Protocol For Choosing a Collar

Here is a great article written by Dr Karen Overall, a board-certified Veterinary Behaviorist



One of the main objectives that collars accomplish is identification. All cats and dogs should be labeled. There are three main ways to do this, and they are not exclusive: (1) tags on a collar provide information about the client (name, address, and phone number), veterinarian (primarily the phone number), and vaccination status (current rabies vaccine); (2) tattoos in ears or on thighs; or (3) microchipping. Tattoos are usually comprised of the client’s Social Security number (in the United States) or some code and require at least sedation to execute. The dog or cat then usually wears another tag on its collar indicating the telephone number to call should the animal be separated from its people and need to find its way home. Microchipping is becoming more broadly available, but in Europe and the United Kingdom the systems are less standardized then they are in the United States. Microchips are easy to install but require the widespread availability of microchip readers. Long term effects of an implanted, digitally coded device have not been fully evaluated, but the risks appear small in preliminary tests. The general principle behind microchips is that a number is displayed when the chip is scanned and ownership data can be obtained by calling a central depot. The animal generally but not always wears a tag that indicates that a chip has been implanted. The chips are radioopaque, meaning that they will be displayed on a radiograph or x-ray film. Whatever method is chosen, two factors should be certain: (1) the tags are current, and (2) they are on a collar that fits comfortably. The latter means that the collar is either a breakaway collar through which one or two fingers can slip comfortably or  that the collar is sufficiently snug to stay on the animal if it tilts its head, but should the collar become entangled, the animal can pull its head out of the collar. If clients are not cautious about the fit of collars, animals can strangle or collars can become imbedded in their skin, resulting in morbidity or mortality. Breakaway collars are particularly important for cats, who have elevated squeezing their bodies into small places into an art form.

All animals should be labeled. If they are lost or stolen, it may be their only hope of getting home again. If the township or county in which the pet lives requires a license tag, this could be the only thing that saves the pet from impoundment, quarantine, or destruction.



Collars and harnesses are used primarily for control of dogs, but a few words about harnesses and leashes for cats may be helpful.

Cats should be restrained when they go to the veterinarian and, if they are indoor cats, when they are outside. They should also be restrained in a car so they do not become projectile. Placing them in a crate can accomplish this, but more freedom and exercise can be an excellent idea. All kittens should be fitted with a harness so that they can be encouraged to explore the world. A harness is preferable to a collar because, fitted correctly, it will not injure the cat and the cat cannot slip out of it. The younger the cat is when the client fits it with a harness, the easier it will be to accustom the cat to it.  Once the harness is on the cat, it should be taken for trips in cars, on walks, and for visits to the veterinarian. These activities should occur frequently; they will pay off later when the cat needs care that requires tractability. If the cat can safely be taken outside, the cat’s life and the interaction between the cat and client will be enriched.


Buckle collars can be good to accustom young puppies or kittens to leashes but should not be relied on for control of any animal. Any animals that walks calmly and without resistance when on a leash that is attached to a buckle collar is not doing so because of the collar. These animals are exquisitely behaved despite the collar. Any animal that pulls or lunges while on a buckle needs another type of restraint or training device. Buckle collars-provided that they break away or can slip off, if caught-should be fitted to all animals so that tags or embroidered identification can always accompany the pet. This means that they are used in addition to, not instead of, other devices.



Dogs are routinely fitted with devices such as choker collars as part of a training program. Choker collars are usually either made from chain or a rolled, braided nylon. When used correctly, choker collars are actually one of the best examples of true negative reinforcement: when the dog pulls, the collar tightens and either the sound or the pressure indicates that the dog has engaged in an undesirable behavior; when the dog stops, that pressure is released (and in the case of a chain, the sound of slippage occurs) and the dog is unimpeded. It is the release from the negative stimulus (the tightening of the collar) that is the reward. Unfortunately, most people do not use choke collars correctly; to do so requires a lot of work and patience. Instead, many dogs “choke” when chokers are used. When they are allowed to pull on the collar and permitted to sustain the pull, these dogs learn to override the choker. In doing so they are also at risk for laryngeal, esophageal, and ocular damage (damage in the blood vessels in they eye). Despite still being the preferred and, in some cases, the required form of restraint in a show ring, choke collars are an idea whose time may have passed. When clients can overcome their own misconceptions about how the collars look or what they mean, they will, with ever-increasing frequency, choose a head collar or a no-pull harness for their dog. When used correctly the devices are safer, easier to use, and help teach the dog better behaviors. They are a winning solution that could and perhaps should eclipse the choker.



Head collars are very much like horse halters. They act as a basket that holds the dog’s cheeks and jaws and stay on the dog by fastening high on the back of the neck. Generally, at least one strap fits over the bridge of the dog’s nose and one fits over the back of the neck. The leash in attached in the middle of the halter to the nose strap, but under the chin. This is how a lead is attached to a horse halter but is a major change for many people who are accustomed to attaching a leash directly to something around a dog’s neck. The two major versions of the head collar are the Halti (Safari Whitco, Bohemia, NY) and the Gentle Leader/Promise System Canine Head Collar (Premier Pet Products, Richmond, VA) The Halti is intended to be fitted with a second collar because it fits loosely. It also cannot be tightened to prohibit biting by pulling forward, but it fits some very jowly breeds well and snugly. The Gentle Leader/Promise System Canine Head Collar gives most dogs a better fit, requires no second collar, and can be used with a leash to correct inappropriate behaviors and prohibit biting.

Head collars are wonderful for most dogs. They spare the dog’s larynx and esophagus and thus are an ideal choice for dogs with laryngeal damage, tracheal collapse, or cervical (neck) damage involving disks, bones, nerves, or muscles. Head collars also ride high on the back of the dog’s neck so that when the leash is pulled forward or the dog pulls in the direction opposite to that of the leash, this part of the collar tightens a bit and applies a small amount of steady pressure on the area of the upper neck near the head.  Not only is this generally very safe, but also this pressure uses the same kind of signal that dogs communicate to other dogs when they wish to control them or stop them. Thus when the dog is corrected with a leash, the head collar communicates a “doggy” signal to the dog to stop. No translation is necessary, and the response is quick. For clients who are already working with a behavior modification program, this type of helpful, kind device can be a godsend. If the dog has a mouthing or biting problem, the Gentle Leader/Promise System Canine Head Collar can be gently pulled forward to firmly, safely, securely, and humanely close the dog’s mouth. When used correctly the collar cannot injure the dog and will allow the client to control most of the dog’s behaviors and stop the dog from biting.

The leverage provided by a head collar allows children and people with arthritis to walk even unruly dogs- and to enjoy it. If dog’s get more exercise they are calmer; if people enjoy being with their pets more, they will become more motivated to work with them. Head collars provide a win-win situation and are increasingly becoming the collar of first choice for a puppy. They are certainly appropriate for all life stages and have another advantage over chokers; they encourage humane behavior from people. We can use all the kindness and humanity we can learn.

As is true for any device, injury can occur if these collars are used incorrectly. The most common complaint about head collars involves loose-lipped dogs that chew on their lips because the nose piece of the collar fits too tightly. Hair on the nose can also be damaged if this occurs. A good fit is important, and some practice might be needed to determine the best adjustment of the neck strap and the nose strap.  Dogs fitted with head collars should be able to comfortably eat, drink, pant, and even bark and bite, if not corrected. These are not muzzles, they are not rubber bands around the dog’s nose, and they are not cruel or inhumane. They are great. Now that these heads collars are available in designer colors, people should accept them more readily.



No-pull harnesses fit under the dog’s front legs and loop over he dog’s shoulders so that when the dog pulls, its front legs are pulled back and it slows its pace. The two main versions of these harnesses are the Lupi (Safari Whitco, Bohemia, NY) and the Sporn or No-Pull Harness (Four Paws Products Ltd., Hauppauge, NY). The No-Pull Harness has a special collar that is sewn with two different-sized metal tabs. The loose, leashlike part of the harness fits through one of the loops, under and around the legs, and is attached to the other loops, under the neck, with a clasp. The leash is then attached to the loose part of the harness over the dog’s back. The back part of the harness can be tightened for a better, more responsive, fit. The Lupi does not use any clasps or tabs but relies on a system of concentric loops that are fitted around the dog’s front legs and over its back. The leash is then affixed to the back portion, which slips to tighten if the dog pulls. The Lupi is easier to fit to very hairy dogs or for people whose hands are very arthritic. Both of these fitting patterns sound complex and like topological puzzles. They are not. Once clients have the devices in their hands, the fit becomes self-explanatory.

Such harnesses are wonderful for dogs that pull or lunge. These are not appropriate to fit to dogs whose biggest problem is biting because they do not control the dog’s mouth or head. Furthermore, reaching around the dog’s head and neck to fit these harnesses could be dangerous if the dog is aggressive to people.

When fitted correctly these harnesses easily allow children or people with arthritis to pleasurably and calmly walk their dogs. These harnesses, like head collars, spare the dog’s neck so that dogs, even if they have laryngeal, tracheal, esophageal, or spinal problems, can be safely exercised.

Caution is urged against fitting no-pull harnesses too tightly; too tight a fit could impede circulation in the dog’s front leg. Fortunately, this is difficult to accomplish.



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