Harmful effects of choke chains and prong collars
By: Debbie Torraca, DPT, MSPT, CCRP, Board-Certified Orthopedic Clinical Specialist Emeritus
& Anthony De Marinis, Certified Dog Behavior Consultant- IAABC, CBATI, VSPDT, TTWC, VSA-DT
Current research has been a game-changer in understanding, training and teaching dogs to become our connected and willing partners. Outmoded concepts based on “wolf packs” and punitive dominance have been debunked. Research has also demonstrated how punitive tools (such as choke chains and prong collars) negatively impact a dog’s physical, mental, psychological and emotional health–and can permanently destroy mutual trust, respect, and the dog-human relationship.
How Choke and Prong Collars Work
Choke chains and prong collars are known as quick fix tools used to “correct” problem behaviors including leash pulling, jumping, barking and lunging. Both choke chains (chokers) and prong (pinch) collars rely upon inflicting pain for misbehaviors rather than teaching and rewarding correct behaviors. In theory, choke chains and prong collars stop undesired behaviors by punishing the dog for incorrect responses. Although this style of training may appear to offer quick results, research has documented myriad undesirable side effects.
A choke chain (a chain around the dog’s neck) “corrects” a dog with a hard jerk on the leash. The abrupt tightening of the chain around a dog’s neck chokes him, and if applied with enough force, can lift a dog’s front feet from the ground or even jerk his body backward. Prong collars “correct” by tightening (with prongs digging into a dog’s neck) when the dog pulls forward or when the handler jerks the leash. After such “corrections”, a dog may appear fearful, cower or try to move away from the owner; he may display submissive urination, aggression, or abnormal body movements.
Pitfalls and Fallout from Choke and Prong Collars
Quick fixes may work “in the moment”, but they often have several unanticipated consequences. First, any training that inflicts pain risks damaging our dog’s trust in us, and the development of new undesired behaviors, including fearfulness; increased reactivity; and aggressive behaviors. Second, these practices not only cause physical pain in the moment to our canine companions but can cause lasting damage to a dog’s body.
How does this happen? You might think, the dog messed up, we punished him, he won’t do it again. However, many dogs will learn to associate pain with whatever is causing them to react (the “trigger”). As a result, some dogs will become more fearful and try to avoid any situation in which he might again be punished; other dogs become more reactive and/or aggressive. In both cases, the dog is trying to be safe and avoid pain, either by trying to get away/avoid (flight) the trigger, or by making the trigger “go away”.
Here is an example: a dog is aggressive towards people. He sees a person and lunges toward them. He is given a hard jerk on his choke chain. Association: when he sees people, he will feel pain. Result: dog tries to avoid people or tries to make people move away from him.
The “Quick Fix”
What does science tell us about “quick fixes”? The dog may stop misbehaving or doing the incorrect behavior in the moment, but the root cause of the problem is not addressed, nor does the dog learn what to do instead.
Using choke chains and prong collars can:
- Increase behavior issues as described above because you are suppressing behavior not addressing the root cause. (Herron, Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 2009).
- Take away a dog’s ability to problem solve and process information (Seligman & Maier, 1967; Maier & Seligman, 2016)
- Cause physical injury (detailed information described below)
- Weaken the bond and trust between a dog and his owner. (Azrin, N.H, Holz, W.C., “Punishment” from Honig, W. (1966) Operant Behavior: Areas of Research and Application)
The argument shouldn’t be whether or not punishment works, because the reality is punishment can work. But rather, the question should be: Is it humane? Is it harmful? And are you willing to deal with the fallout? And can we as dog owners do better?
Understanding Your Dog
Why do people love dogs? Let’s be honest–we love our dogs because they love us. Our dogs have emotions and express them by happily greeting us at the door when we come home or playing and interacting with us or doing a dog sport and even hanging out on the couch with the family. When we understand what our dog’s are feeling and saying through their body language and communication signals, then we can better train them to become a more well-rounded family companion or modify behavior issues. Included here are some credible sources on how to read canine body language and communication signals:
Understanding the Physical Side:
The dog’s cervical spine consists of seven vertebrae or segments, just like people. The cervical spine or vertebrae are surrounded by large muscles that help stabilize the spine. Normally, the cervical region is very strong. However, if a dog has a history of cervical problems, a prong or a choke collar can exacerbate the problems. Examples of cervical problems include intervertebral disc disease, Wobbler’s disease or cervical instability, congenital vertebral malformation, syringomyelia, atlantoaxial subluxations, and unknown injuries such as fractures or ligamentous injuries.
There are certain breeds that are more prone to cervical issues and they are inclusive but not limited to Great Danes, King Charles Cavalier Spaniels, all long-backed dogs such as Daschunds, Corgis, and Basset Hounds, Doberman’s, Dalmatians and Beagles. Adding a prong or a choke collar to their training may cause or exacerbate an issue.
When a dog is ‘popped’ or corrected repetitively, it causes a sheering force on one or multiple vertebrae. If you can imagine seven.
Jerking Motion, Pain & Injury
A repetitive jerking motion to the cervical spine can be visualized at so. You have seven train cars all in a line. They are connected by connector or a coupler. They are moving along as they should – up and down hills and making side to side turns. Sometimes they move faster and sometimes they move slower. Their connection assists them with their efficiency. Then out of nowhere, one or two are pulled upwards toward the sky. This disrupts the entire flow of movement and their efficiency. It does stop them, but it is not efficient. If this happens repetitively, it could break the connector or coupler. But before it breaks, it will cause a weakness in the one or two couplers. The neighboring cars will need to compensate for the work the other cars cannot do. This sets up a weak system and will cause many problems.
The jerking motion may not cause a physical issue initially. But overtime, it is inevitable a problem will develop. It commonly begins with pain. The muscles in the cervical area are very thick to protect the spine. However, when they go into a spasm, they are extremely painful. If you have ever had a muscle spasm in your neck, you may have experienced the severe pain. Well, a dogs’ cervical musculature is much thicker and when it spasms, the intensity is painful. Dogs may then avoid spending time with anything associated with the collar – walking, hiking, training – because it is painful. Unfortunately, it may also lead to aggression that is pain related.
Another area to look at is the front of the neck. The collar will also cover the front of the neck – consisting of the larynx and a small bone called the hyoid. Considerable jerking of the collar may have an irreversible effect on the larynx and subsequent issues with barking, chewing and swallowing. The small hyoid bone assists with the positioning of the temporomandibular joint or the jaw, the upper cervical spine where the skull meets the spine, and the head position. Problems with the hyoid may result in trouble swallowing, pain in the jaw region, headaches, and improper head position.
So what are the alternatives for training dogs and modifying their behavior?
- Using a properly fitted harness, flat collar or head halter is not only more humane, but properly used, avoids the negative fallout caused by choke chains and prong collars. (It is important to note that some dogs need to be trained to wear these tools so that they are not aversive.) To learn more about safe training tools you can take a look at the following links:
- Hire a qualified training or behavior professional. The training industry is not regulated in the United States so finding someone with credentials is important. You can check out the following organizations to find a professional:
- International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants
- Certification Counsel of Professional Dog Trainers
- Victoria Stilwell Licensed Positive Dog Trainer
- Pat Miller Certified Trainer
- Get a thorough consultation by a canine Physical Therapist or a canine Rehabilitation practitioner. You should consider having a consultation if:
- Your dog is in pain
- You think your dog is in pain
- Your dog’s behavior has changed, and you want to rule out pain as a cause of behavior change
- Avoidance of behaviors
- Unfounded aggression
About the Contributors:
Debbie Torraca, DPT, MSPT, CCRP, Board-Certified Orthopedic Clinical Specialist Emeritus
Dr. Deb Torraca is the owner of Wizard of Paws Physical Rehabilitation for Animals, LLC in Colchester, CT. She has been working with rehabilitation and conditioning of small animals for over twenty years. She teaches internationally on the subject of canine physical rehabilitation, sports medicine, and canine conditioning, and has done so for over twenty years. She is sought after for the rehabilitation and conditioning of working, performance and conformation dogs. She is a certified Fear Free practitioner and enjoys working with a multitude of dogs. You can learn more about her on her website at: www.wizardofpaws.net
Anthony De Marinis, CDBC, CBATI, VSPDT, TTWC, VSA-DT
Anthony De Marinis is the owner of De Marinis Dog Training & Behavior on Long Island, NY. He provides private in-home training and behavior modification solutions using positive reinforcement-based methods. He also provides video consultations remotely as he has many clients across the United States. Anthony has 6 professional certifications which include: Certified Dog Behavior Consultant from the International Association for Animal Behavior Consultants, Certified Graduate of distinction from the Victoria Stilwell Academy for Dog Training & Behavior, Certified Behavior Adjustment Trainer, Certified Victoria Stilwell Licensed Positively Dog Trainer, The Third Way Certified Trainer and is a Fear Free Certified Animal Trainer. Currently, Anthony has a young Australian Kelpie named Journey. You can visit Anthony’s website and learn more about him and his services at: www.demarinisdogtraining.com