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Off Lead Magazine December 2002  
"You are Only as Good as Your Tools" 
Author: Mary Ann Zeigenfuse

Finding the right collar to train your dog with can be as confusing as finding your way out of the mirrored room in a fun house.   Collars aren’t always what they seem.  Plus you can get way too much advice from too many people that only clouds the issue.  Soon you can be stuck in that mirrored room for life. 

What does a training collar do besides hold the leash on the dog?    A training collar gets your dog’s attention when used correctly.  That is all.  It isn’t a magic wand that actually trains the dog.  You do that.  Getting your dog’s attention is what training is all about.  What you do with that attention is training.  We want our dogs to be able to focus on us so we can show them what we want from them.  That about sums up dog training in general.  It is a partnership of communication and the collar aids us in that communication. 

A training collar is used when teaching an abstention exercise such as heeling.  An abstention exercise means you want the dog to stop doing something such as leaving your side in heeling.  Again the collar is being used to gain your dog’s attention if your dog leaves your side.   Once attention is regained the communication is working again and there should be lots of smiles and praise to keep that attention.  Getting this attention back is what I want to focus on. 

What takes your dog’s attention away?  If you look at the make-up of your dog’s personality using Drives you will know.  If your dog is high in Prey Drive, then motion and smell will distract your dog.  If your dog is high in Pack Drive, then other people and dogs will entice your dog away in seconds.  If your dog is high in Defense Drive, then anything at a certain distance will pull your dog’s attention to it.  These are just a few examples of what distractions are in relation to your dog’s personality.   Of course most dogs have a combination of all the drives in their personality.  It is fun to test your dog’s personality and learn about your dog.  If you would like to do this you can find the Drive Personality Profile in Dog Training for Dummies by Jack and Wendy Volhard.

Stays and heeling are the two main exercises that use a training collar when being taught.  Both of these exercises are Pack Drive exercises because they require total compliance from your dog to work with you.  When working in Pack Drive you want to be as quiet as possible and as still as possible.  Remember that motion stimulates Prey Drive, which distracts your dog.  Ideally you want a collar that can be used to get your dog’s attention if lost, with as little motion as possible. This is our first criterion.  Dog training should be done with what I call a quiet body.  A quiet body is one that is still and upright with little movement.  A noisy body has a dangling leash, floppy clothes, arms that move too much, sloppy body movements and of course a voice that is too loud.  We need to work on ourselves but we also need a collar that allows us to regain our dog’s attention by using the leash and collar with little to no movement on our part.   

The collar that fits our first criteria the best is a high fitting snap around collar*.  If fitted correctly it will stay behind the dog’s ears, high on the neck.  If you need to use the leash to bring your dog back to heel position it will take very little motion from you.  Then you will be able to praise because you have your dog’s attention back on you.  With an ill-fitting collar (such as a chain slip collar) you must bring the dog back to position while heeling with a great swing of your arms.  This is a loud movement and is not conducive to putting and keeping your dog in Pack Drive.  

Another criterion for a good training collar is that it should be fair and humane.  This is one of the requirements that causes confusion to a lot of people.  Humane is defined as kind.  Some people mistakenly think that a buckle collar is kind because it does not tighten on the dog’s neck.  The problem with this is that guiding a high Prey Drive dog on the end of your leash with a buckle collar will not get your dog to stop being distracted.  This means that communication stops.  If you pull on a leash with a buckle collar to regain attention, you may need to pull so hard that the dog can actually be over-corrected.  This is not kind or humane and it certainly isn’t fair.  Pulling too hard on a buckle collar can actually cause damage to the trachea.  Talk to any chiropractor and they will tell you that buckle collars for training are not humane.  Dogs understand pressure around their neck that a slip collar provides.  It is similar to the training methods that a mother dog uses on her pups.  She communicates by taking the pups neck in her mouth and guiding or disciplining them.  She is as gentle as possible and only uses minimal pressure.  This too is our goal and can be achieved with a snap-around, properly fitted collar.

Where the collar fits on the neck is critical to gain the most attention with the least amount of pressure.  Again, if a snap-around collar is fitted correctly it should lie above the vocal chords and right behind the ears.  If you take your finger and press against your throat where a buckle collar or a large choke chain hits the neck you will find that you can’t talk very well, plus it is very uncomfortable.  If you move upwards to under your chin above your throat where a snap-around collar should fit you will find that you can talk all day with complete comfort.  This is fair and kind, therefore humane.  Comfort is a very important criterion.  

If you compare where a chain choker lays on a dog’s neck to the high fitting snap around collar you will also notice which collar is closer to the center of gravity of the dog.  The choke collar has to be big enough to slip over the dog’s ears and head.  When they are that big, the collar falls down close to the chest of the dog.  To move this dog with a check (or tug) on the choker you will be moving the whole dog near the center of the bulk of the dog.  If you apply a check to a snap-around collar fitting high on the dog’s neck you will be moving the front of the dog.   This is much easier and communicates that you want the dog’s attention on you, not simply that you want to move the dog.  A halter type collar can guide the dog’s head around very well and therefore it can fill this criterion also. 

Halter collars are very good training tools that I use frequently for many different situations.  However, I do not like to start with this collar.  First of all, in a novice’s hands a halter can be yanked, torqueing the dog’s neck around too fast and can actually seriously hurt the dog.  Most chiropractors do not endorse halters for dogs.  Second of all, the dog is so distracted by the initial introduction to the halter on his or her face, no training can occur.  This can be easily redirected with proper instruction, but it can be very frustrating for the owner and of course for the dog. Once the dog becomes accustomed to the halter collar it does fill the criterion of moving the front of the dog rather than the bulk of the dog.  A halter is a guiding collar and does not work as well as an abstention-training collar like the snap around collar does. 

There are occasions when more pressure is needed to over ride Prey Drive in a dog.  Intuitively you know, even with out formal understanding of Drives, that once a dog has put himself into Prey drive you need to over-ride the Prey Drive by using Defense Drive so you can again have your dog’s attention back.  For example, a dog faced with a rabbit bolting out of the bushes will leave your left side in a flash.  To get your dog happily prancing by your side again takes some amount of collar pressure or voice control.  The amount of pressure depends on the Drive Profile of your dog.  The more Prey Drive, the more pressure you will need to use before you can refocus your dog on you. 

Occasionally this may require the use of a prong collar.  Again, I use this collar when needed as a training tool.  When a prong collar needs to be used, I recommend keeping both the snap collar and the prong collar on the dog.  I want to switch back to the snap-around collar when ever possible.  Our ultimate goal is to train the dog with no collar.  A prong collar might be the tool needed to help the dog work out distractions.  By using both collars, you can pet the dog between exercises and the leash can be switched back and forth between collars.  This can be done without the dog’s knowledge and the dog will not know which collar is active.  If your dog sees you pulling one collar out of your pocket, he or she will quickly learn which collar is being used and behave accordingly.  Out-smart your dog and put both collars on the dog. Use the collar you need.  The collar you need will depend on the distractions that are affecting your dog’s attention.  Strive to get to the point of only needing the snap-around collar, then of getting to the point of needing neither one.

Once you have taught your dog to focus on you and to exclude your surroundings you have a partner in training.  We want to use the best equipment possible to aid us in our goal as quickly and humanely as possible.  Use a collar that allows you to connect with your dog with little to no movement around your dog.  Use one that allows you to use as little pressure as needed to get the attention you want.  Use a collar that is a comfortable and safe.  And use one that makes it easy to guide your dog.  This is everyone’s dream.  A famous quote: “You are only as good as your tools” is true in dog training.  Know what your goals are and use the tools that will help you get there.  The goal of a trained dog is one thing but being a good trainer who uses equipment that fits your predetermined criteria is a better one.

*The snap around collar is available through Handcraft Collars, Inc.  You can get them in ½ inch increments, which allows you to get the perfect fit.  The perfect fit is a collar that stays where it should high on the neck behind the ears.  You should be able to put one finger under the collar for small dogs (two fingers for large dogs) when the collar is on, but no more.  When the collar is pulled tight you should only see about an inch of nylon coming through the ring.  The collar is called a snap around collar because it has a ring on one end and a snap on the other and a floating ring in the middle.  The snap connects to the floating ring and the leash connects to the stationary ring.  This makes a slip collar but it snaps around so it will fit your dog’s neck staying high on the neck.  A regular slip collar with only the two rings must be big enough to slide over the dog’s head.  This makes for a fit that is too big.  Handcraft Collars make the best snap-around collars because they use nylon.  This is important because the collars will therefore not stretch or fray with use.  You can purchase snap-around collars on the Internet or by phoning Handcraft Collars directly.  The number is: 1-800-837-2033.  Their web site is: www.Handcraftcollars.com .  I am not associated with Handcraft Collars though I do purchase from them.  This is not an advertisement for Handcraft Collars nor do I receive any compensation from them.  But if you do call them, feel free to say, “Mary Ann sent ya!” 

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