Monday, August 18, 2014

Choke Chains: Not Actually for Strangling Your Dog

The choke chain, or check chain, is one of the most commonly used training collars, and one of the most abused. It is my least favorite training device because it is the only one I know of that causes harm when used both properly and improperly.
Photo by Erin Koski

How to Use a Choke Chain
A properly used choke chain is almost always loose. Unlike a prong collar, which should be adjusted to fit snugly, a choke chain should be several inches larger than the dog's neck.

The correct way to use a choke chain is to give a correction when the dog is not performing the desired action. A correction is given by giving the leash a sharp jerk, pulling the chain tight to hurt the dog's neck. Dr. Sophia Yin describes the proper technique here in more detail, it requires quite a bit of leverage and actually twisting the body to apply enough force. During a proper choke chain correction, some of the dog's feet may actually leave the ground. Once the dog has experienced this sort of pain, a light collar pop is often enough of a reminder.

Using a choke chain on a dog that pulls on the leash should look like this: dog walks to end of leash, handler gives almighty yank of doom, dog walks to end of leash, handler gives almighty yank of doom, dog becomes wary of hitting the end of the leash and learns to walk nicely OR ELSE. Next time dog becomes excited and hits the end of the leash, the handler can give them a light snap to see if they remember how to walk nicely, before resorting to the almighty yank of doom. Overall, the dog should experience a small number of hard yanks, and a lot of small pops while learning how to walk on leash.

Photo by Erin Koski
A thinner choke chain is more severe than one with big fat links, in general the thinner-is-more-severe rule holds true for everything but prong collars. A wider collar distributes pressure across a larger area, while a thinner collar concentrates and magnifies any force exerted. Thin choke chains are popular in the conformation show ring because they are subtle and don't draw attention away from the dog, and at the same time look a bit like elegant jewelry. Big fat chains are easier on the dog's neck, less severe when popped, and scream "THIS IS A CHAIN!" for those who like to accessorize.

The most effective way to use a choke chain is to keep it high on the dog's neck when tightened. This is where there is the least muscle, and the most sensitive nerves along with important things like arteries. It guarantees that the chain will hurt the most when yanked, and most effectively cuts off the dog's air supply when lifted up. I never use choke chains, I bought these at a thrift store specifically for this blog post.

How Not to Use a Choke Chain
One of the reasons people use choke chains is because this type of collar tightens up when pressure is applied, and prevents the dog from backing out. More importantly, the collar remains loose when no pressure is applied. A flat collar must be very tight indeed to prevent the dog from backing out, and some dogs can back out of anything that doesn't tighten. Martingale collars and harnesses also prevent dogs from escaping, but without causing the same type of damage to the neck as an ever-tightening noose.
Photo by Erin Koski

The average pet owner isn't using a choke chain to prevent escape, though. Most seem to be using it as a bandaid for pulling on leash. The choke chain is simultaneously the least effective and most damaging way to try to stop dogs from pulling on walks. No-pull harnesses and head collars are both fairly effective bandaid solutions for pulling. The Easy Walk front-clip harness is currently my favorite no-effort solution for dogs that pull. It causes little to no discomfort, minimal harm so long as it isn't being used for running or by canine athletes, and can be effectively used just by clipping it on and walking without training. It can be a great training aid too, but it makes a decent bandaid for people who just want to take a damned walk without getting dragged down the street.

The average dog owner seems to think choke chains work by causing discomfort when the dog pulls. The vast majority of the ones I see on dogs are either much too long or much too short. The chain is always resting around the base of the neck, and the wearer is pulling like a sled dog. Choke chains are terrible bandaids for pulling because they just aren't that aversive when used like this. Most dogs don't really mind, or even notice that they are being strangled. The sensation is of a slow, gradual squeeze rather than the sudden pinch from a prong collar, and many dogs are perfectly willing to pull through that feeling. There's nothing to help them connect between leash pressure and not being able to breathe because these don't happen at the same time.

Photo by Erin Koski
Why Not to Use a Choke Chain
When used correctly, a choke chain is used to inflict pain as a method of training. When used incorrectly, a choke chain is used as an ineffective deterrent to pulling on leash. Unlike most training tools out there, a choke chain also causes harm no matter how it is used. Those sharp collar corrections high on the neck damage tracheas and glands and other delicate structures. The chronic strangulation of the choke chain sitting low on the neck of a dog allowed to pull causes eye damage. Using a choke chain to deliberately strangle, drag or hang a dog like a certain TV dog trainer can cause brain damage severe enough that the only kind solution is euthanasia.

There just isn't any reason at all to be using a choke chain in 2014 when we have all sorts of other options for communicating with our dogs and solving behavior problems. Just about every other training tool on the market is safer, more effective, less aversive, and easier to use.

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