Training with Collars and Halters

Training collars, safety collars, fashion collars. Choke chains. Pinch collars. Reflective collars. Personalized and embellished. Leather or nylon. Breed-specific. Anti-flea or anti-bark. Electronic.

With the vast number of collars available, what's the right one for your dog?

Start With the Basics

Every dog, from puppyhood on, needs a sturdy collar to carry his identification. For everyday wear, choose a buckled or snap-together collar with clearly visible ID, either on secure, sturdy metal tags, or on the collar itself. Some collars can be custom imprinted or embroidered with your dog's name and even your telephone number. Don't attach the ID tags to the same link you use for his lead.

Keep your dog's ID up-to-date. If you move or change your phone number, obtain new tags without delay. If you're traveling or relocating, consider getting a special set of tags with the phone number of a trusted friend or relative. Many dogs are picked up as "strays" because they aren't wearing collars, or their collars do not carry any identifying tags. Remember: Identification is your dog's ticket home.

Periodic Collar Check

At least once a month, and more often for growing puppies, do a quick "collar check." Give the collar a hard look. Is it getting frayed, chewed or worn? A worn collar can break when you least expect it – in traffic, in unfamiliar surroundings, or when you most need to control your dog. If the collar needs replacing, do it right away. Don't take a chance on your dog getting lost or picked up as a "stray," escaping into danger or even being killed.

Check the fit. How many fingers can you slip between your dog's collar and his neck? If you have an average, medium-sized dog, go for a two-finger fit. If your dog is very large, three may be better. If your dog is very small (under 20 pounds), leave only one finger's width. Make sure the tags are securely attached and that the information on them is up-to-date and clearly readable.

It's a good idea to provide a backup form of identification, too. "Microchipping" is becoming increasingly popular. Your veterinarian injects a tiny electronic chip, about the size of a grain of rice, under your dog's skin, usually just behind his shoulder blades. The chip carries permanent identification information, readable with a special scanner. Recent standardization efforts have made microchipping a more practical and popular option for permanent backup ID. But even if microchipped, your dog still needs to wear a sturdy collar with visible ID.

The Everyday Collar

With so many styles and materials available, choosing just the right collar for your dog can seem daunting. Keep it simple. The weight and width of your dog's collar should be proportional to his size. For length, measure your dog's neck a few inches down from his head, then add an inch (for very small dogs) or 2 inches for medium and large dogs. For short-coated dogs, a broad, flat leather or woven nylon collar with a sturdy metal buckle works well. If your dog has a lush ruff and long hair, a "rolled" style collar may work better. Insure that the buckle and other parts of the collar won't tug on or catch your dog's hair.

"Snap-together" collars are convenient, attractive and neater looking than buckled collars, and work well for many dogs. But if your dog is very large or strong, or has a tendency to lunge when excited, a sturdy buckled collar is a safer choice.

Leather or nylon? Both can last for years. However, many dogs are dedicated leather-chewers. If your dog spends a lot of time around other canines, check the collar frequently for signs of chewing damage and replace right away if necessary.

Nylon web collars are not only sturdy and inexpensive but they also come in an astonishing array of fashionable colors and patterns. Get a collar to match your dog's eyes. There are breed-specific collars, reflective collars for night runs, holiday- and seasonal-themed collars, matching leash-and-collar ensembles and collars embellished with everything from semi-precious stones to good-luck charms.

Training Collars

The most commonly used training collars, called a "slip" or "choke" collars, consists of a length of leather, nylon or chain link with rings on each end.

Choke collars are somewhat controversial. The concept is to "correct" the dog, but choke collars work on the principle of punishment, and many trainers are now moving toward a purely "reward-based" training. They are not to be used as everyday collars. The moving ring can be snagged on the tooth of another dog in play, causing it to pull away from danger. As the collar tightens, both dogs may panic – a potentially dangerous situation both for the dogs and for anyone who tries to approach to free them.

In addition, choke collars should never be used on toy dogs or dogs less than 20 pounds, warns Darlene Arden, author of "The Irrepressible Toy Dog," and a recognized authority on the care of toy dogs. "Not only is it unnecessary, but these little ones are often prone to collapsing trachea. Putting pressure on that area can precipitate the problem."

Instead, consider a body harness. When you pull back on the leash, the harness tightens around the dog's chest, controlling him without putting pressure on his neck or back. Of course, your dog should also wear his everyday ID collar along with his harness.

Other Training Collars

Pinch or prong training collars – slip collars appointed with blunt prongs that face the dog's neck – are controversial, but some experienced trainers find them useful in dealing with large, powerful dogs. Never use a pinch or prong collar as an everyday collar or because you think it makes your dog look mean or tough.

"Head halters" are useful in controlling and training large or hard-to-manage dogs. When you pull on the leash, attached to a ring under the dog's jaw, you place pressure on his muzzle and neck, thus guiding his attention, head, and body in the direction you want him to go.

Electric "shock collars" are also controversial. While useful in specialized training environments (such as field training of gun dogs by experienced handlers), shock collars should never be used by inexperienced or impatient pet owners as a substitute for proper training, discipline, or socialization. Using such a training collar improperly can do more harm than good.

One recent development in training aids is the "spray collar." Many owners have found these devices, which emit a harmless but annoying spritz of a citronella-scented liquid, quite effective in controlling unwanted barking and other undesirable behaviors. The technique works by interrupting the unwanted behavior and changing the dog's focus, rather than by inflicting pain or a shock.

What About Leads?

A sturdy, six-foot leather, nylon web or chain lead securely fastened to a metal ring on the collar is a practical and versatile choice for everyday use. For special situations, such as training, maneuvering through crowds or long country rambles, consider a lead with a reel that you can set to any maximum length, from less than a foot to several dozen feet. Before setting out with your dog on lead, always tug firmly on the connection between the lead and the collar to insure that it's secure.

It's Up to You

The right collar and lead can keep your dog safe and secure in any situation, insure his return home should he become lost, and even enhance his natural good looks. But no collar or lead, however sturdy, well-designed or high-tech, is a substitute for training, discipline and proper socialization. Every dog should instantly and reliably obey these five basic voice commands: Wait, Down, Come, Leave it, and Give. Whatever style of collar and lead you choose, it's up to you to train and socialize your dog so that he'll be welcome wherever you take him.