Choosing the appropriate collar or harness for your pet is not difficult to accomplish due to the myriad of choices on the market today. However, what might look great on your pet can harm it. I’ve seen many dogs that have slipped out of their posh, gold-studded collars and been hit by cars or attacked by other dogs. So before you go to the pet store and get seduced by that expensive, bright-colored, diamond-studded, or Louis Vuitton collar, think safety first and then plunk down your hard-earned dollars for the right item that you’ve thoughtfully determined is not dangerous for your pet. Remember, just because it’s expensive doesn’t mean that it’s good for your pet.
Every year, pets die from accidental hanging from wearing a collar that is too loose. For a proper fit, measure around your dog or cat’s neck with a cloth tape measure. Be sure to measure a few inches down from their head. Pull the tape measure so it’s snug, but not too tight. Add one inch for small dogs and cats, and two to three inches for medium- to large-size dogs. If you’re buying for a puppy or kitten, leave some room for growth. When shopping for the collar, take the tape measure or your pet with you. Some collar manufacturers measure the collar from tip to tip while others measure from the buckle to the center hole, and still others measure from the buckle to the last hole. For small dogs (less than 20 pounds) and cats, leave only one finger’s width between the collar and your pet’s neck. For a medium-size dog, leave two fingers’ width between the collar and the neck. For very large dogs, leave two to three fingers’ width between the collar and the neck, depending on the dog and type of collar. If you pull the collar toward your pet’s head, it should not slip over the ears. Traditional collars should ride high on your pet’s neck and not slide down near the shoulder blades.
Before you go out to purchase a collar or harness, keep in mind the following features: safety, size, durability, and ability to be cleaned. You want to choose a collar that’s the right size for your puppy, kitten, cat, or dog and make sure it’s fitted properly.
In addition to choosing the right size, you also want to select the proper weight for your pet. The collar shouldn’t be too heavy or too light for your dog or cat. The weight and width of your pet’s collar should be proportional to his or her size. Smaller, lightweight collars are good for small dogs, puppies, and cats. Wider, more durable styles are suitable for bigger, stronger pets. A large, strong dog can easily break a lightweight collar or leash, so you’ll want to select a heavier, thicker material than for a smaller dog. For example, a very heavy, thick collar wouldn’t be appropriate for a Maltese, and conversely, a rottweiler shouldn’t be wearing a thin, rhinestone-covered collar. It should be sturdy, so if your pet lunges it won’t break, but the collar should also be comfortable. Puppies and kittens do best with a soft nylon or a thin leather collar. They shouldn’t have collars that are heavy or bulky for them to wear. Make sure the collar fits snugly, and cut off any extra strap that the dog or cat might chew on. Dogs with necks the same size as their heads, such as greyhounds, whippets, Irish wolfhounds, and other sight hounds, should wear harnesses or collars specifically made for their head/neck proportions, such as a martingale (see “Training Collars” section below). Small breeds of dogs with sensitive tracheas should also be walked in a harness.
These collars come with either a buckle or snap-together closure. Be sure to test the snap closure to make sure it has a strong hold and doesn’t come apart easily. Snap collars are convenient and work well for many dogs, but if your dog is very large, strong, or has a tendency to lunge when excited, this is not the safest choice and you should stick with a buckle collar. Nylon collars are great for dogs that swim a lot because they don’t shrink and are very durable and machine-washable. Some are even made out of wetsuit material. They come in a wide variety of colors, patterns, and styles. You can opt for a breed-specific collar if you like. There are also reflective ones—glow-in-the-dark collars for easy visibility at night or ones with flashing lights for late-night jogs. A nylon collar is safe to leave on your pet at all times.
Leather collars are hard-wearing and long-lasting. The natural oils in your dog’s skin will soften the collar over time. The collars come in many styles and widths, with thin ones better suited to puppies or small dogs. Rolled leather is great for dogs with long hair—just make sure the coat doesn’t get caught in the buckle or snap. Avoid a leather collar if your dog swims a lot, as the collar will mildew, or if your dog likes to chew or spends a lot of time around other dogs that may chew the collar. This type of buckle collar is safe to leave on your pet at all times.
I recommend that all cats wear a breakaway collar to greatly reduce the risk of strangulation. The collar is connected with a snap-away plastic closure that’s designed to break if it’s subjected to a lot of tension. Cats have a curious nature, and they can get their collars caught on tree branches, fences, and deck boards outside, or bed springs, vents, furniture, cabinet knobs, or other cabinet hardware inside if they jump. The breakaway feature allows the collar to unsnap if snagged or caught, since cats like to get themselves into and through tight spots. To get the proper fit, use a measuring tape and measure around your cat’s neck, making sure you separate the hair and measure down to the skin; then add one inch to your measurement. You have the proper fit if you’re able to get one finger between the collar and your cat’s neck. Unlike with dog collars, you want the collar to be able to slip over the cat’s head or break away if the collar gets caught on something. Breakaway collars should never be used for dogs as they can allow a dog to break free while on a leash.
It’s vital to learn how to choose and use collars correctly to avoid subjecting your dog to confusion, discomfort, and injury. One common mistake that pet owners make is leaving their dog alone in the yard wearing a training collar. Many dogs have been injured and even strangled themselves in their own yard. So never put your dog outside, tie it up, or leave it unattended with a training collar on. A training collar should never be worn outside of a training session.
Head halters are great for dogs that pull because they are humane, safe, and easy to use. They calm boisterous dogs and can make walking your dog a pleasant rather than a frustrating experience. A head collar is like a bridle without the bit. Like a horse halter, the head collar holds the jaw and cheek, with one strap encircling the dog’s nose and another strap running behind the back of the head. The leash is hooked to a ring on the nose strap under the chin. When the dog pulls, the nose loop causes the head to be pulled down gently so the dog stops pulling. This teaches the dog to walk beside you without pulling because it takes the pressure away from the dog’s body and instead makes the dog lead from its head. When you guide a dog’s head, the body will follow.
Once a dog has been taught not to pull, you can often go back to using a regular collar, especially if you started collar-training when the dog was very young. So, head halters can be used long-term or just during the training period. They should be used to solve or prevent problems. There is a period of adjustment for this type of collar, and it can sometimes take a couple of weeks for a dog to get used to it.
Used properly, head harnesses enable you to keep and redirect your dog’s attention to you, helping give you an edge over distractions such as squirrels, rabbits, bicyclists, skaters, other approaching dogs, and humans. A head collar can reduce the pull of a 100-pound dog to that of a five-pound dog. These collars can look quite cumbersome to those who aren’t used to seeing them, yet they’re extremely lightweight and very gentle on the dog. Many trainers recommend this type of collar because it’s effective yet gentle. The two most common brands are the Halti head collar and the Gentle Leader. It’s best to take your pet with you to the pet store to ensure a proper fit. The Halti seems to fit dogs with wider muzzles, like rottweilers, a little better. Both types are well-made and durable, and cost less than $25.
Advantages of head halters include excellent control, which allows for smooth direction of dogs with no jerking motion, and because the action is smoother, corrections are more acceptable to many dogs. Harnesses also allow small and less powerful people to easily control a large, strong dog. Disadvantages: Some people don’t like the muzzle appearance; head halters must be fitted correctly to be safe and effective; a second, backup collar and attached leash are recommended for safety, particularly with strong dogs that can slip out of head halters; some dogs take a while to get used to these collars and even appear stressed during the acclimation period; if misused, head halters can be dangerous; and they may not stay on dogs with short noses.
The slip or choke collar, commonly used for training, consists of leather, nylon, or chain link with rings on each end. Choke collars are controversial because they work by briefly tightening—therefore punishing—when the dog needs to be corrected. Many trainers recommend purely reward-based training and are shying away from these types of collars. In any event, they are not to be used as everyday collars. They should only be used while training or walking your dog because the moving ring can get snagged on the tooth of another dog in play, causing it to pull away from danger, and as the collar tightens, both dogs may panic, which can create a dangerous situation.
Choke collars should never be used on toy dogs or dogs weighing less than 20 pounds because their tracheas are too sensitive for this type of collar. Never leave your pet unsupervised in this collar, tie a dog up with this collar, or attach tags to this type of collar. Your pet can choke to death if the collar becomes caught. Unfortunately, on numerous occasions, I have had to surgically remove a metal choke collar that was completely embedded in a dog’s neck after the dog had been tied up outside with this collar on. Sometimes the dog’s fur is so thick that this ghastly event goes unnoticed. An inexperienced owner should never use this collar as a substitute for proper training, discipline, or socialization.
Prong or pinch collar
Another kind of training collar is called a pinch or prong collar. These choke collars have blunt prongs that protrude inward from the links and lie flat on your dog’s neck until you pinch the dog’s neck for correction or the dog pulls. When you pull the leash, the prongs press into the dog’s neck, applying pressure to many points around the neck. Many people misuse or overuse this restraint, thereby reducing its effectiveness and/or causing injury to the dog, immediately or over time. These collars are controversial, too, but some experienced trainers find them useful in dealing with large, powerful dogs.
Never use this type of collar as an everyday collar. Sometimes the link can disengage, allowing the dog to get off-leash. Like many training tools, this kind of collar can be effective, ineffective, or harmful, depending on the handler and on the individual dog. This type of collar should never be used on toy breeds or dogs weighing less than 20 pounds. An inexperienced owner should never use this collar as a substitute for proper training, discipline, or socialization.
Electric shock collar
The electric shock collar should never be used by an inexperienced handler or on puppies as they can do much more harm than good. Experienced handlers use these collars in specialized training environments such as field training of gun dogs. An inexperienced owner should never use this collar as a substitute for proper training, discipline, or socialization. Many trainers don’t recommend shock collars for training as dogs can associate the pain of the shock with whatever triggers their pulling, lunging, or other undesirable behavior instead of associating it with the behavior itself, which can cause anxiety and possibly aggression, worsening the problem.
This type of training collar is a spray collar that uses a spritz of citronella-scented liquid to annoy the dog and control barking, pulling, and unwanted or undesirable behaviors. It has a small, refillable container of citronella affixed to it that rests at the bottom of the dog’s neck, just below the mouth. When triggered, such as when the dog barks excessively, the citronella is sprayed up at the dog’s nose, which is annoying to the dog, but does not harm it or the environment in any way. This technique works by interrupting the unwanted behavior and changing the dog’s focus rather than by inflicting pain or shock.
Martingale collars were first developed for greyhounds because their heads are smaller than their necks, allowing them to slip out of their collars. This collar is good for dogs whose heads are as wide as or smaller than their necks. It has a unique double loop system and allows your dog’s collar to be loose and relaxed, but will tighten when your dog tries to back out of the collar or when you pull on the leash. This collar is different from a choke collar because you set the size to which the collar will constrict beforehand, so there’s no choking involved. The loop on the martingale enables the whole collar to decrease in size when the dog pulls. This evenly distributes the pressure, easing strain on your dog’s neck. The martingale collar is effective for dogs that pull, sight hounds, whippets, Irish wolfhounds, and greyhounds. Dogs should never be tied up or left alone with a martingale collar on, as they can get their lower jaw stuck in the collar, which can be fatal.
Common training collar mistakes
• Improperly fitting collar
• Using a collar that’s too tight
• Putting the collar on backwards
• Constantly pulling on the leash
• Leaving a training collar on when not actively training
More training collar tips
Many a dog has destroyed its training collar or leash, so make sure the collar is out of your pet’s reach when not in use. Also, identification tags should not be attached to a training collar or leash as the tags should be on your pet at all times.
The collar should be snug so your pet can’t get a paw, limb, or jaw stuck in its collar and another dog playing can’t get entangled in it. Also, loose collars are likely to catch on something, which can lead to injury, suffocation, or strangulation.
Never leave a pet tied outdoors on a long rope or chain unsupervised as it can easily become entangled or strangle itself. If your dog must be tethered outside, you can purchase appropriate tie outs for pets that will prevent them from hurting themselves.
Unlike collars, which control a dog by attaching to the neck and/or head, a harness is placed around a cat or dog’s chest and rib cage. When you pull back on the leash, the harness tightens around the chest, controlling your pet without putting pressure on the neck or back. A properly fitted harness lets the dog or cat push with the chest rather than the throat.
Cats can be walked for exercise with a harness as they can be taught to walk on a leash. Harnesses that are the figure-8 style or “H” style are made especially for cats. The leash attaches to a ring at the tip of the dog or cat’s back, usually between the shoulder blades. For small dogs, a harness may completely replace a collar when you’re walking the dog on a leash.
Harnesses are great for cats, which will slip out of a collar if being walked, and for small dogs that are prone to developing a condition called collapsing trachea. Small breeds of dogs, including the toy breeds like Pomeranians, chihuahuas, miniature poodles, Yorkshire terriers, Lhasa apsos, shih tzus, and miniature pinchers, all have softer tracheas that will collapse in response to pressure and are often susceptible to trachea problems that can be aggravated by collar tension on the throat. These dogs may cough when excited or being walked with a traditional collar. Using a harness avoids unnecessary pressure to the tracheal rings. There are also some breeds of dogs, such as bulldogs and pugs, that have necks as wide as their heads, so you should choose a harness for them instead of a collar, which they can readily escape from. Harnesses may be a good choice for older dogs that have arthritis in their necks or pets with upper respiratory disease. When you have a dog with a medical problem, be sure to take the dog and your harness to your vet for an appropriate fit.
Today, there are harnesses that will fit every size of pet. A variety of different styles are available and some have an attachment for car seat belts. Never use a dog harness on a cat or a cat harness on a dog, as they may fit improperly and your pet may get away from you with tragic results.
Some advantages of harnesses over more traditional neck collars include comfort, greater range of motion, and no pressure on the neck and throat. Disadvantages: Harnesses can cause chafing under the arms, and you have less control with some types.
You must take some precautions when using harnesses. Never leave a harness on a dog unattended as there are numerous straps, rings, and buckles that can get caught and cause injury. Some harnesses can slip off over the pet’s head. Also, dogs can pull very powerfully with a harness. A dog’s power is roughly three times the strength of the dog’s weight compared to a human. For example, a 40-pound dog is about as strong as a 120-pound person. You don’t want an inexperienced person or a youngster handling a powerful dog in a harness. Small dogs that are walked with harnesses should wear a lightweight collar with identification tags attached at all times.
The same finger approach should be used to fit a harness. Two fingers should fit between the harness and the breastplate, and also between the harness and the back strap. If the harness is too tight, it may be uncomfortable and cause hair loss and irritation to the skin from rubbing.