Have you ever put on a shirt and had a scratchy tag annoy you? Or maybe the armholes are cut too tight. When we put on clothes, there are those that fit us perfectly, and then there are those clothes that just don’t fit. That discomfort we feel in a shirt that isn’t just right is aversive and will cause us to change our behavior. We might cut the tag out, or we might choose a different shirt, or if there is a reason to wear that specific shirt, we might choose to stand very stiffly, or sit in a particular way.
Our dogs are not all that different from us. When we go out in the world with our dogs, it is important that they wear equipment for a variety of reasons; we might need them to wear a collar and leash to keep them safe in traffic, or we might need them to wear a harness when driving in a car. It is important when training to have equipment that allows us to balance safety and control with comfort. A tag in your dog’s “shirt” can change the whole outing, and not in a good way.
It is tempting to say “this equipment is safe and good, and that equipment is not” but understanding the mechanics of the equipment can really help you to avoid unnecessary discomfort when dressing your dog. You may notice one dog perfectly comfortable wearing a head halter, and the next dog showing signs of stress when wearing exactly the same model. This is a good example of the tag in your shirt effect. If the first dog learned to wear the halter with treats and play, and the halter is well fitting, then discomfort is not likely. If the second dog was forced into the halter, and it is slightly tight around the muzzle, then there is a tag in the shirt, and the effect of wearing a halter is going to be that the dog will be distracted and frustrated.
When fitting equipment it is important to understand how the equipment is meant to work, and then make sure that it fits well and does the job it is supposed to do. Dog training equipment works in one of two ways. Either it gives us mechanical advantage, or when engaged it causes pain. A front attachment harness is intended to work via mechanical advantage, causing the dog to turn around if he pulls. A prong collar is intended to cause pain when the dog pulls, and be neutral when the dog does not pull. When choosing equipment, it is important to choose equipment that is not intended to cause pain, and then ensure that it is fitted so that it does not.
Harnesses and head halters are intended to work by mechanical advantage, but some of the time, they have features that may cause discomfort and turn these pieces of equipment into painfully uncomfortable “shirts with tags”. How can we tell if the equipment we are using is working via mechanical advantage and not by discomfort or pain? The answer is a two step process of looking at the equipment and asking how it is intended to work, and then carefully fitting it to the dog and ensure that it fits comfortable by observing the dog’s reaction.
Let’s start out by using a thought exercise. Mentally consider the head halter. It is intended to work by conferring mechanical advantage to the handler, and is used by turning the dog’s head to the side if he pulls ahead of us. When we think about how the halter is intended to fit, and intended to operate, it can be seen how the mechanics are supposed to work. Then we should consider the equipment from the point of view of the dog. The dog’s face is highly sensitive, and able to perceive the gentlest of touch. Some dogs are so sensitive that even a well fitted head halter is uncomfortable. We can try to help the dog to become accustomed to the head halter by pairing it with treats and fun, but if the dog is very sensitive, the “shirt” will still have a “tag”. We can tell this by the dog’s behavior. He may rub his face on furniture or the floor, or he may paw at the nose band in an attempt to remove it. These dogs are telling us that the equipment is aversive.
When the dog is uncomfortable in the equipment we choose, then we have to reconsider our choices. With so many options available, we can usually find an alternative that suits both our training goals and our dog’s preferences. Given how uncomfortable ill-fitting clothing can be, we can see that it is important to remember to consider alternatives when the dog tells us that there is a tag in his shirt.
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