At first glance a dog’s neck may seem muscular and strong; easily capable of having a leash and collar attached for walking. After all, it’s what we’ve used for the past umpteen years and it’s able to hold the weight of a heavy head, projecting forward rather than sitting directly above the body as the human head does.
But if we could see inside the dog’s neck, we’d see many vital structures. We’d see the oesophagus (food-pipe) and the trachea (windpipe) with the delicate epiglottis which shuts the trachea when swallowing. I think we all know that the tightening of anything around the neck causes a restriction of breathing and in extreme cases leads to death. The structure of a dog’s neck is no different in this respect – they feel the same discomfort that we’d feel if we were to have a collar placed around the neck, a leash attached, and somebody yanking us around.
At the top of the neck sits a scaffold of tiny bones known as the hyoid apparatus – their job is to support the larynx, which, in turn, holds the vocal cords and helps with swallowing and breathing. Very close to the front surface of the neck (at about collar height) sits the thyroid cartilage and thyroid gland. The thyroid gland produces the hormones, thyroxine and triiodothyronine, which affect how every cell in the body works. Unfortunately, the thyroid gland can’t regenerate following damage. This fact alone, is a reminder that no mammal on earth evolved to withstand excessive pressure or impact to the front of the neck. Around the same area as the thyroid gland there are also parathyroid glands. The job of the parathyroid glands is to regulate calcium. Calcium regulation is more important than we might think – calcium regulation is crucial for many of the dog’s internal organs to function properly.
At the back of the neck the dog has seven cervical vertebrae which form the top of the spine. Interestingly, this is the same number in humans, giraffes, and almost all mammals (sloths and manatees are the only exceptions) – again, I think we’re all aware of how vital the spine is and how painful and debilitating damage to it can be. Running the length of the cervical vertebrae is the nuchal ligament. This is the amazing piece of anatomy which allows the dog to have an outstretched head, or walk with the nose against the ground sniffing, with ease. It’s not that the rest of the neck is super strong, it’s that they have a substantial nuchal ligament taking the strain (a little like the chains of a drawbridge). If you’ve ever given your dog a chew-treat called a paddywack (sometimes spelt paddywhack), then you’ve held in your hand the nuchal ligament of a sheep or bovine.
There are other vital components running through the neck within easy reach of damage, for example, the jugular vein and the vagus nerve; additionally, there are many conditions of the neck (for example, laryngeal paralysis and tracheal collapse) which, if not caused by, would certainly be exasperated by, neck pressure – and it’s not only the neck; a study by Pauli (2006) found that collar pressure significantly increased Intraocular pressure (pressure within the eyes). The study found no such effect when using a harness. A more recent study (Carter et al., 2020) tested various collar types and found all of them to carry significant risk of injury to dogs that pull, even at low forces – but I think the point has been made, that it’s not a good idea to be applying pressure to the neck of our beloved dogs.
My dogs wear only a harness; I know these don’t escape all criticism. People worry that they may be restrictive or even cause arthritis. I’m not without the same concerns – when I switched to the harness, I used one with a front strap going horizontally from shoulder to shoulder but have long since switched to the ‘Y’ shaped harness (because they are less restrictive of the shoulders) and currently use the Perfect-Fit brand (I have no affiliation with them, I simply like the product). Other people will say ‘any equipment is harmful if it’s not used correctly’. I don’t disagree; dogs shouldn’t be yanked around on a harness either, but whether pulling on the leash, yanking (by humans), or an out-of-character dash (by the dog), what will be the most harmful? It’s often impossible in life to cause ‘no harm’ – what I must consider is, how can I cause least harm?
Another concern I often hear is that harnesses teach dogs to pull. The reasoning behind this is that they’ve been used for years by sled dogs. The reason they’re used on sled dogs is that it’s the most ergonomic way to pull the sledge. Ergonomics relate to efficiency and comfort. It’s fairly obvious that it wouldn’t be efficient or comfortable to pull by the neck – but making the dog less comfortable (so less efficient at pulling) is not a reasonable argument against the use of a harness. I want my dogs to be as comfortable as possible; if we introduce elements of discomfort the dog will not be at ease or be in the best emotional state for training or generally interacting with the world. If the dog pulls, this is more reason to use a harness, not less reason.
I understand why people use the collar – it’s what’s always been done, it’s convenient (no faffing around putting the harness on) and it’s much cheaper; but if we want to do the best we can for our dogs, I don’t think we should be applying pressure to the neck. We wouldn’t do it to a child because we know it would be uncomfortable, harmful, and utterly unacceptable – but it’s uncomfortable and harmful for dogs too. As to whether it’s unacceptable, only you can decide!
Carter, A., McNally, D. and Roshier, A. (2020) ‘Canine collars: an investigation of collar type and the forces applied to a simulated neck model’ Veterinary Record, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1136/vr.105681.
Pauli, A., Bentley, E., Diehl, K. and Miller, P. (2006) ‘Effects of the Application of Neck Pressure by a Collar or Harness on Intraocular Pressure in Dogs’ J Am Anim Hosp Assoc 42 (3) pp. 207–211.