Saturday, January 4, 2014

Polite Leash Walking, Part II: Collars

Some of you may recall that I did a post on polite leash walking a while ago.  It included a list of ten reasons to teach your dog to walk politely on leash.  Here, at long last, is the next installment in what I hope will become a short series.

As a professional dog trainer in Los Angeles, I get many calls from people who have problems walking their dogs.  Today, I would like to discuss the pros and cons of a few different types of equipment for walking dogs.  Dog walking equipment is a topic that could probably occupy an entire doctoral thesis, but I will try to keep it brief.  I welcome your questions and comments, of course.

Let’s begin by discussing collars.  There are several major types of collars – flat collars, choke collars and their variations (slip collars, choke chains, and prong collars are in this general category), and martingale collars.

If you are going to use a collar to walk your dog, stick with a flat collar if at all possible.  If you have a dog whose head and neck are roughly the same diameter, it can be a good idea to use a martingale collar, but be sure to fit it properly.  Fitting instructions for martingale collars are here.

Note that it’s best to avoid choke collars, of whatever type.  For one thing, choke collars are often fitted and used improperly.  Even when used properly, the purpose of these collars is to punish undesirable behavior by creating pain, which is far from ideal.

First, we owe it to our animals to be humane at all times.  Second, causing your pet pain during walks can have all kinds of unintended side effects.  I know dogs who run away every time the owner brings out the choke collar.  What’s more, pain, and the anticipation of pain, cause fear and stress.  As a result, the repeated use of pain in training can have unexpected consequences, such as aggressive behavior.  Here’s how this can happen:

Imagine a puppy who sees another dog and wants to go see hello.  He rushes toward the other dog, only to be jerked to a stop by his handler.  When the leash is jerked, a stab of pain goes through the puppy.  The puppy is looking at the other dog when he experiences the pain, so he associates the pain with the other dog.  "Hmm," the puppy might be thinking,* "when I saw that other dog, my neck hurt.  I wonder if the other dog made my neck hurt?"  Some dogs might even realize that the owner made the pain happen, but those dog might think, "My owner obviously doesn't like it when other dogs are nearby.  I had better keep them away by barking at them."

* Although the behavior of dogs in these situations is compatible with a thought pattern of this sort, nobody can actually know what another animal is thinking.  These "thoughts" are for illustration purposes only.

Assuming the handler continues to jerk the leash every time the puppy starts to rush towards another dog, the association will become stronger, until the puppy learns to be wary or fearful of other dogs.  It’s a very short step from fear to aggression.  (To paraphrase Yoda: Fear leads to anger.  Anger leads to aggression.  Aggression leads to suffering.)

Soon, the puppy is likely to begin barking and lunging in an effort to keep "pain-creating dogs" far enough away to prevent the pain from happening – and if the handler jerks the leash when the puppy barks and lunges, the handler may inadvertently teach the puppy that it’s important to keep other dogs farther and farther away.  (In the most extreme case I’ve seen in my behavior modification work here in Los Angeles, the dog began barking and lunging when he was over a football field away from any dog – or person – that he saw.)

Bottom line: If you must use a collar, use a flat collar – and avoid jerking the leash!  I’ll talk more about proper leash handling in future entries.

Next time, I will discuss the type of equipment I prefer to use: the harness.

I like wearing my special Christmas collar.

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