Choke Collars…Are They Safe For My Dog?

A Collage of Choke Collars

Would you wear a necklace with spiky things on it as a fashion statement?  

Unless you’re Lady Gaga (or have some unconventional extracurricular activities), I’m going to assume the answer to that question is no.  

That’s essentially what you’re forcing your dog to do if you make him or her wear a choke collar—except there’s nothing fashionable about it.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with them, choke collars, also known as slip collars or choke chains, are dog collars which are most commonly made out of a thin metal chain.  One end of the collar has a large ring that the other end slips through to form a loop.  When connected to a leash this loop will tighten—with no stopping point—either when yanked by the owner or when the dog pulls forward. This sudden choke is meant to teach your dog not to lunge or pull when walking on a leash.

Humane Training Tool?

There are many people who argue that choke collars are a humane training tool when used correctly.  Mario Ancic, former military and police dog trainer, explains in his blog Training Your Dog and You, that the choke collar is the most popularly used training device in obedience schools because it effectively teaches better behavior in a relatively small amount of time.  

Rockwall Vet Clinic goes on to explain that the choke chain was originally manufactured not to choke, but to apply pressure to the brachial nerve – which feels similar to hitting your funny bone. The problem with this, in my opinion, is that even when used correctly, choke collars do still choke. As mentioned above, there is no safety feature on these devices.  This means there is also nothing to stop a little pressure to the brachial nerve from escalating to full-blown choking.

A New Meaning to ‘Roughneck’

Celebrity dog trainer Victoria Stillwell makes the point on her blog Positively that our necks and the necks of our canine companions are actually very similar.  The arrangement of crucial anatomy such as the thyroid, lymph nodes, jugular vein, and trachea are roughly the same. The main difference between the two (other than the obvious) is that a dog’s layer of skin protecting these vital organs is about 3X thinner than ours, making them all the more sensitive.  Imagine someone 2-3 times your size yanking you around by YOUR neck. Ouch.

Using a choke collar incorrectly can cause real damage to your best friend. According to PETA, the jerking motion you are supposed to apply when using the collar can cause whiplash for your poor pooch.  Peta (which stands for people for the ethical treatment of animals) also explains that choke collars can actually make behavioral problems worse.  This can happen as a result of your pooch interpreting the pressure on his neck as a threat and therefore becoming afraid and aggressive.  

Dr. Peter Dobias explains in his blog that the pressure created from the tightening of the chain can cause damage to the thyroid gland.  The thyroid gland is an organ responsible for the metabolism of every cell in the body as well as regulating the body’s hormones.  When damaged, the gland becomes inflamed and in an attempt to rid itself of the inflammation, the body will sort of accidentally destroy the very organ it is trying to heal.  Since the thyroid gland is such a vital part of body processes, if the damage is left untreated for too long, organ failure can ensue.  On top of all this, choke collars can also cause a crushed trachea, dislocation of the neck bones, prolapsed eyes, and spinal cord injuries leading to paralysis and brain damage.

Other Options

So in short, after looking over an overwhelming amount of information, choke collars are in my opinion unsafe for your dog. There are many more options for pet parents of a particularly unruly pooch to try incorporating before resorting to choke collars.  Some of these options include investing in a trainer, positive reinforcement, and picking the right collar or harness to suit the needs of your breed.

After looking over the recommendations of certified trainer and author Mikkel Becker of VetStreet, I’ve come up with a list of alternatives that are much safer.

Front Clip Harness

front clip harness

These are an all-around great option.  The leash clips to the front which provides amazing directional guidance and inhibits pulling without any choking involved.  These harnesses usually come in a couple different variations in fit depending on manufacturer.  Some models allow for a front AND back attachment simultaneously which is popular among trainers for its added control.  I’m particularly fond of the Front Range Harness from Ruffwear.

Breakaway Collar

pink breakaway collar

These are a great alternative for pup owners who are partial to flat collars. (Hey…who says you can’t teach an old dog new tricks?)  Their design is similar to the standard flat version in that they also lie flat on the neck and have a spot for displaying id tags.  The most important difference, however, is their breakaway clasp that easily unhooks when pressure is applied.  This eliminates the risk for strangulation.  In order to walk your furry friend with a breakaway collar, all you have to do is attach the leash to the rings on either end of the clasp.  This will keep the collar from unlocking.  If you’d like to check one out, The Dog Collar Boutique, offers 4 color options on their website.

Back Clip Harness

black dog with a back clip harness

A harness is great for small breeds like Chihuahuas who are prone to collapsed tracheas since zero pressure is applied to the neck.  Back clip harnesses are usually best for dogs that are already trained not to pull as this design is notorious for causing the ‘sled effect’ (hint: you are the sled).  They are comfortable, easy to use, and come in a variety of cute patterns.  The Organic Pet Boutique has a lot of great varieties.

Flat collar

gray dog with a flat collar

In general this type of collar isn’t typically recommended due to a risk of strangulation and potential damage to the neck if your dog is left unattended and the collar becomes stuck on something.  However, I thought it was worth mentioning since it is the most commonly used.  Flat collars are what you often see dogs donning the most.  As their name hints, they sit flat on the neck and are usually made of nylon with a plastic fastener or buckle.  According to Mikkel, while flat collars are convenient for displaying tags and are the most widely available, dogs who don’t yet know not to pull while on their leashes can place damaging pressure on their tracheas.  They also aren’t ideal for dogs whose necks are the same size or smaller than their heads – such as the Greyhound – as they can easily slip out.

Martingale Collar

blue leopard print martingale collar

The martingale is essentially a flat collar whose ends are connected by another piece of material that then connects to a leash.  This collar is designed to tighten lightly when pulled (I know how it sounds…but don’t worry).  However, unlike a choke collar, when fitted properly the martingale does not cause damage or strangulation.  A martingale collar only tightens to the point that it is unable to slip off of the head.  This is ideal for breeds like the aforementioned Greyhound.  Check out the stylish choices from 2HoundsDesign.  Remember not to leave your pooch unattended in these.  Much like the flat collar, they also pose a risk for becoming caught on things like furniture.

Leash choice is also something to take into consideration as it can further affect the quality of your walking time.  My personal favorite option is leather.  It is extremely durable and long lasting, and the best part – incredibly comfortable to hold on to.  And just like Brad Pitt, it only gets better looking with age!  The company, dogIDs, have leather leashes that are sleek, stylish, and even customizable.  Plus, they offer a 10% discount for joining their mailing list.

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