Prong Collars. Slip-leads. Check Chains. Martingales. Gentle-Leaders. Front-Attach Harnesses... Making an informed decision.
I cleaned out my training room recently, and in doing so I found a whole bunch of gear that I didn't know I had (it's not that weird if you're a crazy dog person). It inspired me to do a blog post about each piece of equipment I found. Now, some of them I knew I had... the pinch collars and (copious amounts of) slip leashes and collars. What surprised me was the check chain. Martingales. Gentle-leader and front-attach harnesses.
I feel like I'm in a good position to talk about all of them, because at different points in my career I used - and mastered - each of them.
I started out heavily compulsion-based; think Cesar Millan meets Bill Koehler. There was much 'scchhht'-ing, and 'ssssit!' (so maybe less Bill Koehler and more Barbara Woodhouse...)
Then I went pretty hard in the other direction. Now I can't ever claim to have been 'force-free' by today's standards, but I did my best to embrace the wonders of 'positive' training. No more choking dogs!! Enter the front-attach harnesses and gentle-leaders.
These days I sit squarely in the 'whatever works' category. Leaning heavily towards rewards-based methods, but not with my head so far up my ass that I can't branch out when it's in the best interest of the dog in front of me.
So now you know that I know what I'm talking about. At least a little bit, and at least more so than your (not so friendly) force-free or 'alpha-dog' blogger.
I belong to a whole host of doggy forums and facebook groups, and this Covid downturn has seen me paying an unhealthy amount of attention to several common themes within them. Firstly, is the cacophony of pet owners begging for advice on how to 'stop their dog from pulling', and secondly, how the vast majority of respondents reply with 'x,y,z gadget worked for my dog!'. Now because of that, this little post will be centered around using all the above mentioned tools to deal with leash walking.
What’s the deal with dogs pulling?
Before we get into the nitty gritty, let me just point out that dogs pull because IT WORKS FOR THEM. It has NOTHING to do with them trying to be alpha, and everything to do with them figuring out that pulling gets them from a-to-b fast.
So where do these tools fit in?
One would assume that everything from the pinch collar to the various harnesses work by stopping pulling; by making pulling uncomfortable, and by making not pulling more comfortable.
While this certainly is true, if ones goal is long-lasting behaviour change, you’re in for a surprise.
You see, the first time you put a flat collar on your puppy, or even a regular-old-harness, they were probably quite uncomfortable when they pulled. Maybe it was just different, and not even that uncomfortable. But the point is, most dogs learn to push through mild discomfort in order to get what they want. If they do this enough, they become desensitized to that previous discomfort. They become ‘heavy on the leash’ and figure out that pulling is AWESOME.
So, if your entire plan to get your dog to ‘stop pulling’ is to slap some gadget on them and call it a day… well, good luck. Your life will become a quest for the next-best-thing or the bigger stick. Each of which may work for a day or two… maybe even a month if you’re lucky. But eventually, most dogs figure out that the key to getting what they want (which is to sniff and pee on stuff), is to push through the gadget-induced discomfort.
Yes, that goes for the evil-looking pinch collar too. That spikey torture device that is supposedly going to poke holes in your dog’s neck. That thing, too, will become background noise to your dog unless you actually TRAIN IT!
WHAT DOES THAT LOOK LIKE...?
...you ask. Well, it doesn’t look anything like ‘punishing pulling’.
I think one of the biggest differences between the pet dog owner and the trainer, is how we look at problems. The pet dog owner wants things to stop…
“How do I stop my dog from running away…?” “How do I stop my dog from jumping up on people…?” “How do I stop my dog from pulling…?”
These are the wrong questions! Looking at how to ‘stop’ things is the fastest route to using frustration-based ‘punishment’ (read; yanking your dog around because he pissed you off, in an attempt to ‘STOP THE THING’!).
Stopping the thing is just one half of the equation that we don’t actually do until we’ve got a dog that knows what to do instead. And sometimes if we’ve got a dog that does the better thing, we don’t actually have to address the annoying thing we want to stop.
In other words, we teach the dog to come back when called; to sit when greeting people; and to walk at heel.
Yes, that’s right. We teach dogs skills that they can’t do at the same time that they’re doing the dreaded thing we want to stop. These are called incompatible behaviours. Dogs can’t run away and come when called at the same time. Dogs can’t heel on a loose leash and pull at the same time.
So where does all the training gear come in?
Well, it’s not in the first training session.
Ok, it might be. But if you're working in a rewards-based training program, we should first focus on building that lovely incompatible behaviour (heeling) through inducement.
No, not ‘loose leash walking’. Heeling. Informal heeling, to be exact. What does that mean? Well, it means that the dog learns to walk with his right leg relatively parallel to your left leg.
Although it may sound counter-intuitive, the more specific we can make that incompatible behaviour, the easier it’ll be to teach. You can always relax your heeling criteria into ‘loose leash walking’, but it’s much harder to tighten up the criteria from a Loose Leash Walk into an actual heel.
How do we teach heel? Well, a good place to start would be to give that location value to your dog. A vague answer, maybe, but it could really be an entire blog post in and of itself.
So, let’s say, a week later you have a dog that knows how to get into heel position, and likes to be there. Because his person has fed him there. Then a week after that the dog has had practice of that skill in a range of places. That’s where the training gear comes in.
The Magic of Compulsion
So now we have a dog that’s had two weeks of daily training sessions to teach him that heel is a good place to be. Why don’t we just leave it at that? Well, because that pulling business has been going on for a lot longer than 2 weeks.
And if that’s the case, then using solely inducement may not produce reliable, real-world behaviour change. Meaning; the dog will probably still pull because he has had more reinforcement for that, compared to the heeling.
So trainer recommends x,y,z training tool. Yes, I’m not specifying which tool because they all pretty much work the same way. And again, these tools are not used to punish pulling. No, they’re used to reinforce that functional heeling.
I’m not splitting hairs here. Heel is a really specific behaviour. Pulling is also a really specific behaviour. Reinforcing heel with a training tool means that the dog will have left heel position - maybe just a fraction, like a foot in front of you – before you change directions, apply pressure until the dog makes the choice to get back into position, and you continue on. If we’re punishing anything, it’s that the dog left heel position. If we’re trying to punish pulling when teaching a dog to heel, our timing is atrocious. If you have a dog pulling on a 6ft leash, he’s 6ft from heel position. How much time has elapsed since the dog left heel position to pull?
Wait a Minute, They Don’t all Work the Same Way, Right?
Yeah, they kinda do…
That’s why if you’ve got a trainer that says ‘PRONG COLLARS ARE AWFUL – here, have this gentle leader instead’, you’ve got a problem.
Each tool works through pressure-release; the layman’s term (or industry buzz-term?) for negative reinforcement. What this means is, is that we apply pressure until the dog does what we want. When they do what we want, the pressure goes away. That *thing that we wanted them to do, that they did* would have been reinforced; it will be more likely to happen in the future. The dog learns to ‘turn-off’ the pressure by doing a previously-learnt skill.
Now, without any training, these tools still use pressure-release. But in training, we manufacture that pressure intentionally, and use it to reinforce a very particular skill (heel).
When used without training, the dog often learns to ‘turn the pressure off’ by pushing through it until they get to where they want to go (in other words, their pulling is actually the thing that’s being reinforced… this is not good).
Now Let’s Get Specific
The Gentle Leader: There are numerous different versions of this tool that have different connection points. But they all work in a similar way to a horse’s halter; they apply pressure to the bridge of the dogs’ nose, and some can be used to help steer the dogs’ head one way or the other.
I’ll occasionally recommend this tool to people who struggle with the mechanics of pressure-release (generally older folks). That’s because the tool itself is generally applying pressure to the dog the moment it goes on.
You remember that 2 weeks of teaching dogs to ‘heel’, well tack some more time onto that to desensitize them to wearing the head halter if this is your tool of choice. Most folks who’ve used this have seen dogs flail about, throw their heads on the ground, try to hook their nails into the muzzle-loop of it to get it off. They hate it. It’s uncomfortable just to have on, which makes it the least ‘clear’ tool for pressure-release work – because the pressure starts with putting it on, not with the leash work.
That’s a big ‘con’ to the tool, and what makes it arguably more of ‘management’ tool as opposed to a training tool; the second it comes off, the dog knows it!
Arguably, of all the tools, this one takes the cake of ‘most aversive’… but of course, that’s up to the dog to decide.
There are plenty of different models of these on the market, from the everyday petshop ‘Petlife’ variety to the more expensive, ergonomic ‘Ruffwear’ design. They are the tool of choice of most force-free trainers, and normally the first tool pet owners buy to try solve the pulling problem.
They work by constricting the chest, and turning the dog to either side when pressure is applied.
They will never be a tool I recommend anymore for 2 big reasons;
1. It affects the structure of dogs (particularly growing dogs), and;
2. It affects their gait
And that’s when used and fitted correctly (yeah, they shouldn’t be hanging around the dogs’ front legs). Sadly, because they are so often recommended by frickin everyone, they’re put on PUPPIES and the outcome is predictable… their front end assembly is negatively affected.
As to their value as a training tool… well it’s really up to the dog. Some find the sensation quite aversive, others couldn’t care less. But most trainers (let alone dog owners), just put this on without thought to how it works and how we can make it work more effectively through manufactured pressure. So it’s like a ‘gateway tool’ to the head halters, because most dogs figure out how to push through it pretty quick. Such a wishy-washy answer, I know. But it's a wishy-washy, blah tool.
The Check Chain
I really, really hate that these are so widely available to the general public. You’ll find them in supermarkets and most big box pet stores. They’re sold as a ‘cure’ for pulling, but in reality they are the one tool that requires the most skill to use effectively.
I think I see at least a dog a day pulling through a check chain, gasping for air. You want to know how you collapse a trachea; THAT’S IT!
Of all the tools, this is the most brutal. The only way to use it effectively is to be hard with it (at least for dogs that are serious pullers). It needs to be fitted correctly (and sized correctly) for the individual dog. You need to put muscle behind the correction, but do it in a manner that leaves the dog thinking it was them themselves that caused the sharp jerk.
There is a very small margin of error with this, and I truthfully haven’t used one (except for demonstration purposes) in years. It is EXTREMELY effective when used correctly, but there are much more light-handed tools that cause the same desirable outcome.
This is like the quintessential ‘pressure/release’ tool of choice. It’s also a feature in most vet clinics, shelters and pounds – and man do I wish staff would have a better grasp of leash handling to avoid undue stress.
But anyway… these are generally my go-to tool of choice for leash work with a green dog. Most dogs don’t find the sensation super aversive, so they have to be ‘sensitized’ to it through a session or two of simple pressure/release. You can be so gentle with them that the work is suitable for puppies, but like the check chain; it takes skill. Arguably less skill, and with a larger margin of error.
These are also often my tool of choice for reactivity. It allows me to control the head, and we can take away a dogs’ arousal through careful, directional pressure.
But again – NOT a tool we can slap on a dog without work.
This is my second choice for leash work. It is, in my opinion, vastly superior in a lot of ways to all the aforementioned tools for one simple reason; it’s versatile. We can apply such little pressure that the dog barely perceives it, and SO MUCH that it can arguably be the most aversive in a line up.
We can use it as subtle pressure/release, we can use ‘leash pops’ and we can use significant corrections (whether or not that’s suitable or an effective use of the tool is a debate I’m not going to wade into).
It doesn’t work ‘through pain’ but for the same reason that all the other tools work; the dog perceives it as aversive; uncomfortable. Can it cause pain? Sure, as can all the other tools.
I’ve heard people dub it as ‘power steering’ for dogs, and it truly is. It leaves a wide margin for error for newer trainers, and the more experienced can truly work magic with them.
The downsides are numerous, however.
Firstly, they tend to add arousal to dogs. So, if you’re working through a reactivity issue with your dog (based on arousal/excitement), and you try to use a pinch collar, you may find it amps the dog up and makes the problem worse. This isn’t super common, but it can happen!
Secondly, they’re expensive. If you’re in Australia, expect to pay over $120 for a quality Herm Sprenger. Unfortunately, this makes some people source theirs from less-than-reputable sources (eh-hem, EBAY). Anything other than a Herm Sprenger (Kimberland collars are good too) should never be used. The points on cheaper collars are often not dulled and therefore capped with crappy black plastic, and they’re prone to breaking.
Thirdly, THE JUDGEMENT. Jeez Louise; the crap that I’ve had hurled my way from people thinking they know better. No, they can’t puncture the skin (that ONE photo of a dog with sequential holes in its’ skin is due to an embedded prong collar; the result of ABUSE, not training), they won’t undo your relationship with your dog. They’re not painful when used correctly.
I don’t think I’ve ever, ever shown a client a pinch collar and had them say ‘YES, YES I WANT TO PUT THAT THING ON MY DOG’. Because it looks scary. And in comparison, harnesses look ‘nicer’. And hey, that head halter is called a ‘gentle leader’ so it must be nice, right? It’s only through them seeing how it’s used, seeing how their dog responded, that they saw it’s value. And in all my years, I’ve only ever had ONE client have a problem.
And in conclusion
There are a million and one different ways to train our dogs, and a whole range of different tools that assist us in that process. I hope this blog post helps readers make an informed decision about which is best and why, for their particular needs.
This is also going to be my reference material should anyone say that ‘they’ve never had cause to use a chain collar or prong collar’, but who routinely use the more ‘positive’ tools. They’re all aversive, that’s why they work!
None of them are ‘punishment-based’. When used correctly, and as part of a rewards-based training program, all of them are used to reinforce a known behaviour. Whether that be heeling (as in the case of this post’s point of discussion), or a range of other obedience behaviours.
If you've made it this far, especially if you are morally opposed to the use of compulsion in training, thank you very much for taking the time.
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