Harness vs. Collar, which is best to use when training your dog?

Written by Steven Appelbaum, President of Animal Behavior College


The question of which tools are best to train dogs has been discussed among pet owners and dog trainers for decades. For many years, the standard tools for teaching basic obedience commands (AKA cues) were a six-foot leather or nylon leash and a properly fitting slip collar, more commonly known as a “choke chain.” However, times change, as do preferences and attitudes. Nowadays, many trainers elect not to use a slip collar and instead opt for a body harness or head collar.

Before we start, I want to talk briefly about training methods. There is a great deal of debate in the dog training world about when and how to use training tools. This article is not about training philosophy; it is about the different tools available to pet owners to help them train their dogs. As the President of Animal Behavior College, I am proud we teach professional dog trainers to follow the principles of LIMA. LIMA stands for Least Intrusive, Minimally Aversive. It is a guide that helps people understand how to modify behavior in the gentlest manner possible. In the not-so-distant past, dog training typically involved teaching behaviors through punishment.

An excellent example of this was teaching a dog to sit. Decades ago, a trainer would sharply pull up on the dog's collar, forcing the dog's rear to the ground, etc.  After a while, the dog learned to avoid the punishment (correction) by performing the desired behavior. Unfortunately, while such methods could be effective, they also had negative consequences, and over time other techniques became more mainstream.

In the end, pet owners should do what all responsible adults do when delving into a new and important topic: learn a bit about it and make informed choices based on you and your dog’s needs.  

Now we will talk about three categories of training tools.

Traditional Collars

Traditional collars that fit around a dog's neck have been around for thousands of years. In the days before microchipping or tattoos, a tag or name engraved on a dog's collar might be the only way to identify a lost dog.  Over time rings were added to collars allowing owners or handlers to attach a rope and, eventually, leashes to them.

The training premise behind a traditional collar is simple enough. If you apply pressure to the collar, you can often get the dog to move in your desired direction. Plus, when a dog pulls ahead of you, its pulling puts pressure on their throat and sometimes acts to check its forward momentum.

Slip or chain collars are simply a variation in which the collar tightens when one of the rings on the collar is pulled. Some dogs were so strong and difficult to handle that even chain collars proved marginally effective. In the past this was commonly when pinch or prong collars were employed. A pinch collar operates similarly to a chain collar, but the collar has blunted prongs pointing toward the dog. When a ring on the collar attached to a leash is tightened, the collar constricts, and the prongs make contact with the dog's body. There is a safety mechanism that prevents this device from pulling too much. While a prong collar looks frightening to some, it can be very effective and safe if used properly. 

Coastal Pet Products offers the Natural Control™ Training Collar, which works like a traditional prong collar but has rounded teeth and a modern, approachable appearance to provide a gentler correction.

The challenges with using traditional collars in training are they can be problematic, especially slip and prong collars when used with sensitive or fearful animals. Traditional collars also require a fair amount of strength on the part of the handler when trying to train large, exuberant dogs. 

Anyone dragged down the street by their rambunctious 70-pound Labrador can attest to this. Chain collars and prong collars typically require less force to gain control of the dog than a regular leather or nylon collar, but if misused, they can cause real discomfort and possible injury to the dog.  

Head Collars

One way around the challenges of training with traditional collars was using a head collar. The idea behind them is simple enough. You can control the dog much more efficiently by moving its head instead of restraining or pulling on their necks. Where the head goes, the body will follow, something horse trainers have known for millennia. More control with less force. Those are real advantages, but there are some challenges as well. First, some breeds -- Pugs and French Bulldogs to name two -- have flat faces that make a head collar hard to fit. While most dogs will take pretty quickly to wearing a traditional collar, some will require days or weeks to get comfortable wearing a head collar. Every tool has pros and cons, but the bottom line is that head collars are an outstanding option for the trainers' toolbox.

Body Harnesses

Body Harnesses are a third option for training. As the name implies, this harness fits around the dog's torso. A leash is attached to a ring on the harness. Some harnesses can tighten when the ring is pulled, but others won't. A body harness's advantage is that it is least likely to cause injury. Dogs will generally accept wearing these more easily than a head collar. The disadvantages are that it can sometimes be as hard or even harder to control unruly, untrained dogs on a body harness as on a traditional collar.  

If you have one of those unruly dogs, harnesses like the Walk Right! Front Connect No-Pull Harness have a ring connect in the front that gently and naturally guides dogs to help prevent pulling.

Collars and harnesses are simple tools. If used properly, tools can make a job possible and for you to achieve desirable results. If misused, they can result in a risk to you and your pet. No tool is suitable for every dog. I have seen dogs entirely unresponsive to choke chains, and other traditional collars respond phenomenally well when trained using head collars. I have seen others who wouldn't respond to anything but traditional collars. Work with a professional dog trainer and ensure the tools you decide to use are quality products. This is why I have worked on educating several generations of dog trainers about Coastal Pet Products. Quality products like those made by Coastal are essential, as is using them correctly.

Steven Appelbaum is the president of Animal Behavior College (ABC).   ABC is the nations largest pet vocational school, offering programs for animal lovers wishing to become dog trainers, cat trainers, service dog trainers, zookeeper assistants, pet groomers, veterinary assistants, aquatic maintenance professionals.  For more information about ABC or Mr. Appelbaum go to www.animalbehaviorcollege.com