Ouch! That really hurt!

I have written (and podcasted) a lot about the importance of positive reinforcement training and the need to avoid using positive punishment for training your dog. Dr. Zazie Todd* in her blog, What is positive punishment in training?clearly defines positive punishment:** 

Punishment means something that reduces the likelihood of a behaviour happening again i.e. the behaviour goes down in frequency. And positive means that something is added.

 

So positive punishment means adding something after the dog did a behaviour that makes the frequency of that behaviour go down.

 

For example, if the dog jumps up and you knee [it] in the chest, and next time you see [that] the dog does not jump up, you have positively punished the dog jumping. You added something (the unpleasant sensation of a knee in the chest) and reduced the frequency of the behaviour.

A prong collar.

With a correction collar such as a prong or pinch collar, you are using positive punishment by adding pain when the dog pulls against the collar or when you jerk on it to “correct” your dog’s behavior.

Some claim that this correction doesn’t hurt as it mimics a mother dog’s hold on a puppy’s neck, but frankly, I don’t buy that. A mother dog carries her pup with a soft mouth and holds it by the scruff (on the back of the neck) or around it’s body. The mother dog does not clamp down, nor does she put pressure on the front of the throat around the windpipe, which is exactly where the pressure occurs with a prong collar.

Yvette Van Veen writes about these collars and how it feels to wear one in her blog Pinch Me, A.K.A. Prong Me. She started her experiment by placing a prong collar on her forearm and pulling. She was surprised when it did not cause pain, and she thought she might have to admit that she was wrong about it being painful. But, then she moved on to the next part of her experiment, placing the prong collar on her own neck! 

Carefully, I adjusted the number of links so the collar sat high up on my neck, snug but not tight.  Gently I pulled on the ring where the leash attached.  Again, I was legitimately surprised that spikes did not dig into my neck, and there was very little pain.

 

My husband entered the room, rolled his eyes at yet another “experiment”.  Jokingly, he grasped the chain.  Using his fingers only he tugged.  “You’re coming with me!”

 

That is when the prong collar “bit” me.  As the metal of the prong pressed against the bone of my spine, it created sharp, intense pain.  I screamed – yes screamed – for him to stop.  My husband blubbered, “I didn’t pull hard.  It wasn’t hard at all.  I just used my fingers.”

Since a friend had pointed out to her that dogs’ necks are more muscular and the pressure would be different because they walk on all fours, for the next part she got down on her hands and knees:

Head down (literally, I got down on all fours) we attached the leash to the collar.  My son “walked” me around the house.  He was applying FINGERTIP pressure.

 

It was here that the collar “bit” me for the second time.  It was not painful.  I think it was worse than that.  The pressure from the evenly spaced links didn’t distribute evenly, the way it had on my arm.  Walking on my hands and knees, the collar did not pinch.  It pulled up against the front of my throat, an area that has very little muscle to afford any protection.  Checking the front of my dog’s neck, it becomes quickly apparent that his muscular neck and shoulders do not offer protection to the front of his neck either.

 

As I crawled along the ground, and the prong dug up into my windpipe, I felt a primal urge to recoil and relieve pressure.  While not quite a choking feeling, it was a gagging, gurgling, inability to swallow.  My stomach seized and I felt panic.  In an instinctive need for self-preservation I gasped, “Drop the leash!”  Grasping at the links, my hands shaking, I immediately struggled to remove the prong collar from my neck.  Having felt both the pain of prong on bone, and the pressure of a prong on my windpipe, the pressure on my windpipe was, at least to me, far worse.

Notice the lack of heavy musculature on the underside of the neck by the man’s hand. This is where a prong collar should be placed, right on the windpipe.

As Ms Van Veen pointed out, the heavy muscles are on the back of the dog’s neck and the underside is very much like a human’s with the windpipe unprotected by thick musculature.  Researchers at the University of Minnesota college of Veterinary Medicine, showed that the use of any collar increased intraocular pressure which can be particularly problematic for dogs with exisiting ocular issues. According to veterinarian Dr. Peter Tobias, choke, prong, and shock collars can irreversibly damage your dog, causing, “a whole array of problems… including lameness, skin issues, allergies, lung and heart problems, digestive issues, ear and eye conditions and thyroid gland dysfunction, to name a few.” He goes on to state that “neck injuries can cause a variety of problems including emotional trauma.”

In addition to the the possible physical damage or problems that may arise from the use of choke or prong collars, the punishment that is delivered can adversely change your dog’s behavior. The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior has a position paper on the use of punishment to modify animal behavior. They state,

Even when punishment seems mild, in order to be effective it often must elicit a strong fear response, and this fear response can generalize to things that sound or look similar to the punishment. Punishment has also been shown to elicit aggressive behavior in many species of animals.

Punishing a dog for any behavior may result in a dog who is not only more fearful, but who is more likely to be aggressive towards people, as well as show other behavioral issues. (Companion Animal Psychology). I would also contend that using force, pain, or fear to train your dog is not conducive to building a relationship that is companionable and grounded in co-operation and trust. 

Instead, consider a body harness for your dog. The Whole Dog Journal rated several of the front clip no-pull harnesses this year and there are many wonderful choices out there. I have tried all three of their top rated ones and found them to be easy to use and comfortable for my dogs.

So, before you reach for the prong collar to teach your dog not to pull while on a walk, think about the unintended consequences of this force based method. Is this really the best way to treat and train your best friend?

Tank and Roodie demonstrate two reasonable alternatives to collars: a Gentle Leader head halter and a front clip body harness. Both of these work best in conjunction with positive reinforcement training.

 

 

*Dr. Todd (Companion Animal Psychology) was a guest on Your Family Dog and we had a wonderful time talking about how to make happy dog happier. Click here to hear the podcast.

**When talking about reinforcement and punishment there are four combinations to consider: positive reinforcement, positive punishment, negative reinforcement, and negative punishment. Positive in these cases means adding something, negative means removing something. Reinforcement means the behavior will increase in frequency, punishment means the behavior will decrease in frequency. Thus, positive reinforcement means that adding something will make the behavior happen more often. If your dog sits, for example, and you give him a cookie when his bottom hits the ground, then he will be more likely to sit.  Click here for a good graphic on this. 

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