A Word About Collars

“Like any choke collar, it’s a very bad choice to have on your dog while he is playing with another dog.”

By Valerie Barry, KPA-CTP

I think that every dog should wear a collar. I have tracked down too many stray dogs with and without collars to have any other opinion. If they have a collar, they are easier to catch and if they have ID tags on that collar, they are easier to return.

In my view, the purpose of a collar is a way to carry easily read ID for your dog and a fast and easy way to contain or to quickly tether your dog when you need to do so.

For example:
You might be walking your dog off leash, but see a leashed dog approaching. The polite thing to do is to hold your dog lightly by his collar until the other dog and owner pass by. When we go on driving holidays, we occasionally stop at a campground for a quick lunch. Tethering our dogs to the picnic table with their collars and leashes is a fast way to keep them contained and our hands free to eat.

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When it comes to walking my dogs, I rarely attach my leash to their collars. My preference is a well-fitted body harness – ideally one that has a fabric “sling” along the underside and is long enough for their whole body. Dogs can get out of certain types of harnesses if they aren’t fitted properly or if they’re too short and don’t run further down the length of their body. Making sure your dog’s collar fits well is just as important. Ensure that your collar isn’t too heavy or too light for your dog and that it fits reasonably snugly, but not too tight. It’s also important to ensure that ID tags are appropriately sized for your dog’s neck and not too heavy. If you have a tiny dog and the city you live in has large ID tags, consider fastening city ID to their harness and getting a smaller, lighter ID tag for their daily collar.

Collars should never be used in such a way that there is any sustained or sudden pressure on your dog’s neck. Typical collars rest on the neck area in the front at the trachea and the juncture of neck and spine in back. These are fragile areas in dogs and can be easily damaged. Many dogs sustain serious injuries by being yanked or jerked by their neck in the name of training. Even a quick lunge at a darting squirrel can easily cause damage to your dog’s neck if your leash is attached to it.

Many vets, their staff and other dog professionals have tales of badly burned neck wounds from shock collars, scars and wounds from prong and pinch collars, permanent trachea damage and whiplash from choke collars. Please – make another choice!

Collars to Avoid:

Many people don’t realize that hundreds of dogs each year are injured and even killed when playing with other dogs. You should always monitor your dog’s play with other dogs for many reasons but particularly when they’re wearing any kind of equipment. It’s very easy for a dog’s tooth or foot to get caught in another dog’s collar or harness and when it does, bad things can happen very quickly. Both dogs immediately feel trapped or pinned down, perhaps even “under attack” and begin to panic and “fight back”. Many dogs have been seriously injured or even been killed in an attempt to free themselves in this situation when there is no human around to intervene. Even if you’re right there, it’s pretty difficult to separate panicking dogs who may be attached by the mouth and neck.

My favorite collar style is any kind that has a breakaway clasp or a plastic fastener that you can quickly reach in and snap open. The Breakaway Collar clasp is designed to break open under pressure to hopefully prevent this situation from escalating. Of course it’s important that you have the proper size of collar for your dog’s size and weight.

If it’s safe to do so, it’s always a better choice to remove equipment before commencing play between 2 dogs – but this isn’t always practical. In our group classes, we often give our parents some practice time with the “leash dance” – learning how to have your dogs playing lightly with another dog while still on leash. It’s good for the dogs to learn that the pressure from a leash and collar isn’t a reason to immediately become alarmed, and parents learn how to easily intervene when necessary and to prevent play from escalating.

Another collar that’s really popular these days is the Martingale Collar. A martingale collar is made with two loops. The larger loop is slipped onto the dogs neck and a leash is then clipped to the smaller loop. When the dog tries to pull, the tension on the leash pulls the small loop taut, which makes the large loop smaller and tighter on the neck, thus preventing escape. The smaller loop is either made of chain or a strong fabric. It’s not my favorite collar choice, but it does have its good uses. What’s interesting to me is that the Martingale is widely thought to be a “training” collar in that it resembles a choke collar but is a “humane choke” (what an oxymoron that is!). People seem to think that it is designed to be used as a choke collar – think yank and jerk to suppress a behaviour – but because you can control where the choke stops, it’s a “nicer” collar to use. Of course this is assuming that you know how to fit it properly and choose to do so otherwise, it’s just a choke collar that maybe just looks a little nicer!
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In fact, the Martingale collar originated as a way to contain sighthounds like greyhounds who have very thick necks and very small heads in comparison to their necks and can easily slip out of standard buckle collars. Greyhound fanciers didn’t want to choke their dogs but they also didn’t want to lose their dogs and so this collar evolved.

The Martingale is a good choice for any dog who has a thick neck or any dog who has become skilled in the art of escaping standard equipment. Keep in mind, though, that until pressure is applied, the collar is essentially hanging loosely so a clever dog can still escape from it once he knows which direction to move. However, be aware that when this collar is under pressure, there is no way to release it from your dog’s neck until the pressure is removed. Like any choke collar, it’s a very bad choice to have on your dog when he’s playing with another dog.

I’m not quite sure why this collar style seems to have suddenly become so popular. I see them everywhere in lots of different colors and styles. I’ve even had people tell me that they must use the style with chain vs. cloth because dogs “know” the sound of the chain rattling means to behave. Really?! You actually believe that dogs are born innately understanding that when a chain rattles a correction is forthcoming and to stop pulling, jumping, biting, barking, lunging or anything else they should “know” is wrong to be doing at that moment? Where did that myth come from?!

In any event, careful thought should go into any piece of equipment you choose to use with your dog. And the combination of pieces should get just as much consideration. If you really feel the need to use a choke or prong collar (and please rethink that!) – do NOT then attach that to a flexible leash (and, yes, I’ve seen this many times). How horrible is that to have to add pressure to get any distance out of your leash but also be subject to constant pain caused by the pressure the entire time you are simply out on a “pleasure” walk? Or, if you’ve chosen to purchase a “no-pull” harness style, great, but then put some time into actually teaching your dog not to pull so you can the move onto a better, long term harness solution. And don’t attach a “pull leash” like a flexi-lead to a non-pull harness – that just makes no sense at all.

Personally, I’m just a fan of taking the time, and using proper, positive training techniques, to teach my dogs how to walk politely on leash. Then it’s comfortable and fun for both me and for my dogs – isn’t that the point of a walk after all?! I enjoy “accessorizing” my dogs by buying fun and colorful collars (with matching leashes!), and I enjoy discovering funky new ID tag designs that I can add. I like to think they enjoy my choices!