Tools are to dog training what Social Security is to American politics: the third rail. They define training camps, friendships, camaraderie, and unfortunately professionalism. In this debate, we try to stay above the fray. Tools are not inherently good or bad. They all have pros and cons. The can be used properly or misused improperly. They are effective, less effective or not effective. It all depends on the dog and the circumstances. The dog is king, so is the context. For example. we could use the tone and volume of our voice to motivate drive or to instill fear. The same tools depending on how it’s used can produce drastically diametrical opposite outcomes.
At Yoda Dog we use food, treats, toys, touch, spatial pressure, muzzles, martingale collars, slip leads, prong collars and ecollars. We do not work with flat buckle collars, harnesses, or flexi leashes because they are antithetical to what we are trying to achieve: calmness. The constant tension and pressure they generate amps dogs and, in our opinion, escalate drive better suited for protection, sports, rescue, scent detection or hunting dogs than house pets.
Of all the tools we use, prong collars and ecollars generate the most controversy. Much of that is based on bias, lack of information and the bullish tactics of the “Force Free” dog training movement. The simple fact is that we use them because they work. Prongs collars and ecollars are communication tools with an immense array of volume, leverage and reach that allows for dynamic adjustment depending on circumstances. That dynamic adjustability allows us to calm a heightened dog without a prolonged forceful battle. Unlike the pulling and resistance other tools evoke and encourage, prongs and ecollars can cut thru that noise with minimal pressure and tension. Prongs collars and ecollars allows us to speak softly, less forcefully, less intrusively to our dogs without adding mental stress and physical strain. In our opinion that is the hallmark of a good training tool.
At the end of the day, the dog and circumstances surrounding the dog determine the tools and methods we choose. Regardless of the tools, we are bound to the ethical and humane treatment of dogs. That is our overarching core value.
The International Association of Canine Professionals(IACP) has published guidelines on dog training tools. As a courtesy we have compiled them below:
Longline or lunge (longe) line
Typically 15 to 30 feet, made of cotton webbing, nylon, or leather with a bolt clip, a standard long line is used for distance work and proofing of distractions. Its use is standard in the Koehler Method.
The slip lead, basically a choke collar and leash in one piece of material, is a common and effective control tool in rescue, veterinary work, sheltering, and hunt work. The one-piece design enables the leash to be removed quickly, and does not require that the dog wear a collar.
In training, the slip lead is used for basic control, but also for more subtle leash work involving pressure and release. Trainers say that it enables a quick transition from on-leash to off, it allows for quick and effective communication, and has little of the negativity associated with its cousin the slip collar.
The slip lead is not necessarily a good tool for managing pulling. If it does not stay high up behind the ears, it can put a lot of force on the trachea if the dog pulls on the leash.
Some consider the slip lead too blunt of a tool for proper communication. But because it’s so poor at delivering force, it encourages the user to rely on clarity and cooperation over intimidation and force.
Prong (pinch) collar
Another very controversial tool whose bad reputation is only partially deserved. Most objections are formed based on the appearance of the device more than in any solid evidence of abuse, but some of the prong collar’s design makes it, in fact, a more humane tool than a slip collar. Its design is “limited slip,” so that it cannot completely close and cut off airflow if correctly fitted. This limited slip also makes for a faster release from correction than a choke chain (in the hands of a skilled user). Its “teeth” are not meant to pierce skin, only pinch like a dog’s bite (well-made collars have rounded teeth). The links are removable for more easy adjustment.
A potential serious problem is that the prong collar can intensify the issue it’s supposed to solve if used improperly. It’s easy to accidentally ramp the dog’s adrenaline up instead of ratcheting it down. With a prong collar, less is more. Forceful leash corrections are rarely needed, and can be counterproductive. Some trainers do not seem to grasp this fact, sadly. Proper use of a prong collar is often harder to learn than proper use of the slip lead. The difference is, skilled use is, in many cases, less vital to success.
Prong collars can work without the user having much skill at all, in fact. But understanding the subtleties of proper use can help many strong, powerful dogs have breakthroughs and in very short time walk more calmly on leash.
A version of this tool is available in plastic. The Good Dog Collar, or Starmark Collar, is the most popular. Another version exists called the Command Collar (patented by a trainer named Don Sullivan), available online. Both use the same principles as the metal pinch collar but deliver a different, often milder, sensation. Many trainers use the plastic version on softer dogs.
A major disadvantage of the Starmark collar is the difficulty in putting it on the dog, as it currently requires separation of the links themselves, which can be cumbersome. The collar is currently sold with an oversized nylon slip collar to be used as a back-up, because the Starmark can be prone to popping off the dog when it is not put on correctly or is used incorrectly (too much pressure is applied).
To date, despite one particularly gruesome photo circulating online that purports to show “the damage that a prong collar can inflict,” no scientific studies have shown the prong collar to cause neck or spine injuries. This is likely attributed to the fact that it places pressure evenly around the neck, and releases quickly when used the right way.
Electronic remote collars (ecollars)
Of all the tools on this list, the remote collar requires the most skill and expertise to use to its full potential. Most who use it don’t use it to its full potential; perhaps no one does just yet. Used properly, a modern remote collar can be a godsend to dog owners and trainers alike, but using it properly requires great leash skills and impeccable body language, at least at the early stages of training.
Though acceptance of remote collars has increased in the last decade or so, there is still a large faction of people who oppose the tool immensely and would like it to be banned in the U.S. (as it has been in some other countries). These folks see the tool as only capable of causing injury and harm, and many go out of their way to vilify those trainers who use them, even resorting to cyberstalking, libel, and slander.
No current dog training tool elicits as much passion as this one. Getting past the rhetoric from both sides (for and against) isn’t easy, but whatever one believes as a trainer, knowing about remote training is important. One must understand how the tool works, and also its potential for abuse before one can embrace or reject it (though most who reject it do so outright, without even trying to understand it).
E-collars deliver consistent feedback to the dog, close by or at a distance. Once the dog understands what the stimulation means and how to control it (necessitating guidance from the human handler), learning takes place quickly.
However, the fact that the tool works at a distance, and the handler can raise or lower the stimulation easily, means that the tool can be used more harshly than is needed. Care must be taken to ensure that proper communication is taking place at all times. It is far more difficult to recognize the signs of undue stress in a dog when he is ½ mile away. Ecollar users must develop a deftness that removes emotion from the equation.
There is debate amongst trainers who use e-collars in several areas: what levels are best; is the stimulation always R-, or can it ever be R+; should it be paired with reinforcers like food; and can the stimulation be a motivator. Most who use the tool have a favorite make and model, and a method for using it. Some trainers use remote training collars exclusively, and others incorporate them into their toolboxes.
As with all tools, misuse is possible. In fact, misuse of e-collars has the potential to cause true psychological damage to dogs, which is why many trainers, even advocates of the tool, seek to limit the availability of the tool and do not believe it can be slapped on a dog without lots of guidance.
Can the e-collar be faded, so that it is no longer necessary? Some users say yes, and others no. Being able to fade the use of the collar ultimately depends upon the dog and the handler. When an e-collar is used for aggression rehabilitation, it is not usually faded.
Also known as a “check-choke,” or “Greyhound collar,” this collar is typically made of nylon or leather with a secondary loop of chain or nylon through 2 rings that act in limited slip fashion. It is a prong collar without any teeth. Most are adjustable to fit over the dog’s head and then get smaller to create a softer “bite” when there is tension on the leash. Some have a buckle or snap, which negates the need for them to go on over the head.
They are great for dogs whose heads are thinner than their necks and who often slip out of standard buckle or snap collars. The ones with chain can produce a sound that makes them more like choke chains, which can be helpful for training purposes on softer dogs.
Clickers and other markers
The Pavlovian term to describe a clicker is “bridge.” Its purpose is to pair two unrelated events (i.e. click = treat). Other people call it a “reward marker,” but the bottom line is that it is a secondary reinforcer that points to a primary reinforcer–or at least that’s the way it is viewed by most who use it. But there are other tools we can use as bridges as well. Whistles, beepers, even our voices can be used for this purpose.
Advocates of clickers argue that the noncommittal, uncommon sound is better than a voice marker because the click is consistent. There is validity to this, and it is a bit less cumbersome sound-wise, especially if one is trying to shape tiny details of behaviors.
Some dogs are frightened of the noise it makes and may need to be conditioned to the sound via muffling. There is some small debate about whether the noise must always be followed by a reward, or can the rewards become intermittent, with the sound serving as its own reward. Can the use of the clicker be faded as easily as some other tools? Like all other training tools, a clicker should be eventually be faded. However, many clicker devotees don’t seem to worry about that unless preparing for competition.
Because of its perceived reputation as a tool that “cannot ruin a dog,” many training beginners love it and use it exclusively, or almost exclusively, while resisting the use of physical placement, negative reinforcement, or positive punishment. Most balanced trainers do not use this, or any tool exclusively, and the clicker, like the other tools mentioned here, can easily be integrated into a balanced training regime.
Some trainers say that exclusive use of the clicker can cause dogs to become overstimulated, pushy, demanding of food, and even touch-shy. Since no guidance is used in free shaping (a training approach favored by many clicker trainers), and no R- or P+ except an occasional “No Reward Marker,” dogs trained exclusively with clickers sometimes become unable to deal with restraint, physical or spatial pressure, or even regular touch. Since they are never given negative feedback, they do not know how to process it when it comes, or how to act when they are frustrated. This can lead to behavior problems.
The general consensus seems to be that clickers and other markers are fine to teach behaviors, especially behaviors the dog offers willingly, but cannot stop unwanted behaviors.
Slip collar (choke chain)
Made of chain or nylon fabric, this is probably the most common training tool on the market, and one of the oldest training collars. It is also one of the most controversial. Trainers of many philosophies regularly denigrate the slip collar, arguing that it can be clumsy and impractical to use (must be put on facing the right way; many that are large enough to go over the dog’s head are too large for the neck), and can completely choke and strangle a dog if left on unsupervised. Most will concede that in proper hands, the tool can be valuable, but argue that most people are unable to use one humanely, so they are best left to professionals. However, there are ways of using them that are easy to learn and, under supervision, just as humane as most other “correction” tools available today.
Buckle (also snap) collar
A properly-fitted buckle collar is a perfect vehicle for holding a dog’s ID, and for being able to quickly grab a dog for control or momentary restraint. Once a dog is trained to walk respectfully on leash without tension, the buckle collar is a fine tool for everyday use.
Some trainers believe that a buckle collar is more humane for restraint and walking than any of the above tools listed. Such a belief is invariably founded more on an ideal than in reality. The buckle collar, by nature of its design, puts all the force of the dog pulling right across the trachea, whereas all of the collars listed above distribute the same force across the entire circumference of the dog’s neck. Not only does it put more pressure on the dog’s trachea, it also is dramatically less effective for communicating with the dog, for the exact same reason. Because the pressure is so localized, the release is less complete. The fit of the collar stays the same, and as a result, the changing of the message is less clear. It is like the difference between only being able to use one word with a different volume, or being able to use different words with different inflections and volumes. The ability to change the fit of a collar gives us entirely new words to choose from.
The buckle collar is perhaps the least effective communication device in common use. For that reason, it may be the least humane, at least in terms of training and restraint, as well.
Designed to be worn on the face to keep a dog from pulling on the leash, head halters come in several styles and brands. These tools are often a favorite tool of those who oppose “corrections,” and once more, this seems to be a case of idealism overshadowing reality. The collar, just like prong collars, slip collars, and most other training tools, works on the principle of providing negative reinforcement when a dog pulls. Pressure applied to points across the nose and behind the head is supposed to mimic corrections from other dogs. They have fallen out of favor with some “anti-aversive” trainers because they do rely on negative reinforcement. Some trainers contend that neck and spinal damage can result from these tools if dogs are allowed to hit the end of the leash or thrash about, but nothing along those lines has ever been proven. They do give good control of the dog’s head, which can be valuable. Most dogs require an acclimation period to the collar, which can make its use prohibitive. There are trainers who use head halters in an effective and humane way, but these tools are not inherently more or less humane than any other tools on this list.
This tool seems to be the favorite choice of dog owners who have strong, pulling dogs and who don’t want them to choke. Harnesses are not effective for teaching dogs not to pull on the leash because they actually exacerbate pulling by activating the oppositional reflex. They can be fine in dogs who are not pullers, toy breeds (just for management), dogs with tracheal problems, or seniors. The only activities for which back-clip harnesses can truly be training tools are pulling sports, tracking, and search and rescue. Having the locus of control at the center of the back does not give the handler much control of the dog’s movement (and none of the head).
Harnesses to control pulling have been around for a long time, touted as “humane” because they do not put pressure on the neck in any way. Most do put pressure on the dog, either under the armpits (the “Sporn” type) or across the shoulders (front-clip style). Some are a bit unwieldy to put on the dog, especially for daily walks.
Front-clip harnesses are the newest of the crop, currently the darling of the “anti aversive” crowd, and are often the only tool many trainers of this type will use or allow to manage pulling. FCHs come in several models. All must be fitted correctly to avoid chafing the dog, and dogs can slip backward out of some models easily. Some claim that the FCHs turn dogs’ shoulders in ways they were not meant to turn, and can cause gait issues; at least one prominent veterinarian agrees. FCHs are designed to manage pulling, though some claim that they can teach loose-leash walking. Dogs can learn to pull in spite of these harnesses, but many dogs walk fine on them due to the negative reinforcement pressure of the tool.
One of the most vilified tools, the retractable leash gets very little love from most dog trainers, regardless of methodology. A favorite of dog owners because they think it allows their dog freedom on leash, the retractable leash has a host of downsides, including:
Allows dog to be too far away (equaling less control)
Can wrap around any obstacle very quickly
When wraps around human extremities can burn and cut to the bone
Allows dogs to get tangled in just about anything
If dropped, plastic handle “chases” the dog away from handler, and/or into danger
Exacerbates pulling on leash due to constant tension
Some trainers like the tool for recall training, because it doesn’t get tangled up like a traditional long line. E-collar trainers often use it for the early stages of acclimating the dog, finding the working level, and starting the recall.
A very large percentage of canine professionals agree that in the hands of inexperienced owners, retractables are dangerous.
Please do not hesitate to contact us if you have any questions.