Are electric shock collars helpful, harmful or useless for dog training?

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shock collarWhether we subscribe to them or not, I’m sure we all have some sort of reaction to electric/shock collars. Many of us see them as a distant cousin of electric-shock therapy, while others of us see them as a saving grace for dog training, particularly with redzone dogs or to instill good off-leash manners.

So, are electric/shock collars helpful, harmful, or useless for dog training?

When are electric shock collars used

Electric collars can be used for nearly any situation, but the most common reasons trainers and owners use these collars are for:

  • Unwanted barking
  • Off-leash training
  • Correcting aggression (associated with people, dogs, or food)


These collars are also used to prepare dogs for worse-case scenarios, such as to avoid certain animals (like snakes). An example of this would be to “shock” the dog when he nears a caged snake, so that he learns that snakes, in general, should be avoided.

First, let’s tease out the shock

For starters, not all electric collars are shock collars. In fact, there are three general types of electric collars:

  1. Beeping – Beeping can be used in the same way as a clicker (as a marker). It can also be used to grab the dog’s attention or correct a certain behavior (kind of like a “hey, snap out of it!). But don’t overuse it, or else the dog will grow accustomed to it.
  2. Vibrate mode – Similar to the beeping, but the collar vibrates.
  3. Shock mode – Here, an actual electrical shock is sent through the collar to the dog’s skin. You can typically manipulate the level of shock, the duration, and the frequency.

 

It’s entirely up to you which mode you prefer to choose when training your dog. Obviously the shock mode method is the most controversial, but, if used sparingly, can correct a dog (or stop him in his tracks) if he’s portraying particularly dangerous behavior. If you just want your dog to drop a stick, perhaps the shock mode is not the most beneficial.

Many people find is useful to associate the beeping with a positive behavior (a clicker training alternative), the vibration with correcting unwanted behavior, and the shock in worse-case, rare occasions.

Next, let’s talk about the pros

So, chances are you have your opinion on these collars already, but let’s go over the pros and cons. First, the pros.

He should know what’s wrong, with or without you. For starters, one of the goals of most trainers is for a dog to understand a behavior to be wrong, not because “I said so” but because it’s the wrong behavior.

If a dog only made a choice based on “I’m around and I said so,” then there’s still a chance that dog will act out when we’re not around. Electric collars allow us to correct a behavior from afar so that the dog doesn’t associate YOU as the corrector.

For example, let’s say you’re in your backyard, and your dog begins to start digging up a hole. Your first instinct might be to shout his name and say NO. Of course, that’s a bad route to take, because you never want to associate his name with something negative (this will hurt your chances of having a dog that willingly comes when called). So, you remember you have his electric collar on. Hooray! You beep it, or vibrate it, or, if you must, use the shock mode. This snaps your dog out of his digging mode, and hopefully averts his attention to you. (Now would be a good time to call him over).

Tip: If you plan on using any mode as a corrector, then don’t use it as a reward marker, ever. For example, if you train your dog to sit and use the beep mode before giving him a treat, don’t use the beep mode to try to stop him from digging, He’ll only think he’s doing something right.

There are also bark collars (and invisible fences) that respond to your dog’s actions, even if you’re not in eye/earshot. If your dog barks, he’ll get a sensation (or maybe even a spray in the nose). Same goes for if he wanders too close to your fenceline.

You have more control over the stimulus. It’s interesting that people who object to electric collars are okay with muzzle slaps, choke chains or leash jerks. All of these techniques (including electric collars) are forms of correction tools. The main difference is, with electric collars, you have much more control over the stimulus. With a choke chain, your dog could continue to do damage without your knowing it. Using a leash jerk (snapping the leash to correct behavior) could do extensive damage to a dog’s neck, particularly if you have a smaller breed dog. Slapping your dog’s muzzle (as in “You peed in the house, bad dog!”) can do extensive physical and mental trauma to a dog. It could also damage your bond with your dog because it’s obvious that you are the cause of the pain.

With electric collars, you can control the level of the stimulus, and you have control over how long the stimulus goes for.

It’s not me … it’s you. Lastly, as we mentioned briefly above, you don’t want to hurt the bond you have with your dog by causing it any discomfort. Slapping your dog’s muzzle is a good way to do that! Electric collars are like the scapegoat, the middleman, the wall you hide behind. If you do it right, your dog will never realize that you have control over the stimulus. This keeps you in his good graces.

Now the cons

Now that we’ve gone over some positive features of an electric collar, let’s discuss some negatives.

Building an aggressive dog. Studies show that dogs who are contained in an electronic environment (such as within an electric fence, or under the control of an electric collar, demonstrate more aggression towards humans. It’s important the anyone using an electric collar not overdo its usage. Furthermore, you must make sure the dog isn’t building an association between the stimulus and you, the human.

Getting used to it. Some dogs grow accustomed to the beep, vibration, or heck, even the shock. This could lead into some pretty dangerous results. For example, let’s say that the dog tolerates the shock of the collar long enough to run away from the distance in which your remote can reach the collar. In essence, the dog has just learned that if it tolerates the discomfort long enough, it’ll have freedom. Your collar just became moot.

To e, or not to e …

The electric collar will always be controversial, even if you, the dog owner, never use the shock mode. But it’s important that you cast aside the peanut gallery and take into consideration your needs and issues. First, are you comfortable with the idea of an electric collar? Second, are you ready to use it wisely so as not to cause physical or mental trauma? Third, do you know how to make sure your dog doesn’t associate you with the stimulus?

Before you make your final decision, seek the advice of your veterinarian. While you may assume that vets will automatically discredit these collars, the reality is vets know that each dog, and dog owner is unique. We all have different needs.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Great information. I used to be opposed to electric shock collars but I now believe that if used with moderation and, as you said, with advised from the vet, they could be helpful. I have yet to use them with my dogs but know of people that use them with success. I, however, used ultrasonic correction to stop the annoying barking that my otherwise perfect dog had anytime that she was in the backyard. Nothing was helping until I found an outdoor bark control that corrects the barking using ultrasonic correction. I thought it was worth to try. All it took was 1 day… it worked. My dog now enjoys the backyard and she is more relaxed. Not to mention that I am also more relaxed.

  2. First of all, the beeper on an electric/remote collar is not used the same way a clicker is used. A clicker is not used to get a dog’s attention or correct unwanted behavior — at least in the way that electric collars are used to control and modify behavior.

    Secondly, shock is always a looming threat. In the mind of a trainer who uses these kinds of devices to train and modify behavior, the beep (or “nick”) is paired with the shock so that it is a predictor of discomfort or pain. In clicker training, food is paired with the auditory (or non-auditory, in the case of deaf dogs) stimulus so that the sound of the click bridges the behavior and the reward and the click is a predictor of a reward. The animal knows exactly what it did to earn the reward and repeats the behavior because it has been rewarding.

    The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB) and American College of Animal Behaviorists (ACVB) advise against the use of punishment/correction/shock in animal training — for many reasons.

    A few of the reasons are that punishment is difficult to gauge to get the right intensity and apply correctly to stop a behavior while not harming an animal. It can and does cause aggression and it inhibits learning.

    Punishment is almost humanly impossible to apply correctly on a consistent basis to be effective and not do harm.

    It is far better to teach an animal what to do instead than to try and correct every misbehavior. If you rely heavily on correction, you do nothing but inhibit the animal’s learning and create an animal that obeys to avoid discomfort.

    Perhaps one of the most concerning problems with punishment (correction) is that it is reinforcing to the punisher. It offers the illusion of a quick fix and is often used in anger and retaliation.

    There really is no need to use shock or the threat of shock in animal training. Good training can teach any animal, from an octopus to a cat to an elephant to a rat to do whatever the animal is physically capable of doing.

    It is a myth that punishment or correction is needed in training. Only trainers who lack the knowledge and skill to train without force resort to shock,the threat or shock or any one of a number of other discomforting, even painful devices to try to make an animal do what they want it to do.

    It is a far better approach to learn how to communicate effectively with an animal and teach it using science-based methodology than it is try to force any animal to comply. We have known the effects of shock for decades form animal research with rats. We have also known the amazing effectiveness of “clicker training” since the early part of the last century.

    Do electric/remote/shock collars work? Sure. Like I tell my clients, I could put a shock collar around your neck and make you do what I wanted, but how would you feel about me? How would you feel about learning? Would you do what I ask to avoid pain, or because you genuinely enjoy my company? Which do you think produces more reliable behavior? If you guessed shock, you guessed wrong.

    “Research shows that dogs do not need to be physically punished to learn how to behave, and there are significant risks associated with using punishment (such as inhibiting learning, increasing fear, and/or stimulating aggressive events). Therefore, trainers who routinely use choke chain collars, pinch collars, shock collars, and other methods of physical punishment as a primary training method should be avoided.” (American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior)

    If you shock an animal during an aggressive event, you are more than likely to create an unintended association and more problems and more aggression. For this reason, shock should never be used with an animal with aggression. See the AVSAB position statement on punishment: http://avsabonline.org/resources/position-statements

    It is also not necessary for snake avoidance training.See this article by Nan Arthur: http://www.examiner.com/article/rattlesnakes-and-dogs-what-to-do

    I would rather train my dog to do what I want through voluntary cooperation and teamwork than force. I can get whatever behavior I want by understanding how animals learn and applying good principles of teaching and learning. Not only is this kinder and more humane, it is more effective and produces more reliable and enthusiastic behavior!

    If you understand how to build a behavior through what is commonly referred to as “clicker training,” you will have no need for correction and you won’t want to use it because you understand the hazards. Taking the position that shock can be useful for “some” animals in “some” situations is a cop-out. It shows a lack of understanding of the principles and techniques of effective animal training without force.

    Sometimes a middle-of-the-road tolerance for other points of view is inappropriate. It is really a misconception that different animals and different situations call for anything other than a creative application of sound animal training principles, principles which do not rely on force.

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