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Why I Refuse to Use Choke Chains or Prong Collars in My Dog Training

Why I Refuse to Use Choke Chains or Prong Collars in My Dog Training

Reason#1: I am a Modern, Science-Based Trainer.

The methods I use are force-free and pain-free. I never use tools or techniques that leverate intimidation, fear, pain, or violence to motivate dogs in my training. 

I take this approach to training as a result of a conscious, informed, and strongly-reflected-upon decision. After all, there are other approaches to dog training out there. 

That last decade has brought us a ton of new information regarding how dogs process information and learn. We’ve even gone so far as to get dogs in MRI machines so we can scan their brains during an experience. It has been nothing less than a “canine cognitive revolution”. 

As a result of this new scientific insight, the focus of dog training has shifted over the years. Dog trainers used to be concerned primarily with behavior. Hence, the term “obedience class”. Now, the emphasis is on the overall health and wellbeing of the dog, which includes behavioral health. And suddenly we hear about such things as “enrichment” exercises and how good they are for the dog’s brain and emotional health. With that shift, we stop insisting on a “heel” (where the dog walks right beside you) and instead take our dogs on “sniffaris” (where the dog’s nose gets to lead the way as long as it is not pulling). Of course, we can still teach a heel since it’s useful for certain situations, such as passing others on a sidewalk.

The Old, Outdated Approach to “Obedience”

Despite the new scientific evidence out there, “pain training” still persists. I think there are several reasons for this. 

First, ignorance. I simply think that many trainers don’t know about the new developments in dog-training science. 

Second, it works…at least on the surface. And, as the saying goes, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. If they have gotten results in the past, why would they want to change? 

Third, in a world in which people often feel disempowered and at the mercy of others (such as employers, politicians, and other authorities), it feels good to be able to assert “dominance” at least somewhere in one’s life. We’re too often angry at the forces around us, but are not in a position to defend ourselves. We feel the need to lash out, and punishing our dogs can be an outlet for that. Pain training can be a socially-sanctioned form of displacement behavior. Pain trainers naturally market to those who feel that need. 

Fourth, it’s still popular. The outdated approach to training is what has the media’s current attention.

Danger: Fallout

Imagine you have a pot of water on the stove. It starts to steam. You don’t like that behavior, so you decide to “correct” it by putting a lid on the pot. Problem solved, right? After all, you don’t see any more steam. 

But, you know as well as I do, that the problem has not been solved. The water continues to boil, and it’s building up pressure. Eventually, it will want to come out…maybe sooner, maybe later. 

“Fallout” is physical, emotional, or social damage to a dog that results from the user of aversives. When people use corrections, they may be suppressing a problematic behavior, but at what cost?

A while back, I became aware of a situation that exemplifies the issue. A family had brought a new dog into their house. The “training” approach they used was based on the outdated “dominance” model

When it was time for the dog to eat, the man would put his hand in the food to teach the dog that he could do that anytime he wanted (he was establishing himself as the “alpha”). About a week into the dog’s time there, the man put his hand in the dog’s food and the dog growled. The man leash-corrected the dog (who was on a leash), and moved the dog away from the bowl as part of the punishment, and commanded a sit to enforce dominance. The dog sat as told…and immediately jumped up and bit the man. Then, the dog walked over to the food bowl and began to eat. 

I won’t go into more details regarding the incident. Needless to say, the situation escalated quickly. The family decided to send the dog back to the previous caretakers, because the dog was resource guarding. 

According to the caretakers, the dog didn’t have any resource-guarding issues before it went into that home. Yes, that means the dog developed resource guarding as a result of the aversives that were being used on it. That steam apparently was coming out sooner rather than later. 

Of course, the man who returned the dog fully believed that the problem was with the dog. After all, he had trained his other dogs that way and he had never had any issues like that before this one. Despite the damage done to the dog, in his mind, he hadn’t really done anything wrong. 

Extreme Danger: Sometimes Death

In extreme cases, the use of aversive tools and techniques can even lead to the death of the dog. In 2020, a trainer with a 5-week program took in a 8 month old Husky puppy. While the puppy was in her care, they got into a “power struggle” (as she described it. As she applied the choke chain (and remember, she is a trainer who presumably knows how to use the tools appropriately) to the point where the puppy died. In this case, she “denied any wrongdoing” on her part, though she did say she “messed up. On top of that, this was the second dog who died in her care in the same year. After fleeing, she has been arrested and awaiting charges.

I see a couple key takeaways here. First, it exposes the myth out there that such tools won’t become abusive if you know the proper way to use them. It’s safe to assume that she, as a trainer, knew the proper way to use her tools. Second, the reality is that this situation could have been completely avoided. She never needed to use those tools or techniques in the first place. She chose to take an abusive approach when she didn’t have to.  

It’s Not Really Physical. It's All About Emotions.

When training, it’s easy to think in terms of cause and effect. When I act this way, my dog responds this way. So, when we look at such things like prong collars, for example, we think of it as a physical device that has a physical effect. 

But it’s not really about the physicality. It’s ultimately about the emotional effect on the dog. 

The physical interaction creates an emotional reaction. Emotions become associated with situations. Those generalized emotions ultimately fuel general behavior. 

For example, let’s say Spot gets excited when children come by. However, Spot’s human doesn’t like the behavior, so she corrects him with her leash. Sufficiently scared, Spot “submits”. This continues over time. Eventually, Spot realized that every time children come around, he gets frustrated or hurt. That leads to an emotional association that makes Spot not like children, since their presence leads to bad things happening to him. And, I definitely would never recommend you do anything to your dog that could lead it to not like children. 

Aversive tools and techniques are actually emotional attacks designed to trigger fear so that a dog “behaves” or “submits”. The tools and techniques are simply a way to draw out that emotional response and instil that emotional association. 

One way to help understand the significance of this is to realize how similar dogs are to humans when it comes to processing emotional information. It turns out that dogs process emotions around the level of a 2-year-old child. I’ve even heard it may be more accurate to say “a 2-year-old child with autism”, simply because children with autism lack certain regulating filters, which dogs also lack due to differences in their brain structure. 

This has led Victoria Stillwell to assert: “If you wouldn’t do it to a 2-year-old child, don’t do it to a dog.” That’s a powerful guide to how we should be relating to our canine companions. After all, in a sense, it’s basically the same thing.

dog snarling

Reason #2: The Dangerous Path of Leveraging Fear

When I work with clients, for training purposes I like to simplify the brain into reward networks and fear networks. I also like to describe the brain as being like a muscle: use it or lose it. The networks you exercise are the ones that grow stronger. The stronger ones become the default networks for relevant situations. 

One of the goals of force-free dog training is to exercise the reward networks and avoid triggering the fear networks. We want the reward networks to be the default for processing new information. 

When training a dog, we want it to happily engage the process. When the fear networks are triggered, the dog naturally moves into an self-protective and avoidance mode, which add stress and is counterproductive to processing new information.  

In other words, when fear is involved, learning is a lot harder than it has to be. 

And worse than that, consider this: Fear is a major factor in most dog bites. 

“Neurons that fire together, wire together.” That’s a saying from neuroscience. In other words, the more you trigger the networks together, the more likely they will trigger together in the future. 

Remember, the purpose of aversive tools and techniques is to trigger fear networks of the brain to get a desired behavioral response. 

Here’s the bottom line: 

To choose to use aversive tools and techniques with your dog is to choose to walk down a path that could potentially lead to aggressive reactivity. 

To choose to exercise reward networks to get behavioral responses is to choose the path leading away from aggressive reactivity. 

The responsibility of that choice falls squarely upon the shoulders of the dog’s human companions.

“But Pinch Collars Don’t Hurt the Dog. They Mimic a Mother’s Teeth.”

You may have heard this myth. There is no scientific evidence to back this up. Basically, someone made it up one day, said it to enough people, and now lots of people believe it. 

The obvious question to ask is this: Why do prong (or “pinch”) collars work? Do they motivate the dog through a sense of reward? To say so would be ridiculous, and no reasonable person would claim it to be so. No, prong collars (indeed any “corrective collar”) work because they inflict discomfort through pain. Fear of future pain then keeps the dog in line. 

Is the moon made of cheese? Science says no it is not. It is made of minerals and rocks. 

Does a prong collar mimic a mother’s teeth? In the same way, science says no. They work because they hurt and cause fear.

Reason #3: Personal Ethics

Unfortunately, I cannot remember where I read this. But, a few years ago, I recall a positive dog trainer writing that if a dog is not responding effectively to an aversive more than twice, then it’s not getting it. If the dog is not getting it and the aversive continues to be used, there is no learning taking place and the person is engaging in abuse. 

I’d say this definitely applies to choke chains and prong collars. If the dog learns to behave appropriately, the person will be able to ditch the tool after a couple of uses at most. Otherwise, we have a problem. 

I recognize that everybody has their own standard for personal ethics. When it comes to choke chains and prong collars, I consider them to be “tools of violence”, and therefore abusive. As I’ve already noted, they rely on pain or the threat of pain to be effective. They also rely upon continual usage to get results, because they only suppress current behaviors rather than teaching new, better ones. 

I realize that my personal ethical stance may be controversial to many. Please remember, to say “a person is engaging in abusive behavior” (the use of tools of violence with their dogs) is not the same as saying that “a person is abusive”. 

Science Reveals that Positive Reinforcement Methods Yield Better Results

People use aversives with their dogs mainly because they believe they will be the most effective way to get behavior change. However, what we’re seeing is that positive training methods draw out better behavioral responses than aversives. Here is an example of a study that showed dogs trained with “purely” positive methods perform better than those trained with mixed methods, and those do better than those trained with aversive methods. 

So, the bottom line is this: 

  • Aversives can do harm to your dog
  • Aversives are inferior to positive training methods when it comes to improving behavior
  • Aversives undermine the quality of relationship between the human companion and canine companion

And, to be honest, this isn’t really news. Even though many of the studies are relatively recent, we’ve known this for years.

Why Do People Continue to Use Aversives on Their Dogs?

Based on what I’ve seen, people who use aversives often do not realize how they may be harming their dogs. 

For example, remember the earlier story about the dog who went into a home without a resource guarding issue, and then returned to the caretaker’s home with a resource-guarding issue as a result of the aversives used on it? The man responsible for the abuse returned the dog because he believed something was wrong with it since it wasn’t responding to his “training”. After all, he never had that issue with any of his other dogs when he “trained” them in the same way. He was completely clueless—a victim of a dog-training narrative that is quite popular in the United States.

Luckily, things are changing. I believe that people are becoming more aware of how a science-based approach can help them train their dogs both effectively and humanely. 

My experience with clients and prong collars is a good example of this. Based on calls I’ve had with clients, they generally hate the idea of using a prong collar on a dog. When they have used them, it was because they thought they needed to. Perhaps another, pain-based trainer told them it was necessary, or they may have received a recommendation from a friend. It’s not uncommon for me to hear in our initial phone conversation, “If you have a better way to do it, I will gladly get rid of the prong collar, because I hate it”. They never really wanted to use it in the first place, but they didn’t know what else to do. 

Imagine their relief when they finally find me…the humane alternative.

To my clients, I offer an escape from the snare of that outdated, harmful dog-training narrative. As one client has said, 

I’ve always leaned towards the ‘Alpha’ training philosophy but after our 7 weeks with Bo, never again.

When I interview and select clients, I have very strong boundaries. But, I’m not there to judge. I’ve made my share of mistakes as a doggy daddy, too. At one point, I was also a victim of that popular “dominance” narrative, and I did things that were abusive to my dog. (Yes, I own my mistakes.) 

So, I get it. I really do. And I want to be there to help my clients escape the lie and leave victimhood behind them so they can enter into a deeper, more loving relationship with their canine companions.

Loki Woo Woo

A New Approach to Dog Training for a New Age

So many people don’t want to hurt or frighten their dogs, but they are often frustrated and at their wits end. They are hungry for an alternative. 

Back when I started my business, I asked myself, “What do I wish someone had taught me when I adopted Puppy Loki so I would not have made all those mistakes.” And that’s how the Canine Coaching Course was born. 

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The Canine Coaching Course teaches uniquely powerful content at an extremely economical price. In fact, I really don’t believe that there is another course out there where you will get more bang for your buck. According to my clients, it’s truly transformational. 

If you are interested in learning how to do force-free training yourself, click the button and check out the Canine Coaching Course’s information page.

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