When you adopt a dog or begin working with your dog to modify certain behaviors, the variety of products and techniques available can be overwhelming.
Is crating your puppy the best option, or is it cruel? Is an anti-bark collar the best method to get that barking under control?
We talked to Sharon Wirant, manager of ASPCA’s Anti-Cruelty Behavior Services, about everything from electric fencing to muzzles to get the lowdown on what to try and what to avoid.
Electric anti-bark collars
Excessive barking can be a nuisance, especially when the neighbors start complaining, but Wirant cautions against using an electric collar to curb the behavior.
While the collars can be effective, dogs may start to associate the unpleasant electric shock with objects or behaviors other than barking.
For example, if your dog always barks at your neighbor, he may learn to associate the shock with the neighbor instead of his barking. In this case, other unwelcome behaviors, such as running from the neighbor or becoming aggressive toward him, could arise.
Instead of the collar, Wirant suggests working with a qualified trainer to determine what’s causing your dog to bark and how to manage the behavior in a more humane way.
Pinch or prong collars
These types of collars are composed of a series of fang-shaped metal links, or prongs, with blunted points that pinch the skin of a dog’s neck when pulled, and they’re typically used to prevent dogs from pulling on the leash.
These collars can cause problems for dogs because they’re often not fitted correctly, and when they’re too loose, they require a great deal of force to work.
“The neck is very flexible, but if the dog is pulling, that's a lot of strain on the neck and it could potentially cause injury,” Wirant said. “You can actually injure the trachea.”
If you want to prevent your dog from pulling, Wirant recommends using a no-pull harness or a head halter instead.
“There are several styles of no-pull harnesses, and they’re fabulous because they’re easy to put on and you’re easing pressure on your dog’s neck. It’s a much more humane way to prevent dogs from pulling.”
Head halters can also prevent dogs from pulling when walking on a leash, and despite their appearance, they’re not muzzles. Most head halters still allows dogs to eat treats and pick up toys.
“A lot of people think the head halter is a muzzle, and it really isn't. In reality, they’re fantastic tools,” Wirant said.
While you may assume that a dog in a muzzle is a dangerous animal that’s best avoided, muzzles don’t always mean that a dog is prone to biting.
While they are used for bite prevention, they’re also commonly used to keep dogs from picking up items that are best avoided, such as trash, roadkill or feces.
It may seem cruel for a dog to be curled up in a crate, but crate training is a humane tool to prevent destructive behavior and aid in housetraining. In fact, most dogs enjoy having their own den-like space.
Crating a dog is only cruel when it’s used excessively or as a form of punishment, or if the crate isn’t the proper size. A crate should be large enough for a dog to stand up and turn around in.
Many people install electric fencing because they can’t afford a physical structure or because their neighborhood won’t allow the installation of a fence. However, Wirant advises dog owners to find alternatives to this type of fencing because there are several problems with it.
“If your dog's not trained properly, he won’t understand where that boundary line is,” she said. “And most people put the level of the shock up super high, and if the dog hits that fence, he’s going to get the shock of his life. It's going to be very painful.”
When a dog is shocked, many things could go wrong. A frightened dog may continue running through the boundary and into a road, or he could flee back to the house and be hesitant to venture out into the yard again.
Dogs may also be so surprised by the shock that they’re afraid to move.
“A dog can actually freeze when they're being shocked, so they're going to stand there and the collar's going to go off. It's extremely painful, and your dog will need pretty serious behavior modification to ease its fear.”
If you decide to install electric fencing, Wirant suggests working with an animal behaviorist who uses positive-reinforcement techniques to teach dogs about boundaries.
Allowing your dog off the leash can be great for games of fetch or Frisbee, but off-leash dogs can also pose problems.
Even well-trained dogs can fail to respond to their owner's commands. They may be distracted by another dog or they could take off after wildlife, putting the dog in a dangerous situation.
They may also approach leashed dogs that could become frightened or snap at your dog because they feel threatened.
“You’ll hear people say, 'My dog is friendly' or ‘My dog deserved to be snapped at,' but that's not fair to the dog that had to snap or growl or show to their teeth to a dog that's coming into their space,” Wirant said. “Even when walking a leashed dog, really think about not just your own dog's experience, but also other dogs' experience.”
If you're going to have your dog off the leash, Wirant says to be sure it's an area where dogs are allowed off leash and you have to be confident in your dog's ability to come when called.
Overall, when it comes to training your dog or working to modify any canine behavior, Wirant encourages dog owners to always look for the most humane and least-invasive methods.
“Really consider working with a qualified behavior professional to set your dog up for success because once you use a negative association or some sort of punishment, it's a lot of work to try to work through that fear.”
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