Wednesday, May 1, 2013

No pinching or poking - saying no to prong collars.

There are lots of great reasons to avoid use of prong (aka 'pinch') collars. There are just as many reasons offered up from those who insist on using them. The bottom line is, if someone is married to the idea of prong use and has experienced success with one, it will be very difficult to convince that person to stop using one and move onto something more dog-friendly. Humans are not immune to the laws of learning and the reinforcement one receives from successful application of a prong can be very powerful and drive continued use, even after valid intellectual arguments are presented.

I'd like to talk about my transition away from prongs - a collar I had a lot of success using for a while.

I'll preface this blog by stating that I as a professional trainer specializing in Pit Bulls and aggression have not used prong collars in many years. My tools of choice are flat buckle collars, martingale collars, front-connect harnesses and as a last resort, head collars like the Gentle Leader. The Real Pit Bull uses these same tools on all of our foster dogs and in our classes. RPB never ever uses prong collars.

There was a time in my dog training adventures when I transitioned from choke collars to prong collars. They were "more humane", or so I thought. Hey, at least they weren't a tool with the word "choke" in the name. The trainers who introduced me to this collar would call it "power steering", because so many dogs would almost instantly stop pulling on leash with just a few little wrist-flicks from their handlers, following along easily and becoming almost magically well-behaved. It was pretty easy to control dogs with these scary-looking but supposedly-harmless collars.

It didn't take long before I started questioning WHY prong collars worked - or DIDN'T work, as the case may be. Especially when I ran into trouble with my personal dog - a 70 lbs AmStaff who developed extreme dog-directed aggression. Not only did prong collar "corrections" (jerks on the leash) not seem to help his behavioral problems, my dog seemed to be getting progressively worse. He'd see a dog, freak out, I'd jerk the leash, and he'd double his efforts to get at the other dog. This went on for ages. What was the problem, here?

After some trial and error, I tossed that stupid prong collar away, never to pick it up again. I discovered the Gentle Leader headcollar, then gradually weaned my dog off that collar and onto a front connect harness and martingale collar. My dog was MUCH happier. Who wouldn't be? Who likes prongs poking into their neck, amirite? The damage was already done, however: the time spent in a prong collar had only made my poor dog's behavioral issues worse and it would be a long road to undo that damage.

The success I had with the newer, humane training tools convinced me - and I'll never, ever go back to prong collars, not for my own dogs, not for clients' dogs, and not for RPB dogs.


Let's just look at the design of the prong collar for starters. WHAT is it designed to do?

Prong collars are made up of a series of interlocking links, with little blunt-edged prongs facing and laying up against the dog's neck when the collar is placed on the animal. When tightened, those prongs push into the dog's neck and towards each other causing a "pinching" action. The prongs don't actually puncture the dog's skin, but they DO cause discomfort at the very least, and pain at worst. Even when used correctly, prong collars are DESIGNED TO CAUSE DISCOMFORT - that is how they work and how they get a dog to "stop" doing whatever behavior you'd like them to stop doing (usually pulling).

(Ever have a trainer tell you that screech the dog makes when hitting the end of a leash on a prong collar for the first time was just the dog being "startled"? Uh huh. Right - the dog's just "startled". And to those who insist on denying the fact that prong collars work because they are aversive - i.e. uncomfortbale or painful - I only wish you'd have someone put a prong collar on your neck and without saying a word, guide you around on a leash. See if you follow because the collar feels like a soft, pleasureable massage you'd like more of, or instead is causing discomfort you're trying to avoid/get away from by following.)

Behaviorally, these collars can cause all sorts of problems. Here're the three biggies to worry about:

  • Dog parents can become highly dependent on the prong collar, with the dog ONLY behaving while wearing one (dog gets collar-wise)
  • They can cause heightened arousal and aggression
  • They can cause unintentional negative associations in the dog's mind (i.e. "Other dog = painful neck = other dog causes neck pain so I must work even HARDER [more aggressively] to get that scary dog away!")

    Pat Miller, a noted trainer, lecturer and author, has this to say about the use of prong and other aversive collars and resultant behavior problems: "Choke chains, prong collars and shock collars utilize mild to severe punishment, called ‘corrections’ by trainers who use them, to let the dog know when she has done something wrong. I don`t recommend their use. Punishment can be difficult to administer effectively- timing and severity of the correction are critical to effective punishment training - and even when done properly there is a high risk of unintended and undesirable side effects, including aggression..."

    In addition to behavioral issues, there is evidence that prong collars can cause physical problems for dogs, as well.

    Dr. Peter Dobias has this to say about prong collar usage: "For years, I have observed the relationships between [the use of prong collars] and the neck injuries and health of dogs. I have learned that if the flow of energy in the neck is interrupted or restricted, a whole array of problems may arise including lameness, skin issues, allergies, lung and heart problems, digestive issues, ear and eye conditions, thyroid gland dysfunctions to name a few. I also suspect that the patients that have severe energy flow congestion in the neck area have a higher cancer rates."

    So prong collars can make behavior problems they supposedly remedy even worse. And maybe even cause health issues. This is when being used correctly. Many people will say, "Ok, sure, but they've always worked GREAT for me, and my dog is wonderful on a prong! And he's totally fine!" Well, I cannot force anyone to stop using prong collars. I can hope dog parents give them up and switch to more dog-friendly tools that were NOT designed to cause discomfort. But that is just a hope. What I CAN do is present some reasons why I personally, as a professional, and why RPB, do not use them. I've found way more reason to NOT use them, then to use them. Here's hoping you will too!

    In another blog entry, I'll talk about the tools RPB uses in its classes and on its foster dogs. There are plenty of alternatives to prong collars; tools that when used properly along with positive reinforcement training and behavior modification, can make a real difference in your dog's life, as well as yours. ~Mary Director - RPB


    Lori Nanan said...

    Love this! Thank you! I am the co-administrator of a Facebook page called "Your Pit Bull and You" and this is one of our primary missions. We need to dispel the myth that pit bulls need a heavier hand and to promote images that project that show that our dogs are beloved family members- something that a big chink of metal just doesn't convey! This is fantastic and we'd love to share if it's okay!

    Dee Broton said...

    Great blog Mary!

    Yoda the Pitbull said...

    Hi there, thanks for this post! I recently posted about how I trained my pit which I just rescued not to pull on her leash using positive reinforcement thru treats and a halti. We had a trainer absolutely recommend a CHOKE collar, even more than a prong collar...and despite him being a 'professional' I trusted my gut and refused to go down that route. Glad others see it the same way! Hope you come by to visit sometime!

    Sandy Williams said...

    Thanks for this post! I have always been super against the use of these collars. I can't stand to seen my pup in pain. Keep up the great work on this blog!