Dog Collars and Harnesses

Every puppy should have a collar to wear on its first day home. Collars can save a dog’s life by helping owners keep the dog from wandering into traffic or other dangers, and they can be a ticket home when a dog is lost by providing owner contact information on a tag attached to the collar. There are many collar options available to dog owners and it is helpful to know the benefits and perhaps even the dangers of the different types.

dog with halti

Understanding how each collar works can help owners select the best equipment to suit their needs. Correct usage of that equipment and handler timing can mean the difference between effective training and rough handling. A piece of equipment alone won’t solve a training issue. It takes correct training and handler timing to be effective. A dog owner may need to seek the advice of a trainer or and experienced person who can explain how to properly use equipment. Once a dog has learned to pull, it takes being consistent, persistent, and patient to gradually retrain the dog. Some types of collars may be used only for short periods of time during training until a level of proficiency or desired behavior is reached.

First collar

Selecting the correct collar for your new dog or puppy is important. Most dogs will need several collars over their lifetime; in addition, you may need different collars depending on your dog’s size, the activities you are participating in, and your goals. The first collar is usually a soft buckle or quick-release collar fitted so that you can easily put two fingers between the dog’s neck and collar. Be sure the collar isn’t so loose that it can easily slip over the head of the dog. Often, the dog will have a collar when you take it home from a breeder or shelter, but be sure to check ahead of time so that you can be prepared. Most collars are adjustable and can be lengthened over time as needed for growth.

Types of collars

There are many types of collars and they are made in a variety of styles. Some are designed with function in mind, while others are more whimsical for decorative or fashion purposes. Collars are typically made of metal, leather, or a strong fabric such as nylon webbing. They come flat or round and in a variety of colors.

Plain buckle collar

The most common type of collar is the plain buckle collar, which may be quick release or traditional buckle and is made of leather or strong fabric. These are usually used for everyday wear and carry some type of identification on them, either a nametag attached to the collar or a name and number written or woven onto the collar. A buckle collar can be flat or round (rolled). It can be used to walk your dog, train your dog, or just for identification purposes.

Slip, or choke, collar

Slip, or choke, collars may be metal or fabric and are used for training. They have two rings on the ends and work by slipping the collar through one of the rings and placing it over the dog’s head. These collars tighten up when the dog pulls away from the owner and loosen when it moves closer. If you are training your dog to walk on your left side it is important to place the collar so that the ring the leash is attached to come over the top of the dog’s neck. This will allow it to release more easily as you walk the dog. Slip collars should be used with caution and, to prevent strangulation, should never be left on an unattended dog. Many trainers have moved away from these collars for training as it can be painful and/or cause damage to the neck and throat of the dog if used incorrectly. However, for heavily furred dogs this may work better than a buckle collar because it is less apt to come off over the dog’s head. It also provides better control if the dog pulls when walking.

Modified slip, or martingale, collar

A modified slip collar (also called a martingale) is a combination of a plain buckle collar and a slip collar. It is designed to tighten up on a dog’s neck, but the tightening is limited to a preset amount. These type collars can be used for walking or training dogs and may be left on a dog when unattended. They can be made of leather, fabric, and a combination of these, including some metal parts. They provide a little more control of a dog than a plain buckle collar but less control than a straight slip collar.

Prong, or pinch, collar

A prong, or pinch, collar is a metal collar used for training dogs or for large unruly dogs that need a lot of control. They have metal prongs that push in on the neck of the dog when tightened; however, they have a limited ability to tighten, much like the martingale collars. Prong collars should be used only in training or as needed for control of large dogs that are reactive to the environment. Never leave a prong collar on a dog when it is not supervised. Prong collars should be used with care and under the supervision of a qualified trainer. They are not allowed at some types of events, such as AKC dog shows.

Head collar

A head collar is a collar that goes around the muzzle of a dog similar to a horse’s halter. One type of head collar is called a halti. A head collar provides excellent control but can cause severe injury if a dog is jerked suddenly. This can happen either because the dog is not familiar with the collar or because the owner/handler uses it incorrectly. Head collars are made of a web fabric. If you decide to use a head collar, put it on the dog for a short time for several days so it can get accustomed to wearing it before attaching a leash. Also be careful to use the head collar in a controlled environment until you are sure the dog knows how it works and will respond appropriately. In some cases these collars may rub on the dog and cause irritation or hair loss. The best use of these collars is for training purposes with larger dogs where control is an issue.


There are three basic types of harnesses for dogs. They are walking harnesses, sledding harnesses, and weight-pulling harnesses.

• Walking harnesses may be used for dogs that pull but may not give more control than a collar. Some dogs may learn to pull into the harness, actually increasing their pulling while walking, and may benefit from a different type of collar. A walking harness is a good option for a dog with neck or trachea problems and are often used for toy breeds and for some of the large arctic breeds. The walking harness goes between front legs and around the neck and withers of dog. An attachment ring is located near the withers of the dog. Some walking harnesses have an antijumping mechanism built into the harness, which makes it difficult for a dog to jump.

• Sledding harnesses are designed for use in pulling a sled and have padding at pressure points, such as on the chest and breast plate areas. The harness goes over the back of the dog with tug lines attached to loops near the dog’s tail. Sledding harnesses vary in design, depending on the manufacturer. The two main styles are the open back and the X back styles.

• Weight-pulling harnesses are made for dogs pulling heavy loads either in a weight-pulling contest or while working. These are similar to a sled-pulling harness but have a wooden bar spreader across the back to prevent the side straps from rubbing on the dog’s legs and to stabilize the weight while the dog is pulling. The attachment loop on a weight-pulling harness is behind the bar and is lower to the ground to assist the dog in pulling.

Electric collar

Electric collars are used by some dog trainers, especially those working with hunting and protection dogs. They are not recommended unless used by a professional. The electric collar works by creating a static electric shock to the dog, which causes some pain. The level of shock can often be adjusted to suit the dog’s personality and training needs. These collars are activated remotely by the handler or trainer using a handheld control.

Other electric collars are used to stop nuisance barking. These collars work when a shock is set off by the vibration of the dog’s vocal cords or by the noise of the bark. There are also electric collars that give a shock in response to a signal from an underground fence. Electric collars should be on a dog only when they are being used for a specific training purpose and not for general use.

Elizabeth Wells, Ph.D. – Michigan State University