Zero Tolerance for Choke Chains?


Last week, I was in Newport, Rhode Island, for my stepdaughter’s wedding. Beautiful town, nice weather, and my family and I were there a few days early, so we could help with little chores and get in some sightseeing, too.

My sister and I went for a walk among the mansions (“cottages,” they are called there) and along the way I saw a couple walking with an enormous Great Dane. As we got close, I could see that the dog was wearing a service dog vest with a handle on the back, and that the woman was using the dog for help with balance.

choke chain collar

© Elizabeth Cummings |

I asked if I could take the dog’s picture, and explained, as I always do, that I edit a dog magazine and love to take photos of any dog I come across, if allowed. The people smiled and agreed; they also said that lots of people ask to take the dog’s picture, because she’s so big and bold-looking. The dog, indeed, was boldly colored (with a Harlequin coat) but also, she was much more strongly built than many Danes I have seen. She was not just tall, but also had very thick leg bones and was as bulky as a Mastiff. When I remarked on this, the people explained that they had imported her from Russia, especially for her job as a service dog.

I posted a picture of the woman and her dog on WDJ’s Instagram account (@dogsofwholedogjournal) with the caption #servicedogsrock. And didn’t think about it again until a day or two later, when I saw that a couple of people had commented critically about the collar that the dog had been wearing: a choke chain.

I deleted the post, rather than have a debate start there. But I have been sort of fuming about this for days.

I did notice that the dog had been wearing a choke chain when I took the picture. I take pains to avoid using pictures of dogs who are wearing choke chains, pinch collars, or shock collars in Whole Dog Journal. I firmly believe that dogs can be trained without these tools, and I want to show our readers well-behaved, well-trained dogs wearing flat collars in the magazine. I want our models to, for the lack of a better word, “model” the kind of training that we promote.

I probably wouldn’t have posted the picture of just any dog wearing a choke chain on Instagram. But for me, the value of the service this dog was providing to the woman, and the obvious good relationship between them, outweighed the potentially negative note sent by the collar. I was super impressed by the team. Here was a woman who was able to walk on uneven streets in a gorgeous, historic place, enjoying the same experience as me, by virtue of the fact that her service dog was there for support and balance. As someone whose mental and emotional health is strongly tied to the walks I take with my dogs, I was moved nearly to tears by witnessing the partnership that allowed the woman to do exactly what I was doing.

Yes, the dog was wearing a choke chain, and the leash was attached to the chain – but the dog was walking quietly and calmly with a loose leash. I’m not sure the chain collar was needed, but I also could see that it might make the woman feel that she had a bit more control over the dog if needed. If the dog did grow animated or pull, it was clear that – probably with or without the chain collar – the woman would not be able to prevent the dog from pulling away. The woman was slender, and the dog was enormous. I’m sure the dog outweighed her handler by a good bit.

But as much as I want to promote training without pain or physical force – and that is the only reason choke chains work, folks; they inflict pain – I do not want to participate in passing knee-jerk judgments on people for their choice of training equipment. Especially people who are physically vulnerable! Tiny people, older people, people who have had strokes or have Multiple Sclerosis, or some other challenge; do we really need to take these people to task because they aren’t handling their dogs with the kindest equipment possible? I was upset that anyone felt the need to do that. Was this photo the place to have this conversation?

Am I being too sensitive? Should service dog handlers not get a free pass on judgment, just because they are disabled? Should I be more concerned about the dog’s wellbeing; should service dogs deserve even more protection from potentially painful gear?

I’d be interested to hear what you think.

Collars, Harnesses, Leashes: What’s Safe?

Leashes, Collars, Harnesses: Best Gear for Positive Training

The Safest Types of Dog Collars (and the Most Dangerous)

Dog Collars or Harnesses: Which is Better?


  1. They only cause pain of used incorrectly, they work by using snaps with the sound of the chain and a little (not painful) pressure to get the dogs attention not to choke the dog. Yes there are people that use them wrong as anyone can use everything wrong. If they put a flat collar on to tight and choke the dog that doesnt make flat collars horrible does it?

  2. Although we don’t use the choke chain for training, we keep it on our large dogs because it comes in handy if the dog is in a situation where it’s hard to control. That’s it. Our walking gear is a regular harness attached to a leash.

  3. The choke chain, when used correctly, is an invaluable tool.

    Decades ago, I enrolled in a series of dog training classes. One class each week, for several months. Different levels of training. We used choke chains. I learned how to and how NOT to use a choke chain. In those classes the dogs learned to pay attention to their owners. We graduated to the use of throw chains and “shark lines” when we got to advanced training/off-leash training. Once you have trained your dog properly with the use of a choke chain, then the chain is no longer needed. A loose leash (or no leash), voice command and hand signals will suffice.

    All of my dogs, without exception, have been walked off-leash whenever possible. They have admirable recall; they are not allowed to “chase things.” They do not abandon me to go play with other dogs——unless permission is granted. I **often** hear from complete strangers, “Wow. Your dog is so well trained/obedient.” And guess what? My dogs have all been happy, well-adjusted, unproblematic dogs.

    As my dog training instructors told their students: “An obedient dog is a happy dog. Why? Because they have so much more freedom.” When you train a dog with consistency and love, those dogs tune in to you. They don’t expect food rewards. Your company and attention and consistency is what they want. Dogs love freedom. They also love to know what’s coming next and why. My dogs can expect a nice, tasty treat when they come home after a nice long walk or run —— a treat for being a good dog all day.

    I cringe when i see people training dogs with treats. The dogs all seem obsessed with watching their owners’ hands and treat pouches. The dogs don’t appear obedient so much as they appear like treat-obsessed mindless flunkeys. Certainly there must be some quality dog training going on with the use of treats as positive reinforcement, but I think the timing and consistency part of that is just too much for most people to get it right.