Vet Talk

Caught by a Collar!

Best prevention is for dogs to play without wearing collars

Published: October 20, 2014

I give you the following scenario:

Two happy Labradors are out in the yard, wrestling around and goofing off. What do they do? They chew on one another, right? Like, with their mouths. And they grab where? Yeah, around the neck. ‘Cuz that’s what dogs do.

Now imagine what happens if these dogs are wearing collars. Usually nothing, but sometimes this scenario can turn into BIG trouble. One happy dumb dog finds the other happy dumb dog’s collar and thinks, “Hey George, you’ve got a handle here! I’m just gonna hold onto this since it’s easier than grabbing your wobbly skin and spit-slimy hair. And I’m gonna hang onto it, and I’m gonna fall down here and flip you over with my classic pro-wrestling move, and ... uh-oh. George? I’m stuck. Dude, ow, that’s my tongue. LET GO OF ME GEORGE! AIIIIIEEEEEEE!!!”

Now you’ve got a situation in which one dog has its lower jaw wrapped in the collar and is in pain while the victim wearing the collar (in this case, a bewildered and frightened George) is in imminent danger of suffocation. And yes, it happens. It is not necessarily a daily occurrence, but it’s a constant risk when dogs wearing collars do their doggie thing, and you definitely don’t want to be the one suddenly responsible for saving the lives of a terrified, strangling dog and the companion who now thinks his buddy George is deliberately hurting him.

As a veterinarian, I’m a big fan of animal restraint. For instance, I love it when puppies come in wearing collars; I’m able to hook my ring finger under them to keep the wriggly little lunatics on the table and prevent them from flying off into space while I conduct their examinations. It also keeps my left hand safely underneath their jaws if they decide to start trying to chew on me.

Properly civilized dogs need to be able to walk on a leash in many circumstances, so teaching them to wear a collar and behave properly when it’s attached to a human by a rope is a necessity. Collars are a great place to put an ID plate or tags with identification on them, not to mention the obligatory rabies tag. Some hunting dogs wear very cool GPS collars so their owners can track them; I was once visited by a coonhound who had a little orange LED light on hers so her owner could see her in the dark. Some dogs wear flea collars, although regular low-cost over-the-counter flea collars are generally nothing more than a convenient place for fleas to stay dry when it’s raining on their dog of residence (the high-end ones are effective).

I never fool with a horse that’s not wearing a halter, because that would just be dumb. Even if they’re not trying to maim me deliberately, those big beasts can squish me flat if they're not restrained properly. I hate when that happens. It hurts and makes me very grumpy. Horses and halters, though, have their own ways of getting into trouble.

While horses don’t wrestle like dogs, they do get bored, hungry, or curious, then start poking their noses into places where they should not. If a horse happens to be wearing a halter on his head when he sticks his face through a fence or into some dense brush or up into a tree, it can end very, very badly.

When I was in vet school, I had the dubious privilege of caring for an orphaned foal whose mother had hanged herself from a tree branch. The owner was a lovely elderly lady and she had some super-nice horses, but she was short and not strong, speedy, or agile, so she couldn’t always get the halters on easily when trying to move her horses around. Most horse owners have heard not to leave a regular halter on a horse when it’s in the pasture, but because some horses can be tough to catch, some ignore that warning — and a percentage of those pay a terrible price.

What’s a pet owner to do? Well, it’s extra work for certain, but the surest, safest prevention is never to let dogs play together while wearing collars. Is that practical? Probably not. In fact, it’s probably a real pain in the keister to be putting on and taking off collars all the time, but it’s the ONLY way to be certain this can’t happen to your dog. Harnesses in place of collars are not the answer, as those have even more straps and buckles to grab and twist!

Breakaway collars exist, but be warned that if you end up with a need to grab your dog by the collar to stop him from running into traffic, you may end up with a breakaway collar in your hand and a broken dog on the road. For that hard-to-catch-horse, if you feel that there is absolutely no way you can take your horse’s halter off and have any hope of ever seeing him up close again, special halters with a thin breakaway strap at the top are available that might save you tremendous heartache.

If your dog socializes in a dog park, it’s tough to tell him that he’s not allowed to play with the other dogs who are wearing collars, but it’s best if he doesn’t. If you explain to other owners why you’re reluctant to allow him to participate, hopefully they will understand and be willing to remove collars in order to prevent tragedy.

Some people who have experienced this scenario have been fortunate enough to have something on hand (i.e. scissors, a knife) that allowed them to cut a collar off and free the dogs. This presents its own risks, though; if you are trying to cut a collar off a struggling dog, you can easily cut yourself or the dog instead. Additionally, the dog whose mouth isn’t stuck (remember George?) may bite you because he thinks you’re trying to aid the other dog in its “attack.” I would prefer that this option be a last resort, because human safety is paramount.

Look at this from the viewpoint of an insurance company. What is the statistical likelihood of this circumstance actually happening? Let's say two dogs have had play dates once a week for six years with no problems; no one can say with assurance that a collar will or never will get caught. This situation is essentially one of statistical risk, except that there are no insurance company actuarial tables that can predict how many times the collar gets caught before one or both of the playing dogs gets hurt or dies of strangulation. There's also the flip side of a dog getting lost without a collar and ID tag, or your getting a ticket because the dog isn't wearing tags. This choice of when to wear a collar and when not to is one that deserves some solid thought. George and his buddy will thank you.


Wendy Smith Wilson, DVM 
October 27, 2014

Hi Gerry, I'll acknowledge that skirmishes between dogs in social situations are more frequent than the sort of mishap addressed in this article.  I would submit, though, that those tend to be brief and noisy, sometimes with cuts and scrapes and other treatable wounds, but are rarely fatal unless an all-out pack assault erupts--and wading into a fracas like that to retrieve a dog is dangerous and ill-advised (although I know folks are going to do it).  I suppose I'd simply suggest that if you're planning to leave collars on at the park, take steps to be prepared to have to cut someone loose.  And if it happens to be a chain collar like some owners put on their dogs, you'll need to have bolt cutters handy.  As I said in the article, it's all a matter of risk and whether you wish to play the odds.  A quick internet search turns up plenty of reports of people who've lost their dogs to strangulation or experienced close calls.  The more people who are aware of the risk, the better.

October 26, 2014

Some good points here, but not in a dog park. There, you should be watching your dog. And minor issues may well arise where the dogs need to be separated, but doing so with several collarless dogs is a safety issue, which is far more likely than the point brought out here.


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