Canine Head Collars

(Originally written for DogWatch, a newsletter for the general public from the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine)

My veterinarian recommended that I get a head collar for my dog, Dooley, to help tone him down. As soon as I put it on him, though, he totally freaked out. I know it doesn’t hurt him, but his response so upset me, I wanted to forget the whole thing. Why is he acting like this?

The most behaviorally sound head collar consists of two woven fabric loops, one of which fits snugly around the dog’s neck just behind its ears, while the other loops around the muzzle loosely enough that the dog can eat, drink, bark, and even bite were it so inclined. When properly fitted, the collar mimics the two most common holds canids use to communicate leadership to their subordinates: Adult animals either will grasp the underling firmly, but gently, just behind the ears or hold it by the muzzle. (A comparable human situation would be akin to Mom or Dad keeping a firm, but gentle hand on 3-year-old Junior’s shoulder.) Consequently, the collar constantly reminds Dooley that he’s not in charge.

How a dog responds to the collar and how the owner responds to the dog’s response can tell us a great deal about the animal’s behavior and its relationship with the owner. Recall our oft-repeated mantra: Dogs need a stable pack structure in order to feel secure; if we don’t consistently communicate our leadership to our pets long enough for them to accept that they live in a human-centered pack, even the wimpiest dog will assume that position because every pack needs a leader.

Sometimes the collar appears to cause such an immediate and dramatic improvement in a dog’s behavior, it seems almost magical. However, whether any improvement will persist depends on whether the owners implement the necessary changes to ensure a new pack structure. If the owners don’t reinforce the message conveyed by the collar, then the dog will learn to ignore the collar’s message.

Other times, dogs resist the collar from the git-go. Typically this occurs when owners knowingly or unknowingly communicate submission to the dog at the same time the collar communicates the owner should be in charge. Such contradictory messages confuse the animal and cause it to do anything in its power to get rid of the collar to resolve the conflict. Within the canine psychological warfare repertoire, we see dogs who try to convince their owners that the collar contains noxious chemicals that are killing it. These dogs paw at the collar or rub their faces on the floor, furniture, or the owner’s leg. Put the collar on other dogs and they’ll act like it attacked their brains: They sit rigidly and refuse to move, or stand and stare at the corner.

Ideally, owners recognize these manipulative canine antics for what they are, snap a leash on the dog and take it outside for some fast-paced, upbeat bodymind exercise to reinforce the owner’s leadership position. However, some owners become so conditioned to reacting to rather than gently leading their pets, that they fall prey to these very clever canine theatrics and remove the collar instead: “Oh, he looked sooo pathetic. I just couldn’t bear to break his spirit like that!” Unfortunately, such an emotion- rather than knowledge-based decision merely perpetuates rather than solves the problem.

This doesn’t mean that you should use a head collar—or any training aid—for your pet if your dog’s reaction upsets you. Quite the contrary. If Dooley’s reaction makes his owner feel guilty or sorry for him, she’ll communicate this to him in countless ways, all of which will further cement her subordinate position and perpetuate his unruly behaviors. Under those circumstances, she should learn as much as she can about the behavioral principles underlying the aid to see if these dispel her concerns. If not, both she and her dog would fare better if she chose a different approach that she could happily implement with confidence.

Although some solid scientific principles underlie the use of a head collar, the fact remains that no training aid can work miracles. Turning any doggy demon into an angel always requires knowledge and commitment and a method that meets the owner’s needs as well as the dog’s.