The behavioral progression of my neighbor’s dog has been as predictable as it is sad. A large, muscular Coonhound mix who probably tips the scales at 80 pounds, he’s a gorgeous and imposing animal. He’s also become a somewhat scary one over time.
The first time I saw this dog, I was struck by his enthusiasm. Outgoing and exuberant, he seemed to believe that every person and dog he met was his new best friend. His owner struggled to walk him, flopping along in his wake like a dingy being towed by a speedboat.
Several months after I first noticed him, I took note of a new development in the excitable hounds life: he was walking politely by his owner’s side. Excited on her behalf, I met her eyes and smiled as I drove past. My smile faltered as I noticed a shiny circle of inward-facing prongs around her dog’s neck. Her tool of choice, and the reason for her newfound training success? A prong collar.
Prong collars have been around for a long time, and they can be effective devices to stop dogs from pulling. The tool works through positive punishment and negative reinforcement. When the dog pulls, the collar applies uncomfortable or painful pressure around his neck, which decreases the likelihood of him pulling on leash in the future. When he stops pulling, the pressure is released, which reinforces him for keeping a loose leash.
Many proponents of reward-based training despise the use of prong collars. They argue that tools that cause pain should never be used in the name of training, and I agree. They also warn of the risks of physical injury from the inward-facing prongs. This is true in rare cases: I have worked with dogs who had scabs on their necks from these collars. However, the risk of physical injury is quite low under the guidance of a skilled trainer, especially one who is using a well-made device. (Cheaper devices are more likely to have sharp edges that can injure a dog or unstable links that can pop open, releasing the dog at inopportune times.)
I’m not too worried about the risk of physical injuries from prong collars. However, I worry greatly about a much bigger risk that these tools present: that of psychological issues.
Remember that dogs learn by associating two things that happen closely together in time. Take my neighbor’s dog, the exuberant hound. This powerful adolescent dog adored people and dogs, and frequently lunged towards them in playful (if somewhat rude) greeting.
Once his owner switched him to a prong collar, this dog began to make some dangerous associations. Every time he met a new person or dog, he would lunge towards them and promptly feel the pressure of the prong collar around his neck. He quickly grew to associate the sight of new people and dogs with this unpleasant consequence, and I’m sure you can guess the rest of the story.
No longer is my neighbor’s hound a friendly and gregarious goofball. Instead, he lunges silently at the end of his leash when people or dogs pass by, eyes hard and tail held stiffly over his back. He is a bite waiting to happen, and he is not alone.
Every week, I work with dogs just like this hound. These dogs have made the wrong associations, deciding that people or other dogs predict awful things. Their owners are frustrated and embarrassed by their behavior, and often escalate their corrections, popping the leash, smacking their dog, or yelling loudly when the dog reacts at someone. Sadly, these escalated displays only serve to reinforce the dog’s suspicions: bad things happen when unfamiliar people or dogs are around.
Do all dogs who wear prong collars make these dangerous associations? Absolutely not! It is possible to train a dog with a prong collar and never have any problems. However, the risk is there.
It is also possible to train a dog just as easily and effectively without the use of this tool. There are many other humane tools that can give a small person control of a large dog without the use of pain (or the resulting fallout of punishment). In fact, our training facility does not allow the use of prong collars in any of our classes, as we feel that better options exist.
So, what’s your thought on the use of prong collars in training? Are you for or against these tools? Do you have any personal experience with their use, and if so, what was it? Please share your opinions… [to Sara at PAWS ABILITY]
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