SHOCK OR AWE Shock Collars: Great Positive Training Tool or Devil Incarnate? By Pat Miller
The chasm between those who abhor the electronic/shock collars as an abusive dog training tool and those who support and promote it as an exceptionally effective and humane training tool is so huge it will probably never be bridged. In the middle of that canyon are those who believe that the collar can be an effective training tool for very limited circumstances in the hands of skilled professionals, and those who prefer not to use them but feel compelled to educate clients who insist on using them on how to use them properly.
How could the dog training/behavior community be so divided over a simple tool? Perhaps because the tool is not so simple perception in large part depends on what you read, who you believe, and your own personal training philosophy.
A Community Divided Many trainers and behavior professionals who adhere to a positive training philosophy find the idea of using the sock collar abhorrent. Dr. Karen Overall, highly respected veterinary behaviorist and author who ran the Behavior Clinic at the University of Pennsylvania Veterinary School for more than 12 years, says, “Let me make my opinion perfectly clear.: Shock is not training in the vast majority of cases it meets the criteria for abuse… No pet owner needs to use this technique to achieve their goal. Dogs who cease to exhibit a problem behavior usually also cease to exhibit normal behaviors.”
Trainers who use and like the collars argue that the e-collar of today doesn’t even remotely resemble the shock collars of yesteryear. Collars commonly used 15 years ago had three to five levels. According to the companies that sell them and the trainers who use them, today’s collars are much more sophisticated, and can be adjusted to very low levels that create a non-aversive “stim” or “tap” sensation that shouldn’t even be called a shock. Indeed, Innotek’s ADV-1000 model has 15 levels, the while the Dogtra 200NCP goes even further, with a dial that ranges from 1 to 100.
Shock collars were initially used primarily for the administration of harsh positive punishment and/or negative reinforcement. If your duck hunting or Search and Rescue dog took off after a rabbit, you’d hit the button to shock/stop him with a significant jolt. The dog’s behavior of “crittering” makes a bad thing (shock) happen and the behavior consequently decreases; positive punishment. Or, if your dog didn’t come promptly when you called, you’d hit the button and keep the button pressed until the dog came and sat in front of you. The dog’s behavior of coming to you makes a bad thing (shock) go away, and the behavior of coming when called increases: negative reinforcement. (See Sidebar The Four Principles of Operant Conditioning) Since positive or “dog-friendly” trainers use primarily positive reinforcement and secondarily negative punishment, and only rarely and/or as a last resort use positive punishment or negative reinforcement, that would seem to rule out the use of the shock collar. (See Sidebar: APDT’s Definition of “Dog-Friendly”)
However, some trainers claim to use the newer models as a behavior marker for basic training a positive reinforcer similar to a clicker; as a “Keep Going Signal” to tell the dog he’s doing the right thing and to continue doing it; or as a mild “interrupter” like a tap on the shoulder, to say, “Hey, look at me!” Some even tout miraculous results rehabilitating a fearful, unsocialized dog in 20 minutes; installing total off-leash control in 5 days or less; all resulting in happy, unstressed, well-behaved dogs and greatly enhanced relationships between dogs and owners. They argue that the label “shock collar” is no longer appropriate, and create new names for their tool and techniques, such as “e-collar,” “electronic collar,” “e-touch,” “stim,” and “tap” to avoid using the harsher sounding “shock” word.
Of course, the collars do work at least some of the time. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t be as widely sold and used as they are. Success stories about electronic underground fence collars, remote electronic training collars, and electronic bark collars abound. So do horror stories.
Jeff Dege of Edina, Minnesota, reports one positive outcome:
“After a year of not being able to proof my Bear’s recall and several incidents of a failed recall that came close to killing him I decided to give remote training collars a try. I did a fair amount of research, checked into a number of gun dog trainers, identified the one I thought best understood both what he was doing and how independent breeds respond to corrections. Bear is a Jack Russell Terrier. Then I bought a quality remote collar, and paid him for private lessons. It worked amazingly well and very quickly. We were doing off-lead agility exercises in the backyard by the second week. When Bear headed down the driveway to explore whatever, I’d give him the recall command and if he didn’t respond, I’d give him a correction at a setting lower than I could feel when I tried it on myself. And he’d come back immediately, and as far as I could tell, eagerly. In the second week, in perhaps a dozen sessions, I corrected Bear a total of twice. In the months since, I always have him wearing the collar when we practice off-lead in the backyard, but I’ve never needed to correct him. I do not, and will not, recommend electronic training collars without qualification,” says Dege. “They’re easily misused. But I think they have their place, used in moderation, with some dogs.”
It’s easily possible for things to go wrong, however, with an electronic collar. My dental technician told me of her boyfriend’s Labrador Retriever who had a lovely natural retrieve until he sent the dog off to a hunting dog trainer who used shock collars. The dog hasn’t retrieved since. Part of the conflict in perception of the collars’ effect may come from different trainers’ interpretations of and responses to dogs’ body language when the shock or “stim” is applied. Two trainers recounted their observations from a seminar put on by a prominent “e-collar” trainer who promotes his methods as positive and humane. One trainer wrote a glowing report of how several poorly socialized, fearful shelter dogs were “cured” in a miraculously short time, and turned into happy, outgoing companions. Another trainer who attended the exact same seminar reported that to her, the dogs appeared completely shut down, offering stress and appeasement behaviors throughout the ordeal, and demonstrating classic “learned helplessness” behavior at the end of the session.
Another trainer told a disturbing story of the same “e-collar” trainer, different seminar. An owner attended the seminar with two dogs, both on shock collars. The owner and trainer were working with one dog, while the other waited in his crate. The dog they were working with wasn’t responding to the level of stimulus they were using on the collar, so they kept turning it up and pushing the button, still with no response. Eventually they realized that the crated dog was screaming every time the button was pressed. They had inadvertently switched controls and were shocking the wrong dog at a high intensity! The trainer’s response when they discovered the mistake was to laugh.
It’s confusing, at best, to hear the convincing arguments of those trainers who claim to use electronic collars at a low setting as a gentle way of communicating with dogs. If pressed, however, most of them will readily admit to their willingness to turn up the dial if/when the dog stops responding to a low level “tap.” Most will also insist that it’s appropriate to use higher settings when they feel it’s necessary to apply positive punishment to a dog. If you’re tempted by those trainers’ arguments to use an electronic/shock collar in your training, you won’t know until it’s too late if your dog will be one of the successes or one of the failures. (See Sidebar: In Their Own Words) By the time you find out, it may be too late to undo all the damage to your dog, your relationship with him, and his relationship with the rest of the world.
How do you decide your position on the use of this controversial tool? Steve Lindsay, well-respected behavior consultant and author from Newtown Square, Pennsylvania, supports the limited use of electronic collars in educated hands, and argues for calling them “electronic” rather than “shock” collars. He writes in his Handbook of Applied Dog Behavior and Training; Volume Three, Procedures and Protocols, “The combined advantage of immediate and reliable radio-controlled delivery of precisely regulated electrical stimulus (ES) make electronic training a viable and humane alternative to any traditional techniques for applying negative reinforcement and punishment.”
Lindsey bemoans the fact, however, that “large numbers of radio-controlled e-collars are sold in pet stores to relatively naοve and inexperienced dog owners without much in the way of appropriate instruction regarding their use, misuse and potential for abuse.” He acknowledges that potential for abuse is all too real. He also chastises collar manufacturers for not being more forthcoming with critical information about the electrical output of their collars (voltage, current and power, pulse and waveform characteristics) along with an explanation of the significance of the information, so consumers can select the product best suited to their needs.
Conversely, Dr. Overall holds unwaveringly to her position. “I know there’s a lot of discussion about what we call electronic collars. But they are all ‘shock’ collars by the definition of physics and their mechanism of action. They all seek to be aversive.”
In the end, each owner/trainer must make his or her own decision about whether the shock collar is an appropriate tool to use. Check out the resources listed below (Sidebar: Resources), if you still need help deciding your position on the issue. It may depend on the dog, or the behavior and circumstances. It may just depend on your own personal training philosophies, and whether you, like me, are in line with Dr. Overall’s thinking and choose to use tools and methods that are clearly dog-friendly, designed to encourage dogs to think and offer behaviors without fear of aversive consequences a dog-friendly philosophy that precludes the use of what I will continue to call shock collars.
SIDEBAR: RESOURCES Possible Link Between Electronic Containment Systems And Aggression: http://www.leaonline.com/doi/abs/10.1207/S15327604JAWS0304_;jsessionid=nhOA Five cases involving severe attacks on humans by dogs who were being trained or maintained on an electronic pet containment system.
Dutch Study on Short and Long Term Behavioral Effects of Shock Collar Training: http://www.ust.is/media/ljosmyndir/dyralif/Trainingdogswithshockcollar.pdf Conclusion: That being trained is stressful, that receiving shocks is a painful experience to dogs, and that the S-dogs evidently have learned that the presence of their owner (or his commands) announces reception of shocks, even outside of the normal training context.
Study on Physiological Effects of Electronic Collars, sponsored by collar manufacturer: http://www.petsafe.net/outreach/white_paper.pdf
Online photo of Border Collie being “snake proofed” with shock collar. Note stress body language averted eyes, hunched body posture: http://joycemorgan.com/TallPix.html
SIDEBAR: IN THEIR OWN WORDS Shock Collar Stories From Dog Trainers
Helen Hollander The Educated Pup, LLC Lawrence, NY In a lovely suburban Long Island neighborhood, there lived a lovely family with a lovely Golden Retriever named "Flash". Flash adored people. And being a typical friendly and energetic Golden, Flash loved running and exploring and sought any window (or doorway) of opportunity to do so. As he matured, and due to lack of training, he became too much for the family. The quick fix and solution to their problems was to enclose their property with an electronic fencing system. <sigh>
Flash spent many lonely hours outside, only to amuse himself with the bushes and occasional critters that dared to scamper across the lawn. How terribly boring and frustrating. Every morning however, Flash eagerly awaited the local joggers who would pass by. As they approached his house, Flash would dart to the boundary and run back and forth barking his beautiful head off. "Hey! Over here...Come say hello! Wait...where are you going?" Sadly, instead of a warm hello from the joggers, Flash received that infamous "zap" instead.
As months passed, the owners became less and less attentive to Flash. By having him electronically contained, they had more time to do their own thing and became a bit too casual about maintaining the batteries in his collar. At the same time, Flash became more and more agitated and frustrated as the joggers appeared. He quickly learned their presence meant discomfort. Eventually instead of running toward the fence in hope of engaging the joggers in play, he ran to bark and drive them away .
One spring morning, the joggers passed. Flash, as he did every morning, ran to charge the fence line...only this particular morning, he crossed through it. His collar batteries were dead and he charged straight for the unsuspecting female joggers. Flash was not the friendly energetic Golden he had been months before. He was now a very fearful, frustrated and crazed animal. One woman was thrown to the ground, her clothes torn. Fortunately, there were no bites of any consequence. "The owners were dumbfounded! What happened to Flash? Why did he ‘turn’ on these women?"
Long story short, the joggers were neighborhood women who knew Flash and the owners. Luckily, I was called by the owners. Luckily, they removed the electronic fence, replaced it with stockade. They learned there are no shortcuts in training...and that the only shortcut would be Flash's life. Flash is alive today and receives appropriate interactive one on one time with his owners. Many dogs are not that lucky.
Nancy Hansen Pet Nanny Sitting Services Lexington, KY I went to a trainer that used an e-collar on my German Shepherd and still have terrible guilt feelings over it. This was about 2.5 years ago. After hearing my dog scream, it’s hard to believe it was nothing more than one experiences from carpet shocks. When I first went to this guy, he used positive reinforcement methods with my pup. I was so impressed with his patience. Then it got bad. I also observed dogs trained by his assistants and students in the AKC ring. They looked so unhappy.
Junko Takahashi Bethesda, MD One of my dogs, Dante (Wheaton Terrier), jumps and barks when a guest comes into my house. He is being friendly, but since he is a 36-pound dog, some people were put off by it. So, with a recommendation of a local pet store trainer I purchased an electric collar. First time I used it was when my sister’s boyfriend walked into the house. Since then Dante is very scared of him. He was fine with him until then… now every time the boyfriend comes over Dante’s tail is completely down and he either rushes into his crate or attaches himself to me and follows me around. Also, since my sister’s boyfriend is really tall, he now seems to be afraid of all tall guys.
Becky Shultz, CABC, CDBC Minneapolis, MN I had a client who was working with an underground electronic fence and the dog a Ridgeback was still blowing the wire, so they double-collared him. Still didn’t work, so they were talking about putting one on his groin area. I told the client that I’d work with him if he’d stop frying his dog, but they preferred the magic “button, button, button.” Calling it “E-Touch” is putting a smiley face on shocking dogs.
Mary Leatherberry Santa Fe New Mexico I met with a woman and her dog last week and noticed the little white flags indicate the underground fence as I drove up her driveway. I put the dog, a sweet, 8-month-old German Shepherd mix, on a leash and started to lead her out into the front yard. She tucked her tail and planted all four feet just inside the front door. Tried luring her with treats. No go. Realized she wouldn’t leave the house at all because of the e-fence. Had to go out the garage access door, directly into the garage, in order to get her to move. She wasn’t even wearing the collar, so there was no possibility of a shock. Of course she didn’t know that. And the flags were about 30 feet away from the door, so she had a “safe” zone. The owner said she thought a regular fence was “kind of expensive.”
Jenn Keegan Pembroke, MA Keegan was in “doggie daycare” 4 days a week for 6 months. I didn’t realize that during the training runs Keegan was on an electronic collar. Shortly after I found out, we stopped going to that training facility. Not long after that I began to notice that Keegan was afraid of dogs, primarily dogs that were larger than him, and especially German Shepherd dogs. I can’t prove that the electronic collar caused these issues, but Keegan was socialized to many dogs of various types from the time he was 14 weeks to well over a year old and never exhibited the kind of fear that I was starting to see with other dogs. I don’t doubt that he is predisposed to be fearful, but I think the electronic collar made a manageable problem significantly worse. This is a dog who previous to this completed his agility title by three clean runs in one show, and earned his CGC at age 18 months. He then became a dog that I was very concerned about walking off-leash, and one over whom I had no control over his response to German Shepherds. On top of that, the electronic collar caused an infection where the electrodes met the skin that took a month to resolve. Miranda Workman Amherst, NY My Boxer before I know what I was doing is one of those infamous dogs for whom the freedom of running through and outside the electronic fence system was more rewarding that the shock of running through it was punishing. Avi was wandering the neighborhood for quite some time before we realized she was gone. A neighbor brought her back. We put her back in the yard and watched. She would take a deep breath and run as quickly as she could through the fence line. She made a conscious decision it wasn’t an accident or a fluke. My father thought the collar must not be “high” enough. So, he turned it up. Fortunately, he wanted to test it before putting it back on Avi. He held it in his hand and walked toward the line. Before you know it he screamed and threw the collar nearly all the way across their half-acre lot. Not long after that they put up a stockade fence.
SIDEBAR: THE FOUR PRINCIPLES OF OPERANT CONDITIONING Operant conditioning is called that because the subject, in this case the dog, “operates” on, or controls, the environment by his behavior. He chooses to behave in a certain way based on his expectations of the consequences of his behavior. His behavior may make a good thing happen, a good thing go away, a bad thing happen, or a bad thing go away. Since all living things want good stuff and want to avoid bad stuff, the dog will choose behaviors that make good things stick around and make bad things leave. We use this concept in training by applying one or more of the four principles of operant conditioning: 1. Positive Reinforcement (R+) The dog’s behavior makes a good thing happen; behavior increases as a result. Example: Dog sits, you Click! and give him a treat; dog sits more often. 2. Negative Punishment (P-) The dog’s behavior makes a good thing go away; behavior decreases as a result. Example: Dog jumps up to grab a Frisbee™ from your hand. You hide the disc behind your back. Dog stops jumping and sits you throw the disc for him. (Negative punishment is most effective when it’s followed by positive reinforcement for a desirable behavior that replaces the undesirable one in this case sitting makes a good thing happen you throw the Frisbee™ for him to chase.) 3. Positive Punishment (P+) The dog’s behavior makes a bad thing happen; behavior decreases as a result. Example: Dog jumps up you grab his front paws and squeeze; jumping up decreases. The fallout may be that he decides he doesn’t like you touching his paws, and becomes resistant to and/or aggressive about having his nails trimmed and his feet examined. 4. Negative Reinforcement (R-) The dog’s behavior makes a bad thing go away; behavior increases as a result. You pinch your dog’s ear (bad thing) to force him to pick up his dumbbell (a commonly used old-fashioned training technique known as the “ear-pinch). He opens his mouth to protest the pinch and you pop the dumbbell into his mouth and stop pinching. Opening his mouth for the dumbbell makes the pinch go away. Again, the fallout may be that he becomes very sensitive to having his ears examined and/or handled. 5. SIDEBAR: APDT’S DEFINITION OF “DOG-FRIENDLY” The Association of Pet Dog Trainers is an international organization with more than 5,000 members world-wide, whose mission is to support the ongoing education of dog trainers and advocate for dog-friendly training, which they define thusly: Defining Dog Friendly The following statement reflects the opinion of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers. The Association of Pet Dog Trainers recognizes that dog training is a continuum ranging from unacceptably harsh methods to training that uses primarily positive reinforcement. We understand and agree that individual members of the APDT are free to choose the training methods and tools that they use in their training programs. The APDT also recognizes that scientific studies have found that it is possible to effectively train animals using positive reinforcement and negative punishment. Through its vision and mission statements the APDT is committed to using and advocating for training techniques that are "dog-friendly." The APDT acknowledges that no generally accepted definition of dog-friendly currently exists. Therefore, the APDT hereby defines dog-friendly as used in our mission and vision statements to mean: "Dog-friendly training is training that utilizes primarily positive reinforcement; secondarily negative punishment, and only occasionally, rarely, and/or as a last resort includes positive punishment and/or negative reinforcement." Finally, APDT membership is open to anyone interested in learning about training.
Pat Miller is a Certified Dog and Horse Behavior Consultant and Certified Professional Dog Trainer. She offers classes, behavior modification services, training clinics and academies for trainers at her 80-acre Peaceable Paws training facility in Fairplay, Maryland, and presents seminars worldwide. She has authored “The Power of Positive Dog Training,” “Positive Perspectives,” “Positive Perspectives 2,” and “Play With Your Dog.” Miller is training editor for The Whole Dog Journal, writes for Tuft’s University’s Your Dog, and several other publications. She shares her home with husband Paul, five dogs, three cats, five horses and a donkey.