A lot gets made of which training collar you should choose for your dog. There are plenty to pick from—chokers, pronged pinch collars, e-collars, slip leads, and regular old flat buckle collars. One way or another they all do the same thing, which is relay information from the handler to the dog. In the course of training Danger, I’ve tried every collar you can imagine and talked to a dozen experts, who each swore by a certain one and dismissed the others as utter nonsense. All of this has brought me to my own conclusion, which I feel equally certain about: Everyone pays far too much attention to the collar. Instead, we need to be thinking about what information the collar is conveying and—more importantly—whether the dog understands what we’re trying to tell him.
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One of the big things that leads to miscommunication is this idea of the collar correction. That’s when you snap a choker chain or apply an electric shock as a means of letting the dog know he’s just done something wrong. The problem with collar corrections isn’t that they’re inherently mean or dangerous—though they certainly can be in novice hands—it’s that they miss the opportunity to supply useful information and instead say only one thing: Wrong! If you want to then show the dog the correct behavior, you’ve got to do it as a second step: Wrong. This way. Many dogs will learn new skills like this, but mathematically it’s more difficult. The number of ways a dog can do any task wrong is nearly infinite. The number of ways to do it right is only one. And since dog training isn’t a quiz show, it’s probably a lot easier to tell him the right answer rather than let him guess.
Collar pressure drills are the answer. ADW’s founder, Jill Felice, showed me this. She also trains horses, which are too big and powerful to use something like a collar correction on. So, instead, she teaches them that light rein pressure is a directional instruction. Same goes for dogs. Light collar pressure to the left means move left. It’s really easy to teach, too. Put light pressure on the lead in one direction and reward when the dog moves toward the pressure. This is a good exercise to use a clicker on, as well. Once you’ve got a dog that understands that light collar pressure means move toward the pressure—and not, say, pull harder to get out ahead—you’ll be able to offer real collar corrections that mean something—”I want you over here“—rather than the spirit-dampening wrong. The nice thing about teaching your dog the meaning of collar pressure is that you can do it with an ordinary flat collar.
I ended up at this collar pressure exercise because the snap of a choker collar had absolutely no effect on Danger. Ditto the pronged pinch collar. It could be because he’s a big strong boy with a thick neck, but more likely my novice timing and repeated jerks just hardened him to it. Remember what we learned from Steve White’s Eight Rules of Punishment: Punishment is reinforcing to the punisher. In other words, you’ve got to use punishment carefully, because it wears out the more you use it.
The goal in all of this is to have a dog that’s calm and dependable. And to that end, you don’t really need a collar. The same way you can teach a dog to move with collar pressure, you can teach him to move with hand signals, touches, or even eye movements. Jill has taught her own dogs that a touch on the top of the head means “It’s your turn”—a necessity for things like feeding and coming and going into different holding pens, since she has 13 dogs and can’t very well be muscling that many animals around all the time.
As a general rule, think about what you’re telling your dog with whatever method you choose. Most of all, ask yourself whether you’re supplying the right answer or just shutting your dog down when he gets it wrong.
This article originally appeared on Outside K9, the former dog blog of Outside magazine, on July 22, 2009.