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A Two-Pronged Approach


Not all collars—or the advice provided by store staff—are created equal. Providing common-sense counsel and effective training resources are the best customer approaches.

By Steve Dale, CABC

A friend shared with me a story about how she recently entered a pet store with her dog, Tucker, and asked a clerk “who seemed knowledgeable” about what to do about her terrier mix’s sudden aggression. He suggested a prong collar.

As you probably know, we’re talking about the collar with inverted spikes that looks like the collars cartoon dogs wear. Some pet owners use it because apparently they want to make some sort of macho social statement—it looks tough. Regardless of the images it evokes, the prong collar is a legitimate training collar—when used properly.

But in this case, the clerk attempted to fit some random prong collars onto my friend’s 20-pound dog. He experienced some difficulty—after all, Tucker is small, and prong collars typically are fit on larger dogs. Moreover, Tucker wasn’t taking well to the idea of being fitted by a stranger who seemed to pay little attention to his body language.

Two-Pronged Collar
With correct timing and use, prong or training collars can help owners accomplish two things with their dogs: control and communication. Barry Blackburn/Shutterstock.com

My friend was concerned that Tucker might actually bite the clerk. Besides, she had had enough, too. She wondered aloud how this collar would help her dog. The clerk’s response: “We wouldn’t sell it at the store if it didn’t help dogs.”

The clerk said he also was the store’s “trainer” and inquired about setting up a private session. My friend declined. While the clerk/trainer did suggest that Tucker might be fearful, he certainly did little to ameliorate his fear. Arguably, Tucker had good reason to fear him—at least from Tucker’s perspective.

My friend left the store without a single product, frustrated and disappointed, and Tucker was no better off (and arguably worse off) than when he walked in the door.

A Better Way
Let’s rewind the tape to explore where this clerk went wrong. The good news is that he initially was friendly enough and appeared knowledgeable. However, any time a customer says a pet’s behavior suddenly has changed, the most responsible advice is “See a veterinarian.”

Here’s one of countless examples that illustrate that point: A picture-perfect golden retriever spent much of every day with the family’s 5-year-old son. The dog and the boy grew up together and enjoyed an idyllic relationship. One day, the dog began to inexplicably growl at the boy, especially if he touched her.

The family hired a dog trainer, who began to yank the dog here and there—correcting her repeatedly with a chain-link collar or choke chain. The dog worsened, and finally one day the growl escalated to a bite. The family was  shocked, and they reluctantly were ready to euthanize their dog.

But a trip to the veterinarian revealed a nasty ear infection. The dog was treated and never growled at anyone else her entire life. If the family had taken the dog to the veterinarian early on, the ear infection would have been remedied and the bite avoided.

I suppose staff can use their judgment for on-the-spot behavior assessment. Sure, if the behavior in question is that a customer’s dog is counter-surfing for treats but never previously explored countertops, of course this new behavior is a result of the dog learning that a jackpot might be found on countertops. However, in general, sudden changes in behavior could signal the need for a veterinary professional.

Match the collar with the problem.

Forceful training methods are associated most often with these types of collars, which do little (if anything) to communicate what behaviors you do want the dog to do. But while I’m not a fan of using prong or choke collars, I concede that with adept timing, it’s possible that they can help owners do two things: control a dog and also communicate to the dog behaviors it should not do.

However, if Tucker is fearful, odds are using a prong or choke collar might only intensify his fear.

Imagine you are afraid of fire engines and, as a result, run in the other direction whenever you see one.

Now imagine that each time you see a fire truck roar down the street you are given a painful correction. How does that help you conquer the fear? I suggest anticipation of the painful correction might increase your fear. It certainly doesn’t help you feel differently about fire engines.

I don’t believe that most store clerks can diagnose and suggest a specific solution to aggression in the store setting; however, that doesn’t mean a store clerk can’t offer helpful advice.

For starters, offer tips to keep everyone safe. After all, if Tucker bites either another dog or a person, Tucker might lose his life.

Offer a referral to a qualified professional, a certified dog behavior consultant, a veterinarian interested in behavior or a veterinary behaviorist (see Professional Training Resources for Customers sidebar).  

As for equipment, one possibility for many aggressive dogs is a head halter, such as the Gentle Leader (PetSafe, Knoxville, Tenn.) or the Halti (The Company of Animals, Bridgeport, Conn.), or perhaps the Snoot Loop (Snoot Loop, New York) for Tucker’s particular breed mix. Another excellent option might be a body harness. Head halters and body harnesses aren’t just for fearful dogs with aggression issues; I argue that they should be standard “go-to” equipment for most dogs.

Professional Training Resources for Customers
Certified dog behavior consultants: www.iaabc.org
Veterinarians interested in behavior: www.avsabonline.org
Veterinary behaviorists: www.dacvb.org

While I don’t doubt that a dog can be harmed with any piece of equipment or a neglectful handler, I argue that the chance is far greater with a prong or choke collar. A study published by the American Animal Hospital Association found that choke collars can cause intraocular damage in some dogs.

A study published by the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association showed that the use of a Gentle Leader (head halter) lessened the odds of owners relinquishing puppies. Other studies have shown that if you pull a dog one way (by its neck), in opposition, its more likely to go the other. With head halters (which some have referred to as “power steering for dogs”) and body harnesses, that’s not an issue.

Shock or e-collars might be painful (and are illegal in many countries) and stop unwanted behavior, but imprecise timing can do more harm than good. For example, I watched one instructor with a large dog who was lunging crazily on the leash. Instead of administering the correction (a jolt) when the dog pulled on the leash, his timing was off, and he triggered the correction when the dog looked up at the sound of a passing city bus. After one hour of “training,” the dog was still lunging and was fearful of city buses.

Used correctly, the collar might have taught this dog not to pull so incredibly hard, but it still doesn’t communicate to the dog what behaviors you want.

There are kinder, gentler ways to train dogs. Using positive reinforcement—clicker training or toys or food as motivators—rewards the dog for appropriate behavior.

My advice: Sell a body harness or a head halter to Tucker’s owner, and demonstrate how to fit it. Also, sell Tucker’s owner an inexpensive clicker. Provide qualified resources on how to use both tools. Now, Tucker’s owner instead leaves the store feeling hopeful. And what’s more, the clerk might have saved Tucker’s life. 

Steve Dale is a certified animal behavior consultant; editor of Decoding Your Dog, by the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists (due for release early 2014); is the host of the nationally syndicated radio program, “Steve Dale’s Pet World”; and can be heard on WGN Radio, Chicago. He’s the author of a Tribune Media Services syndicated newspaper column, contributing editor at USA Weekend and serves on the Board of the Winn Feline Foundation and Tree House Humane Society, Chicago. His blog is www.chicagonow.com/stevedale.


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