An Evolution of Dog Training Collars

The world of the internet abounds with information regarding the selection and use of dog training equipment, specifically collars and other devices of more recent design ostensibly to facilitate the training of dogs.

This article was constructed to provide descriptions of the varying types of dog training collars and their uses; dispel the myths behind their alleged abuses and provide the reader with information sufficient to select and properly use the correct dog training collars and other equipment necessary to obtain the goal of a well trained dog.

Head Halters

Within the last 15 years or so, there has been a wealth of ‘new’ designs in dog training equipment that are specifically created to be more management tools than training devices, making it easier for an owner or handler to physically control the dog without much learning benefit for either party. These dog training tools include head halters and an assortment of “no-pull” harnesses that have leash attachments at the front of the apparatus so if the dog should pull, physics takes care of his forward momentum. The same can be said with the halter type head gear that has become increasingly popular. As in horses, if you control the head, it is said that you control the whole animal.

It is true; if a dog pulls while wearing one of these items, the dog is abruptly turned in an about-face manner back towards his point-of-origin.

Pictures of these types of dog training equipment can be found here.

There are many schools of thought regarding their use; advocates of the head halter devices are inclined to favor them for their obvious difference than more traditional training collars (often called “choke” collars) and their ability to confer control from themselves to other handlers once the dog becomes used to the apparatus.

Again, following the principals of the horseman, if you control the head, the body will follow.

The argument arises with the limitations on the device itself. Certainly it can be said that the halter-type dog training tools have found their uses amongst a specific sect of training enthusiasts, but two issues arise immediately with their use. First and foremost is the introduction of the device to the dog, often met with much resistance, to which the dog never really learns to accommodate, and two, the whole dependency on a device to control a dog that will often resort to prior behaviors once the device is removed.

My personal issue with these devices is the restraint it exacts on an animal whose principal means of communication is in fact its facial expressions and head carriage.

Much of the observed behaviors of dogs in head halters could conceivably be a result of the inhibition they would naturally experience by having that principal means of communication removed from them. Their supporters would certainly condemn that view, but I have been witness to dogs with these halters on and am not surprised at their responses when the halters are removed. It’s a rather sad quality for a dog to have in my opinion; the inhibited, subdued presence of what otherwise appears (to the untrained eye) as a behaved animal is simply one that is more concerned with presenting himself in as small a footprint as possible so as not to attract attention to his own vulnerability.

In certain cases, this does have value as a training device, but overall, I see it as a management tool that is used inappropriately. Where management has taken precedence over training, these tools have become popular.

Where it is more important for an individual to exact control in favor of cooperation, these devices have become the first choice for owners and certain dog trainers under the auspices of ‘humane’ training practices.

Dogs ‘trained’ on head halters do not compete in the highest levels of canine performance events in any discipline. Dogs trained on head halters are rarely if ever seen without them, or demonstrating the freedoms that can only come with training; off leash. There is a reason for this. Despite the condemnations sure to follow from the adherents to management only and the argument about leash laws and restrictions to dogs off leash, the reality is that these laws would not be necessary if owners took the time and assumed the responsibility for their animals behavior and training. As with any tool used for management as opposed to the actual training of a dog, in the absence of the device, reliability cannot be assured.

The correct sizing and fitting of these devises is necessary in order to achieve maximum comfort and effectiveness. With horses, head halters have a noseband that drops down above the nostrils and well below the eyes. With the dog head halters, the noseband is actually much closer to the eyes, and if not fitted correctly not only can obstruct vision, but can cause irritation and injury to the eye. As with any equipment, they should never be left on an unattended dog for any reason. To do so invites injury.

Head halters do have their applications as I have stated above and I have used them on dogs that are physically imposing for their diminutive owners in conjunction with more traditional and easy-to-use training equipment until the halters’ use can be terminated once durable control through obedience is obtained.

The potential for abuse is as high with these dog training tools as there are with any other. Anecdotal evidence aside, a dog corrected inappropriately on a head halter of any manufacture can sustain injury as would any dog on any other piece of training equipment.

Training tools are designed to be used in a specific way by their manufacturers. Using them outside of that scope is harmful, period.

“No-Pull” Body Harness

Next on the list is the body harness, of which several have been designed and developed over the past few years.

Traditionally, body harnesses were designed to distribute weight over a larger surface area than a collar. They were originally crude designs crafted by indigenous peoples for the employment of dogs as draft animals and as such the current modified designs share much in common with those earlier prototypes.

There are still harnesses designed for use in dog sports that are comfortable for the wearer and utilize the principals of correct weight distribution so that the dog is maintained at the highest levels of comfort in the performing of his tasks either as a sled dog, protection dog or guide dog for the blind.

There are an abundance of manufacturers all touting the same hue and cry of ‘humane’ and ‘gentle’ without addressing the principals in the use of a harness. It was originally designed to provide an even distribution of weight over a large surface area in order to enable an animal to pull and/or carry freight for sustained periods of time. The second principal applies to the dogs’ ability to comfortably move into the harness to equalize that pressure and evenly transmit the power needed to move burdens in a smooth and unencumbered manner.

My observations in its recent incarnation is the re-articulation of the harness’s contact points to maximize the pressure applied to the animal as opposed to being designed to equalize the distribution of weight  that normally would allow that freedom of movement while pulling.

Pick any design of “No-Pull” harness currently being manufactured today and envision it as it is designed to make intimate contact with corresponding points on your dogs’ body. In some cases, across the chest, under the arms, below the larynx. Using the same whip-chord as some manufacturers do, now envision your dog throwing his full body weight against that device in the pursuit of something he really desires and envision the discomfort he will feel as his more tender parts are forced into the most uncompromising gesticulations as he tries to escape that pressure.

In the case of the harnesses where the leash attaches at the front as opposed to the back, envision the same experiment again, as your dog is whipped around by the nature of practical physics to face the place he just left. Abruptly.

Remember, I said envision. Imagine. Do not try this at home.

In the interest of truly humane training, I do not endorse any of these harnesses as training tools. The application of pressure in this manner as a deterrent to a behavior is not training. It is a cruelty of the highest order. It is a management tool for individuals who would rather use such devices than take responsibility for the actual education their dog requires to make them controllable, pleasurable pets and such devises unnecessary.

Prong or Pinch Type Collars

The design of the collar more commonly known as the prong or “pinch” collar is actually quite dated. It is estimated that it first emerged in Europe hundreds of years ago by huntsmen who fashioned a collar out of a leather strap with nails embedded through it. J.A. Sanchez Antunino of the Yucatan Peninsula was credited with it’s creation as a standard training tool for gun dogs during the early part of the 20th century and it is still used today. Konrad Most refers to ‘spike collars’ liberally in his book, “Training Dogs, a Manual” written in 1911, complete with photographs of dogs wearing this type of training collar.

It’s origins in this country surface with the appearance of professional dog-men from Europe at the turn of the last century. To date I have not been able to trace it’s original manufacturer, but Herm Sprenger is widely accepted as it’s earliest commercial producer, with prototypes dating back to 1876.

This collar has the opposite effect of the traditional spike collars worn by estate guard dogs, stock guarding dogs and dogs of war, which were worn as a deterrent to predators and other unsavory characters.

Unfortunately the Leeds Castle Collection of Dog Collars website was unavailable at this writing, but there is a lovely collection of antiquated dog collars available for view there.

The prong collar is designed to be used as a limited slip or martingale type collar with the intent of equally distributing the pressure around the dogs’ neck when it tightens. The prongs are angled in such a way that as the collar constricts, the prongs remain in one location on the neck and the pressure is applied equally at all points simultaneously. On the newer prong collars, the individual links can be added or removed in order to accommodate the correct fitting. It is necessary to note that the collar must be fitted correctly in order for proper function to occur as it was designed.

Within the last few years, there have been adaptations for the human user with special links and clasps to make placing the collar on the dog easier, and collars made of new materials like the Good Dog Collar in high impact plastic. Essentially they remain the same tool as originally designed, with points that run in pairs throughout the circumference of the collar that apply equal amounts of pressure to the dogs’ neck when it is constricted.

Many people refer to the prong type training collars as ‘power steering for dogs’ because of the ease of which dogs immediately respond to the physical sensation that these collars provide. There are many practical applications for these types of collars, but as with all tools, care must be taken in their use. An incorrectly sized or placed prong collar is more a detriment than a training device and much harm can be done to the wearer if not judiciously applied and used.

Although as a tool they are not harmful to dogs, they have been maliciously maligned as inhumane and cruel with anecdotes and speculations of inappropriate use. Modifications to the prongs to make them sharper is never appropriate and if true, has gone a long way in demonizing a tool that is otherwise innocuous in it’s proper use.

The modern prong collars’ tips are machined smooth and rounded so as not to inflict harm to dogs, and the better manufacturers use only the best materials in their creation.

These collars were never designed for use as tethers nor should they be left on a dog that will be unattended for any length of time, either crated or at large. Most of the emotional arguments regarding these and other dog training collars are founded under circumstances where dogs have sustained serious injury and/or death, not at the deliberate hands of a human, but by that human’s lack of understanding, application or proper use.

The training method that is used with a prong type collar must be constructed in such a way that the pressure is meaningful without being painful. Training with a prong collar does in no way lend itself to the training methods used with traditional slip-type collars. The application of pressure on a prong type collar is more of a squeezing motion than that of a quick leash snap, and principally, the dog is allowed his discovery by virtue of self-correction than any correction that may be employed by the handler.

Many professional dog trainers have applied the use of prong collars in the training of dogs both in pet populations and to high levels of performance events in every discipline. Their ungainly and medieval appearance lends them to be labeled as cruel and inhumane by many, even though in all practicality, when correctly used, they can be one of the most humane and gentle ways of controlling an unruly dog quickly and decisively. Their endurance as a favored training tool has allowed them to stay popular for well over a hundred years.

My only inhibition over the use of prong collars is again the likelihood of their over-use and the handler’s dependence on it as a management tool as opposed to a springboard for (what I consider to be the ultimate goal of) off leash reliability. As with any equipment, a strong dependence on the tool makes it management, not training. As with any equipment, it should be the handler’s goal to fade the use of the tool altogether in favor of the cooperation and acceptance that only training to a reliable standard of performance can achieve.

The modern version of the prong or “pinch” collar can be found in virtually any pet store and range in quality from very cheap and of poor construction to the excellent versions still manufactured by Herm Sprenger of Germany.

The overriding complaint with any limited-slip or martingale collar is the inability of most handlers to size and fit them correctly.

Their initial design was to assure that an animal could not escape the collar by backing out of it. Although more difficult to accomplish on a prong collar, it has occurred. The martingale design is ancient and functional. Cloth or fabric martingale collars are limited in their use but still are functional as effective training tools for temperamentally softer, smaller or fragile dogs. The linked types such as the prong collar are effective for handlers with dogs of a larger nature, more ‘energetic’ or by virtue of the size difference between handler and animal. They are effective, humane and with correct use, are quite gentle.

Incorrectly fitting Prong Collar

Correctly fitting Prong Collar

Traditional Slip-type Training Collars

In a belabored attempt to collect information via the internet on the history of dog training collars, I came up empty for anything of value regarding the genesis of the slip-type or more commonly referred to ‘choke’ collar or ‘choke-chain’. Websites abound with emotionally fraught renderings of why these collars are ‘bad’ and ‘inhumane’, ‘cruel’ and so on, but nothing of any substance regarding their history or development.

The first reference of the dog training collar in question was as a ‘slip training collar’, ‘chain training collar’, ‘slip collar’or just simply ‘training collar’. There are early references to ‘choke collar’ (Most, K. 1911 ‘Training Dogs, a Manual’) and it is not uncommon to find it referred to in that way prior to the last 50 years. Somewhere in the last 15 years or so, they have taken on a new series of names, ‘choke and puke collar’, ‘yank and crank’ and other juvenile disparagements that serve no purpose here.

The slip collar design itself has been around for hundreds of years, possibly longer, with very little in the way of modification (see inserts). They are designed to be applied and used in one specific way and (in capable hands) have been responsible for the training and rehabilitation of countless millions of pet dogs and have helped handlers and trainers obtain the highest achievements in performance dog sports for at least the last 70 years. This collar and the standard buckle collar are the only two acceptable types of dog collars allowed in an A.K.C. dog obedience titling event, since the inception of the Obedience sport in April of 1936.

Granted, there is a bounty of recitations regarding dogs having been injured by these devices; fractured tracheas, dogs choked to death through a myriad of inappropriate applications of what is simply a training device.

Has it happened? Sure it has. The deliberate intent to do harm is as old as the human race. Realistically though, the dog training collar was created by humans, used by humans and abused by humans. It is not in the inherent design of the tool to be abusive. It is the improper application of the tool that makes it dangerous.

Of the dissertations regarding the damage to dogs by virtue of these specific training devices, I have to wonder how those training collars were employed and what method of training was used in order to cause such damage. I cannot think of a dog trainer in my association; colleague, competitor or otherwise that would consciously use such a tactic or a method to train a dog.

For my purpose, I will refer to it by the original and rightful name, that of ‘slip collar’.

The slip collar was never intended to be used as a tether. It’s simple yet practical design makes it the hallmark of mechanical dog training equipment as it has been for generations of both dogs and trainers. Still held as the standard for which all other mechanical equipment is measured, the traditional slip collar remains an integral part of any worthy trainer’s tool-bag and still remains the most purchased dog training collar on the planet.

As with any equipment, care must be taken in correctly sizing and fitting a slip collar and recent improvements in its basic design have accomplished more precise fits for dogs with large heads. Where passing a traditional collar over the head of a Mastiff type breed, many of the Bull breeds and quite a few of the Toy breeds is impractical, there have been two innovations to assist in overcoming the obstacle of dogs with too much back skull and not enough neck.

Herm Sprenger developed a toggle type chain slip collar, much like it’s two-ring counterpart, the toggle allows for a more precise fit for the dogs’ neck without having to wrestle it over the head. Sprenger also has collar sizes in odd number lengths to assure the most correct fit for the toggle slip collars. There are also snap-type collars where there is a bolt snap attached to one of the end rings of the collar and a floating ring rides the length of the fabric or leather that the collar is made of. There are many manufacturers of good quality snap collars and often a manufacturer can custom craft lengths for even the smallest dog.

Snap collar, L; Toggle collar, C; Traditional chain slip, R.

Correctly sized and applied snap collar

Snap collars are appropriate for dogs with large back skulls and Brachycephalic breeds like Pugs, Bulldogs and some of the large Molossar breeds. They can be custom made to fit any size neck and since application is from around the neck and not over the head, there is less risk of using the wrong size collar.

Correctly fitted Toggle collar

These collars are manufactured by Herm Sprenger and to my knowledge are the only ones like it anywhere. They come in a variety of sizes and weights and are available in odd sizes for a more precise fit. Like the nylon snap collars, they offer the option of sizing the dog correctly by the circumference of the neck as opposed to the circumference of the largest width of the skull, making it easier to find the right equipment for Brachycephalic breeds like Pugs and Bulldogs.

Incorrect application of a chain slip collar

The incorrect placement of the slip collar disables the ability for release, allowing the collar to ‘hang up’ on itself and literally “choke” the dog. I personally feel that it is this incorrect use that has garnered this collar its unfortunate nickname and the bad press associated with its use. As stated earlier, under no circumstances should an animal be permitted to wear ANY training equipment without the benefit of close supervision by a human being.

Correctly fitted and applied slip collar

There is only one correct way for a slip collar of any type to be worn by the dog in order for the action to be most effective when the collar is activated to its tightest point and then released. It is this action, the elemental design of the collar itself, that has made it the most effective and most popular dog training tool for at least the last 100 years.

Electronic Dog Training Collars

The first electronic dog training collars were initially developed by hound trainers where precise skills needed to be enforced over considerable distances. In their earliest years, these collars were often used as aversive devices for problematic behaviors, allowed for a very limited range of stimulation levels and were designed specifically as a tool for delivering powerful corrections.

These collars were designed and built by hound men strictly for their own personal use. A design was developed and later sold to TriTronics, who are the first manufacturers attributed to the commercialization of  the collars and making them available for widespread distribution. The TriTronics A1 model was sold commercially during the 70’s.

Their use gained popularity with dog men who wished for a tool to apply reinforcement for behaviors over considerable distances, as is often necessary with upland bird dogs, hounds and retrievers.

Although dog trainers had encountered the use of electronics within the pet market prior to the 1990’s, these electronic collars were principally used as aversives to unwanted or potentially dangerous behaviors like trash raiding, stock/car/wildlife chasing and other nuisance behaviors. They remained largely unnoticed outside of highly specialized training venues until late in the last century.

The advent of the electronic containment systems in the early ’70’s was slow to gain ground until the patents held by the original patent holder expired in the late ’80’s and many other players entered the pet containment field.

The appearance of the electronic training devices known as electronic collars, e-collars, remote collars and ‘shock’ collars steadily began to increase around the same time.

Although the history of e-collar development is clear; this history of it’s use in the pet dog training market is strictly speculation. Along with the growing popularity of electronic pet containment systems, several of the e-collar manufacturers ventured into the pet containment system arena and vice versa, and a natural crossover occurred.

With the general acceptance of electronics as a containment device for livestock dating back decades, it’s natural insinuation into the pet market was inevitable. The popular acceptance by consumers to contain their pets in this way forged a natural transition to the generalized use of electronics as training devices and the manufacturers began to notice the increasing demand for user-friendly remote training collars.

They were no longer the exclusive realm of the serious field dog, hound or upland bird dog trainer.

In the late ’90’s there emerged several influential advocates of electronic, or ‘remote’ training collars for dogs and since then the growth of electronics in pet dog training has spawned new interest, attention and techniques that are evolving with incredible speed.

If not the most, one of the most complete bodies of reference material compiled on the use of electronic dog training collars is available in Steven Lindsay’s excellent work ‘The Handbook of Applied Dog Behavior and Training, Volume Three, published in 2005.

In the interest of not reinventing the wheel, much of the science behind the principals of electronic dog training are documented there, as well as arguments on both sides of the monumental controversy surrounding the use of this equipment today.

Since our discussion regards the different types of equipment available and used in the training of dogs, I will refer to the methods employed with these different types of training equipment in a later article. As with anything, there are right and wrong ways to use equipment and my express intent at this time is simply to allow the reader the opportunity to weigh the information that is provided here for the appropriate selection of dog training collars that will best suit their needs.