The Silver Bullet

By Shelley Crawford –

The prong collar is a subject of great controversy. There are untold amounts of “positive training” methods most of which require a “lure and reward” based philosophy. This particular method involves luring a dog with a food reward. We know all dogs love food. This bribery of sorts works during the initial training phase of some behaviors. However training based solely on food as a training tool works better for the owner than it does for the dog. It does make the owner, who loves his/her “baby”, feel good about the training because it involves no force. A dog will follow his nose, with a smelly treat in front of it, just about anywhere. Food motivators work, in the beginning phases of training. This is a good thing. This is how I teach a new a behavior with a “green” dog with little or no training. I use each feeding time as a training session. This way I’m using what I would already be giving the dog. Only in my house, everyone must work for food.

First and foremost is to teach the dog how to take the treat. Licking, pawing, jumping will not bring the food. As soon as the dog backs away from the treat, he gets it. He learns quickly that a calm state gets him what he wants. To lure the dog to sitting position, place the food in your hand and pass the treat to the dog’s nose and then lift it above his head. As the nose goes up, the bottom goes down. Anyone can teach a dog to sit. Teaching the dog to stay until released is horse of a different color. I won’t even go into teaching down. That’s not what this blog is about.

So we’ve lured the dog to sit. Now what? The dog must, of course, stay until released by the handler, not of the dog’s own accord but within a second of achieving the sit. Great! Now we’re working on stay for one second, then two seconds and progressively longer over a period of short and sweet training sessions. The dog gets it pretty quickly, “My human passes a treat, palm facing upward, by my nose and over my head. I sit, I get the treat as long as I’m not licking or demanding it”. What could be more fun to a dog? He’s done something to get something. Nothing in Life is Free. That’s why we humans have domesticated the dog. We need a helper and dogs are more than willing employees. Not to mention, they are cute and furry and they love us unconditionally as we do them. Dogs need jobs and we need to give them jobs.

The dog now knows sit. We know he knows it because he sits even when we don’t ask him to. In the dog’s mind, “Hey, maybe if I present a sit, my human will give me one of those yummy things I get when I do this sit thing.” We know the dog knows because we’ve had many previous successful sits without coercion. Always working with the dog on a leash and flat collar. We’ve even varied the food reward limiting the treat for sit to every few times instead of every time and the dog is performing sits beautifully even with just an ear scratch. The dog even knows that the reward will not come with sloppy sits off to one side of the rump.

Now this is where the “Silver Bullet” comes in. We all know the only thing that can kill a Werewolf is a silver bullet. The only thing that can reinforce a command which has already been taught and successfully achieved with many repetitions is the use of a tool the dog can understand. In dog training, the silver bullet is the prong collar. It works because you use what the dog understands in dog language. Since humans cannot correct the way a dog would correct another dog, we must speak “dog-lish”. Using the prong collar is using dog language. Ever notice two dogs playing with a toy? The more dominant of the two will correct the lower dog with a quick snap at the neck. Ever notice puppies playing? They will correct each other as the mother has done to the puppies with a snappy head jerk toward the neck. Rarely actually making more than a second of brief contact with the dog being corrected. And rarely escalating to more than the head motion toward the culprit. Look Mom, no pain, no violence just results.

All of the above makes good sense but here is where the hard part comes in. People don’t want to make the necessary correction. They either don’t know how, or when or how hard to make the correction. They are afraid they’ll hurt the dog they love and adore like a child. They would rather nag, yell, plead and bribe the dog. Or my favorite excuse is “He knows it but he just won’t listen”. A dog can hear the fridge door open from across the house and you think he can’t hear you standing right next to him? This is really sad. All it takes are a few well timed corrections and the dog knows it. You can move on to bigger and better things.
People have come around a lot about the prong collar from 20 years ago. But we aren’t there yet because people are unsure and unskilled at proper technique. There aren’t a lot of classes that teach prong collar training to people so they can train their own dogs, at least where I live. Most classes are directed at the owner and their wallet rather than training of the dog/owner relationship. It’s much easier to get people to sign up for classes when you’re selling “All Positive” training methods. As with the Germans, in the day of Adolf Hitler, who trained their German Shepherd Dogs using choke chains. Hitler was evil so must be the training methods used on the dogs.

Convincing the owner is probably the most difficult part of being a dog trainer. Training the dog is the easiest part. People look down on you when using a prong collar on a dog. It’s like they think you’re some kind of monster torturing your dog for sick pleasure. At night when my dogs are not wearing their prong collars and tab leashes, I shove bamboo shoots under their toenails to torture them even more (just kidding). However, these same people are always so amazed at how well behaved even the most adolescent dog can be. Even with no prong collar or leash the dogs are more well behaved than the most treat rewarded dogs. There are even countries in the world that don’t even allow people to use a prong collar by law.

A good thing to note is if we didn’t have Silver Bullets imagine how many Werewolves would be running the planet. Well, pretty much they are running the planet. Generally speaking, dogs are misbehaved all in the name of “He’s just a dog. Let him be dog.” Dogs need jobs. If we humans don’t give them jobs, they’ll find “jobs” we don’t like. For instance jumping, digging, barking, running between your legs, pulling on the leash, chewing up the house. The list of “dirty jobs” is endless. That’s why dogs aren’t allowed anywhere but the dog park or the local pet store where they want your wallet and don’t mind if the dogs makes a mess in the store or the occasional dog fight (with dogs on leashes) which may break out. That’s why when you pass a person on the street, even if your dog is in a perfect heel on leash that person will almost always move out of your direct path in fear of what the dog may do. Or worse, owners with their dogs on prong collars huffing, puffing, chuffing, spitting and dragging the owners into the Vet’s office, pet store or down the street. This really ticks me off! I must restrain myself to not grab the leash from the owner to remove this dog from his miserable plite.

I don’t advocate using the prong collar on every dog. I do not use a prong collar on my small chihuahuas. They don’t need that strong of a correction. They respond to a small “pinky correction” on a flat collar. The correction must fit the dog and it’s temperament. Some dogs do not require a big time correction. Some dogs you have to crank on the leash with your foot to get them to respond to commands you know they already know. Sort of like teenage kids. Some are easy. Some are bugar bears. So many dogs so little time!

If I were to have this conversation with my good friend from Chicago, an Area Trainer over seeing many stores for a nationwide pet store chain, she and I would just about come to “fist-a-cuffs” over this issue. She’s a firm and staunch “Positive Training” only methods believer. She attends numerous “Positive Only” seminars with truly innovative techniques some of which do make sense. I love her to death but on the topic of prong collars, we adamantly disagree. That’s putting it mildly on her part. We remain friends and do not discuss this subject. I use the prong collar because it works, when used correctly and consistently and in pretty short order. I do not feel that it delivers “pain” as the positive trainers all seem to convey. I’ve actually put the collar around my own neck to see what it feels like. It feels like pressure, that’s about it. I’ve worn shoes that were much more uncomfortable. I know I’m using the tool/collar properly because after giving a light correction (even off the prong and on a flat collar) the dog will “lick his lips and swallow”. The dog is saying, “Yep. Okay, gotcha. I accept and understand”. Its a knee jerk reaction for dogs. When a correction is made or even a head scratch of praise is given, the dog will almost every time, lick and swallow. The dog is saying “I get it” in dog-lish.

The human/dog relationship is about communicating the leader ship role. A dog, being a dog, needs a leader. A leader does not dole out treats to the subordinate members of the pack from a treat pouch. However, I do advocate using treats as a reward in certain instances. The lack of information regarding the prong collar and it’s use is a only part the mis notion of this training device. In hopes of educating as many people as possible the following is a website with some great information regarding prong collars. If I tell two friends and they tell two friends and so on maybe we can change the world. In the meantime, I’ll keep just one “silver bullet” in my pocket. I may need it the next time we have a full moon!