Saturday, February 26, 2011

Choke Chains - Are They Really Necessary?

Frequently, I meet novice show people who seem to be under the impression that using a choke chain is mandatory in the show ring.  This is probably because when they have showed up at a dog show with their dog on dog-friendly equipment such as a Resco lead or martingale they are told that they have the "wrong" equipment.  The truth is, that it is NOT mandatory to use a choke chain, in fact, there are many alternatives and I encourage people to take a look at some of them before jumping onto the choke chain bandwagon.

I get frustrated sometimes talking to people about the equipment that they are going to be using on their dog in the show ring.  As a positive reinforcement trainer, a metal choke chain is not a piece of equipment I would use or recommend.  These collars were specifically designed to be uncomfortable and aversive to a dog and to help humans get "control".  In my opinion, there are simply much more dog-friendly choices out there, however, they continue to be used in the show ring for a few reasons.  First, because many show dogs are not well trained and the owner or handler simply cannot control the dog without having a thin, tight, metal choke collar up high around their neck.  And second, because it is what has always been used.

If a dog is so untrained that he cannot be controlled without the use of a choke chain, perhaps that dog is not ready to be competing in dog shows.  The behaviors necessary for the show ring are fairly straightforward and pretty easy to train with positive reinforcement training.  There is no reason for a dog to be shown and expected to perform without being taught what is expected of him or her.  So, one solution is to simply train the dog.  If the dog is well trained, one will not have to rely on equipment to keep the dog responsive and focused.  In agility competitions, dogs are trained to navigate through tunnels, over jumps, through weave poles and a variety of other obstacles with NOTHING on at all.  Surely, we can train our show dogs to trot around the ring, stand in a show stack and be examined by a judge with non-aversive equipment and positive reinforcement training.  The truth is that while the behaviors do need to be trained, they are not that difficult to teach if people simply put the time in. 

The other reason that choke chains continue to be used is because it is simply "what has always been used" and people are resistant to use something else.  I can't tell you how many times I have heard "I have a (fill in the breed here) and they are ALWAYS shown on a choke chain", or worse, "I have a (fill in the breed here) they can ONLY be shown on a choke chain".  This is incredibly frustrating to me because the truth is that they do NOT have to be shown on a choke chain.  The fact that your breeder, your friend, or some know it all sitting at ringside says you have to use a choke chain does not mean you have to use one.  There are many completely acceptable alternatives to a choke chain including a Resco, a martingale or a nylon slip.  A nylon slip is still technically a choke collar, but they are thicker and softer and  in my opinion they are a much more humane option for a dog that has been taught not to pull on the lead.  The point is, there are kinder alternatives to using a metal choke chain on a show dog.

I have clients and know people who continue using a choke chain just because of tradition and because they seem to like how they look.  All I can say is that if you are going to use one at least give your dog the courtesy of being taught not to pull on the lead first, so that they don't have to suffer being choked by a tight, thin, metal choke chain.  I know people may think that I am being melodramatic but the truth is, they are called choke chains for a reason.  I should add here that I do know people who do show their well trained dogs on a loose choke chain and don't use corrections at all.  I am not saying that everyone who is uses  a choke collar is correcting their dog or trying to be unkind, I am simply saying that there are other options that may be even better.

For me, I will never be able to consider choke chains a good thing.  Maybe it is because I know why they were designed and what the purpose was.  Maybe it is because I have witnessed a dog pass out at a dog show because he was pulling on a thin metal choke chain for too long.  Maybe it is because I have seen one too many dogs yanked and jerked by someone who felt that "choke chains are a humane choice for an experienced trainer".  So, while I accept that choke chains are still being used and will continue to be used, I will continue to push for kinder, non-aversive, dog-friendly equipment.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Getting Reinforced for Reinforcing Others

I went to the Golden Gate Kennel Club dog show on Sunday.  It was the first the show where I brought my Dog Shows are Fun! cards and charms.  I gave out three of them and it felt great!  The first one was to a woman who I saw being so thoughtful and careful with a young sporting dog.  She seemed excited about it and was reading the card as I walked off.  The second one went to a friend of mine, who is the only other positive reinforcement conformation trainer (that I know of) in my area.  She was so touched that she cried and was very grateful.  The third person was playing in the hallway with her terrier with a toy.  The dog was having a great time.  She just kind of stuffed the card and charm into her pocket which was actually fine because she was busy playing with and interacting with her dog which is exactly what she should have been doing!  I felt good about it.  I hope that I made their day and they thought about the good they are doing for their dogs!