Canine Behavior/Dog Collars
I have a small 20lb dog that is reactive on leash. He lunges at other dogs and is hard to control and calm down. Which collar would best suit him; a prong collar, choke collar, or slip lead, and what are the differences?
Thank you so much for an excellent question. I'm going to go through each of the collars you asked about and explain how they work as well as present some other options and explain how they work. But I want to start by giving a bit of explanation regarding your dog's behavior issue.
Most dogs who are reactive on leash (barking, lunging, snapping, etc) are doing so out of a fear or frustration that is triggered by the target of their behavior. Some dogs react at other dogs, some will react at cars or skateboards or fire hydrants or strangers, etc. Whatever causes your dog to react is called a trigger - because that is the thing that triggers the behavior.
The reason I mention the motivation for the reactivity is because it's necessary to understand that the dog is most likely reacting in fear or frustration and not out of anger or a desire to kill. This is important because each of the collar choices you asked about are aversive by design. They're meant to be unpleasant to the dog with the goal of reducing an undesired behavior. But, if your dog is reacting in fear and then something unpleasant happens (a collar tightens on his neck, cutting off his oxygen supply) that's certain to increase his sense of fear/panic, and this will result in an escalation of the behavior. That means that he'll respond sooner (e.g. when the trigger is further away), more generally (e.g. to big dogs, little dogs, light dogs and dark dogs when before it was just large, dark dogs, more intensely (e.g. instead of just lunging and barking, he may snap and bite and redirect to the leash or to you).
So when we are dealing with a reactive dog, the last thing we want to do is add to the aversive quality of the situation we're trying to cope with as that will only backfire on us in the long run.
So... on to collars and harnesses and how they work. I'm including links to each piece of equipment so that a visual can be seen. First I will go through the collars you ask about, then I will go through a few other options.
In the order you asked about them, not the order I would recommend using them:
Prong collars are usually metal, though sometimes rubber. They have a length of links with two evenly spaced rows of teeth and that length of links is connected by a loop of chain called a "martingale". The collar is to be worn high up on the neck, just behind the ears at the most sensitive part of the dog's neck. When the dog does an undesired behavior, the handler gives a sharp yank on the leash causing the martingale loop to pull and snug the teeth around the dog's neck. The martingale is a protective feature in that it keeps the main collar from tightening beyond a predetermined tightness.
This is an aversive tool by design. It's meant to cause pain to the dog and many dogs will pull hard against such a collar either due to increased agitation by the aversiveness of the collar itself, or due to the "opposition reflex" which is a reflexive response to lean into pressure that's put against the body. Problems with this collar include puncture wounds to the neck and potential damage to muscles, tendons, nerves, trachea and vein/artery if the teeth happen to fall over them. With repeated use, the micro damage done to the skin causes scar tissue, which has no feeling, which means that an ever-increasing amount of force is required to be effective. That increasing force increases the potential for further damage to those delicate structures under the skin.
I do not recommend using a prong collar under any circumstance for any dog.
Choke Collar/Choke Chain
Choke chains are usually metal, though sometimes made of a fabric (usually nylon). It is a length of material with an O-ring on each end. The length of chain is fed through one O-ring to create the loop that is slipped over the dog's head. They are to be worn high on the dog's neck - just behind the ears at the most sensitive part of the dog's throat/neck. Choke Chains are an aversive tool. As the name of the collar described, they are designed to cut off oxygen while also pinching the skin and fur. They are an infinite slip design in that the harder the pulling (either by the person or the dog), the tighter the collar gets with nothing to keep it from strangling the dog to unconsciousness. If it's put on correctly, it is supposed to release the pressure on the dog's neck once the tension is gone. But if put on incorrectly, it will not release even if all pressure is discontinued.
This is a less safe collar than the prong collar because it has complete connection to the dog's neck for the entire 360-degree circumference and because it strangles the dog. It can cause serious damage from irritation to total collapse of the trachea - especially in smaller dogs. It can cause serious nerve damage as well as muscle, tendon, vein, artery and vertebral damage. The strangling effect also increases inter-cranial (inside the brain) and inter-ocular (inside the eye) pressure, which can cause serious and long lasting damage. In dogs with bulging eyes (boxers, pugs, pekignese, etc) the pressure from a choke chain has been known to pop one or both eyes out of the socket, which can cause irreparable damage to the vision.
I do not recommend choke collars under any circumstances for any dog.
This is a nylon rope leash with the choke lead built into it. It's often used in vet's offices to have on hand to move dogs from one location to the other. It's useful because it can be put on most dogs relatively quickly similar to a snare and there's no worry about having to then attach a leash to a collar. It functions the same as the choke chain, though.
I do not recommend a slip lead under any circumstances outside of an emergency, such as rescuing a dog from a tight spot or the vet's office using them for quick management to move a dog from one area to another.
Along with the aversive effect for the dog of these collar types, an equally important problem is that they do not afford the handler any improved leverage to better control the dog. Dog's will often lower their head to change the angle of pressure and increase their own leverage, which will cause them to pull even harder as they fight against the collar. It's not safe for the dog and it's extremely frustrating for the owner who has to use continually more and more force in order to get the desired response (stop pulling) from the dog.
Below are a few other options that will be more helpful to you in managing your dog while on leash.
Easy Walk no-pull harness
This harness is available at the local pet stores. It is easy to put on and should be adjusted snug enough that just one finger can fit comfortably between the dog's body and the harness strap - both on the shoulders and under the chest.
This harness has a fabric martingale with D-ring leash attachment on the chest. When the dog pulls ahead, the martingale snugs, which squeezes the shoulders/upper arms slightly. Because of the chest placement for the leash connection, you have significantly increased leverage such that if the dog pulls hard, he will turn 180-degrees around and face you. Most dogs do not pull nearly this hard as the first time they start to pull, it feels odd (not painful, but definitely awkward) and they will slow down or stop.
Note: if your dog has a shoulder or front leg injury, this is not the right harness to use for him. It would also be inappropriate to wear during sports such as agility as it can minimally limit the dog's full range of motion. I've watched many dogs run around and play while wearing the harness with no problems, but for high exertion activities such as organized sport or for dogs with injuries, I'd pick a different option. Note: both of my dogs wear this harness as do most of my clients from chihuahuas to mastiffs. It's an excellent training tool and assist for those dogs who may lunge ahead without warning.
This is an excellent harness to assist with lungers. It has two points of attachment - an O-ring on the chest and a martingale with O-ring on the back. You can also purchase the dual leash-snap leash which allows you to attach to both points of contact with a single leash.
This harness has padded chest straps to avoid rubbing or irritation of the dog. The martingale on the back provides a correction if the dog pulls while the attachment point on the chest provides leverage for better control of the dog. This is my preferred harness when working with reactive dogs while doing behavior modification. It is gentle on the dog and allows them freedom of movement while also providing the owner with enough control to maintain better maintain safety of the situation
This harness is not typically available in stores, though you may find a local store that carries it. It is available on line.
Gentle Leader face collar
This collar is very much like a horse halter. It has a collar that fits around the dog's neck very high up - just behind the ears. It also has a loop that goes around the dog's muzzle which sits just under the eyes. The leash connects to an O-ring that hangs down below the chin.
It is not a muzzle in that it does not prevent the dog from opening his mouth, or biting. It is a collar.
Most dogs HATE this collar initially and you must follow the guidelines that come with the collar to properly acclimate your dog to the collar so that you can use it effectively and safely. When used correctly, with a dog who is well acclimated to the collar, it is extremely useful in its ability to control the dog's movement. If the dog is fighting the collar, or the handler is frustrated and pulls on the collar, it can cause whiplash. I use this collar when no-pull harnesses such as the two described above don't work. This collar will provide more leverage than the harnesses.
This is a similar product to the Gentle Leader. It works much the same way, though the actual design is slightly different and so may fit some dogs better/be easier for some dogs to acclimate to it.
Now, those are my opinions of the equipment. But, we have actually have a more pressing issue than the management of your dog when he over reacts - and that is that he is over reacting. The equipment is a tool to help you maintain control so he doesn't charge toward those triggers. The wrong equipment may make him more reactive due to their aversive qualities in his moments of reactivity, but the right tools won't actually help him feel better and stop reacting. That requires a bit of work to help him feel better about those triggers.
There are a few methods that can be used to help him feel less upset by the presence of those triggers. Below are links to a few different books that will be a great starting point to help you help your pup feel better on the walks. I also encourage you to seek out the assistance of a local professional who is well versed in dealing with dog aggression force free. This is important. Aggression begets aggression, and so the best way to eliminate it is to work with the dog in a manner that uses positive reinforcement to reward the behavior we like and help him feel differently about the situation so he no longer feels a need to react to it.
Click to Calm
by Emma Parsons
Behavior Adjustment Training: BAT for Fear, Frustration and Aggression in Dogs
by Grisha Stewart
Fight! A Practical Guide to the Treatment of Dog-Dog Aggression
by Jean Donaldson
I hope this information proves helpful. Please feel free to followup if I can be of any further assistance.
Jody, CPDT-KA, APDT
Los Angeles Behaviorist