Friday, August 29, 2014

All About Collars

Is a choke collar the same thing as a slip collar? What's the difference between a martingale and a half-slip collar? There are tons of different types of dog collars, but they can all be sorted into a handful of categories. Collars can be tried on human thighs and upper arms, for anyone curious about how they feel. I find this is an excellent way to compare various training collars and get a better idea of what I am subjecting my dogs to.

Photo by Erin Koski
Flat Collars
A flat collar does not tighten. Almost every type of collar can be adjusted to fit dogs of different sizes, but every collar that is designed to stay at a given size and not tighten up when leash pressure is applied can be considered a flat collar. The most common type is the flat buckle collar. This is the quintessential dog collar, usually made from leather or nylon webbing. It can have a traditional buckle like a belt buckle, a quick-release side-squeeze buckle, or some other sort of clasp or closure. 

There are also flat collars without buckles, designed to be slipped over the dog's head and then adjusted to the correct size. Tag collars for greyhounds, intended only to hold identification tags and not for leash attachment, often lack buckles to avoid irritating sensitive skin.

The flat collar is the most basic type of collar, it is great for holding tags and good for attaching a leash to some dogs. However, many dogs can back out of a flat collar if they try hard enough. Some dogs have fat necks, some have small heads, and most just don't have their collars adjusted tightly enough. A tight collar is less likely to get caught on anything, including another dog's jaw during play. However, a tight collar can also mat fur and irritate skin, and few dogs can't slip out of a tight flat collar in a panic.

Photo by Erin Koski
Slip Collars
A slip collar had a ring at either end. The length of the collar is dropped through one ring to form a noose that is slipped around the dog's neck. When leash pressure is applied, the collar tightens. There is no limit to how tight a slip collar can get. The single point of action on a slip collar can pinch, the ring is definitely the major pain-causing area when the collar is tight.

Photo by Erin Koski
Collars that tighten have what is called a "live ring". When the leash is attached to this ring and then pressure is applied, the collar pulls tight. Since slip collars have two rings, the second one is called the "dead ring".  If the leash were attached to this ring, and then pressure were applied, the collar would not tighten. In general, it's a bad idea to attach tags to a slip collar, but they are usually attached to the dead ring to prevent the weight from pulling the collar tight. It's also a bad idea to leave a slip collar on a dog because the live ring can get caught on something and strangle the dog. I've seen collars get caught on dewclaws, back feet, tree branches, fences, bucket handles, and other dogs' mouths, and in every case the outcome could have been tragic if the dog had been wearing a slip collar.

There is right and wrong way to put on a slip collar. When the dog is standing to the left of the handler, the chain coming off the live ring should travel across the back of the dog's neck and then under it and up to the dead ring. If the collar is put on upside down, it make not loosen up immediately when leash pressure ceases.

Slip collars are useful for dogs that can back out of flat collars. They are also helpful as emergency backup devices for head halters and no-pull harnesses, though most people use a martingale for this. Chain slip collars, known as choke chains and check chains, are the most effective for training that uses collar corrections. This is an outdated method of training though, and very few informed handlers use choke chains. A slip lead is a leash with a ring at the end, the leash can be dropped through the ring to make a slip collar. Slip leads are popular for quick and easy, escape-proof leashing. Slip collars and slip leads are not particularly effective at deterring dogs from pulling on the leash.

Photo by Erin Koski
Martingale Collars
A martingale collar has two loops. The large loop goes around the dog's neck. The small loop pulls the collar tight, and normally has a ring for attaching the leash. A martingale collar can be made from chain, fabric, or other materials. A prong collar is a type of martingale. Some martingale collars have a dead ring on the main part of the collar for attaching tags or a leash without pulling the collar tight.

Photo by Erin Koski
Because the loop pulls the collar tight from two directions, a martingale puts more even pressure on the dog's neck than a slip collar. This is evident when I put one of these on my arm or leg and pull it tight. Martingales don't pinch like slip collars. For these reasons, a martingale collar is not as effective as a slip collar for training that uses collar corrections.

A properly-fitted martingale collar should be just tight enough to prevent the dog from backing out of the collar, no matter how hard they pull. These work great for escape-artist dogs, and I like them because they loosen up when the dog isn't pulling, unlike a flat collar fitted tight enough to prevent escape. Brisbane has several martingale collars because his head is smaller than his neck, those enormous ears are just for show. I also use martingales on new or unfamiliar dogs, and as backups for head collars and certain types of harnesses.

Any collar that tightens should not be left on an unsupervised dog. Most martingales do not have a quick-release buckle, so a collar that gets caught on something will have to be cut off before it strangles the dog. A lot of people use martingales instead of flat buckle collars, and keep them adjusted as tightly as a flat collar. This means the collar will get tight enough to choke the dog when leash pressure is applied. Martingale collars with huge loops bug me a lot because they hang so loose when adjusted properly. I feel like they are designed by people who don't actually know how these things are supposed to work.

Photo by Erin Koski
Limited Slip Collars
A limited slip collar is one that tightens to a certain point, but does not become infinitely tight like a full slip collar. A martingale is a type of limited slip collar, but not all limited slip collars are martingales. The one shown is a limited slip, but does not have a loop so it is not a martingale. A limited slip collar can also be called a half choke, half slip, semi-choke, or any other name that translates to "chokes, but not all the way".

Limited slip collars can be adjusted tight enough to prevent escape without strangling the dog, but they have the same issue as full slip collars where they pinch when tight. This isn't much of an issue when the collar is fitted properly.

The difference between a martingale and a non-martingale limited slip collar can be subtle, I think the best way is to look at the part that tightens and see if it forms a loop that slides freely through two rings. The Bark Buster's collar in my picture is not a martingale because there is no loop, the chain is fixed to one of the rings and slides through the other. The EzyDog Checkmate collar looks like it has a loop, but this is not a martingale because one end of the loop is fixed to the slide beside the buckle. The Bison Designs slip collars are not martingales because they only slide through one ring, the other side of the loop is fixed to the collar.

Recently I have come across a couple of different styles of leather limited slip collars. Both were tapered near the ring, and the widening strap prevented the collar from tightening too much. One was a very pretty decorative collar on a very pretty Doberman pinscher. The other was a nasty, primitive prong collar with metal spikes on the inside. It was called a prong collar, and sold for use on hunting dogs. Yeesh. I don't have pictures of either of these, but I may eventually track down the vendor who sold the pretty one and get one Brisbane. The other one can be found by Googling "leather prong collar".
Photo by Erin Koski

Electronic Collars 
Electronic collar, e-collar, or remote collar are all names for shock collars. There are automatic shock collars that trigger when the dog barks. There are electric fence collars that trigger when the dog approaches sensors. The accuracy of these types of shock collars seems to be largely related to quality, and some people have reported the cheaper ones (PetSafe) going off and punishing dogs at the wrong times. Shock collars all have a little box with two electric contact prongs sticking inward, towards the dog. These need to be in contact with the dog's skin to work properly, and so the collar needs to be snug. Bark collars need to be positioned at the front of the dog's neck. Dogs with thick coats may need to have a small area trimmed or shaved for the e-collar to be effective.

Shock collars work by zapping the dog with an electric shock, and most people who use them on their dogs have tested them on themselves first and can attest to the collar providing a strong zap and not just a little pop. For this reason, shock collars are a really bad idea for sensitive, reactive, and fearful dogs. Painful, negative experiences are exceptionally bad for sensitive dogs like herding breeds, and it is impossible to predict exactly what lesson the dog will take away from the experience. The dog may learn that rolling in dead stuff is bad, but they may just as easily associate the shock with a random sound, sight, or texture. Negative training is always a gamble, and shock collars can up the ante in a big way.

That said, there are some uses for e-collars. The one on Brisbane is a thrift store find, it doesn't work and we only use it for a prop. Some high-quality collars have a warning, or pager, setting that makes the collar vibrate without shocking. This is extremely useful for deaf dogs, and can also be a way to enforce off-leash commands for some dogs in some situations. There are a lot of details to correct e-collar use, ways to hopefully prevent the dog from becoming wise to the collar and knowing when it can and can't be shocked, and ways to maximize the effectiveness. In the hands of an experienced and skilled trainer, a shock collar is rarely used to shock. Many people view them as a quick and easy way to train their dogs to be reliable off leash though, without realizing the potential for harm. In most cases, the dog shouldn't be off leash anyway. Electronic collars are risky business, and I personally cannot see myself using one for anything other than a photography prop.

1 comment:

  1. Very helpful clarification, thank you!! I'd figured from photos of different brands that the specific details of mechanism varied. Helpful to have the explanation you give.
    I absolutely agree: harsh methods do not train the dog and if control-only is needed, there are kind ways to achieve it. e.g. the cannycollar or a suitable harness. Add in a double-hooked lead and it can be attached to both the canny/harness and flat collar (a collar that remains on the dog being a legal requirement in many countries), for better control AND a balance that is kinder on the dog. Most eventually learn, with consistency in handling and a handler they respect rather than fear.