Prong collars are a heated topic among owners and behavior professionals alike. A simple Google search will elicit everything from descriptions as torture devices to the holy grail of training. Every tool you use on your dog requires serious consideration and a weighing of the pros and cons against your own special situation. Our goal is to provide you with a complete understanding of the tool and help you decide if it is appropriate for you and your dog.
Why you might want a prong
You may be exposed to a prong collar in a number of ways. You may see one on a dog in your neighborhood. A fellow owner may advise you to use one. Or a trainer or dog training school in your area may advocate for their use. Most owners I have spoken to begin using a prong collar because their dog training school started them on one or their dog pulled so hard they felt like they didn’t know what else to do. However a prong collar is not a tool without risk or problematic consequences. it is actually a much more serious decision that requires more information.
What a prong can do
Prongs are recommended for two reasons. To stop and dog from pulling and to correct a dog for an incorrect behavior. Both of these can be accomplished with a prong collar. They can also be accomplished without a prong collar. One thing going for the prong collar is it can give a quick correction in the hands of a highly trained professional. Used improperly or in the hands of an inexperienced owner, it can increase reactions like barking, lunging, and aggression.
What a prong can’t do
A prong collar cannot magically eliminate the behavior problem you purchased it to correct. It is a tool that requires criteria, timing, and focus on the part of the owner to ensure it is used correctly. A prong collar also cannot work without causing some form of discomfort. For a correction to be effective or for pulling to stop, the tool must make the dog not want to do it again. This reaction is caused by discomfort. Because prong collars work by creating discomfort as a consequence to an action it does not change the dog’s emotional feelings towards triggers and can make them worse. Prong collars also do not work indefinitely. Without clear, well timed corrections, and other outside reinforcement for new behaviors that eliminate to prior incorrect ones, many dogs will learn to ignore the collar and require more harsher corrections or return to their previous problem behaviors.
How a prong collar works
Prong collars work by poking or pinching the dog when the collar is yanked by the owner or pressed against by the dog. Prong collars can be made of metal or plastic and be visible or hidden under a collar or bandanna. Different sized prongs deliver different dulled or sharper pokes/pinches. It is a myth the prongs puncture the skin but it is also a myth that the collars simulate a mother dog’s correction or that dogs have thicker skin that humans. Prong collars work on the premise of Negative Reinforcement and Positive Punishment.
Negative Reinforcement means that a behavior (like pulling) decreases because discomfort stops when the dog stops pushing into the collar.
Positive Punishment means that a behavior will stop because an uncomfortable correction is delivered every time they perform the unwanted behavior.
Myth busting - no do loves their prong collar. The association of the collar with fun activities (such as walks, hikes, training, etc) can elicit an excited response when the collar is presented. This is happy anticipation for a future activity, not joy over seeing a device that indeed causes discomfort.
What can go wrong
Due to the fact that prong collars add an element of discomfort to the dog, everything the dog is perceiving is being influenced by that level of discomfort. The discomfort will vary from dog to dog and it is very hard to tell exactly how much of it is bleeding over into the dog’s associations with their surroundings and the occupants of the surroundings. Sensitive breeds including most primitive breeds have shown adverse reactions including increased barking, lunging, and aggression directed at humans and other dogs as a possible side effect of using a prong collar, especially if the collar was being used to correct reactions towards these triggers previously.
For super pullers there are many options available including face halters and front/side attach harnesses. Some dogs find face halters VERY uncomfortable so be aware they may not be a more comfortable option depending on the dog. Also, different harnesses fit different dogs so if you choose a training harness, make sure it fits properly and does not affect the gait of the dog. There is an ancient myth that harnesses promote pulling. In reality pulling promotes pulling. In a prong or a harness if pulling is allowed, pulling will continue. Finally, training your dog to walk nicely on leash is key and a training regiment grounding in positive reinforcement based training will give you the most lasting results.
Special considerations for primitive dogs
Primitive dogs are very sensitive associative learners. If a prong is applied to this leaning it has been found to create tremendous problems later on, including aggressive responses to humans and other animals, generalized anxiety and exhaustion of the endocrine system. This is due to the application of general discomfort. They also have a greater sensitivity to corrections, crying out, screaming, or redirecting at their owners when experiencing leash corrections. This is not to be taken as a flaw with the dog but instead as a realization of just how painful the collar can be.
Finally, your dog is not dumb. Primitive dogs who are already sometimes challenging to motivate are further demotivated on a prong collar. This training can be highly damaging to your relationship and create further problems down the road. Owners and trainers should exhaust all other avenues before considering a prong collar and make sure a very specific training plan is in place prior to and during the use of this tool.