Thursday, August 13, 2009

How to Use a Martingale Collar

A martingale is the collar to use for any dog that is a flight risk. If slipping his collar is even potentially on the table, use a properly-fitted martingale.

No, a harness is not a secure option. Dogs can wiggle out of them with frightful ease. A head-halter is not a secure collar. A slip collar can be secure in the hands of a very good leash handler, but not when the human is complacent, inattentive, or lacks a high level of skill -- and it cannot be safely left on an unattended dog. Many dogs can slip even an overly tight flat collar.

Most better shelters and rescues use martingales now.

I'm insisting that every dog transported as part of Project Next Steps be wearing a properly-fitted martingale as the foundation of the Dog Transport Security System. We're scrambling to get enough of these as dogs move out.

Unfortunately, virtually every description and illustration I can find on the web has these collars fitted incorrectly. So I had to write up detailed instructions for the people fitting the dogs or assessing the fit on dogs who already have these collars, and take my own photographs.

Above is a standard martingale of the design one is most likely to find at a pet supply store. Ignore the brass name tag for the moment.

This is a fine collar if you are going to put it on a fairly cooperative dog, adjust it to fit, and leave it there forever. The dog's head slips through the large loop, and then you futz with the metal slider until the collar is fitted (see below).

The small loop, the one that provides the "action" when the dog or human pulls the leash taut, can be made of fabric, as seen here, or chain. They work identically. The chain is not quite as good for dogs with lots of fine fluffy hair,

There are two great drawbacks to this common design. First, most untrained dogs who actually need a martingale are not all that cooperative. At best they wiggle and fuss and make adjusting the thing an ordeal. The slider is generally sticky and uncooperative itself. If the dog is actively trying to get away, or is thinking about a defense bite, you have even bigger problems.

Second, there's no way to get the collar off the dog quickly. I don't like these for dogs who are going to be playing with other dogs. I've had dogs get their jaws under another dog's collar in play, twist, and be stuck with both dogs panicked. I've been able to release them quickly by unsnapping or unbuckling the collar. With this collar, you'd best have a pair of shears and a spare collar if this happens.

The collar above is one I whipped up at home in a few minutes. I started with a cheap buckle collar and added two welded O-rings and the martingale loop with leash ring, made from a piece of matching nylon leash. When it is on the dog, it operates identically to the standard buckle-free design. But it goes on the dog in mere seconds, and is very easy to adjust to the correct snug fit.

Notice which ring the leash is attached to. If you attach the leash to any other ring, you are circumventing the function of the collar. The dog will be able to slip it.

The original D-ring, down by the buckle, is the place to hang the dog's tags. If you put the tags on the ring the leash clips to, they will be annoying and in the way. And you run the risk of accidentally clipping the leash to a split ring that holds the tags. Happens all the time. These rings pop open when loaded, generally when the dog lunges unexpectedly.

You will occasionally find commercial martingales with a metal slider to adjust size, and a plastic side-release buckle so they are easy to get on and off. They have less range of adjustment than the standard no-buckle or a metal buckle design.These work well when there's a human holding the leash. But you should never tether an untrained or flight-prone dog to a stationary object using any collar with a plastic side-release buckle. These buckles will break easily under shock-load, i.e. when the dog lunges.

Correct Fit

The photo below shows the incorrect fit that I usually see on the street and even illustrated on websites:


Notice how the two "live" rings almost touch one another when I pull up on the leash. If I pulled a little harder they would touch. Rosie could back out of this collar if she wanted to or if she was panicking. (Rosie never panics, but she agreed to be a model for a dog who might.) It is too loose.

Here's the same collar, adjusted as snugly as I could get it, with even more tension on the leash:


See how the rings have a couple inches of webbing between them when the leash is pulled taut? Rosie couldn't back out of this collar with all her considerable wiles.

By the way, martingales are not just for shelter dogs and freak-out candidates. I recommend them as everyday + training collars for a great many dogs. They are the only training collar that is safe to leave on the dog all the time. The circumferential pressure that the dog experiences when the collar tightens is much more communicative, and simultaneously less uncomfortable, than the point-pressure on his throat when the leash goes tight with a flat buckle collar.

A prong collar is nothing other than a martingale fashioned out of metal wire and chain. Or plastic and nylon cord. I'll discuss use and fitting of prongs here at some later date.


  1. nice post. I don't have a lot of experience with martigales so i learned something.
    That first collar, with no buckle or snap, really freaks me out...

  2. Thanks for the post. I have the same reservations about the "stock" martingale you expressed. But I do prefer them over others when handling dogs, leash-trained, or otherwise.

    I love your "fix". Did you sew by hand, or do you have a heavy duty sewing machine?

    Is the width of the collar material to its suitability/performance?

    have a great day!


  3. Good questions Eli.

    I own a venerable heavy-duty Swedish sewing machine (same make as my chainsaw!) on which I sew my own outdoor gear and dog training equipment. I bar-tack every seam.

    My sewing room is a treasure-trove of webbing, metal hardware, plastic hardware, clips, buckles, etc. Nary a pink ribbon or scrap of doily to be seen.

    One could hand-sew something like this, but to get a really strong and reliable end result will take a long time. You might be able to get a tailor to custom-stitch for you if you wanted to modify a collar. A leather shop might be able to do it, but they would have to use a regular needle on nylon, not a leather needle. (Or you could make a nifty leather martingale, with the active loop out of chain.)

    Also, don't use monofilament thread. Too stretchy, and not as strong as people think. High-quality German-made poly-cotton thread is my choice.

    As for width, I use 3/4" for smaller dogs, 1" for larger dogs. I have a few 1/2" collars for toy dogs. Hardware sized appropriately for the webbing.

    The elegant decorated sighthound collars are much wider, tapered at the martingale section, and quite lovely -- but really only suitable for long-necked dogs that can show them off -- saluquis, of course, greys, Danes, Dobes.

    I'll use a stock martingale if that's what I have. Beats losing a dog and gaining a road pizza.

  4. Schafer makes cloth martingales with buckles

    and cetacea makes them with a chain and a quick-release:

    the buckle features enables easier use with the fatheaded breeds

  5. Emily, those both look like good sources and from the looks of it provide good value.

    I can't believe what a plain commercial martingale goes for at a pet-supply store -- IF they bother to stock them.

  6. Fantastic post!

    Kaylee's standard collar is a martingale I got from a greyhound rescue group fundraiser, but I like your plain one with the additional buckle a lot- off to find my thimble and some thread (my sewing machine would DIE as it is a cheapo walmart psecial) so I can repurpose some of the nylon flat collars hanging around!

  7. Thank you for this post and for the photos!! I have had this conversation so many times with so many people about how to fit martingales - now I have a handy-dandy place to send people to see aktual pikturez!! :-)

  8. Thanks HH.

    I suspected the sewing room bit, both from the pictures, and from the stuff you do "for fun".

    I don't have the sewing room you do (I don't have one at all). There are harness shops around, and shoe repair places.

    It would be hard to beat the prices Emily pointed us to, though. Except for plastic buckles at the one site, and lack of a ring for tags on the other.

    I imagine slipping a ring on the collars at shafer kennel would do as well as anything.

    ya'll have a great day,

  9. It's good to see to-the-point collar-fitting info. I'm SO SICK of seeing improperly-fitted collars, from martingales (both with and without chain) to choke chains and pinch collars (THAT'S what irks me the most). I don't know if it's the know-it-alls ("I know how to fit this collar, my friend showed me!") or the ignoramuses ("Hey, someone told me this collar would help and lookee, here it is") who are more damaging.

    Don't even get me started on how the people aren't even USING them right, not that they can if the darn things don't fit and can't work properly.

  10. Cetacea will make those collars with a metal quick release buckle, special order. Their sizing tends to run large,in my experience

  11. These: are the best martingales I've found. Quick release clips are a HUGE help and I much prefer the action on the chain martingales to the all webbing when it comes to training - even on long-coated dogs.

    I used chain martingales on my Leonbergers (talk about coat!) - but I suppose I fall into that 'experienced handler' slot.

    Anyway... I'm gonna order three of these.

  12. Thanks for this. I've got a graveyard of broken collars, and bent d-rings. And no more clips for me either, most of them aren't as strong as one would think.

    Just bought this: same concept without the ring for the leash. Strength tested to 3000lbs...what do you think?

  13. edited to add: for my dog, he doesn't try to slip his collar so much as he has the ability to barrel _through_ a collar.

  14. I made one of these out of nylon rope for a friend's dane. The 'collar' portion is thick rope with two steel rings, one spliced to each end. The 'martingale' portion is narrower rope through the collar rings with a smaller ringe spliced to each end. The leash clip connects the two rings on the martingale part together. The collar was not designed to stay on all the time, but it is VERY easy to get on and off, the leash is cliped to one ring, the collar is plenty big enough to get over the head, and then the clip attaches to teh other ring. I made it custom to the dog's neck mesurements.

  15. Nice illustrative post, HH. I extoll the virtues of the martingale collar to anyone that will listen!

    The martingale collar is ESSENTIAL for my three wedge heads who have a strong interest in local wildlife. In fact, I am convinced they are capable of narrowing their head circumference even further when they spot a squirrel or fox.

    The fine folks at will make anything you desire. I ordered some 3/4" wide buckle adjustable harness leather martingale collars with calfskin lining plus stitching and an ID plate. They use HS Sprenger chain insert or you can request a leather insert.

    That might seem a bit "splurgy" to some, but a product that has quality leather and quality hardware will last a lifetime. I had too many equipment failures with various commercially available collars.

  16. Premier makes a nylon martingale with a plastic snap.

    Its called the Quick Snap Martingale - bad thing is, you gotta 'custom' order them. And make a big order. Good thing is, you can mix 'n match colors and sizes and collar widths.

  17. We just had a serious issue with our two Whippets wearing the traditional Martingale collar with no buckle or snap. (Recommended by our breeder) One of the Whippets got the other's collar wrapped around his lower jaw and twisted so tight he could not get out. The second Whippet was being strangled and by the time I got the collar free, the second Whippet was unconscious with blue tongue. I thought we'd lost him, but one day later his vet says he is ok. THANK GOD I was there, though. I am not looking for the quick release type.

  18. I love your pictures of how to properly fit martingale collar. I would like permission to put your pictures on my website (with the appropriate reference back to you). Please contact me at

    Thank you,

  19. Only just found this while trying to find instructions to sew my own snap martingales for my rescued flat coat/border collie who has a magic ability to escape regular collars at the worst moments. I have a very hard time finding ones that don't have chain (long haired dog with a mane + chain = disaster and yelping).

    This saves me having to full-on make my own. Thanks! Mind if I link back from my sewing blog when I do one like this?

  20. Hi H. This is the best instruction I have found. Have made a collar for my Mastif with bits I had here and it works excellently. Needs a bit of tweeking, but hey, thanks a million.

  21. Fantastic. Thank you for the photos its really great. Thank you so much

  22. I was about to buy my first (BAD) martingale collar, when I stumbled upon your article. Thank you very much!

  23. This is the first article I've found giving any let Alone a valid easy to relate why I shouldn't leave dog in martingale collar 24/7. It made no sense its looser than many flat collars but we have another gsd and the play fight 18/7 so I can see how a jaw could get caught. The other sites give no reason to not wear 24/7 so I'm glad I ran across this article.


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