Collars versus Harnesses and the Issue of Tracheal Collapse
One of the major aims of The Gentle Modern School of Dog Training is to train dogs using positive reinforcement only. Naturally, we want to condition our dogs to walk on a loose lead without pulling when we are in a busy place, or when the law does not allow us to have our dog off lead. However, there are times when even the best-trained dog will strain on the collar at a time of high excitement or even when initially practicing being tied up during one of our group courses. These are times when there is a lot of pressure on the dog’s trachea which may eventually lead to tracheal collapse.
The trachea is a flexible, tube-like structure made up of 35 to 45 cartilaginous C-shaped rings which deliver air to the lungs during respiration. The cause of tracheal collapse is thought to be a combination of environmental and genetic factors. It is most common in middle-aged small breed dogs such as Yorkshire Terriers, Toy Poodles, Pomeranians, Chihuahuas and Pugs but has also been reported in large breed dogs, cows, cats and ponies.
A chiropractic study in Sweden came up with some rather alarming facts during a study of caring dog owners who would have no abusive handling to hide:
- Out of 400 dogs, 252 had misaligned spines. 65% of the dogs with spinal problems also had behavioural problems.
- 78% of dogs labelled aggressive or hyperactive had spinal problems
I ask myself – what came first? Did the pain in the spine cause the problem behaviour or the behaviour result in pulling and pressure on the neck causing the spinal damage?
The chiropractors state that “trachael collapse has happened in dogs who have only worn a flat collar for walking. A tug can cause major pressure and trauma to a small area of the neck. If you catch the neck at a critical angle, you could blow a disc, cause nerve or muscle injury, or worse”.
I feel that the potential for tracheal collapse particularly in the breeds of dogs known to have a genetic propensity to the condition is something that we should all consider. I am not suggesting dogs should necessarily wear a harness during training as our aim is to have loose lead walking or heeling, however it is absolutely acceptable if you wish to do so. My experience is that a lot of people with small dogs prefer to use a harness because they perceive that a collar might be uncomfortable.
A Harness – an alternative to a collar when out walking
We recommend a harness which has a ring on the front of the chest as this prevents dogs from leaning into the harness and potentially pulling you along. Many harnesses offer two options; a ring on the top of the back and one in front of the chest which makes them very versatile. The first two harnesses linked below have both options while the third has the front ring only.
The Ultimate Control Harness by Sporn https://sporn.com/collections/shop/products/ultimate-control-harness
The Balance Harness by Black Dog https://www.blackdog.net.au/dog-harnesses/balance-harness
The Easy Walk Harness by Petsafe
In addition to being available online, most good, large pet shops will stock these or similar harnesses (as do some Vet Clinics). If you decide it is something you would like to purchase, it would be ideal if you could take your dog in so they can fit her. It is really useful to have an experienced sales assistant put the harness, confirm the size is right, show you how it goes on and how it is adjusted.
Note: Be mindful of harness bands loosening through use and lengthening, inhibiting the dog's movement and/or allowing your dog to wriggle out of her harness. Check the fit regularly.
Our aim is to train dogs using positive reinforcement only.
Head Halters (sometimes known as Head Collars or Halties) are definitely aversive to dogs as most try to rub their faces to get rid of band across their nose, and in psychological terms are essentially a punishment device used to decrease the likelihood of a behaviour occurring, in this case the dog pulling. They probably don’t do much damage to the dog other than dog potentially making an association between the handler, training/walk with something unpleasant instead of good fun.
Retractable leads should probably be avoided as they put almost constant pressure on the dog’s neck unless locked into position which sort of defeats the purpose of being extendable! Personally I like thin light leads as I have four dogs to walk down to the beach and I like to be able to just fold them up into my bum bag when we get down onto the sand.
Tracheal Collapse in Dogs - Mary Dell Deweese DVM, and Karen M. Tobias DVM, MS, DACVS University of Tennessee https://www.cliniciansbrief.com/article/tracheal-collapse-dogs
The Collar’s Role: Avoiding Spine, Neck and Other Injuries - Deb Hamele and Dr Julie Kaufman http://www.labadoption.org/info/file?file=17128.pdf