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The Truth About Prong Collars

Some people say prong collars are not painful. I say that’s simply not true.

My experience as a dog owner and trainer as well as my further education as a veterinary behavior specialist—meaning I have a background in medicine as well as behavior—have given me unique insight into both the psychological and medical problems caused by prong collars, and how the two can be related.

Despite what some trainers or pet store employees might promise, prong collars are neither safe nor humane. That’s why the San Francisco SPCA launched a new campaign to educate the community about the physical, emotional, and behavioral harm that prong collars cause.

Prongs are made out of metal spikes and are worn over the most sensitive part of a dog’s neck. The purpose of prong collars is to inflict pain, which is supposed to decrease a dog’s pulling on the leash. Those metal spikes can easily damage a dog’s delicate neck area. The protective layers of the skin on the under portion of a dog’s neck, where the prongs of the collar are designed to pinch, are three-times thinner than those of human skin. Prong collar injuries range from skin irritation or punctures to spinal cord problems and crushed tracheas. These injuries can occur even if a prong collar is “properly fitted.”

It’s not just the potential for pain; prong collars can also harm your relationship with your dog and lead to long-term behavioral problems, like fear and aggression. If pain is experienced during routine activities like walks and vet visits, dogs can begin to associate an owner’s presence, and other harmless events, with the emotional sensation of fear and discomfort.

While a dog might stop pulling on the leash when wearing the spiked collar, he’s doing so to avoid the pain, not because he’s learned the behavior that you’re trying to teach. As soon as the prong collar is removed, he’ll go back to his previous behaviors. How many dogs wearing prong collars do you see walking nicely next to their owner?

Training and teaching your dog using positive reinforcement methods will have much more wide-reaching and lost-lasting effects without having to resort to the use to pain or fear.

Unfortunately, we continue to regularly see prong collars on dogs throughout San Francisco. We know most dog owners want to do the right thing, and they may not even know they are hurting their pets.

There’s a huge need for education as well as a real opportunity to help pet guardians. In addition to providing information and education about alternatives to prong collars, both SF SPCA campuses will soon become prong-collar-free environments. Visitors whose dogs are wearing prong collars will be asked to remove them while they’re on the premises, and we will provide a humane alternative to wear during the visit.

Vet visits are already stressful for most dogs, even without the added pain of a prong collar. As a veterinarian, prong collars not only make me worry about the safety of my patient, but they also make me worry about my own safety and that of my staff. Prongs can make dogs more reactive and aggressive, which can be especially dangerous during medical procedures and can hurt the hands of staff when they restrain the animal.

The good news is that there are many safe, humane, and effective alternatives to aversive training techniques and equipment. At the SF SPCA, we support positive reinforcement training. Positive reinforcement uses treats, toys, affection, and attention to reward your dog for desired behaviors. Any behavior can be taught through positive reinforcement, and it works for dogs of all breeds and sizes.

To learn more about prong collars, humane alternatives, and positive reinforcement, visit SFSPCA.org/prong. Please consider signing our prong collar pledge and sharing it with your friends.

Dr. Jeannine Berger is director of behavior resources at the San Francisco SPCA and oversees all aspects of behavior within the society. She attained board certification with the American College for Veterinary Behaviorists from UC Davis in 2007, and she achieved board certification from the American College of Animal Welfare in 2014. She and her life partner, Jeff, live in Vacaville with their dogs, cats, horses, sheep, and chickens. Her hobbies include trail riding, hiking, skiing, and (red) wine tasting.