In spite of what certain trainers and pet store employees might promise, prong collars are neither safe, nor humane. That’s why the San Francisco SPCA, of which I am co-president, has joined other evidence-based organizations, such as the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior, in condemning the use of punishment-based training methods, such as prong collars.
A prong collar is a series of hard plastic or metal prongs set on a choke mechanism, so that when tightened, the prongs push into the dog’s neck. While a dog might stop pulling on the leash when wearing a prong collar, he’s doing so to avoid the pain, not because he’s learned the behavior that you’re trying to teach.
Pain-based techniques suppress the unwanted behavior (pulling, etc.), but don’t address the underlying cause of the behavior. The constant threat of pain has known and long-term detrimental effects on a dog, such as an inhibition to learning, increased anxiety, and fear-related behaviors. If pain is experienced during routine activities, such as walks and vet visits, dogs can begin to associate an owner’s presence and other harmless stimuli with fear and discomfort.
If the emotional and physical damage caused by prong collars isn’t enough to convince guardians to toss out those spiked collars, then maybe the opportunity cost is enough to tip the scale. When punishment-based techniques are used, guardians miss the opportunity to use positive reinforcement methods that are just as effective. These methods encourage dogs to learn and allow us to build our bond based on understanding and learning rather than reaction.
We think there’s a huge need for education, as well as a real opportunity to help pet guardians. In addition to providing information and education about alternatives to prong collars, soon the SF SPCA will be instituting prong collar bans on both of its campuses. Visitors whose dogs are wearing prong collars will be asked to remove them while they’re on the premises, and we will provide a humane alternative to wear during the visit.
Vet visits are already stressful for most dogs without the added pain of a prong collar. We’re asking for prongs to be removed not only for the comfort of our patients, but also the safety of our staff. Prongs can make dogs more reactive and aggressive, which can be especially dangerous during medical procedures.
The good news is that there are many safe, humane, and effective alternatives to aversive training techniques and equipment. At the SF SPCA, we support positive reinforcement training. Positive reinforcement uses treats, toys, affection, and attention to reward your dog for desired behaviors. Any behavior can be taught through positive reinforcement, and it works for dogs of all breeds and sizes.
Although some say that prong collars aren’t painful, that’s simply not true. Prongs can easily damage a dog’s delicate neck area. The protective layers of the skin on the under portion of a dog’s neck, where the prongs of the collar are designed to pinch, are three times thinner than those of human skin. Prong collar injuries range from skin irritation or punctures to spinal cord problems and crushed tracheas. Even if a prong collar is properly fitted, your dog is still most likely experiencing pain and discomfort – after all, that’s how prong collars are designed to work.
It’s not just the potential for pain; prong collars can also harm your relationship with your dog and lead to long-term behavioral problems, such as aggression.
To learn more about prong collars, humane alternatives, and positive reinforcement, visit sfspca.org/prong. Please consider signing our prong collar pledge and sharing it with your friends!
About the author: Dr. Jennifer Scarlett is co-president of the San Francisco SPCA. Under her leadership, the organization has seen remarkable increases in both spay/neuter surgeries and adoptions, as well as decreases in length-of-stay and citywide euthanasia per capita. Dr. Scarlett has 20 years of experience as a veterinarian in both non-profit and for-profit veterinary medicine. She lives in San Francisco with her dog Huri and two cats, L.V. and Nubs.