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Sunday, January 15, 2012

What Does the Dog Think?

    There are definitely times when I REALLY don't want to know what my dog thinks. I especially don't appreciate the looks I get when I'm getting out of the shower, or waking up to find that I fell asleep sitting up on the couch and I'm drooling. I usually open my eyes to find my dog staring at me like I'm some fascinating but horrible museum exhibit that he just can't tear his gaze away from. It's a bit disconcerting. Murphy is quite expressive, and he's not one bit shy about expressing his disdain or disapproval. And I can't be absolutely sure, but I could almost swear that he laughs when I fall on my keester when it's icy.

   I've found over the years that in spite of the language barrier, dogs are exceptionally good at expressing themselves if you are at all willing to listen. My first dog, a Greyhound named Garth Smart, could express a myriad of emotions just with his eyes. His favorite expression of all was the 'martyred sigh', which he had honed to perfection.

   Murphy isn't given to such things as subtlety, and prefers instead to emote forcefully and oafishly through his life. There is no mistaking Murphy's opinions. I rarely have to wonder what he is thinking, and he's quite annoyingly-direct about his likes and dislikes. On some level I have been grateful for this tendency because Murphy is a service dog and it has helped the two of us to develop an understanding and cooperative working relationship. I've found some of his opinions to be both entertaining and enlightening, particularly his opinion of headcollars (both Halti and Gentle Leader).

   I decided to try a headcollar after Murphy was attacked (full story here) and became reactive. I had trained Murphy first with a flat leather collar, and then moved into a prong collar after he learned manners and knew how to give to pressure and walk politely (see how that works? TRAIN them first, THEN use the stronger tools when you add distractions...just sayin'...). For him the prong elicited no more of an emotional reaction than the flat collar; it just 'turned the volume up' when we started working in more complex situations. It's like training a dressage horse: you work for years in a simple snaffle, and only use a double bridle on a fully-trained horse to refine the communication. Such is the nature of my prong-collar use. Even so, I was reading all manner of stuff on the subject. I trained Murphy with lure-reward and clicker methods, and many of the positive folks advocate head collars. "Sure, why not?" I thought to myself. It can't hurt, right? Well.....

    So I did a month-long deal, teaching Murphy to accept the thing on his face. It took another month to get him to accept the pressure of a leash without completely freaking out (read: throwing himself to the floor in a dramatic fashion and pawing at his face). It occurs to me now (but didn't then) that if something takes that long just to be ACCEPTED, if it's that tough to deal with out of the gate, it may just not be a great idea. Nope; didn't occur to me then. We had to walk around with it for awhile, Murphy throwing regular tantrums (and breaking his first headcollar. Dummy-me went and got another one) and basically hating walks. Needless to say, it didn't help anything. I thought that by sparing any possible negative stimulation from the prong-collar, Murphy's rehab would be simpler and progress faster. Instead I turned my cooperative and happy dog into a dog that dreaded work, dreaded walks and pawed at his face any chance he got.

   Fortunately, I had an epiphany. One morning I got out the headcollar for the morning walk and found my 100 pound dog trying to squeeze himself into the 8" or so space beneath my bed. Murphy had spoken, and I finally listened. The headcollar was made of soft straps; the prong collar looked scary and mean. Murphy wasn't fooled by appearances. The headcollar wasn't humane or kind, it was an aversive that he couldn't escape. A prong collar only activates when the pressure is needed. It made perfect sense to Murphy. Just wearing the headcollar was aversive. No matter how well-behaved he was, Murphy couldn't escape the annoying thing on his face. In his very direct and dramatic way, Murphy taught me something vital: If you want to know what the humane choice is, don't base the choice on your own emotional reactions; ASK THE DOG. How can you work cooperatively and with focus if your tools, by their very existence, create resistance and distraction?

   A month or two after we had given up the headcollar experiment, we were walking along the sidewalk and encountered a woman walking toward us. She stopped to tell me that she was a pet-owner who had taken a class (oh boy! LOVE advice from random pet owners...) and she thought that my prong collar was mean. She suggested that I try a headcollar (I was glad that I was all incognito that day with my super-dark, Lennon-esque shades because I'm pretty sure I involuntarily rolled my eyes). I told her that we had, and that we had had terrible experiences. She shook her head knowingly and patiently, and told me that I really should have stuck with it. After an awkward conversation in which she suggested that "the more a dog resists, the more they need the magic of the headcollar" and I just kept saying "no", I asked her where her dog was. I learned that her Golden Retriever (oh really? you mean NOT a high-drive Doberman?...huh...) was at home. Apparently, she just can't handle him on walks so she doesn't walk him any more. Seriously?


21 comments:

  1. While my 85# Lab is neutral on her head collar, your remarks make sense. Now if you have some advice on getting her over her "gun shy" problem, that would really help. Captain Quack, FL

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  2. When you 85# kid is a rescue and was created for the first 1 1/2 of his life I have tried both the buckle color for the first year, cause he was so scared of the pinch(power steering for kids), but after the first year he is not walking on a pinch because he thinks that well lets see got this far and I know she feels sorry for me..He too is now a service dog for me but at 2 1/2 he still is learning about being a puppy & teenager at the same time (it can be hell when you want to go your way and he sits down and nope mom its my way) it does come in handy..so its each to their own and in our case whatever makes our lives easier

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  3. Glad I read this. I've been using a prong collar on my Dogue de Bordeaux since she was a puppy (now 5) and I've gotten quite a few comments and dirty looks from people. Truth is though, I only used a prong collar because that's what my dog's trainer recommended for such a large breed. I never questioned what the "expert" had recommended until people began commenting. I have considered a martingale collar but after having read this, I've realized that my dog has never objected to wearing her prong and my decision to switch was strictly "emotional". I think you've convinced me to stick with what has been working fine for 5 years! Thanks.

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  4. This is by far and away the best discussion I've ever seen of how (and why) to use a prong collar! @miss_pico my retired service dog prefers a martingale, so that's what she gets, but my late service dog failure, Hero, loved his prong collar! He had super thin skin, not a lot of hair, and some painful scars from an embedded collar as a puppy. Anything else (collar or harness) would rub on a walk and become adversive. I am a positive trainer and I got all sorts of flak about the collar, but after trying several different things and ending up with raw spots, I wasn't willing to expose him to anything else!

    Captain Quack - if your Lab is literally 'Gun Shy', I would recommend the Sounds Good CD's. They have one for guns and ammo and one for thunder (and several others), in my experience, the guns one worked for both guns and thunder, but if you have a dog afraid of both, I'd start with the one that scares them the least. I started out playing it super softly (so I had to put my ear to the speaker to tell it was on) during meals - quiet enough that there was no reaction. Gradually we upped the volume and added in playing it during playtime and belly rub time.

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    1. Those CD's are great! 'Captain Quack' may also want to consider adding a 'Thundershirt' or "Anxiety Wrap" while working with the CD's. In my experience they really help with the desensitization process.

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  5. I was so glad to read this. My pit mix had similar feelings about headcollars, was too high energy/prey drive to walk on a flat collar (squirrels beware), and has no problem with a pronged collar. I use the prong collar and we are both happy with that. We get comments and questions from well-intentioned strangers on occasion, and I have explained how the prongs don't really stab the dog, and how the prong collar is safer than a chain because the restriction is limited. That may be more detail than is needed. Next time I will just say "Mikey doesn't mind it at all".

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  6. Wow...it's great to see such thoughtful and rational discussion around the use of prong collars... I had prepared myself for some not-so-nice commentary. Thanks!

    I am a positive trainer too, and it always strikes me as odd that so many folks assume you can't clicker train AND use a prong collar. They aren't mutually exclusive, and with Murphy's valuable insight I've learned that 'positive' and 'prongs' compliment each other nicely:-)

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    1. Hey Kristel -

      I want to thank you for a well written and delightful blog read today. I use a prong collar on my APBT Wesley, and he responds beautifully with it. When we tried the head halter, he had pretty much the exact same reaction as Murphy. I especially loved reading the analogy with the dressage horse - it's an analogy I often make myself when explaining how a prong collar CAN be used safely (eg: the prong is your bit, the leash is your rein. a tool for communication)

      I don't know if you've ever stumbled across this blog, but this article is in the same vein as your own here and I thought you might enjoy it: http://dogsintraining.wordpress.com/2011/03/12/positive-bias/

      If the link doesn't work, please just google "Positive Bias" by Dogs in Training blog

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    2. Great link! Very insightful. I liked the 'Choke or chafe' article too.

      And yes...it's all about communication and makeing things as clear as possible. Murphy is in public often so clear (and subtle) communication is definitely a primary objective.

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  7. I happened across this blog today and actually laughed out loud. I too had a similar experience with my Pittie mix, who, I felt needed something more "gentle" than the prong collar. While walking one day during the beginning transition period he decided to throw a massive tantrum on the side of the road. One minute I was walking my dog the next I was dragging him by his head collar. He refused to get up for what felt like an eternity as drivers slowed to see the "dead" dog. After he did get up, he proceeded to have 3 more tantrums during our walk by throwing his body to the ground with his feet sticking straight out, and then rubbing his face so hard on the ground he ended up having scratches on his nose and cheeks. That was the longest walk of my life and we have not used the "gentle" collar since. I now have a much happier dog who enjoys walks again : )

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  8. Bad Rap posted a link to this discussion their FB page and I am glad that I stopped by to read it.

    I could not agree with you more. However, the problem is that so many people do not know how to use a prong collar properly and do not appreciate the wisdom of walking with a loose leash. Instead the have a constant death grip on the leash or worse they use the prong collar with a retractable leash... ahhhhhhh.

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    1. I'm glad too...thank you:-)
      A retractable leash is a horrible idea most of the time, and exceptionally bad with a prong collar. IMHO not only are they dangerous, but they teach dogs to pull. The dog pulls, the leash gives and reinforces the pulling. The pulling is continuous.

      Unfortunately, many people want to bypass training and look for the magic tool to solve their problems. There isn't one. Dogs aren't born automatically understanding what tightening straps or chains mean, they need for us to teach them. Even a prong collar alone won't do the teaching job for the handler; they still need to put in the work. All tools should be accompanied by training.

      No tool used incorrectly is safe or okay. I've seen far too many dogs with big rubs across their noses, and dangerously close to their eyes. Unlike a dog's neck, a dog's face is very sensitive and rife with pressure points full of social significance.

      On the other hand, they do things to each other's necks with their teeth just in play that would send you or I to the emergency room. Just this alone makes the prong appear preferable, but I still retain an open mind. Maybe my next dog will feel differently and I will act accordingly.

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  9. Loved this post!!! I had only one dog that tolerated a head collar and that was only for cycling and he knew the difference. I have one dog I'm training with a harness and another i use a prong on...I keep going back to the prong wit her, she is ok with it! If I think I'm going to be in public, I take one of those doggie bandannas or a person bandanna and tie it over the prong collar so people don't say anything (or rarely!)

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  10. I have a similar story only I bought the gentle leader "no pull" harness for my Pit Bull. At first it seemed to work ok & she didn't pull at all, however she always hated having it put on her. After a few months she started pulling on it & when she did it seemed to compress her chest & she would hack. I've since decided that there is nothing wrong with using a pitch collar. I had stopped using one for similar reasons. I was sick of people staring & saying I was being mean to my dog. My dog does best on a pinch collar & gets out for more walks then some other people's dogs, because I'm willing to use one. Thank You for your insightful article & making me realize I'm not alone.

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  11. What a great post! My doberman hated the head collar and I couldn't get him used to it either. I used the Gentle leader, but it didn't give me the control I needed. I've used prongs in the past. Been taught how to use them. He responds perfectly with it and prefers it. I also have a malamute. I use the Gentle leader on her and it works perfectly for her. So, I agree with you so much! Listen to the dog!

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  12. You know, you make a really good point. I've been using a head collar with my pit mix for years, and she still hates it. She even still paws at it sometimes! I feel pretty dumb for putting her through this. I had already planned to fit a prong collar on her, so hopefully she takes to it. She pulls with a flat collar and harness, even a harness with a front attach d-ring.

    I am curious how you guys feel about choke chains/unlimited slip collars. I can't find any use for them, but I couldn't find any use for prong collars years ago either.

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    1. I'm not a fan of them in general, but I know some folks who swear by them. My personal opinion is that a prong is safer and much more clear to the dog.

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  13. We never used a head collar. I had a prong collar from my previous dog (a boxer, so powerful I was worn out and sore after every walk with the reglar choke chain) and decided to use it with my equally powerful and even more boisterous Airedale. Our walks are gentle, respectful and a joy. He knows the collar 'bites' when he lunges. With the choke collar both the boxer and airedale almost chocked themselves into unconsciousness. With the pinch/prong collar our walks are effortless and relaxing. At times the 'dale forgets himself and makes a lunge at something but one pinch later remembers his manners and life is easy. Now, if that collar would only work on husbands and children.....

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  14. I had the same experience with a halti collar. My GSD, Baker, started exhibiting on-leash aggression (caused by an unfortunate encounter with an irresponsible owner and her "friendly" off-leash dog) a few years ago. Someone recommended a halti collar as a human alternative to a prong. I think all it did was embarass and annoy Baker. She couldn't wait until the walk was over and as soon as we got to the front door after the walk she immediately put paws to the face trying to pull it off. It wasn't until we had another unfortunate event with an off-leash dog that ripped the halti off her face in his attack that I decided enough is enough. I found a wonderful trainer and together we worked on improving Baker's confidence in those situations again. I can happily say we've never replaced the halti. Thanks for sharing your story. Sarah
    Beherebeyou.com

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  15. Thank you SO much for this post. We have an 8 year old Cane Corso mix (95 lbs) and he has been on a gentle leader for years. He has no problem with it but it has diminishing returns, and it was clear that he had no idea what I wanted when I was correcting him. The prong collar (carefully selected with the help of a local store with their in-store trainer, and after a lesson on correct correction) is currently working much better as a clear form of communication. He's an on-leash dog (everyone in our local LA park seems to think the leash laws don't apply to them but Harry is much more calm and happy when he has boundaries) and being able to get his attention and remind him of his job (stay on my left, heel nicely, keep eye contact) is essential. I can't thank you enough and I'll put up with the stigma. It can't be worse than the Big Black Dog stigma!

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    1. Thanks for your comment! I think the prong is one of the most clear training tools out there. I think of headcollars as more of a management tool.

      I COMPLETELY understand 'Big Black Dog' stigma! Good luck with Harry:-)

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