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Learning to Learn -- Training Collars

There are so many different types of collars available --  most people never really think about the different types, or why there are so many different types. This article will help you with this frustrating decision: which training collar for your dog? Collar types have evolved right along with training methods. For many years, the collars of choice were mostly meant to facilitate the use of correction-based training methods: choke collars, prong collars, and shock collars. Very big dogs were likely to sport either the prong or shock collars, simply because the dog is big -- it takes less effort for a big dog to pull you down the street, than it does a little dog.


So, even today, many trainers recommend correction collars for the big guys, based on size of the dog alone. I don't recommend correction-based collars or methods: I recommend headcollars, or even flat collars.


What's a headcollar, you ask? If all you've ever used is a choke or regular flat collar, you're going to LOVE head collars! A head collar is like a horse's bridle, without the bit.


The Halti collar is the best one I've found so far, and it consists of a collar that goes around the dog's neck, with a nose loop attached... the nose loop keeps the dog from dragging you down the street. When the dog pulls, the nose loop causes his head to be pulled down, so he stops.


A head collar reduces the pull of a 170-pound male down to 4.4 pounds... they're wonderful!! The headcollar isn't intended as a corrective collar -- I tell people that they're a "restraining" collar, rather than a "training" collar. The headcollar is intended simply as a means of controlling the bulk of the dog, while you teach appropriate behavior.


If a trainer is very insistent on a particular type of correction collar, and you're not comfortable in using that collar on your dog, don't use the collar! First, it's your dog -- you don't have to use anything that you don't want to use. Second, your dog will sense that you're not comfortable in using the methods and collar that was recommended -- you'll likely end up with bigger problems than you started with.


And, third, if a trainer is trying to force you to use methods that you're not willing to use, your instincts are probably telling you to find the closest door... and your instincts are most probably right. Never allow someone to badger you into doing something to your dog that you're not comfortable doing!


Choosing a Training Collar


First, you have to know your dog. Is it a puppy? A small one? A regular collar, or none at all is fine. (Please put a collor on him when he leaves your property, if only for identification purposes)   You'll be able to work with him in an enclosed area with no collar at all. Save the regular flat buckle collar for when you take him places, or just hook to his harness. For all others, there are a combination of collars: Older dogs, big "pully" pups, and dogs with sensitivity problems require training collars when worked in an unconfined area (harnesses are pretty much useless as a training tool for a bigger, pully dog)... if you're working in a securely-fenced area, though, you can work with no collar at all. I use a combination of 3 things, depending on where we're working, and what disturbances we're likely to encounter while there. First, understand that my dogs are 3 St. Bernards -- 2 adult females, about 115 and 150 pounds, and a geriatric male, about 95 pounds). They are extremely happy to see other dogs, who may or may not be so happy to see them. Cis also has a sound sensitivity, which further complicates matters. If we're working in an area where we're likely to encounter other dogs, but no odd noises, they all wear head collars connected by a coupler, in conjunction with a harness. This allows me to control the jumping, barking, and play-bows to a better degree, so that the owner of the other dog (and the other dog) isn't so nervous. In the event that something should trigger Cis' sound sensitivity, I grab her harness. A word of warning about head collars: I have seen my dog try to "bolt" in fear while wearing a head collar. I haven't seen any studies done to this effect, YET, but I've seen how her head gets whipped back and to the side, 'til it looks as though her neck will snap. I always recommend a harness in conjunction with these collars, when dealing with a fearful dog. Note: All 3 of my dogs each wear headcollars for training and walks. They also wear regular flat leather collars, for ID purposes. Cis has made gigantic strides in her battle against her sound sensitivity... when working toward this end, if we were working in an area where we were likely to encounter something that would trigger her sensitivity (like walking downtown, with the construction, traffic noises, church bells, police sirens, etc.), she wore a harness . There is a little less control around other dogs, but a lot less strain on her neck, when confronted with something scary. A harness is not my first  choice in management for a big pully dog -- the head collar is.   All collars have their limits, though... the headcollar comes closest to being the perfect collar for training the big, pully boys, in my book. Both of these implements have their drawbacks, so that it's been necessary to interchange based on location and circumstance, in Cis' case -- however, Cis' circumstances are outside the norm, behaviorally, due to her sound sensitivity. You have to use your own judgment, and realize that whatever collar you choose is only a TOOL. Clicker training has helped tremendously with the "problems" we have encountered when out walking. Cis never got completely over the sound sensitivity, but there was phenomenal improvement over the last few years of her life. And, I was able to have her sit while barking at another dog -- my pride knows no bounds!! Please note: there are no circumstances under which I use a choke collar -- and I will not ever use or condone use of a shock collar.


Teaching Your Dog to Accept the Headcollar

I've done some work in shelters, teaching the staff how to use different types of collars, and I've worked with Rescue Transport a good bit, where I pick up a dog at a shelter and transport it to a rescue group in another state for fostering prior to adoption.  In these kinds of circumstances, especially on a transport , I have to be able to control the dog when we stop at rest stops (pee breaks) or when getting in and out of cars at the meeting points.  I do this with a head collar... it usually takes 15-20 minutes for me to teach the dog to accept it.  Yes, this is pushing it... I normally take 2-3 days to teach a dog to be happy to see this collar... but I'm not looking for 'happy' in these kinds of circumstances.  I just need to be able to keep him safe for the trip.  This information is only here to let you see that this process CAN be done very quickly... just think what you can do with 2-3 days?!

Slip the nose loop over the fingers of your right hand, and pick up a slice of hotdog in those same fingers. Feed the hotdog to your dog, allowing him to see the headcollar approaching his face with each slice. Do this until he's comfortable, about 7-10 slices.


Then, allow the nose loop to slip off your fingers with the next slice, and land on the bridge of his nose, behind his nose. Just let it rest there, while he eats that slice. He'll shake it off -- that's fine. Do 5-10 more slices this way, until he starts to allow the nose loop to STAY on his nose, between slices... at this point, you're home free!


When he's allowing it to stay there, just reach behind his head and close the fasteners. Feed him a few more slices, then attach the leash and take him for a walk -- take the remainder of the slices with you, and use them if he starts to have problems with the feel of the nose-loop.  Try to stay in constant motion, so that he really doesn't have time to be bothered by it.


Here's the crux of teaching any dog to accept it: the headcollar must come to represent ONLY good things -- so, you must ONLY allow good stuff to happen, when teaching him to accept it.


Some people only try to use it when they need to do crappy stuff to their dogs, like take him to the vet's -- and, of course, the dog associates this with the collar, and fights it. If you teach your dog that Really Good Stuff happens when the collar comes out, he'll start to get excited about seeing it. Once he's associated it with the good stuff, you can use it to take him to the vet's -- just don't do that on the first few times he wears it.


When I take the headcollar off the hook by the door, I've got 4 Saints sitting in a row, each trying to stick their heads into the same collar. {grin} They sit politely, but they're so excited over the collar that they still crowd. 


Brenda Rushman CCBC


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