Big Puppies and Small Collars
BIG PUPPIES AND SMALL COLLARS
Despite the title of this blog post, I am really talking about all puppies and small collars. Frequently, people show up to classes or I see them at shows with puppies on choke chains. I actually don’t use choke chains unless I am showing a dog that someone handed to me and I didn’t have time for something else. I am just not a fan because they were designed to be uncomfortable for the dog and for many dogs they are uncomfortable. What I like about them is that they are minimal, which is what we want in the show ring. They are small and don’t tend to distract attention from the dog. They are also, in many breeds the traditional equipment to use and many people, especially those newer to showing have a hard time using equipment that is concerned “out of the ordinary”, even if it may be a better option for their dogs.
I consider myself a positive trainer in that I adhere to LIMA which means that when training animals the methods I use are the Least Intrusive and Minimally Aversive and I train mostly using positive reinforcement and I do not use physical corrections. While choke collars are certainly not considered a “positive” or “dog friendly” collar, I allow them in my conformation classes and I do not alienate clients who choose to use them. This is because I do believe they can be used in a way that is humane, gentle and kind to the dog, however they do need to be used and introduced in a certain way to meet this criteria. Not only that, but how can I help anyone if I refuse to work with them due to their equipment?
Before I go on let me say that I do encourage people to experiment with equipment and use something that works well for them and their dog, regardless of tradition. You do not HAVE to use a choke collar just because most people in your breed do. Use what works best for you and your dog, not to control your dog but to help your dog understand and be successful. I was showing a wolfhound for a friend and when she handed him to me (he was going to be hanging out with me for the day) he was wearing a thick choke chain and leather lead. She told me, “you have to show him on this, it is the only way to have control”. I took him and walked over and purchased a thick, complimentary colored nylon slip lead that I felt was more comfortable for him. He showed beautifully on it for me. The issue wasn’t with the dog, it was simply what she had been told about the breed. It should also be noted that in this case the dog didn’t pull nor seem uncomfortable on the choke chain, this was more about my bias than his.
Now let’s discuss puppies. Choke collars are not an appropriate choice for puppies. I am shocked when I see people come into my class with a puppy who has zero leash skills, who pulls relentlessly on a choke collar hitting the end of the lead on a thin metal choke collar over and over. In these instances I advise the student to use a different collar to train the puppy on and then switch to a choke collar later one once the puppy is trained and not at risk of pulling on the choke collar. My aversion to the choke collar isn’t simply that they are uncomfortable for dogs, it is that they can be dangerous. Before you throw your hands up hear me out! From an anatomical standpoint putting pressure on a puppy or a dog’s neck can be dangerous to the health of the dog. The dog’s neck, where a choke chain is placed houses the dog’s trachea, thyroid glands and spine. Pressure, especially intense pressure can damage a dog’s trachea and neck. There is some evidence that shows that pressure on the neck from a collar can cause glaucoma in dogs, in fact, in some breeds that are particularly susceptible to glaucoma it is recommended that they only ever be walked on a harness to lower the risk of glaucoma developing. So, it is not a good idea for any aged dog to be pulling constantly on a choke collar or being physically corrected on a choke collar, but the risk may be even greater for developing puppies. From Animal Eye Care: “It is also important to reduce pressure on the jugular veins in the neck, as this can increase the IOP if the dog is pulling on a leash attached to a neck collar. Dogs with glaucoma or at risk of developing glaucoma should have leashes attached to harnesses and not neck collars, to prevent pressure on the jugular veins (which can in turn increase IOP and trigger a glaucoma attack).”
So, what does all this have to do with our show dogs? Well, I propose that choke chains should be used only after the dog or puppy has been taught not to pull on the collar and without the use of leash corrections. For my clients we start puppies or untrained dogs off on a thick, round slip lead. This is still a “slip” or “choke” style lead, but the material is thick and comfortable and doesn’t seem to cause discomfort to most dogs.
While on this lead the dog is trained with positive reinforcement methods to focus, stack and walk on the leash. We use this lead until the dog is reliably trained to walk on the leash without pulling on it. Once the dog is trained the owner can experiment with collars and decide what looks best and is most comfortable for the dog. This is certainly not the only type of collar/lead that works well, but it is something that is easy to find and a type of lead that many people already have. A martingale version of this, or a limited slip collar can also be good choices.
What I discourage people from doing is relying on a choke collar to control their dog or their dog’s behavior. If you are required to have a choke collar up high and closed up on the dog’s neck to have control or gait the dog than the dog is not trained and in my opinion, not ready for competition. Equipment should never take the place of solid training and the best time to start is when your show dog is a puppy. So, start that training early, just be sure to be thoughtful and safe when doing so.