Tuesday, July 8, 2014

All About Prong Collars

A prong, or pinch, collar can be a useful training tool in certain situations. It can provide "power steering" for large and insensitive dogs, and allow powerful dogs to be walked safely. That said, there are some downsides to this device. Like most training tools, prong collars are often used incorrectly. Even those who know the basics are unaware of some of the different ways to alter the action of the prong collar to make it more or less severe. Even at their most severe, prong collars are less damaging and make far better training tools than choke chains.

I have used a prong collar on Brisbane in the past, when I was walking both of my dogs along with my roommates dog and often at least one foster dog. At the time, I needed something that would allow me to stop the entire pack when they spotted something chaseable, so Brisbane and the roommate dog got prong collars. In retrospect it wasn't the best choice because prong collars do cause pain or discomfort. Today I would not put a prong collar on a sensitive or reactive dog because I don't want to teach them that seeing a trigger makes their neck get pinched.

Photo by Erin Koski

Prong links come in three different sizes. Bigger prongs are for bigger dogs, right? Wrong! Any size prongs can be used on any size dog, the difference in size just changes the level of severity.

The bigger the prong links, the more harsh the collar. It is perfectly acceptable, and actually preferred, to get a tiny prong collar and just add links until it fits the dog. This is ideal for dogs that are easy to handle on their own, but get difficult in groups. Walking multiple dogs is tough, they tend to feed off each others excitement.

If a small prong collar, properly fitted, isn't enough to control a large, insensitive, not-reactive dog, a medium or large collar is an option. I just hate to see giant prong collars on large, well-behaved dogs just because people think that the size of the prongs should be determined by the size of the dog.

This collar is too loose and sitting too low. Photo by Erin Koski

The fit of the prong collar dramatically alters the effectiveness. Unlike a choke chain, a prong collar should not hang loosely around the dog's neck before it is pulled tight. Prongs work like a martingale collar, with a small loop that pulls the big loop tight, but limits how tight. If the prong collar is loose enough to tighten all the way up, it's not going to be very effective.

That said, a loose prong collar with giant links is going to be less severe than a properly fitted one. I see a lot of labradors and golden retrievers wearing huge, floppy prong collars. Not very effective, but probably kinder to the dog.
This collar is properly fitted. Photo by Erin Koski.

A properly-fitted prong collar should in the middle of the neck, halfway between the shoulders and ears. It should be so tight that it stays up there, tight enough that it's slightly difficult to put on, but not tight enough to actively cause discomfort until leash pressure is applied.

The correct position is the one shown here, with the prongs around the back of the neck where the muscles are, and the leash attachment at the front or to the side. Again, the collar should be adjusted small enough that it remains in this position without sliding down or rotating.

Leash Attachment
Photo by Erin Koski.

The chain loop on a prong collar has two rings. Most people attach the leash to one of these rings, so that the collar tightens when leash pressure it applied. However, the collar can be made less severe by attaching the leash to both rings. This prevents the collar from tightening, so that the dog feels less of a correction. I always used Brisbane's prong collar like this, he is sensitive enough that he didn't need the collar to tighten.

The collar can also be made less severe by putting rubber tips on the prong. The kindest, gentlest prong collar is one with small links and rubber tips, with the leash clipped through both rings.

The most severe prong collar is one with large links and bare metal tips, with the leash clipped only to one ring. This collar would be the most effective on a strong, insensitive dog. I would not use it on a reactive dog, or one with behavior issues rooted in anxiety.

There are better training tools out there, and I don't really use prong collars anymore. Still, they probably have their place. I believe them to be most effective on big doofy gun dogs like labradors, golden retrievers, and weimeraners. Any handler using this type of collar needs to be aware that is an aversive tool that can make fear and anxiety issues worse, or even cause issues if the dog learns to associate the pain of the collar with certain stimulus. This should be a training tool that is eventually eliminated. I think that head halters work better as a safety measure for a small handler walking a large dog.

Anyone who uses a prong collar needs to be aware that they can pop open suddenly for no reason. I always used a slip collar or martingale with the prong collar. The leash clips through the ring on each collar, so if the prong fails the martingale still safely contains the dog. It's a little bit bulky and a little bit inconvenient, but if will be worth it if it prevents my dog from getting away from me at the worst possible time.

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