Like many, I learned about balanced dog training and the use of aversive tools like the prong collar and e-collar after exhausting the use of positive reinforcement only training with a challenging dog.
Prior to using them, I misunderstood how the tools work, due to widespread misinformation about their usage.
After talking with many friends, professional trainers, and watching many videos, I decided to give it a try with my dog.
It was a night and day difference.
After a one-hour training session, I went from dreading walking her to enjoyable, calm walks.
When used correctly, the prong collar is a fantastic tool that helps bridge the communication between a dog and their handler.
Remember, dogs don’t speak English and we don’t speak dog. Think of the prong collar as the translator.
The prong collar comes with a lot of pushback from animal rights groups due to the way it looks and the misinformation spread about the tool. This article explains how the prong collar works and how it can help modify your dog’s behavior in a humane and effective manner.
What is a Prong Collar?
A prong collar is a dog training tool used by some dog trainers to teach loose leash walking and basic beginner obedience.
They can be great for behavior modification in reactive dogs to help redirect them from their triggers. Petite people with very large or strong dogs also find them incredibly helpful.
The prong collar has a series of pronged metal links whose open ends lay flat on the dog’s neck. Its appearance has led to the common misconception that it is a torture device, however, when used correctly, it is an extremely effective training tool for teaching a dog to understand what is being asked of them.
Prong collars can also be called “pinch” collars, not because it pinches the dog’s neck, but because you have to pinch the prongs together to open the collar to put it on your dog. This name likely also leads to its bad reputation.
When used correctly, the prong collar is actually the best tool for protecting a dog’s trachea because it applies an equal amount of pressure around the dog’s neck, compared to a flat collar, or even a martingale, which puts pressure directly on a dog’s throat. This can lead to collapsed tracheas.
In his book, The Well Adjusted Dog, Dr. Daniel Kamen, a veterinary chiropractor states:
“The improper use of collars is the number one cause of cervical (neck) subluxations in dogs…The flat collar is the most common type, and can be dangerous if misused…It should not be used for obedience training…a frustrated owner who has difficulty controlling his pet will pull the dog in such a manner as to cause tremendous cervical muscle tightening, thus producing subluxations.”
How Does a Prong Collar Work?
Before you go and buy a prong collar and put it on your dog, I urge you to work with a professional dog trainer to learn proper use, technique, and sizing.
You don’t just put it on and go for a walk, letting your dog pull and self-correct constantly.
That won’t do anything except cause a lot of discomfort and confusion, creating a negative association with the tool. It’s not a magic wand!
Prong collars apply pressure evenly around a dog’s neck to teach them how to turn off pressure, giving them a very clear understanding of unwanted behaviors.
They are useful tools for teaching dogs how to walk nicely on a leash and to learn basic obedience, like sit, down, and place.
You can also use them to start the basis of recall.
Unlike a flat collar, harness, head halter, or even a martingale collar, the prong collar applies even pressure. Further, it releases quickly once the dog gives into the pressure.
Prong collars only require a small amount of force to communicate the behaviors you want from your dog.
Use a High-Quality Prong Collar
It’s important to use a high quality prong collar, otherwise a poorly made one will hurt your dog and can puncture their skin. Herm Sprenger prong collars are the highest quality and recommended by every dog trainer I know who uses them.
Herm Sprenger collars are designed with blunt ends that do not cause the dog pain, while the center plate creates symmetry to create the even pressure around the neck.
The prongs gently apply pressure around the dog’s neck, providing negative reinforcement when the dog pulls.
The only time the Herm Sprenger may not be the best option is for very small dogs. In that instance, you will want to use a Kimberland Collar.
How to Place a Prong Collar on a Dog
Proper fit of the prong collar ensures optimal communication and minimal discomfort for your dog. Consult a trainer to help with fit.
It should be placed high on the dog’s neck, just behind the ears. The collar should fit snugly, but not excessively tight. You may need to remove or add extra links to obtain the right fit.
The Herm Sprenger plate should be at the base of the dog’s throat, just below their chin, and the chain should be in between their ears.
You want to make sure that the chain forms a triangle and isn’t twisted, otherwise it won’t work properly.
Make sure that the collar does not droop because it can get caught easily, pinch the dog’s neck, and they can easily back out of it and escape.
Most dogs will use the 2.25 mm prong collar, where very large and strong dogs, like American Staffordshire Terriers (commonly mistaken as Pit Bulls), Dobermans, Mastiffs, etc may need to use the 3 mm prong collar.
Very small dogs, under 15 or so pounds can use the Micro Prong from Kimberland Collars.
Accurate sizing and width depends entirely on the dog, so please consult a professional trainer before purchasing one.
My favorite accessory for the prong collar is a Katie’s Buckle. Pinching the collar to take it on and off can be cumbersome, especially in cold weather or if you have small hands. Katie’s Buckles solve that problem!
Prong Collars are not Cruel, and Here’s Why
Aversive tool adversaries argue that prong collars and e-collars cause pain to a dog and damage the relationship between the owner and the dog.
This simply isn’t true.
Usually, the “horror” stories activists describe are meant to villainize these tools, making them out to be weapons of cruelty.
Antagonists of the prong collar focus more on its appearance and name and few have actual experience using the collar.
There is a single image that has been making the rounds on the Web for years that depicts a dog with deep prong collar marks on its neck.
This isn’t due to correct usage.
It is due to a negligent dog owner who has left the collar on permanently on a dog. It’s likely that this dog was tied up 24/7 and putting constant pressure on the collar.
The same thing could happen in a flat collar, harness, or even your own socks if you didn’t take them off for weeks on end.
The prong collar is a training collar. It should be used during training and not left on all the time.
We use Aversive Tools Every Day
The fact is, we use aversive tools every single day. We also use dangerous tools every single day. Some, in fact, are murder weapons.
Need some examples?
- Your alarm clock is an aversive tool that makes sure you get to work on time.
- Your car dings until you put your seatbelt on to ensure you’re safe in an accident.
- The knife you use to cut your food each meal can also be used to kill someone.
- A fire alarm saved my brother and sister-in-law’s lives when their house caught on fire.
- Driving our cars is the single most dangerous activity we do on a daily basis.
It’s easy to twist things out of proportion to make them look bad and sound factual. The reality is, when used correctly, prong collars perform a job effectively and humanely.
Any tool–leash, prong collar, flat collar, harness, your own hand, etc, when used incorrectly can cause harm.
The Science Argument Against Prong Collars
The same extremists also argue that the use of aversive tools isn’t “science-based.”
Again, this isn’t true.
Prong collars are a tool that follows the rules of operant conditioning. Operant conditioning is a method of learning that uses reward and punishment to teach behaviors. Humans learn through operant conditioning, and so do dogs.
Humans and dogs alike learn to make behavior choices based on the consequences for that behavior.
Attributed to B.F. Skinner, the principles of operant conditioning state that behavior followed by reward is more likely to occur. Contrarily, behavior followed by unpleasant consequences is less likely to be repeated.
The Four Quadrants of Operant Conditioning
Balanced dog training teaches a dog desired behaviors using both reward-based techniques and aversive corrections. Tools such as prong collars and e-collars utilize quadrants outside of positive reinforcement that help effectively communicate desired behaviors to the dog.
The technique incorporates actions taken from the four quadrants of operant conditioning which are outlined in the image above.
Here are a few examples for both humans and dogs:
- Your dog sits, you say “yes” and give them a treat. (Positive Reinforcement)
- Your dog jumps on you, you ignore them or turn your back. (Negative Punishment)
- You are caught speeding and the police officer issues you a ticket. (Positive Punishment)
- You arrive home late from curfew, so your parents take away your phone (Negative Punishment)
- Your dog pulls on the prong collar, which releases as soon as they stop pulling (Negative Reinforcement)
Issuing Corrections with a Prong Collar
Once a dog has learned a command to fluency, the prong collar can be used to issue appropriate physical corrections. Corrections help redirect poor behavior and remind the dog of the task.
A quick leash pop on the prong collar mimics the correction a mother dog will give her pup or a dog will give to another dog if they’re doing something they don’t like.
Corrections (or punishment, if we think back to the four quadrants) teach the dog consistency in a variety of environments.
Again, fluency is key. If your dog isn’t calm inside your house, you can’t just take them to the farmers’ market with you and expect perfect behavior.
You have to be fair to your dog. This means setting them up for success before you start using the prong collar for corrections.
How Long Will My Dog Have to Wear the Prong Collar?
This is a very common question among new users of the prong collar and there is no cut and dry answer.
It all depends on your dog and the amount of time you spend working with your dog.
I still use prong collar with Sitka when we go for walks, and we started training in spring of 2020. He can be pushy and likes to be in front when we walk, so we continue training that heel and wearing the prong collar.
He is also leash reactive, so the prong collar helps me navigate certain situations that might trigger his reactivity.
I know some friends that have switched to a slip lead, others use a flat collar. Some switch between different tools. It’s all about what works best for you and your dog.
The goal of using a prong collar shouldn’t be to stop using it as soon as possible, it should be to use it until your dog doesn’t need it anymore. Keep in mind that that day might never come and that’s totally fine.
Have you used a prong collar with a dog? What was your experience?
Do you have a different understanding of the prong collar after reading this article?