Which Collar Works Best

The difference between walking your dog - or for some, the dog walking you - and training your dog can often be explained by which collar you use, how you use it and when. This article explains the different types of dog collars on the market today, as well as how and what they are used for.


Choosing the Right Dog Collar

By John and Bonnie Rubin

When it comes to effectively training your dog, choosing the right collar can make all the difference in the world. Once you know what a collar is designed for and how it works, you will be better able to choose the right collar for you and your dog.

Buckle Collars are simply collars that are fastened with a buckle. They are typically made of nylon or leather and are can be flat or rolled. Most buckle collars are adjustable but do not tighten on the dog's neck once fastened. Rolled leather collars, although more expensive, tend to fit more comfortably. Adjustable nylon collars are recommended for growing pups.

Break-away Collars are a special quick-release collar that will unfasten if a strong pull is placed on the collar. However, the collar will not unfasten when attached to a leash. This collar was designed after the inventor's dog choked to death because its collar got caught on something.

Choke Chain (Slip Collar) is a length of chain or nylon rope with rings at either end such that the collar can be formed into a loop around the top of the dog's neck, just behind the ears. The ring which connects to the leash goes over the back of the dog's neck, not under. When the leash is attached to the dead ring the collar does not constrict on the dog's neck. When the leash is attached to the live ring the chain slips (adjusts) tighter when pulled and slips looser when tension is released. This type of collar should never be left on an unattended dog and always removed when the leash is removed.

Electronic Collars, often called remote or e-collars collars by advocates, and shock collars by detractors, are devices that deliver an electrical stimulus causing pain to the dog when given a correction. It is my experience, when evaluating most dogs that have been trained using shock devices, that these collars can destroy a dog's self-confidence. I would never use nor do I advocate the use of shock collars as an obedience training device. A well-trained handler, obedience trainer or knowledgeable owner, would never have to resort to using one. I have trained thousands of difficult dogs without the need to use a shock collar - which is really only using pain-compliance in an attempt to train a dog quickly. The results are often disastrous. (Please read our article: The Shocking Truth)

Head Collars (Gentle Leaders, Halti, Promise Collars) are also commonly marketed for use on dogs that pull. They are marketed to owners as "Gentle, and humane". (Yet, this manufacturer also produces one of the most popular brands of Shock Collar.) They were designed based upon halter's that are used on horses. However, unlike a horse halter, which sits down on the bridge of the nose, dog head halters sit below the eyes. Most dogs are uncomfortable with them and rightly so - the dogs muzzle is extremely sensitive and dogs use their noses and mouths to not only communicate, eat and play, but also to defend themselves. From a psychological standpoint, any canine, being a predator, would feel extremely vulnerable having its muzzle restricted in any way.

Halters are not muzzles - the dog can still drink, eat, bark, and bite! Also, there has been some concern expressed that a lunging dog could hit the end of the lead and snap its head around, causing injury to the neck.

Body Harness. Harnesses are not collars. But, some people mistakenly use harnesses in an attempt to stop their dogs from pulling when on lead. This is a very contradictory use of the device - consider that sled dogs use harnesses to pull and you can imagine why they are usually not effective in stopping this behavior. However, for toy breeds they are often a better option than using any kind of collar for walking and training purposes.

Limited Slip Collars are adjustable collars designed to tighten around a dog's neck, but that stop tightening before they actually constrict or choke.
They are good for dogs that tend to "slip" out of their collars but they are not as effective for this behavior as a choke chain or slip collar.
Martingales are similar to limited slip collars, except they don't have a buckle. Martingale collars are recommended for sight hounds because their heads are smaller than their necks and they can often slip out of standard collars. They can, however, be used for any breed of dog. Their no-slip feature has made them a safety standard at many kennels and animal shelters – we issue them at our doggie daycare. A martingale collar has 2 loops; the smaller loop is the "control loop" that tightens the larger loop when pulled to prevent dogs from slipping out of the collar. Similar to a prong collar, the martingale has limited constriction on the dog's neck and applies even pressure.

Prong Collars (and often mistakenly referred to as Pinch Collars) are used for the same purposes as the choke collar, to "correct" the dog by using a quick snap and release of the leash followed by praise. The prong collar is actually far safer, and much gentler, than the choke training collar. Prong Collars are a series of chain links with blunted open ends turned towards the dog's neck. The design of the prong collar is such that it has a limited circumference unlike slip collars which do not have a limit on how far they can constrict on a dog's neck. The limited traction of the martingale chain combined with the angle of the prongs prevents the prongs moving close enough to pinch. The collar is designed to prevent the dog from pulling by applying pressure at each point against the dog's neck.

The prong collar should NEVER be used on a dog that "resists” (dogs that, when on-leash, stops in its tracks and refuses to move) nor should it be used on puppies during the fear impact stage.

Small owners with large dogs quite often greatly benefit from the use of a prong collar.

The prong collar provides an even pressure around your dog’s neck and when the proper snap-and-release method of correction is used, it will ensure responsiveness from your dog. It allows the handler to apply the right amount of pressure so that over-correction (snapping too hard or too often) does not occur.

Good Dog Collar - Plastic Prong Collar from Triple Crown. This dog training collar is actually just a modified prong collar, but it is made from hard plastic. They are more appealing to the eye. It works well for dogs that constantly pull on the leash but not so much that a traditional prong is needed. The link design fits together, producing a watchband pattern. This also makes it easy to remove links as needed, or add links to quickly lengthen the collar for a perfect fit.

"Which dog training collar is best?"

I want to make clear that this article is not meant to advocate the use of one collar over another. For any trainer to exclusively recommend a collar or training technique would in my opinion indicate their lack of understanding and experience with canines. More importantly, when I hear of trainers who forbid the use of certain training aids and techniques in their classes or programs, I have to wonder if they honestly have the dog's best interest at heart. No training equipment can take the place of a strong, mutually respectful relationship.

All dog collars, including halters and harnesses, are simply tools designed for specific purposes.  If you understand the purpose of each tool and the result you desire, the choice of a collar can be fairly easy. Unfortunately, today's "experts" on the subject have obscured these very simple facts. With the advent of "gentle", politically correct methods of dog training, highly manipulative and slanted views have been infused into this discussion. Many times the decision on which training tool to use is based more on myth and hearsay. It should be based on facts about each tool’s humane effectiveness in achieving the desired result.

I have questioned many "dog trainers", veterinarians and educated owners and have supplied indisputable evidence either from studies, reports or demonstrations, in the proper use of training collars. Their responses are almost always arguments based upon their moral views or worse, the moral views of someone else who heard it from someone else. Usually they concede that any "training collar" can be gentle and effective but that an owner must be as skilled as I am in order to use it properly. Therefore, for them to recommend or use it is too risky. And this actually makes my point for me. The effectiveness of any tool is directly related to its proper use, including ones they themselves would endorse. My job is to teach owners how to use the proper tools to effectively train their dogs.

While many dogs can be trained on a buckle collar, too often they arrive at class with one that is not fitted properly (too loose or too tight) and connected to a retractable lead - a combination which is basically useless in training. Dogs become very excited around other dogs, especially young pups. Nothing is more important to that pup at that moment than playing with another dog. They will choke, gag, twist, roll over and sometimes slip out of the collar in the midst of their euphoria. This can be the beginning of a very long and frustrating period - for both owner and dog. And, the pressure that the excited dog exerts as it pulls on the end of the leash can cause tracheal damage.

For the owner whose dog does not pull to the point of choking and gagging and who also responds well when learning commands, the buckle collar is fine as a training aid. However, less than 10 percent of dogs beginning obedience training can be trained on a buckle collar. All other responses require an upgrade. Once your dog is older and well trained, walking on a buckle collar will be no problem. This will usually be a more mature dog that is well socialized and conditioned to walking on a loose leash.

About Halters and Harnesses

The Body Harness is designed for sled dogs to pull. Pulling is the reaction from about 99% of all dogs placed on harnesses. So as a training aid, a harness is basically worthless unless the training goal is to teach a dog to pull something. When I see dogs on harnesses, I often assume the owner has given up on trying to teach their dogs to walk at their side and on a loose leash. While harnesses are frequently recommended by veterinarians because they don’t do damage to the trachea, neck, or back, a harness does not allow an owner to effectively communicate with, and therefore properly train, their dog.

Some of the newer harnesses come with a front clip which, supposedly, eliminates the desire to pull by allowing the handler to control this action. For walking your dog this harness might work fine. As a training tool a harness is usually not effective, except for some very small breeds. The effectiveness of the harness depends on the amount of resistance the dog exhibits.  If the owner has to constantly nag the dog saying “sit,sit,sit” or” Fido heel, Fido heel, Fido heel,” the dog is resisting your attempts to teach.  The dog is not deaf – the training tool is ineffective.

Head Halters are the latest in politically correct, humanely proper tools that feed into owners desire to treat their canine companions like humans. While I too love my dogs and consider them family, I fully understand a dog's psychological view of head halters. I understand, and teach owners, that in order to include dogs into their human family they must respectively treat them like dogs.

I will acknowledge that most dogs will not pull on a head halter. But, let's examine why. And, before I do, if you who have used them, I ask:

  • How easy was it to get it on your dog?
  • Was your dog’s personality the same after it was put on?
  • How hard do she/he try to get the darn thing off?
  • How happy was your dog when you took it off?

The manufacturers of these head halters claim they are "gentle" and safe. But, when they are attached to a retractable lead they can be downright dangerous. These collars were designed  to pull the dog’s head towards the owner if it attempts to pull on the end of the leash. This is uncomfortable for the dog and it will often keep the dog from pulling. However, if the dog becomes extremely excited and hits the end of the leash (as young dogs will often do) the head and neck could be snapped back at such a force as to possibly cause injury.

I rate head halters as a poor training tool. In my classes,  those who begin the first class with them almost always change to another collar by the second. When they see other dogs responding, learning and enjoying themselves, they quickly decide that the head halter is hampering their dogs' progression.

I have yet to work a dog who accepted a head halter willingly, and I have never observed a dog that appeared happy with having a halter around its muzzle. Most dogs appear depressed and subdued which does not create a positive learning experience. Dogs are uncomfortable with head halters, because their muzzles are very sensitive.  They use their noses and mouths to communicate, eat, play, and defend themselves.  Canines are predators.  Any dog feels psychologically vulnerable when its muzzle is restricted in any way.

Recently I read an article in a popular dog journal where the author backed off of her previous accolades regarding the use of head halters. She carefully chose her words so as not to offend an audience that would no doubt include many head halter advocates. I found it interesting that included in the article was a one-week program designed to help owners "desensitize" their dog to the halter. To me this speaks volumes. If head halters are supposed to be "gentle" and an effective training aid, why would my dog not readily take to it? A dog would only need to be "de-sensitized" to something if they are experiencing fear or discomfort.

The bottom line on head halters is that as a management tool they might work fine. In other words, if what you are attempting to do is to subdue your dog's personality, you will probably get that result. Aggressive dogs have been known to respond well. However, dogs are willing partners of humans and eager to please. They enjoy respectful relationships based on clear communication and understanding. The canine resistance that I see caused by the use of head halters is not supportive of the unique bond we can achieve with our dogs.

About Choke Chains

Choke Chains are quite possibly the oldest training tool.  The slip collar has been used for years and criticized for almost as long as it has been in existence. There are modern variations such as the cloth slip collar, martingale, and limited slip collar.

... More On That Subject

One participant in a recent forum of professional dog trainers, Chad Mackin, reports discussing the subject of training collars with an engineering friend as to what is happening at the mechanical level.  He reports:

“When a dog is on a static collar and pulls, there will be a gap at the back of the neck between the collar and the dog's flesh.  This means that all of his force is being distributed across the front of the neck.  With a chain training collar there is no such gap.  The force is distributed around the entire circumference of the dog's neck. Pressure is the measure of force over area (pounds per square inch).  Equal force over a smaller area means greater pressure.   Same force over a greater area means less pressure.  The so-called choke collar actually puts LESS pressure on the dog's trachea because the force of the dog pulling is spread out rather than being isolated directly on the front of the neck.”

Chad concludes by saying, “You do not do a dog a kindness by giving leash corrections on a buckle collar.  Instead, you are needlessly endangering them.” 

“If one cannot bear the thought of using a "choke" collar, then one should abandon the idea of leash corrections altogether.  But for the love of the noble and patient dog, don't increase the pressure on their trachea and call it a kindness.   It is not an act of love for the dog.  Perhaps love for an ideal, but not for the dog.  It is a sad thing when dogs are made to suffer because people of otherwise reasonable intelligence can't see beyond their ideals and insist on following a course of action that, as idealistic as it seems, has no relation with reality whatsoever.”
We do not recommend or use choke chains except as a back-up collar for aggressive dogs that can possibly slip out, or break out, of their main collar.

The Name Says it All

I look at the names that have been assigned to dog training collars and the trend is truly thought-provoking. So much in today's cultural social structure is based upon looks as well as labels that it is no wonder the subject of dog training collars has become such an emotional, as well as commercial debate. The business of dogs has been reported to be well over 40 Billion dollars a year.

Suppose "gentle" head halters were called "neck twisters" or that a prong collar was called "positive results" collar. In my professional experience, training thousands of dogs over a period of 20 or so years, I have positively trained dogs using harnesses, buckle and prong collars, with no adverse physical or emotional effects. In recent years I have taken many struggling, out-of-control dogs previously trained on a head halter and within minutes had it obediently and happily sitting at my side, licking my face. No pain compliance and no food - just good, old-fashioned canine psychology using time-proven, gentle and positive methods.

The same emotional debate linked to training aids has recently been commercially exploited with regard to training methods. Clicker Training and similar methods have been touted as "gentle" more effective than leash and collar training. Therefore, traditional methods such as leash-and-collar-training have therefore been labeled as abusive "jerk-and-release."

The most effective dog training techniques have been, and might always be, the proper use of the leash and collar followed by praise and positive reinforcement. As the years have gone by, and more homes include dogs as pets - as opposed to working animals - the need for dog training, dog trainers and training tools and techniques followed suit. The evolution of dog training has ranged from discipline in the form of physical punishment, to leash training using the dog’s natural instincts, to food training, and more recently to more human-driven methods such as time-outs.
But, dog trainers who fail to do their homework, to study canine behavior and psychology, and who refuse to consider that to continuously snap a leash that is attached to a buckle collar, or slip collar, on a dog that is neck insensitive can be abusive. The right collar and correct method of application will allow for less correction, quick and positive praise and thus positive response from the dog.

The same thing can be said of a trainer who uses food as a bribe to train a dog to sit, heel or come when called. While some dogs are highly motivated by food, once the food is no longer present the dog will have no motivation to respond. Most trainers who require the owners to only use head halters use food training as the collar itself is not an effective obedience training tool. The dog who is not motivated by food, or who is no longer hungry after 15 minutes of class time, stops responding.

See our article on How Dogs Learn

And Finally

So, getting back to the original question, “What collar should I use?”  I can only say that the choice is yours - as it should be.  I simply urge you to open your mind, determine what your needs are, look at your options and then choose the equipment that will give you the best results.  Once you have made your decision, look for a trainer that will respect your choice and who is skilled in using the tools you have chosen. Most importantly; choose a dog trainer who understands canine behavior and learning principles. Dogs are not human kids and if a trainer attempts to "anthropomorphize" your dog's training or behavior program this will certainly be a disservice to you and your pet.



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"Unleash Your Dog's Potential!"