Check chains...what's the problem?

Paddy Driscoll

Check,or choke, chains are still in common use on dogs throughout the UK. They are used by some professional trainers and the preferred tool in some training classes. The British Kennel Club is happy for them to be used in their competitive events and at their registered clubs. So if those 'experts' use and advocate them, what's the problem?

Physical harm?

Check chains are still used in dog training despite the advent of more positive training methods. There isn't a lot of evidence that they cause damage to dogs, but there is some.

Vets will tell you they encounter disc and neck problems which they believe to be a result of dogs being corrected on check chains. Respected veterinary behaviourist Robin Walker wrote a strong letter to  the Veterinary Record (Veterinary Record March 19th 1994 p312) in which he makes clear his professional opinion that check chains are damaging and dangerous."In 30 years of practice (including 22 years as veterinary adviser to a police dog section)" he says " I have seen numerous severely sprained necks, cases of fainting, transient foreleg paresis, and hindleg ataxia after robust use of the check chain." He has more to say about the use of punishment, period, in training. "It fails disastrously when it creates anxious casualties or violently defiant rebels." (op cit)

Swedish expert, Anders Hallgren (Animal Behavior Vol 9 No 3 July 1992) found that 63% of dogs ("ordinary dogs that owners presented without any suspicion of spinal anomolies") in a study he carried out in 1992 had spinal anomolies. 55% of them also had some form of problematic behaviour. Of those that exhibited overactivity and aggression, 78% had spinal anomolies. It is a scary figure. Dogs that experience pain are very likely to show aggression. Of those dogs which showed anomolies in the cervical region (the neck) a whopping 91% had been subjected to corrections on a check chain or had a long history of pulling on the lead. This does not prove the damage was caused by choke chains, but where there is such a strong relationship between check chains, aggression and neck injuries it would serve dogs better to give them the benefit of the doubt and look for alternative ways to handle them. Hallgren, like many others, criticise the use of check chains and training methods which use jerking and pulling on the lead as way of controlling a dog.

A small study from  New Zealand has xray evidence for changes on the cervical vertebrae in just a few dogs that wore check chains. There are reputedly a couple of German studies but they are difficult to track down and seem to fall into the 'urban myth' category (unless you know otherwise?).

But it seems reasonable to assume that a metal chain placed around a dog's neck and used to jerk the dog's neck as it lunges forward is likely to cause some trauma at some point. The cervical vertebrae aren't designed to take that kind of punishment. The trachea is not very well protected so the spine and trachea can both end up damaged. Some check chain users suggest you can avoid that possibility by placing the chain up high behind the ears. Apparently the soft tissue 'cushions' the damage. This suggests that 'soft tissue' is less easily damaged than muscle over bone. I'm no vet, but that doesn't convince me much. Also, if it is up around the ears, and tight under the throat, there is a danger it will restrict the blood and air supply to the brain. One vet has reported to me that she witnessed a GSD at a dog show collapse in the ring. In her professional opinion it was due to the fine check chain pulled up tight just behind the ears.

Even when I used check chains for training (which I did for 15/20 years) we recognised the potential for damage. We didn't allow pups under 6 months in a class because we felt a check chain on a dog any younger was inappropriate. Why 6 months was chosen as the appropriate age I really don't know! The bones and muscle don't reach their full strength for some time after that. And of course now we do have other ways to train, and safer and kinder equipment to control the dog before it is trained, so there is really no good reason for using them.

Negative training

Check chains are designed to stop a dog pulling or lunging on the lead. Either through punishment (by punishing pulling by swiftly checking back with a sharp check) or by negative reinforcement (by keeping the chain tight around the dog's neck or up behind the ears and only releasing it when the dog 'behaves'). They rely on the dog wanting to avoid the unpleasantness (or even pain) of that potentially harmful chain around the neck. Used 'correctly' with an 'expert' trainer that unpleasantness is reduced to a minimum, but even used 'correctly' they still exert pressure on the neck and throat.

In my experience most owners (and even dog trainers) have poor timing generally. But spotting  the right moment to 'correct' the dog requires excellent timing. When to jerk the lead, and when to release it requires expertise and skill. The technique that is usually recommended is that when the dog forges ahead and tightens the lead, the handler allows their hands (and therefore the lead) to go forwards, so the chain slackens momentarily. As that happens, the quick flick or check is intended to 'correct' the dog for that forward pulling. The better trainers then suggest a few words of praise afterwards, and those words are considered sufficient 'reward' for the dog landing back next to the handler's leg. It is significant that the check on the chain happens immediately after the lead is slackened. A loose lead actually can become a signal to the dog that he is about to have his head jerked off. So from the dog's point of view any moment the leads goes slack is a highly dangerous thing to have happen, and its not unusual to observe dogs trained on a check chain to try and take up any slack in the lead by putting their weight into the chain. No doubt a tight check chain is more comfortable than being jerked hard.

But however the check chain is used, or whatever technique is used, while an inexpert handler gets the hang of how and when to jerk the dog, the dog is on the receiving end of their ineptitude and poor timing. Poor timing with giving food treats, or using a clicker, may make for less effective training but in itself does no harm.

Why is the dog pulling on the lead anyway?

Using a check chain to correct pulling does not take into account why the dog is pulling. If a dog is pulling to avoid another dog (because he is scared) a handler jerking and checking and insisting on obedience can be doing serious mental harm. I meet dogs all the time that have been showing fear aggression towards other dogs who had then been forced to walk to heel amongst other dogs, usually in a class environment. Their fear and therefore their aggression, has increased as consequence and because they show more aggression the punishment is upped until the dog eventually just gives in. The owner may have much better superficial control (with a tight check chain around the dog's ears perhaps), but the dog is often looking for any opportunity to escape, or show aggression. Barking, screaming, hyperactive behaviour; punished consistently, without addressing the reason for the fear all too often leads to depressed, submissive behaviour, with the appearance of being 'obedient', or in modern parlance, 'calm submissive', if an owner is resilient enough to persist. 

Why do dogs pull?

Proponents of check chains say they are necessary to control a strong pulling dog. They don't look at why the dog pulls. Yet if you can change the reason the dog is pulling maybe a check chain would be completely unnecessary. 

  • Sometimes a dog pulls and lunges towards another dog because it wants that dog to go away, or to attack it; he might be scared of it, or feel threatened by it or simply not like it! Sometimes the pulling and lunging is accompanied by barking and/or snarling.
  • Sometimes a dog pulls and lunges towards another dog because he is friendly and wants to say hello, or play. He is happy and excited. :-)
  • Sometimes dogs pull to end a  walk more quickly. Those are the ones that pull more on the way home than on the way out! It's usually because they find walks very stressful or difficult for some reason (or maybe they get their dinner when they get home?)
  • Sometimes dogs pull when they are aroused and stressed and one of the symptoms of stress is hyperactivity. Combined with poor training and incorrect learning it is all too easy to have a dog that wants to pull.
  • Sometimes dogs pull because their owners allow it and so the dog is rewarded for pulling. Because the dog reaches where it is going and it wants to be there.
  • Sometimes the  dog has simply not been taught to walk on a loose lead. Often the dog has no idea whatsoever what is required of him, because no one has actually tried to communicate that information to the dog!

Why would harsh corrections be appropriate in any of those situations? 

Teaching the dog how to  walk on a loose lead through positive reinforcement (rewards) and the witholding of those rewards (technically speaking negative punishment) if he goes wrong, is a far kinder way to deal with a pulling dog. If there is an underlying behaviour problem contributing to it that needs addressing. If it can't be addressed for some reason, or the training is a 'work in progress' then the dog may need to managed safely eg with a headcollar or a harness.

Whether check chains are used 'correctly' or incorrectly they are still potentially harmful. They are 100% negative training tools. Their sole purpose is to be unpleasant. They are one of the few pieces of dog training equipment in common use designed specifically to cause discomfort and/or pain. There are others, but most are expensive and reasonably difficult to obtain. Yet check chains are sold in many pet shops without instructions and without any health warnings!

Verbal praise and rewards

Fortunately (for the dog) some trainers also use rewards as well as check chains. But for many trainers who use corrections verbal praise is seen as sufficent reward. Which simply signals 'well done! You just avoided a correction!'. Not, as it should, 'Well done! You got something right and here's your reward!'' Dogs are very astute about wanting to avoid corrections and punishments (once they understand how to) so it can produce a dog that complies, which sadly, reinforces the handler's willingness to continue using a check chain. But it is telling that there are lot of "trained" adult dogs around being walked about on check chains. Why would they if they had worked to train the dog though? The message to take from that is that they don't work very effectively since the dog hasn't learned to walk on a loose lead without one. Sadly the Kennel Club don't seem to see this and permit their use in their Good Citizen tests. They won't accept the use of a headcollar in their tests though on the grounds that if the handler needs one on the dog is not yet trained to a high enough standard to pass the tests. But surely if the dog is 'trained' to a sufficiently high standard, why would it need a check chain? The argument they use to disallow headcollars and harnesses surely also applies to check chains?

Do corrections on a check chain work?

From a scientific point of view punishment reduces or weakens a behaviour, although there are potential dangers in using it. And yes, check chains can work to reduce pulling. But at what cost? Most dog trainers who use check chains seem not to be using them from any good understanding either of operant conditioning (ie how the dog changes his behaviour in response to the consequences of his behaviour) or of the potential fallout from using it. Hence the rather crude way a lot of heaving, restraining and checking carried out without any real understanding if why it might work and why it doesn't and why using positive reinforcement would be more effective and a more constructive way to train.

Often it is seen as way of showing the dog who is boss. Showing the dog that you, the handler, is stronger and more assertive than he is. It is used to signify something more that just 'stop pulling'. It is that combative, confrontational view of the relationship between dog and handler that epitomises all that is viewed as out of date and harmful about the more traditional approaches to dog training which uses check chains. The underlying idea is the dog is trying to gain physical superiority and needs to know who is 'boss'. No doubt it stems from the ideas about a dog that is leading the way is 'dominant' and trying to be the 'pack leader', but in reality there is no evidence that this is the case. 

The dog/owner relationship

Any technique or training tool which relies on a trainer constantly focusing on, and punishing, moments the dog is incorrect and getting things wrong is very damaging to the partnership. Instead of handler and dog working together, with the dog learning to choose to stay with the owner through getting positive feedback, its about the trainer 'criticising' the dog for getting things wrong all the time. Why on earth would a dog want to stay with a person who constantly nags and corrects it? But dogs being dogs, they (mostly) learn to cope. Dogs are very adaptable!


Check chains may have been the preferred training tool 30/40 years ago but we didn't know much, if anything, about operant conditioning then. We know better now. There is evidence of physical harm. The literature and the expertise is out there on kinder, more effective techniques so there is no excuse for using outdated and damaging methods. Using a check chain may tell the dog something about what isn't wanted, but little about what is. It focuses on very damaging aspects of the training equation (punishment or negative reinforcement), and the part that does the most damage. Criticising the dog's  efforts; using discomfort and maybe pain in an attempt to force compliance from our dogs is just not acceptable. As a training tool  the check chain is crude, outdated and unnecessary.


©Paddy Driscoll 2008 rev 2009

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