Zen and the Art of Dog

Are Prong Collars Cruel? – A Balanced Perspective

My wife and I found our gorgeous husky mix, Denver, online. He was living at our city’s shelter. We fell in love with his picture (probably not the best way to choose a dog).

This is Denver’s actual picture from the shelter’s website!

I couldn’t wait to meet him- we went to see him as soon as the shelter opened its doors the following Saturday morning.

Visiting the Shelter

As my wife and I were walking into the shelter from the parking lot we spotted Denver in his kennel through the big windows that faced the street. (If you’re from Chicago or familiar with the city, we adopted Denver from the anti-cruelty society downtown.) He was wagging his tail, not really looking at anything in particular. He was beautiful! Probably one of the more interesting looking Huskies I’ve ever seen.

The shelter staff brought him out to us and we were able to spend some time with him in their outdoor play area. He was pretty wound up, seemed more interested in dragging us around the yard than in actually meeting us. Nevertheless, Susan (my wife) and I were in love and applied to take him home that day.

In about 15 minutes we were approved and getting ready to take Denver home. The shelter ran out of dog leashes so they gave us two cat leashes. I had never owned a dog and I didn’t really know what to expect. So, Denver took the lead and dragged me to the front door straining at these flimsy cat leashes.

I open the front door and he must have smelled something interesting, because he doubled back and divebombed for the door jam- just as the door was about to slam on his head!

Luckily, a shelter volunteer grabbed the door and prevented husky brains from being squished out onto the floor.

I was finally a dog owner! And it was going okay!

Finally at Home

Well, Denver was a disaster. I’ll go into greater detail in later posts, but for the purposes of this one we should keep it brief. Two cat leashes weren’t going to cut it. But, he was impossible to walk on his flat collar with a normal dog leash, too.

What were we supposed to do? Denver was a strong husky and was capable of dragging me into the street. He also would not sleep unless he was in our bed with us.

That’s when a friend suggested we use a prong collar for his walks. I was unsure at first, thinking mainly that it looked like a torture device. But I gave it a try and it made all the difference. Now I use a prong for all three of my dogs and highly recommend them to everyone else.

What is the history of prong collars?

In 1942 Hans Tossutti, a world renowned dog trainer, published his book “Companion Dog Training“. This book has become one of, if not the most, influential books about dog training in history. Tossutti advocated for use of a prong collar (as opposed to a choke chain, a common training collar at the time).

Tossutti argued that prongs were designed to nearly eliminate any chance of injury to a dog’s throat, while magnifying the corrective effect that a tight leash has on a dog’s neck. Basically, the prong is designed to simulate the way a mother dog corrects her pups. I’m not sure if this is the actual reason prong collars work- however it is undeniable that they do.

Since his book, prongs have become a one of the most popular training tools- and also one of the most divisive.

How do you use prong collars and what is the practical purpose of a prong collar?

You’ll read a lot of advice on prong collars, some of it will be contradictory. This fact is really a testament to how easy prongs are to use. They are so effective that simply using them in any form will work.

I’ll share how I use my prong collars with my dogs, though.

Denver is a very sensitive dog. Simply putting the prong around his neck is enough for him to respect the leash. Walking him is easy now.

One of our other dogs, Benji the super mutt, has a much stronger drive than Denver. He needed training using “leash pops”, or corrections, to respect the leash. Now, he has an excellent heel and is great on walks.

Here is a video from Jeff Gellman demonstrating what I mean:

Using a prong collar to train a heel is a great relationship building activity. I’ve learned to love walks with my dogs, whereas I dreaded them before.

Check this post out for more information about how I use a prong collar. The basic gist is the prong provides a gentle discomfort that you as a trainer can leverage to teach your dog commands. By gently using the leash pressure to guide your dog, you can use the release of the discomfort as a “reward” for performing the action we’re asking. This is useful for teaching sit, down, place, recall and heel commands.

Quick note about sizing

Prongs come in many different sizes and can vary both in length of the chain and in the size of the prong link. Larger and heavier dogs will use a larger prong link and smaller dogs will use a smaller link.

Our three dogs are all around the same size (50-55 lbs) and use a 3.0mm x 18 inch prong collar.

If you have a super large dog you might consider a 3.8mm x 20 inch prong collar.

And, if you have a smaller dog, like a chihuahua or similar, Herm Sprenger offers a 2.25mm x 12inch collar.

Are prong collars safe?

Prong collars are as safe as any other tool, meaning if used properly your dog will not be hurt. Any tool is as cruel as the owner using it is.

A dog that pulls on her leash while wearing a flat buckle collar is a dog that has constant pressure on her neck/ trachea. Getting walked regularly like this will cause long term injuries. In this instance a prong, which distributes force around the entire neck while also discouraging pulling, is much safer.

Many trainers prefer head halters (also called gentle leaders), but these training tools can result in injuries too. Often, martingale collars are suggested by trainers. We used one with Denver and it made him puke.

The safest tool for high drive dogs is a prong collar.

Why are prong collars controversial?

Prong collars don’t deserve the reputation they’ve acquired. Part of this negative association is probably that prongs look like torture devices- however, looks can be and are deceiving in this case.

Many trainers will also argue that a good trainer doesn’t need a prong. This is probably true- I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not a good trainer. I love my dogs and I wouldn’t be able to walk three dogs at once if I didn’t use prongs. Often experts make the “perfect” the enemy of the “good enough”. I’m okay with good enough.

You can read an article here with a vet’s perspective on the negative aspects. I would argue that every one of these critiques applies to any other training modality. For example, positive reinforcement training requires the use of treats/ food. If you have an untrained dog that hasn’t yet learned bite control your dog can hurt you when receiving or demanding treats i.e. biting your hand, jumping on you etc. Additionally, we have had constant issues with Denver’s digestion. He seems to be allergic to any and every kind of treat and food (resulting in vomit and, a few occasions, explosive diarrhea). I may write a separate article in the future responding to each critique.

A lot of this controversy has had unfortunate consequences: several cities have banned or are considering banning prong collars. What potential owners are supposed to do with strong, high drive dogs instead is not addressed.

Wrap Up

So I hope I provided you with some good information! Prong collars are not cruel and you do not hurt a dog by using them. They are a useful training tool that is especially helpful for owners struggling with difficult dogs. I highly encourage you to use one as I have done with all three of my dogs.

I’d love to hear from you. Let me know if the comments what you think about prong collars.

4 thoughts on “Are Prong Collars Cruel? – A Balanced Perspective”

  1. I just adopted a husky who has a lot to learn. She is 8 months old and a disaster! I have to try a prong collar before she kills me. I believe she is smart and able to learn, but it takes time.
    Any advice?

    • Been there, Anne.

      Definitely get a Herm Sprenger collar. You can find it here: https://amzn.to/2PFNR4J. That’s the one we have and it fits our Husky’s neck.

      You might have to take one or two links out. We don’t want it to be so loose that it hangs around the shoulders but not so tight that your dog is uncomfortable.

      Once it’s on, give your dog a couple minutes to acclimate to the collar. It cleaned up our husky’s leash manners immediately.

      If your husky is still dragging you around/ going after squirrels try the tips in this link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6nxKaTYQFJI

      Please let us know how that works and if we can provide any additional advice!


      • Thank you for your article. We were about to give up on a very difficult dog or maybe we are just bad trainers, but we just found a trainer that will help us use this tool correctly to have more control over our ‘beasty’ dog. I think trying out things until you find what works is best, as long as everyone is safe, that’s what counts.


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