Q: How do you feel about choke collars for dogs?
Dr. Nichol: You ask a complex question with behavioral as well as physical implications. Walking a dog is a lot more fun when everybody is under control, but jerking on a pet’s neck can have serious consequences.
Not all dogs are equally at risk. Most thick furred brutes like malamutes and chow chows are sturdy and difficult to injure, but a substantial number of small dogs like miniature poodles, Yorkies, and Pomeranians have collapsing tracheas (windpipes) that can suffer permanent damage. Many others including dachshunds, beagles and Maltese have degenerate discs in their necks. Jerking on a choke collar can result in paralysis. Glaucoma is another serious risk when a choke collar compresses the jugular veins and drives up the pressure inside the eyes. Blindness is a big price for the crime of pulling on the leash.
Choke collars are a popular training tool because they work. A quick jerk delivers an immediate punishment. Prong (pinch) collars are even more effective. They inflict pain by poking multiple blunt metal prongs into a dog’s neck but they are limited by how much they can squeeze.
You can sidestep every one of these concerns with a harness, but it’s mighty hard to control a wild lurching beast this way. A head halter, on the other hand, would be a safe and effective way of leading your dog by the very front of her body, rather than from her neck. Just like a member of a real canine social group she can learn to earn interactions by focusing her attention where it belongs — on you, her boss.
All of that said, choke collars should not be considered taboo in the hands of people who understand how to use them safely, humanely and without damaging the bond with a well-loved pet. The real problem with punishment, though, is that while it can discourage a behavior you want to eliminate, it does nothing to teach the dog what you want her to be doing instead. Modern behavior methods extinguish (abandon) undesirable behaviors while reinforcing appropriate alternatives. When properly used and correctly fitted, a Gentle Leader head halter will get the job done without sacrificing your dog’s trust.
Dr. Jeff Nichol provides medical care for pets at the Petroglyph Animal Hospital in Albuquerque (898-8874). He treats behavior disorders at the Veterinary Specialty Centers in Albuquerque and in Santa Fe (505-792-5131). Questions? For answers, Like my Facebook page at facebook.com/drjeffnichol or by U.S. post to 6633 Caminito Coors NW, Albuquerque, NM 87120.