Think you’ve got the perfect training method? Think you know the best way to control your dog? You may have reached behavioral nirvana with your approach, but that doesn’t always mean you’ve done what’s best for your dog’s health in the process.

Consider that, in a perfect world, your young, healthy dog will receive training instruction at the end of a leash. In most cases that leash attaches to his collar. And that’s great if you’re guided by gentle principles that concede to his basic anatomy and physiology. 

But let’s face it, not every pet and not every owner knows how to manage this training process in ways that make for ideal treatment of a dog’s neck, head, shoulders and back. Indeed, the vast majority of my clients do what they’re told by the PetSmart people selling the hardware and hope for the best as they proceed to yank, pull and snap away at the software it’s attached to. 

It’s a recipe for injury. 

Chronic pulling is not only stressful for the neck (and all its attachments) in the long run, it offers the potential for the acute, jerk-and-snap kind of injury that can lead to a lifetime of painful disc disease or on-and-off neck and shoulder ailments. 

I’ve seen all forms of this unfortunate outcome at all steps in its process: People who jerk heads around at full tilt, expecting super-canine resilience at all ages (“because he’s stronger than me”). Pets who act like nothing fazes them, but come up lame in one forelimb, nonetheless. 

“Doc, he must have something stuck in his paw.”’ve just yanked his cervical vertebrae into permanent submission with that leash. 

This is what I’m up against: People who insist they’re following their trainer’s recommendations for appropriate leash-and-collar mechanics and somehow still manage to do it all wrong when they’re out of professional sight-lines. (“I’m sure your trainer didn’t recommend that you whip his head around like that.”)

Now, it’s not out of malice or innate heavy-handedness that they do this. They love their dogs and want to make them better companions. But sometimes it seems no one ever explained that the neck is a delicate piece of machinery through which all things flow. 

Though I feel that almost any common method out there can work beautifully in the right hands, it’s plain that not all methods work for all dogs and all people. Clearly, not all owners are cut out for certain equipment. 

And then there’s the individual dog issue. For those with particular mechanical considerations by virtue of their breed or conformation, body harnesses will always be safest. After all, training does not have to be accomplished on a collar. Harness alternatives still allow for some physical correction––safely––especially if you go for my favorite: the front clip harness. 

Here are the dogs best served by collar alternatives:

  • Dogs whose breed or conformation predisposes him to disc disease (dachshunds, beagles, Frenchies, Corgis, shih-tzus and other dwarfed breeds)
  • Dogs with other specific spinal issues (such as bulldogs with butterfly vertebrae)
  • Any dog who’s suffered neck or back pain because of disc issues or for any other reason
  • Dogs with sensitive tracheas (tracheal collapse patients, for example)

 Wondering if any of these veterinary cautions applies to the head-halter collar alternative? Yes, absolutely. When owners are unable to control their “halti”-wearing dogs properly, the neck can be intermittently flexed at an unnatural angle, sometimes harshly. Such chronic application of force may lead to injury––even in dogs not normally disposed to neck and back issues. 

Still, I prefer the head halter to the average collar, primarily because it seems most of these owners have received advanced instruction in how NOT to use it. Not so for the lowly collar, by which little toy dogs are often flung about and larger dogs drag along their ineffectual humans. 

Then there’s the added effect of applying a Flexi-lead as it scrolls out, full speed ahead, only to snap back Fluffy’s head and neck as she reaches the end of her tether. 

Perhaps my complaints are overblown, seeing how they’re aimed at the ignorant. But unless owners are informed of the damage they can do, they’re likely to  remain in the dark on the dangers inherent to collars. That’s why in most cases I’m likely to err on the side of caution––regardless of how trainers might take to my traipsing on their toes.