Toronto dog owners have recently been galvanized by changes to the city by-laws. In particular, an initiative to ban the use of prong and chain collars while tethering somehow morphed into a complete ban on the use of these tools at any time. This is part of my response to those changes. A previous letter took a big-picture approach; here, we focus in more detail on the personal impacts.
Dear Mayor and Councillors:
My name is Sol Chrom. I live downtown near Queen & Ossington.
This is Koba. He is a Black Russian Terrier, almost 4 years old, 140 lbs. BRTs were developed in the years following the Second World War as working dogs for the Soviet military; they needed a large, powerful, intelligent dog with a calm, well-balanced temperament that was versatile, courageous, responsive to training, and could stand up to extreme cold. They began with the Giant Schnauzer, the Rottweiler, and the Airedale, and after several generations of breeding for the desired characteristics and the inclusion of several other dog breeds, the first BRT breed standard was adopted in 1958. It was recognized internationally in 1984.
Some dogs respond well to purely positive training. Rewards and positive reinforcement are fine for them. Others may require other approaches. With strong-willed and powerful dogs — of whatever size — a purely positive approach isn’t always enough. They need to know that certain things are not allowed, and that pulling, charging, and other unacceptable behaviours will be corrected. This is not cruelty or abuse, but care and dedication. We do this because we love our dogs, and we want to keep them (and others) safe.
When Koba was a puppy, we did a series of puppy socialization and foundation skill classes. These were wonderful training for him, and he still recognizes and adores the other dogs who were in these classes with him. The training was clicker-based; we were taught to reinforce desired behaviours with clicks and treats so that the dogs would associate the behaviour with pleasant experiences.
I have no hesitation in recommending such training for any owner with a new puppy, or even an older dog that is still amenable to learning. The thing with Koba, though, is that as he grew older and stronger, it just wasn’t enough. He started becoming what he is bred to be: a powerful, intelligent, dominant, and very strong-willed working dog. More and more, it became clear that whatever he was interested in, it wasn’t always going to be possible to distract or redirect him with a click and/or a treat. It doesn’t mean this will never work again, but it does mean I need a reliable strategy that will work when I need it to.
With a dog such as this, firm and consistent leadership is absolutely essential. And at times, that involves physical corrections, not just positive reinforcements.
(Let’s talk about language for a second. “Correction” does not mean “punishment.” I will not use that term. Apart from its connotations, it is inappropriate for the simple reason that dogs are not human beings. They have no moral sense. Moreover, it is too easy for some critics to equate it with abuse. I am not in the habit of abusing my dog.)
There will always be people who don’t believe in using corrections. If they’re happy with the results they’re getting, that’s fine; I’m not here to tell them what they should or shouldn’t do, but I cannot allow them to claim that their way, and their way alone, is the only “humane” approach. I can tell you, however, that corrections have been essential to Koba’s training. We have been working on this with the help of excellent trainers who do IPO/Schutzhund work; they train police dogs and have extensive experience with powerful working/guardian breeds as well. The corrections do not have to be dramatic or overwhelming; a simple pop of the leash, in combination with a chain or prong collar, is sufficient most of the time.
So much for the thinking behind our particular approach to training. I’d like to talk about our real-world experience for a minute.
I love to get out and about with Koba. Walking with him is our time to bond, to get what exercise we can, and to reinforce his socialization and his training. We walk along sidewalks, we walk along lakeshore trails, we walk in city parks, anywhere we can. We comply with all applicable requirements, at all times. I don’t need a cookie for this — I’m mentioning it because far too often, we encounter people who do not. Sadly, there are many dog owners in this city who seem to think they are exempt from following the rules. I have lost count of the number of off-leash dogs Koba and I have encountered in leashed areas, and my problem with the city’s approach to enforcement is a matter of record. I’d love it if I could walk him in peace, in public space, but too often that’s effectively impossible.
The fact is, however, that when we are rushed by aggressive off-leash dogs, I need to keep Koba under control. It’s especially important with him, because his size, power, and colour make him particularly easy to demonize. The number of times this has happened and the work we’ve done to address it is beyond the scope of this letter, and I could write another essay about that, but for now, I need to stress that the best thing for managing these situations while minimizing his discomfort is a prong collar. It is not like wrapping his neck in barbed wire, as a certain councillor breathlessly claims; it is a manner of distributing the pressure from the leash evenly all the way around rather than concentrating it all in one spot.
I will not use a flat collar because of the pressure it puts on his trachea.
I will not use a head collar or nose harness because of the risk of neck injury.
And I will not use a harness because of the risk of neck, shoulder, and/or spine injury. That, plus the simple laws of physics dictate that I will lose.
Any collar or harness can cause injury in the hands of an irresponsible or neglectful handler. If we’re going to ban prong and chain collars for that reason, consistency demands that we do the same with harnesses, flat collars, and head collars. Surely anyone can see where that leads.
There will always be people who neglect and abuse their dogs. But targeting loving and responsible owners, or professional trainers who don’t subscribe to a certain mindset, is not going to fix that. Given the city’s inability or unwillingness to enforce its own leash laws (which, bluntly, would solve most dog problems), it’s hard to see how an ill-considered measure like this is going to make things any better. This will be no more effective than BSL.
Now, there are those who will respond to this by saying “well, if you can’t control your dog without using one of those cruel collars, you haven’t done enough training / you shouldn’t have that breed / you shouldn’t have a dog.” All I can say to this is, well, you’re going to have to euthanize hundreds of thousands of dogs then, because there are a lot of people in similar situations. Are you ready to use the needle yourself? Because that’s where the ban on prong and chain collars is going to lead. Dogs who might have responded to balanced approaches to training will no longer have that chance.
If City Council truly wants to encourage responsible ownership, then it needs to address the real problems, not adopt knee-jerk measures based on emotion.