What do you think of when you see this?
How about this?
What were the first words that popped into your head when you looked at the photos? If you’re anything like me, you thought, “Oh, a prong collar. Another prong. A dog with a prong on. Oh look, I wonder what that gorgeous dog is looking at so intently. Maybe a tug? Maybe some food?” If you’re like many other people on social media these days, you saw the first picture and your brain short circuited.
It seems that we’ve gotten to the place in dog training history where it is no longer enough to judge a training protocol or tool by what kind of results it has or how the dogs who have been trained with it behave. We have moved past a results based approach and reserving our judgement for those techniques that clearly produce a fearful or unstable dog to a place where we shoot things down before they can even get past the gate.
If you’ve spent any time on Facebook or on other online social media forums in training circles, you’ve likely seen the above picture around. There is no text on it apart from a call to ban the collar pictured, but the message couldn’t be clearer. Prong collars cause massive, horrible wounds to dogs’ necks. Strangely enough, to those who use or have used prong collars for training, this is a bit like showing a picture of a set of stairs beside one of a person at the bottom with a broken leg. Certainly it could happen, but a) people use stairs every day while managing not to break their limbs and b) it’s quite obvious to even the youngest of us that something went terribly, horribly wrong to produce such a result. All emotional responses aside, I have brainstormed with others as to what could have possibly happened to the dog in the above picture and the only scenarios we can come up with to explain such an oddity are that either the prong collar was left on and became embedded with growth, that it was somehow sharpened, causing wounds, or that the dog had some kind of reaction to the metal in the collar, leading to areas of inflammation and secondary infection. None of these explanations correlate in any way to typical, normal use of the collar in question. This picture lends itself to the notion of prong banishment about as much as a worldwide ban on stairs due to their risk of injury – clearly not something we’d ever consider rational.
Let me tell you some honest facts about prong collars. Prongs work on the same system as a martingale or limited slip in that they can only restrict so far due to their design. Unlike a choke or slip which has unlimited restriction, prongs cannot possibly choke a dog. The points on a prong are rounded, not sharp. I’ve had one on my arm and even after pulling hard on it, I felt only discomfort and no pain. At rest, I couldn’t feel much at all and it was quite comfortable. Prongs are meant for use with the pressure/release system of training, a system that has long been in use for all kinds of training with animals. Pressure and release simply means adding pressure to the equation and the animal moves to release the pressure. Prong points work to amplify the pressure in the same way a person finds poking another with their fingers more effective than trying to move them with a flat hand. It concentrates the pressure, allowing the person adding it to use less force and yet to be more effective in their message. Prong collars are meant to be used with the minimum of force.
I’d like to propose a word for the above picture: propaganda. According to the dictionary, the word ‘propaganda’ means: “ideas or statements that are often false or exaggerated and that are spread in order to help a cause, a political leader, a government, etc. ” You’re familiar with it; it is a ploy often used by extremist groups to promote their cause. Pairing shocking images with a call to action is a tried and true method of triggering an emotional response in people. Leaders of all stripes and from all niches know that if you can get people mad about something, you can get them to act. If you can get people to respond when you want them to; in other words, if you can create a Conditioned Emotional Response (CER) to an image or phrase and then pull that string when you desire – you become very powerful indeed. Never mind if what you showed them or told them to create this CER was based on verifiable fact or not. Never mind if what people are being shown is the whole story or just a part. If someone somewhere actually had this happen to them, in whole or in part, you can create the association and use it to further your own agenda. I don’t know about you, but I resent being treated like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, only being shown what the man behind the curtain wants me to see. I much prefer to make up my own mind.
Now, I’m quite aware that not only will most people not read through this entire post due to rage over the subject (CER, much?) but others will only read it so that they can share it and cry that I am just another abusive tool defender. I’m going to ignore those people for a moment and talk to the person who sincerely asks, “But, hasn’t it been proven that the prong collar is abusive and not needed?”. The short answer to the first is “No, not if used properly, which applies to most everything.” and to the second, “It depends.”
Full disclosure, I used a prong in the past. I don’t use one now, but it has nothing to do with the tool itself and the general notion that it’s abusive. I don’t believe it is. In fact, I believe it’s much more kind and humane than a choke or slip and can be kinder than a flat collar when used for restraint. I simply don’t use one because I have no need for it. I abandoned the prong as part of a larger move to learn about +R methods. I learned that I could teach so much of what the prong did for me previously without it, and with better results. I learned to use a tool that is just as powerful called Reward. I am still learning about it, and likely always will be – and I love it. But, and this is a BIG but, I don’t typically work with high drive dogs. Why does this matter, you ask? It matters because the vast majority of prong collar proponents in training circles make their living working with high drive dogs. They do sports where having dog with a propensity for high, focused arousal is a necessity. They work with dogs that most of us love to watch, but don’t ever want to live with. They use prong collars day in and day out and the good ones don’t have dogs who are shut down, fearful or out of control. Quite the opposite in fact, they have dogs just like the one in the 4th picture above. They have dogs who are happy, controlled, engaged. They use the prong as a way to communicate with a dog who cares nothing for any external reward, but who is getting an extreme internal reward for their state of arousal. The prong is a way to say, “Hey, you, I’m over here, let’s train.”, nothing more and nothing less. Most people who identify as +R trainers will scoff at the idea that food couldn’t work with these dogs, and to a point they are right. This is exactly why food has become a fixture in the traditional training arena and has produced what are labelled “Balanced” trainers, not to, as some positive trainers claim, make a political move to become more acceptable to an “enlightened” public. Skilled and accomplished trainers like Micheal Ellis have worked hard to promote kind and gentle training with the use of food as a non negotiable in training. We fool ourselves if we think that it can call every dog off of a rabbit or a car, however, and we also fool ourselves if we think that uber management and high restriction is a viable solution either.
I realize there are accomplished trainers who have achieved a great deal with higher drive dogs without using aversive tools. I also am very aware that in the current political climate in dog training, those same trainers would choose to keep their opinions to themselves if they thought that the tools were useful for some dogs or for some goals in training for fear of reprisal both professional and private. The result of this is that the propaganda machine gathers steam virtually unchecked. When we are afraid or reluctant to question the prevailing wisdom whether it makes sense to us or not, we are in very frightening territory indeed. The current call to live in our heads where all things are equal, black and white, instead of the real world where multiple variables create all shades of grey is opening up a huge cavernous gap in dog training.
I have no problem if I’m wrong, and to be honest, I have met very few people who use a prong collar who aren’t open to learning a different and more effective way if there is one. These people care very much for their dogs and their client’s dogs, and are justifiably offended by the propaganda that paints them as cruel and abusive. If positive training truly is positive, there should be no place for assumptive judgments, and if it is truly globally effective, there should be no need for censorship. It’s long past time to educate ourselves, admit our limitations and above all, walk the talk.