

    If I ever feel the need to use a choke or prong collar again, it will be because I exhausted all other methods and because not using one could endanger myself or my dog. And if that need arises, I will consult the help of an experienced dog trainer.

    1. Lindsay Stordahl

      I see a ton of people putting them on backwards and not putting them high on the neck. You’re definitely right that a lot of people don’t know how to use them properly.

  8. Don’t like them, wouldn’t use them. You’re right that any collar can cause damage but I feel that choke collars doubly so.

    JD has a plain flat collar but Cookie, because she does like to go nuts over squirrels and things has a harness to keep her neck out of the equation all together.

    1. Lindsay Stordahl

      The harnesses are definitely growing on me, just because I worry about the potential harm anything around the neck could do, including flat, buckle collars.

      1. I would use whatever works, harness for walks, chain for training, no collar at home. Some vets say that any collar can damage the thyroid.

        1. In any random day chances are good I’ll use a prong collar, Easy Walk harness and a Gentle Leader with my pup Remy! Each seems to work better in various situations/places. Prong for potty breaks around other dogs, harness for more rural walks, Gentle Leader for running …

  9. When we first started visiting Donna at the shelter, we totally didn’t know how to walk a dog but we watched a lot of CM (Haha!) … Donna of course pulled a lot back then, literally until her whole body is stretching horizontally along the ground. We voiced our concerns to the shelter and were told not to worry because their necks are strong. So every time she pulled, we tugged and kept telling her slow. To this day, I am horribly glad that she was wearing a martingale collar at the shelter instead of a choke chain, although they think of it as a semi-choke chain … because the truth of the matter is, no matter what we can say about using tools correctly, it only happens in an ideal world… because it is not compulsory over here for dog owners to engage trainers, and for those who do bother, not every trainer is going to be a good one.

  10. Short answer: Yes.

    Couple of thoughts …

    First off, competitive obedience is alive and well. There are more and more trainers every day who train with modern reinforcement methods rather than old-style tools like choke collars. Mary Ray is a good example; she’s titled tons of dogs in obedience and does all sorts of activities (HTM, agility) using clicker training. Use of a choke collar is not a prerequisite for a tight, accurate heel position. My dog is trained without a choke collar and he’ll practically flip in the air putting himself in heel, then hug my leg with a happy grin on his face. He’s been reinforced so often and so generously that heel position is a super-happy place for him. Even when we are out walking in the woods, off lead, with squirrels to chase and things to pee on, he’ll often put himself into a close heel and look up hopefully to see if I’ve noticed what a good dog he is :-).

    Second, it’s misleading to say the choke collar doesn’t cause pain. Used correctly, it shouldn’t cause MUCH pain, but that zzzziiiipppp sound that the dog is responding to is a precursor sound for a painful correction that the dog has experienced in the past. That sound on its own, with no history, means nothing to a dog. If you have a smart dog, or a sensitive one, then merely the threat of pain (which is what the zzziiiipppp sound is to a dog) is enough for the dog to adjust his position. The fallout from training with pain/fear is well studied and well documented. When trained with pain/fear methods, dogs have less trust and engagement with their handlers, and are much more likely to do ONLY what is required to avoid punishment. Dogs trained with reinforcement methods are eager to engage, happy in training, and offer over and above what is being asked. All good reasons to keep pain methods out of training.

    I’ve come to accept that R+ methods are not easy for some to learn, and that’s ok. It takes a lot of work and practice on the human side to get to even a moderate level of skill, and a LOT of work and practice to become a good trainer. You have to have good reaction times and great observation skills; these aren’t easy to acquire. Hence people relying on methods that are ‘quicker’ (quicker for the human to learn, not quicker in helping the dog acquire skills). Dogs being trained with methods I would never use are at least being trained, which is something.

  11. I think choke collars and prong collars are a lot safer than flat collars. It makes me sad when some one tells me: ‘ they will never be that mean to their dog and use a coke collar!’ While they are crushing their dogs throat trying to hold their dog with a flat collar.

  12. My pits neck is so muscular he really doesn’t seem to let either the prong or the martigale bother him. I recently switched to the gentle walk harness after having read an article about thyroid issue possibly being caused by pulling on collars. He’s like a differant dog. He walkes like such a good boy now. I still keep his martingale on him in case I come across a situation that may require some extra control.

    1. I don’t like how hard my pup pulls on any type of collar and I do worry about his neck. But he’s so much better behaved and controlled on a prong vs the GL or harness.

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