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How to choose a safe collar for your dog

Choosing a collar is one of the first things on the list of things to do when bringing a new dog home. You may be aware that there are many different types of collars, so making the best choice isn’t as simple as it looks. Read on for some tips on the importance of dog collars and how to find a collar for your dog that’s comfortable, functional and safe.

One of the main purposes of a collar is identification. Whilst all dogs should be microchipped to provide the best chance of you being reunited if they become lost, collars are an easy way for others to see your dog’s name and your contact details. This is also crucial for emergency planning. Wearing a collar with an identification tag may mean your dog is returned to you more quickly than if they are taken to a veterinary clinic to have their microchip scanned. Collars are also widely used in training dogs or puppies to walk on a leash.

Making sure your dog is comfortable and safe

Since your dog will be wearing their collar all day, it must be both comfortable and safe. The best type is a standard flat collar that is easily adjustable with a quick release buckle and a metal ring for attaching your dog’s identification tag and leash. Single layer collars are preferable, as there is evidence that double-layered collars with cushioning can actually cause increased pressure on the neck. There are many colours and designs available when choosing a collar and some even have reflective stitching, so your pet is easily visible in the dark.

To find the right size you will need to adjust the collar to fit your dog comfortably and safely. As puppies grow, their neck size increases quickly, so check the fit of their collar weekly. They may need a larger size when they reach adulthood to prevent skin damage from a collar that is too tight and digs into their neck. Poorly fitted collars can slip off if too loose or cause discomfort or even choke your dog if too tight. To prevent this, remember the golden rule of fitting a dog’s collar – you should be able to comfortably place two fingers (90 degrees to the dog’s skin, not lying flat against the skin) between the collar and your dog’s neck.

The right fit

Getting the fit of the collar right from the outset will protect your dog from discomfort, such as from having a collar that is the wrong size or made of stiff material. A dog’s mobility should never be impaired by wearing a collar and they should never look miserable or scratch their collar with irritation. Of even more concern, collars can injure dogs if they’re not fitted properly, which is why correct fitting and supervision are essential. Dogs left outdoors who try to escape can die from strangulation if their collars become caught on something, such as on a fence post.

Loose collars can trap a dog’s limbs, teeth or tongue, which may cause serious injury. Tight collars, on the other hand, can dig into your dog’s skin, causing irritation, fur loss and even infection. It is also a good idea to remove collars at night to allow the skin to breathe.

Be on the look out for things that could cause a neck injury

Another way collars can harm your dog, even if correctly fitted, is by causing neck injury if your dog pulls on the leash or is tugged along. The pressure of the collar on the neck due to pulling or tugging can cause injury (through ‘whiplash’ or nerve damage) to the thyroid gland, lymph nodes, trachea and oesophagus and can even worsen respiratory symptoms in brachycephalic (short-nosed) breeds or cause abnormal increases in eye pressure. A recent study using a simulated neck model showed that no collar type can prevent pressure injury in dogs who pull on the leash. This is one reason why ‘loose-leash walking’ with a front attaching harness is recommended.

Training your dog to ‘loose-leash walk’ (which means your dog walks on the leash without pulling) is safest when using a front-attaching harness with a double-ended leash that attaches to the back and front. These harnesses are highly recommended as a training aide and have surpassed the previously used ‘head collars’, which cover the muzzle and can cause discomfort and injury.

Front-attaching harnesses are safer than collars because when the dog does pull, any pressure is absorbed by their chest or back, rather than their neck, reducing the risk of injury and preventing coughing and choking. Unlike collars, they also prevent dogs from slipping out and escaping. For dogs who are well trained not to pull on the leash, back-fitting harnesses may be suitable. As with all equipment, a harness must be properly fitted for your dog’s comfort and ability to move normally and should be removed during play or when safe within their owners’ property (indoors or outdoors).

Provide reward-based training

Training your dog or puppy is an important part of the care you provide, so it’s important to always use reward-based training. There are some collars that should never be used because they are harmful to the welfare of dogs and are based on the use of punishment in training. You should never use:

  • Check collars, still used by some trainers who misguidedly believe that jerking a dog’s head will correct unwanted behaviours. This results in severe pain and distress.
  • Pronged collars, metal collars with prongs that push into a dog’s neck when tightened, causing discomfort and pain and potential damage to the nerves, trachea and other tissues. This is another example of punishment-based training, which is ineffective and leads to distress and potentially aggressive behaviour.
  • Anti-barking collars, which emit electric shocks or another aversive stimulus (such as a scent or loud sound) when dogs bark. These collars cause pain and distress and are ineffective at treating the underlying cause of excessive barking.

There are many things to consider with collar safety and effectiveness

Collars are an essential accessory for your dog and apart from their role in identification and training, they may even make a fashion statement! Thanks to research in this area, we know much more these days about what makes a collar safe, the types of collars to avoid and the most effective way of training our dogs to walk on a leash. All this is about keeping your precious pet comfortable, safe and happy.

To add to your peace of mind, consider taking out pet insurance so you can seek veterinary assistance as needed in the case of unexpected injury or illness. With RSPCA Pet Insurance, a portion of first-year premiums help support the RSPCA’s work with animals in need.

Image of Dr Rosemary Elliot

Dr Rosemary Elliot 

Dr Rosemary studied veterinary science at the University of Sydney after having established her career as a clinical psychologist, and has qualifications of BVSc (Hons), MANZCVS (Animal Welfare), MPsych (Clin), BA (Hons) as well as previously establishing her career as a clinical psychologist. Her experiences during veterinary training fostered an ambition to focus directly on animal welfare and ethics, with a particular interest in animal sentience and the human-animal bond. Currently working in small animal practice, Dr Rosemary combines her psychology background and veterinary skills to contribute to and promote animal welfare, and regularly contributes quality content to RSPCA Pet Insurance's Pet Care blog.