A new relationship with animals, nature and each other.

Dog Collars: the Good, the Bad, the Ugly

Which kind is right for you and your dog?

By Liz Stelow, DVM

You have a new dog and you want to train him. You know you’ll have to attach his leash to something – but what? You’ve interviewed countless trainers who have very different opinions about what to choose. In fact, within the dog training community, there seems to be a constant debate about the most effective collars, whether some types should ever be used, and even what they should be called. You can almost sense the amount of controversy that exists about a type of collar simply by looking at how many negative or euphemistic names it has.

You know that, although collars are all designed to control a dog while on leash, the type you choose makes a statement about you and how you perceive your dog. This message may be purposeful or inadvertent – but who hasn’t made a snap judgment about the burly guy with the Rottie in the prong collar or the Maltese with the pink leopard print with rhinestones?

So, how will you possibly overcome this paralysis and find the right training collar for your dog? Let’s look at the choices:

Flat buckle collar

The simplest type of collar, the nylon or leather flat-buckle, is relatively free of controversy. It’s what most people think of when they think of a dog collar. It has either a metal buckle or plastic clip closure and a nice D ring for attaching ID tags and leashes.

These collars come in such a dazzling array of colors and patterns that a dog can have quite an elaborate wardrobe. They can be left on the dog virtually all the time and most dogs can train reasonably well on them.

Martingale collar

A variation of the basic flat-buckle collar is the Martingale. It’s designed for long-necked breeds with smaller heads, like greyhounds and salukis.

Rather than being fitted with a buckle, this type of collar has a loop of fabric or chain that connects the two ends of the collar. When the leash pulls on the loop, the collar ends are pulled together. The collar, even when pulled shut, is never constricting; but it tightens enough that the dog’s head cannot back out.

There is an all-chain version of this collar that is often called the “soft choke collar,” or “humane choke collar.”

Prong collar

The prong collar is most often seen on large, muscular dogs. Two thirds of the collar is made of wide links that each have two blunt prongs that face toward the dog. This group of links is attached at either end to a loop of chain with two rings equidistant apart. If the leash is attached to both rings, the collar will not tighten when pulled. If the leash is hooked to only the first ring and the leash is pulled, the collar tightens and the prongs pinch the skin on the neck of the dog. Prong collars are not meant to be left on the dog when the owner is not actively training it. It is also called a “pinch collar” or “bite collar.”

Experts are fairly polarized on the subject of prong collars. Proponents argue that it is like the bite of the mother dog in correcting its young and believe it is far more humane than the slip collar, described below. Detractors feel that the pinch is too painful and there is too much room for the inexperienced user to injure a dog with this collar.

Beyond irritation of the skin where the prongs rub, there are only anecdotal reports of injury attributed to the use of these collars.

Slip collar

The slip collar has been considered a training tool for generations. Made of chain or fabric, it is placed on the dog as a loop, with one end essentially pulled through a ring at the other end. If the leash is attached to the ring at the first end, nothing happens; but attached to the other end, the loop tightens around the dog’s neck when pulled.

The idea is that the collar can be tightened and loosened quickly to give the dog feedback (a “correction”) during training. It is meant to be used only when training the dog and to be removed all other times. Other names for this collar are “correction collar,” “choke chain,” “choke collar” and “check collar.”

Like prong collars, some trainers swear by slip collars and others loathe them. While many people feel they could never control their large dogs without a slip collar, some never learn to use them properly. They must be put on the dog in the correct configuration and used from only one side; if pulled from the other side, the collar will not release properly and can be dangerous. Used improperly, they have been implicated in injuries like tracheal collapse, esophageal trauma, laryngeal nerve damage, and asphyxiation due to hanging.

Shock collar

Shock collars are flat nylon or plastic collars with built-in receivers that, when triggered, produce a static shock via two prongs that press into the dog’s neck.

In anti-bark collars, the shock is given automatically when the dog barks; in remote training collars, the shock is produced when the human (owner, trainer) pushes a button. Each collar has a range of shock intensities that the user can deliver. This can be a form of positive punishment (a shock when an unwanted behavior occurs) or negative reinforcement (the shock ceases when a desired behavior occurs). These are also called “bark collars,” “electric/electronic collars,” “e-collars” and “remote control training collars.”

Following the trend of the prong and slip collars, trainers love shock collars or hate them. Some trainers claim that only a few sessions with shock is all the average dog would need. Opponents claim that even one session with such a collar could do irreparable harm, mainly in the form of fear/anxiety, aversion, or exacerbation of aggression. One of the problems, they say, is that it is very difficult for the human to deliver the shock at the precise moment the behavior occurs; for this reason, it may take several shocks for the dog to associate the shock with his unwanted behavior.

Behaviorist Dr. Sophia Yin recently published a post about this very issue: shock collar blog. In addition to behavioral or psychological problems, misuse can lead to punctures or burns on the neck.

Head harness

Head harnesses are relative newcomers to the training collar parade. These harnesses are made up of nylon straps that fit around the dog’s neck and muzzle, similar to the leather ones made for horses.

The principle behind these devices is: where the head goes, the dog will follow. These are meant to be used only when the dog is training. Neck injuries can occur if a sharp correction is given to a running dog; anecdotal reports suggest that improperly-fitted harnesses can rub sores in the muzzle.

The behavior community and most positive-reinforcement trainers support the use of head harnesses, as no punishment is given during use. Detractors believe that head harnesses cannot control strong or high-energy dogs and that, with lack of “correction,” no true training is happening.

These harnesses are also called “halters.”

Body harness

Body harnesses attach around the shoulders and neck of a dog. While not truly “collars,” harnesses provide a similar function in controlling a dog on leash. Several types exist, including “no-pull,” traditional and padded.

These are often a good choice for those brachycephalic breeds that cannot tolerate tension around their necks, either because of breathing problems or because their eyes have a tendency to push out under pressure. Detractors feel that, because harnesses attach to “the strongest part of the dog,” the owner will never truly have control over the dog.

How to choose

Now you have some idea what you can put around your dog – it’s time to decide what relationship you want with your dog.

If you believe that dogs are pack animals and that you must assert yourself as the alpha pack leader, you will likely be attracted to prong, slip, or shock collars.

If, like me, you align yourself more with the “force-free” trainers and want to forge a positive-only training relationship with your dog, you’ll be more likely to choose a head harness or stick with a basic flat buckle. This type of training avoids the punishment and painful correction inherent in the prong, slip, and shock collars.

If you’re somewhere in between, or just not certain, you’ll need to do more research. There are a few “hybrid” training styles out there that might work for you.