Flat Collars Risk Damage to Dogs’ Necks if They Pull or You Jerk the Leash

Don’t use leash jerks, and if your dog pulls on leash, walk them on a harness, as new research shows the potential pressure applied to a dog’s neck by the use of a flat collar.

Flat collars can cause harm, so walk your dog on a harness (pictured) if they pull on leash
Photo: Ann Lillie/Shutterstock

By Zazie Todd, PhD.

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New research published in the Veterinary Record finds that the pressure exerted on a dog’s neck by a flat collar when the dog pulls is enough to risk damage to the dog’s neck. The study, from scientists at Nottingham Trent University and the University of Nottingham, used a model to simulate the dog’s neck, and measured the forces applied when the leash was pulled. The study aimed to mimic the effects of a dog pulling consistently on a leash or the human tugging the leash (sometimes called a “leash correction”).

The results show the importance of teaching your dog to walk nicely on leash, using a harness if they do pull, and never using leash corrections.

The study tested a variety of eight different collars, including flat and padded webbing collars and leather collars, a rope slip leash, and a check chain.

Dr. Anne Carter, first author of the study, told me,
“It’s not about the type of collar used, it’s the pull on the lead, and even at a light pull, dogs risk damage to their neck when walked on a collar and lead. Essentially, for a dog that pulls, there is no such thing as a good collar, and they should only be used as a means of displaying ID tags, not for restraint or control. Nothing can replace training a dog to walk on a loose lead but a non-restrictive harness keeps pressure off the neck area if they do pull.”
The model of a dog’s neck was made using a plastic pipe that was 31cm (12.2 inches) round, similar in size to the neck of a medium or large breed dog. In turn, each collar was placed on the model, and three different forces were applied to mimic a dog pulling lightly, a dog pulling hard, or a sharp tug on the leash. A pressure sensor measured the forces applied to the middle and sides of the collar.

Carter says that, “The collars tested were chosen on the basis of ‘type’ rather than to focus on any specific brands or collars.”

The results showed that although there were differences between the types of collars, all of the collars tested had the potential to cause injury, even at the lowest level of pressure (equivalent to a dog pulling lightly). The values were all higher than those that have been shown in human research to potentially cause tissue damage to a person’s neck, to increase intraocular pressure (the pressure in the eye), and to compress the blood vessels. As well, since dogs cool down by panting, pressure on the windpipe can not only affect a dog’s breathing, but also affects their ability to cool down in hot weather.

This is an important issue because pulling on leash is one of the most common complaints people have about their dog. For example, in the PDSA’s 2019 PAW Report, 24% of dog owners said they would like to do something about their dog’s pulling on leash, making this the most common behaviour problem reported. Pulling on leash was also one of the most common behaviour problems reported in a study of people who adopt shelter dogs.

Leash jerks are used in two ways in old-fashioned methods of dog training. Sometimes tugs on the leash are used as positive punishment to punish the dog for pulling; this is commonly referred to as “leash corrections”. And tugging on the leash until the dog does the required behaviour (e.g. a heel or a sit), at which point it is released, is used as negative reinforcement. The current study shows that leash jerks risk damage to the dog’s neck.

Other research shows that using aversive methods has a number of other risks to dog’s welfare, including the risks of fear, anxiety, aggression, and stress. As well, a study of different dog training schools found that using leash jerks and tugging on the leash to train the dog has a detrimental effect on the dog’s relationship with their owner.

If you need to teach your dog to walk nicely on leash, positive reinforcement is the way to go. Here is Kelly Duggan, from All Dogs Go to Kevin, demonstrating how to teach loose leash walking (below). Sylvie Martin of CrossPaws Dogs also has a nice blog post on walking with your dog.

For a dog that pulls, a harness with a front clip attachment (or both front and back) can help to prevent pulling. My favourites include the Ruffwear Front Range harness and the Sense-ation harness.

If you are introducing a harness for the first time, be sure to feed treats to help create positive associations. Show the harness before reaching for any treats to be clear that it’s the harness that predicts yummy treats, and keep feeding while you put the harness on. (If your dog has body handling issues or is afraid of the harness, you will need to progress more slowly with a careful plan).

Earlier research that looked at behavioural signs of stress during dog walking found that neither flat collars nor harnesses cause stress to dogs;  however that study did not specifically look at the effects of pulling. The current study used a model of a dog’s neck, but obviously you would not want to risk harming a dog by testing different pressures on an actual dog. The results show the pressure applied by a flat collar when it is pulled has the potential to cause damage.

If your dog is trained to walk on leash without pulling, then it’s fine to use a flat collar. But if they pull, it's better to walk them on a harness instead. You can still use a collar for decoration and to hold their tags.

You can follow the researchers on Twitter, and Anne Carter blogged about the research herself in this post on getting hot under the collar.

If you like this post, check out my book Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy, which has a foreword by Dr. Marty Becker. Gregory Berns, NYT-bestselling author of How Dogs Love Us, says of Wag, "Using the latest canine science, Zazie Todd gives us a clear and compassionate guide to bringing out the best in your dog."

Zazie Todd, PhD, is the award-winning author of Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy and Purr: The Science of Making Your Cat Happy. She is the creator of the popular blog, Companion Animal Psychology, writes The Pawsitive Post premium newsletter, and also has a column at Psychology Today. Todd lives in Maple Ridge, BC, with her husband, one dog, and two cats. 

Useful links:

Carter, Anne J., Donal S. McNally, and Roshier, Amanda L., (2020). "Canine collars: an investigation of collar type and the forces applied to a simulated neck model." Veterinary Record.

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