Should Dog Collars Have Shocks or Prongs?

Study looks at stress behavior associated with different training methods.
By JoAnna Lou, September 2014, Updated April 2022
do choke collars hurt dogs?
It is important to choose the appropriate collar for your dog. Dog collars can cause physical and psychological harm to dogs if used incorrectly. Studies (like the one described below) show that some dog collars like prong, shock, and choke collars shouldn't be used at all. These collars cause pain and induce stress in dogs and ultimately aren’t as successful as a dog training tool. Dog collars can cause whiplash, fainting, spinal cord injuries, paralysis, crushing of the larynx, bruising of the esophagus, prolapsed eyeballs, and brain damage if used incorrectly.

A study published earlier this month showed that shock collars can lead to an increase in stress behaviors in dogs. This may seem like stating the obvious, but these type of training collars continue to be popular despite the risks. The research by the University of Lincoln was commissioned by the U.K.'s Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs to provide scientific evidence on which to base their animal welfare policy (pretty cool!).

Research on Shock Collars

The study was made up of 63 dogs that were identified as having poor recall skills and related problems, such as attacking livestock, the main reason for the shock collar's use in the U.K. The canine subjects were divided into three groups: Group A used a shock collar under the direction of trainers nominated by the Electronic Collar Manufacturers Association (ECMA). Groups B and C trained without a shock collar. One group was under the direction of the same ECMA trainers and the other under trainers from the Association of Pet Dog Trainers, a group committed to reinforcement-based methods.

The trainers worked with each dog for two 15-minute sessions a day, for five days. The interactions were videotaped to analyze behavior, and saliva and urine samples were collected to measure cortisol levels (a hormone associated with stress).

The researchers found that the dogs in the shock collar group showed significantly more stress behaviors, such as tense body language, yawning, and disengaging with the environment. Although a smaller preliminary study found higher cortisol levels associated with the shock collar, there wasn't a significant difference in cortisol levels in the larger research.

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Furthermore, following the five days of training, 92 percent of owners reported improvements in their dog's behavior. There was no significant difference in reported efficacy across the three groups.

What about choke collars?

Choke collars can hurt dogs. Choke collars function by causing pain and can injure the esophagus, trachea, and neck. They can cause nerve damage as well as damage to the blood vessels in the eyes. To see a dog coughing because of the pressure applied to their throat because of a choke collar is distressing sight. Choke collars can even be fatal.

Choke collars are an aversive training tool and are not used by trainers who stick with positive reinforcement methods. Other options such as head collars and front-clip harnesses are effective at preventing pulling. Additionally, positive reinforcement techniques are more effective for training dogs since dogs learn what to do rather than learning what not to do through punishment.

Accidents can happen with collars of any type, but choke collars are particularly risky. Choke collars are true to their name—designed to tighten around a dog’s neck with no mechanism to limit how tight they can become.

Are Prong Collars worse?

Leading animal behaviorist Dr. Nicholas Dodman says that punishment-based techniques are a thing of the past, and should be avoided. "Prong collars are yesterday. There are some trainers, not all trainers, who just seem to know only one thing, and that is how to escalate punishment to reach the desired effect," says Dodman.  Punishment-based training only teaches dogs how to avoid punishment.

"But as soon as the dog reaches a certain age, [some trainers put dogs] into a slip collar, then a metal choke collar, and if these aren’t having the desired aversive effects, they escalate up to a prong collar; some even graduate higher, to electricity. What you have is a gradation of pain," Dodman continues.

These collars work based on the coercive theory that you teach a dog to do something, and if they don’t do it, you hurt them. "Konrad Lorenz said that science and know-how aren’t enough in dog training; patience is the vital stuff," Dodman adds.

Giving Owners Better Training Tools

The Humane Society of the United States says that it is best for your dog if you avoid using these types of collars. In Should Dogs Be Shocked, Choked, or Pronged? author Marc Bekoff asks why people continue to use these collars given they are known to inflict stress, “Many trainers advise against these types of collars altogether, in part because the risk of injury to dogs is significant. Contrary to popular belief, dogs don’t have thick skin on their necks, nor does their fur protect them from pressure on the neck. The San Francisco SPCA’s website points out that the skin on a human’s neck is ten to fifteen cells thick, whereas the skin on a dog’s neck is only three to five cells thick. So, they writeif you think wearing a prong collar would hurt, imagine how your dog feels.

Even still, some people say that there are certain behaviors, like a reliable recall, that can't be taught without a shock collar. And that is simply not true. Many people have trained rock-solid recalls using only reinforcement-based methods and there is plenty of scientific research to back up that claim. 

Of course, training using positive reinforcement-based methods doesn't come without dedication. There are no shortcuts in dog training. However, key learning from the comparison study is around the training consistency in results across groups. Short training sessions repeated every day were the primary diver for getting results. Even if you only train your dog for five minutes a day, if you stick to it, you'll see progress in your training challenges. 

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 Image: iStock

JoAnna Lou is a New York City-based researcher, writer and agility enthusiast.