Right now, I am working with a lovely woman and her lab. The other day, she asked me, “Steve, why is it that when you pull the leash while my dog is wearing the prong collar, my dog’s tail wags? This is the opposite of what I’d expect. I mean, if someone told me that a leash correction could make my dog happy—well, I’d have said they’re crazy.”
It sounds counterintuitive, I know. But this is the kind of stuff that people who have been training for years know about. And it’s the kind of knowledge that the know-nothings with their worthless certifications and pointless studies don’t. The truth is, dog training is turning into this insane world, with the loudest voices coming from the people with the least amount of knowledge. I have clients coming to sessions telling me that they haven’t practiced because they get verbally abused and harassed. We have hecklers that interrupt sessions and call us abusers. My website has gotten hacked because people don’t like what I have to say. There are facebook groups where they will ban you if you mention “aversives.”
The backlash against prong collars is unbelievable. People would rather put their dogs on harnesses and let their drives amp out of control. They’d rather create disconnected food-trained dogs or toy obsessions than use a prong. They’d rather medicate and euthanize, walk their dogs at midnight.
I use a prong collar on practically every dog that comes to Nitro K-9. Let me tell you why.
Let’s start with a brief overview of the prong collar
No one actually knows when the prong collar was invented. A collar with spikes on the inside was used as far back as the Romans; this, may be the prototype of the modern prong collar—and this is what prong haters would have you believe prong collars do., However, what we think of as a prong, or pinch, collar was first patented by Herm Sprenger in the late 1800s, and the design is much different. (Please note, even today, Herm Sprenger is the only brand we use or recommend.)
There are a few things to notice. First, the “prongs” are all angled in and blunt on the ends. They do not jab or injure the dog. What happens is that pressure is distributed evenly around the neck, and it’s more easily felt than a choke or a flat collar. The result is that you need to use far less pressure. Most people who come to us are actually surprised at how little pressure we actually use. The second thing to notice is that there’s a chain that connects both sides of the prong collar. This chain means that you can only tighten the collar a certain amount. Compare that to a choke chain, which can be tightened almost infinitely.
For the record, I have never once seen a dog injured from proper use of a prong. At most, sometimes I’ll see dogs with sensitive skin, in which case we might use rubber tips on the prong, or put a bandanna between the collar and the neck.
I have also found that prong collars, properly used, work on pretty much every dog out there. I see anywhere from six to ten dogs a day, nearly every day of the week. I’ve done this for almost my entire adult life. That’s thousands of dogs, all breeds, all sizes, all types of issues. And guess what? I put almost every single one of them in a prong collar. I hear trainers say things like, “You need a full toolbox” or “Different dogs need different tools.” It is absolutely true that dogs differ greatly—but the real difference here is in the mastery of the tool in question, not whether it’s the wrong tool for the dog.
How I use prong collars
Different trainers fit prong collars in different ways. Some like them “high and tight,” while others prefer them looser. Some like the chain on the back of the neck, some on the side. Some prefer to use small prong sizes, no matter the size of the dog.
Here’s what I do. I fit a dog with a prong collar that is properly sized for the dog. A lot of people will recommend smaller sizes—what they don’t tell you is that the smaller the space between links, the sharper the correction.
Then, I place the prong mid-neck, loose enough so that the dog doesn’t really feel it unless there’s a correction, but not so loose that it will flip over so the prongs are on the outside. The idea here is that the dog should not feel pressure from the collar unless I want him or her to feel pressure. Otherwise, it’s a constant annoyance, which can lead to other issues, depending on the dog.
Finally, I always place the prongs on the back of the neck, never at the base of the neck. The base of the neck is where the chain goes. What I have discovered is that this placement maximizes leash communication. I have discovered through years of experience that I can “speak” to a dog through extremely targeted and precise leash movement using a prong collar placed like this. My belief is that there is a rich neural network throughout the neck; the prong is the tool that is best suited to achieve this communication. And it all makes sense if you look at how dogs communicate with each other. “Modern, science-based” trainers scoff at this—but I can tell you, it works.
“What do you mean you can speak to a dog with a prong collar?”
Do you really think that someone who has never used a prong collar (or one of those crossover trainers who used to whale on dogs) really understands how prong collars can be used well? How a prong can be used on an anxious or fearful dog to relax them? How a prong can cure reactivity? There are so many subtleties in handling here that no one is going to ever understand anything if all they can think is prong = aversive = bad.
The way I fit and use a prong is because of the leashwork system that I’ve developed. Everything is based on the “center line” of martial arts because this facilitates the greatest flow of chi. This may sound woowoo to some, but it’s a central component of the Nitro K-9 system. The prong collar is on the center line, how the handler holds the leash is on the center line. How you work with the dog is about energy and flow, using a pulley system.
When you understand how this works, when you see how effective it is, when you see it in action, all of these arguments about what is “aversive” start to seem really stupid. Because stuff starts happening that you can’t really explain through strict operant conditioning—like my client whose tail started wagging happily when he got a correction.
The lengths people go to apply operant conditioning to every situation is ridiculous. And of course, the principles of operant conditioning govern many aspects of our lives. But we don’t go through every moment of every day analyzing everything as, “This is positive reinforcement,” or “Oh, this is positive punishment.” We don’t raise children like that. We don’t interact with other people like that. Our lives are much richer and more varied. Dogs are no different.
What if I told you prong collars could cure anxiety?
I worked with a three-year old female German Shepherd and Husky mix. Let’s call her Sammy. Sammy had had extreme anxiety and paranoia since she was a baby. The owners had been told to counter condition her fears with food; instead, the food ended up reinforcing those fears. This is actually very common. In Sammy’s case, she refused to be lured by food, ended up shutting down and being unable to move at all. The owners went trainer after trainer, every behaviorist in town, every combo of meds you can imagine. Everyone promised they had the answer. Nothing worked. Sammy would spend hour long sessions shaking, and crying, and trying to get away. They were at their wit’s end when they called.
I met Sammy at a public park in Seattle. Or rather, I met Sammy’s owners. Sammy would not leave the car and they could not get her out without her screaming and making a scene. I went over to see Sammy. She was shaking and scared. I saw a beautiful little girl in that car, and I knew instantly a lot could be done to help her.
After I spent around 20 minutes with Sammy, I learned that she based everything on trust. And with Sammy, if you violate that trust or you provide the support she thinks she needs, she would instantly go into a flight response. More often, she’d just shut down, lying on the ground and trying to hide.
A lot of people would say that a prong collar is not the appropriate tool here. Her owners were taken aback, but agreed to trust me. After all, nothing else had worked. I fitted her with a Herm Sprenger 3MM collar—the right size, perfectly fitted, and properly positioned. Sammy had no issues with it. Then, I then began to apply very light and gentle pressure.
Now, when dealing with anxiety, there is a push-pull with the energy of the animal you are trying to reach. Timing is everything; knowledge comes from experience and understanding how to react to the body language of the animal you’re working with. For instance, you can use too much pressure at the wrong moment, or too little. So, with very gentle push pull leash work Sammy began to calm down. She came right out of the car and stood solidly beside my leg.
I encouraged her a lot, with lots of praise and love and affection. When I saw she was struggling, I told her YES, you are doing a good job. She relaxed even more, and we ended up training well over 90 minutes. She was a darn good student. I was able to take her through all of the first level commands and she loved it. And her owners were amazed. They had never seen her do so much, in such a short amount of time. I explained to them that they needed to tell her NO to reconstruct her broken mental construct. This was the part that had been missing—they had been told only to tell her YES through food.
Today, Sammy is still a little nervous. But that’s okay; it’s her personality, just who she is. But she no longer shuts down, tries to run away, or lies down in the middle of the street and hopes no one sees her. Instead, she’s happier and more confident than she’s ever been. She’s off all her meds, and on a raw diet. She gets to be a dog, with daily walks, trips to the park, outings to the store—all the things her owners never thought possible. She even sticks her head out of the car window on drives, which she loves. All thanks to a prong collar and the power of both YES and NO.
Proper correction saves lives, makes for happy dogs
Sammy is just one example. I can give you thousands. This is what we do, day in and day out. We specialize in aggression and anxiety. We train dogs. And we do it with prong collars. We take the dogs that the positive trainers have failed, and we help to fix them. I can’t tell you how many dogs we get whose owners were told to euthanize. Who are medicated. Who are being completely eaten alive by their drives. Honestly, one of the first things we do is fit these dogs with a prong and snap them out of drive. It is always pretty? No, it’s not. But it is often the first time these dogs have been able to be truly calm in months or even years.
So yeah. I get really mad when my clients, who have already been failed by positive trainers get harassed for using prong collars. It’s crazy. And this is all driven by people who don’t understand canine body language. They don’t get hierarchy and structure, and what that means. They don’t know how to work with drive other than as motivation for behaviors, because they lack relationship. And they sure can’t wrap their head around the fact that a correction is not necessarily punishment.
And don’t get me wrong. Sometimes, dogs do need stronger corrections to hear you. This is not an inherently bad thing. What is bad is if the correction is unfair—that is, not well-timed, or too hard for the dog or the situation. (Or even too little and nagging.) A correction is not about being cruel or mean. It’s about talking to your dog in a way the dog fundamentally understands. And shouldn’t this be the ultimate goal? To speak to dogs in ways that THEY understand, not shovel cookies at them in “positive” ways that make US feel good about ourselves.
I’m going to let you in on a secret. This is based on a lifetime of working with dogs, not some paper on canine behavior written by someone who mainly works with lab rats, or a phony “dog training” certification. I can tell you with confidence that every dog has a sweet spot for correction, a certain level and type of correction where they perk right up and go, “Hey, NOW you’re talking my language. I get you.”
This sweet spot is exactly where you see dogs do things that show how happy they are—like wagging their tails. It may seem weird, but it really happens.
Let’s get real here
I love dogs. I’m not in the business of abusing or hurting them. It makes me angry to be depicted as some kind of abuser—especially from a group of people who would rather euthanize a dog rather than fit him with a prong collar that will not only save his life, but help resolve his issues. And it makes my blood boil to hear a bunch of people trying to ban a tool that I can use to induce a state of profound relaxation in a dog. The reality is, these people have so little idea of what they’re doing, yet have so much influence over the state and condition of dogs in this country. People come to us desperate, terrified that using a prong collar is abusive, yet failed by the “kind” solutions. Then, they get harassed in the process.
I stand by my processes and my results. I have nothing to hide. If you still have doubts, you’re more than welcome to come watch us train.