The good, the bad and the ugly

July 4, 2023

Words; Pennie Clayton

Trends come and go, as do fashions and fads. This does not just apply to us, but it also applies to our dogs. 

We can buy all manner of “stuff” for our dogs, much of which is fuelled by social media, celebrities and marketing. This is unfortunate as there is an awful lot of equipment that should never see the light of day, especially if it is endorsed by someone with no grounding in what is comfortable or safe for a dog to wear.

The advent of positive and force-free training has highlighted many issues around what types of equipment may be harmful or detrimental for dogs, but there is still a huge amount of misinformation to be found. Not everyone is primed to pursue advances that are advantageous to our dogs, and misinformed people continue to recommend and use quick fixes which can affect a dog's wellbeing and quality of life.

I have been for many years involved with horses as well as helping people to understand their dogs, and I have seen some horrendous practices come and go. Some seem innocuous until the advent of lameness, severe reactions and consequences that lead to horses being put to sleep because of misuse; this includes saddles, which have been around for thousands of years and yet still cause enormous amounts of distress and discomfort to both horses and riders.

This is mentioned because what initially may appear to be helpful and provide answers can have devastating effects on horses. Still, many items are in daily use for our dogs, causing the same degree of problems. The only difference is that the consequences are not so dramatic for the public. No one suffers an injury or direct consequence from using badly designed equipment for dogs, or do they? The dog often gets blamed if behaviour deteriorates due to our trust in equipment that claims to solve problems rapidly.  

There is, of course, a long history of equipment for dogs; nothing is really “new”; most equipment is probably a recycled version of what has gone before but is being represented to us as a breakthrough product. The only difference is that we generally have more disposable income to lavish on our dogs, which can be invested in correcting difficulties.

Collars have been around for at least two thousand years and were not exclusively used as methods of control but rather signalled the status of the person that owned the dog and were often decorated with precious stones or spiked and studded to protect wild animals or other dogs. Many ancient engravings on walls and collections show just how prestigious these collars were.

An evolution occurred as dogs became members of the family, but collars started to have very different functions other than to provide a fastening for a lead. Equipment became more sinister. At one point, dog whips were sold; the most popular were leads that doubled up as whips; these were often advertised in catalogues. Later, choke collars entered the consciousness of the dog-owning public and were promoted as methods of fixing behaviour problems such as pulling on lead and lunging at other dogs. While these items hopefully seem abhorrent at this point in time, we do have to examine whether some of the more commonly seen items sold in the present day are any better, or have they been dressed up and disguised to seem innocuous? Have we become more compassionate and advanced or fallen for quick fixes?

Much equipment is sold via large pet stores, which have a standard approach to equipment for our dogs. This is a problem because many first-time dog owners use these big chains. The selection of equipment is often far from ideal, and as the choice is limited, this can impact health and wellbeing without people being aware of the damage it can cause.

For example, finding a lead that is not a standard short lead or an extendable version can be very difficult. Many people do like extendable leads, but they have proved dangerous on many occasions, not only to the dog wearing them (running at speed to the end of one of these leads and then catapulted to a stop will cause whiplash as the dog connects with the collar) but to other dogs in the vicinity and owners themselves. They are never really slack, so teaching a dog to walk on a loose lead is almost impossible, and accidents have occurred because other dogs or people have gotten caught up in the leads as dogs interact. Regular short leads (around 4 feet/ 1.2 metres) are not dangerous but can never give a dog freedom while walking. The best type of longer 6-foot lead (around 1.8 metres) is easily the best type of lead but nowhere near as commonly sold in large stores.

Injuries are sustained by leads that are connected to a collar of any design, particularly if a dog pulls. Even if a dog rarely pulls, accidents can happen, and there is always a risk a dog will lunge after a cat or other wildlife. It does not take a lot for damage to occur.

A dog's neck is extremely sensitive and has the same basic anatomy as ours. Within the neck are lymph nodes, ducts, the thymus organ, the hyoid bone, the trachea, cervical vertebrae and the spinal cord. Damage by collar may also impact the larynx, oesophagus, multiple nerves, arteries and the sympathetic and parasympathetic nerves. These all have vital roles in keeping our dogs healthy. If they are damaged, there is very little possibility of these areas regenerating or functioning as before.

For instance, the thymus is an important organ and is integral as the young dogs’ immune system is forming. This is where T- cells mature; these are white blood cells that play an important role in immunity in both puppies and adolescent dogs. It is larger during the early stages of growth but does reduce in size as a dog matures, but if damaged, it will never recover.

Lymph nodes, ducts and capillaries are numerous in the area where a collar sits; these are also of great importance to the immune system having the role of removing toxins, amongst other important roles. Damage via a collar can cause rupture of the ducts, swelling, impaired immunity, and pain. Damage to the hyoid can make it difficult to swallow, and continued tension on a collar causes the dog to torque his body when walking, leading to arthritic conditions, herniation and impingement of the discs and spinal cord.

Pulling into a collar can also affect the blood vessels, creating increased pressure on the neck and leading to high blood pressure, particularly intraocular pressure. The long-term effects may be impaired blood circulation within the brain and even glaucoma. If a dog starts to chew at his legs or feet, this is often a sign of neck or back pain, which is often the result of pressure on the neck caused by a collar.

This is why education is so important. As we have explored, if these consequences can occur just by using a normal collar, it does not take a lot to imagine the kind of harm that would result if a choke chain, prong collar, electric collar, vibrating collar or spray collar is used.

It would be very comforting to think that few people would use or advocate aversives, but this is not the case; trainers still promote these collars to fix many types of unwanted behaviour, including barking, pulling on the lead and chasing livestock. This not only has the potential to affect a dog physically, but in the case of vibrating collars commonly worn full time in the house as a deterrent to barking, they can have a drastic effect of causing anxiety and confusion and lead to learned helplessness.

While we are looking at the effects of equipment that would seem to provide instant solutions, we also need to look at headcollars for dogs. These have various names, which I won’t list. But as soon as one is put onto a dog, two things often happen. The dog becomes instantly subdued, quickly followed by the dog pawing at his face to take it off.

A headcollar is uncomfortable for a dog to wear, as it lies over the sensitive structures of a dog’s nose; this is yet another crossover from the equine world. They are not perfect for horses, but horses have far longer heads and more muscular necks; this means that they can tolerate the effects of a headcollar. Not so with a dog. Dogs with short faces have to put up with a design where the straps sit on the “stop” of the face, which is directly under the eyes. This causes pressure, and because many people walk their dogs, this often creates a situation where the dog's head is torqued to one side, very often the right, as it is “traditional” to walk a dog on the left side. This will create tension, injury and pain after a relatively short time spent walking.

Have you ever had sunglasses on your head during the summer and then taken off, only to feel like they are still on your head? Imagine this feeling after every walk and not understanding what is causing this sensation. While many people use headcollars to help with behaviour modification, using one is more likely to suppress behaviour and cause inhibition rather than help create a solution.

Equipment can be a minefield, and the full implications of poorly fitted or designed equipment are vast, but please research before selecting equipment for your dog.

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