I have seen a disturbing trend in the adventure dog world lately. I have seen trainers promoting the use of shock collars as a means to control a dog so that their client can hike with their dog off leash. Those trainers are selling these devices as “remote training” devices which do not hurt the dog. But the reality is, they are shock collars, and this is being promoted instead of using scientifically based methods which are proven to work and not harm a dog’s wellbeing. Seeing this trend, I felt I had to write something to try and provide more information about these collars.
So here we go, this is probably going to ruffle some feathers. In fact, I fully expect to get some messages or comments from folks after posting this. But I cannot keep quiet anymore.
Too many people are using shock collars.
In fact, there is pretty much no situation where a pet dog should be wearing a shock collar. I can practically hear the uproar from that statement. Before you quit reading, let me explain why and know that if you are using a shock collar (and by shock collar I mean e-collars, remote training collars, zap collars) I do not judge you. You have probably seen results that you struggled to achieve before, and you might even think your dog is totally ok with it and it does not hurt your dog. But please, keep reading and if I do not change your mind, then so be it. I do not think you are a bad dog owner or person. But I am hopeful you are open to learning something.
Training dogs is fun for me, but it can be stressful for a lot of people. We all have an idea of how we want our dogs to react and behave. Most of us want a dog who can be trusted off leash, will not chase other animals and will be overall easy to handle. So what is the best way to teach our dogs? Well, there are a number of approaches. We cannot teach our dogs by explaining things to them with words. Instead, we teach them through consequences for their actions, or inactions. Learning theory (operant conditioning) provides four quadrants where learning can take place. I am not going to get into detail about this since a number of great articles exist online about the quadrants and I could write an entire article about that on its own. Instead I’m going to focus on two.
Positive reinforcement (R+) is where the learner receives a reward (something good to them) for doing a particular action/behaviour. Positive punishment (P+) is where the learner receives a negative outcome (something negative to them) for doing a particular action/behaviour. If you have not figured it out, shock collars are Positive punishment (P+). A negative stimulus is applied when the dog does an undesired behaviour such as running after wildlife, jumping up on a person, or barking (as examples). Shock collars are often used as negative reinforcement (R-) as well. This is when a shock is applied to the dog until the dog does the desired command such as recall.
Behavioural science has been studied for decades and the science is settled. Positive reinforcement far exceeds any other quadrant for learning and the learner’s wellbeing. I do not need to justify this point here. If you are not convinced, then please go visit any reputable behavioural website, veterinary association, major training association (such as the APDT or CCPDT). If that does not convince you, then you are likely someone who refuses vast amounts of scientific evidence and practices willful ignorance. Or, maybe you are not that far gone, but your personal experience says otherwise. Your personal experience is anecdotal evidence; it has nothing on the scientific rigour of the vast amounts of empirical studies conducted. Also, please remember, I did not say that positive punishment does not work. I just said that the science is settled on which approach is best for results and the learner’s wellbeing.
So why is positive reinforcement better? Through positive reinforcement, we typically teach dogs one of two ways. Most commonly, we use a lure (some delicious treat that our dog follows with their nose) and show them with this lure what we want them to do. Then we repeat and phase out our lure as our dog figures things out until we can give a hand signal and/or vocal cue instead of using a treat in our hand. The other way we teach is through shaping. This is where a dog is rewarded for figuring out what we want increment by increment. No lure is used and instead the dog is encouraged to keep trying and to essentially solve the puzzle. Throughout the use of positive reinforcement, we are creating motivation and building our dog’s confidence. The dog is excited to work and try to get it right. Motivated dogs learn faster. In addition, the motivation is not fear-based, which means it is low stress.
What happens when we use positive punishment? For a shock collar, a trainer will usually introduce the collar to the dog by properly fitting it and then introducing the stimulus until they find a level where the dog has noticed it. Then they will set up a training scenario. For example, if they are teaching a dog not to chase sheep, they will let the dog off leash and then recall the dog if it starts to go towards sheep. If the dog ignores them, they will usually apply the warning signal (sound or vibration) which will eventually teach the dog that when they hear/feel that, a shock will come after. If the dog does not react to that warning, they will get a shock. The dog is set up to fail in order to be trained. So my question is, where is the learning? If we use a shock collar, we have not taught the dog anything except that the world is a scary and unpredictable place. Suddenly, pain and discomfort can happen without a solid grasp as to why. The dog will likely eventually learn that the warning signal means a shock is coming, but they are just reacting and not learning what the behaviour that is expected of them is. It will modify behaviour, but at what cost?
As a side note, a common argument here is that shock collars are not really painful. Firstly, there is no way for you to know that. Shock collars work because they are an aversive. That means something that the dog does not like. For some dogs, yelling is an aversive. Regardless of how painful the shock is, the dog is responding because it is averse and they dislike it enough to respond to it. In addition, to anyone who has tried a shock collar on themselves, the skin on a dogs neck is thinner than skin on a human’s neck or arm, so once again, you cannot tell by testing it on yourself how it feels to your dog.
Dogs who have been subjected to shocks from a shock collar will show more stress signals such as yawning, lip licking and vocalizations (this is from a recent study). Not to mention that your dog will not better understand the human world he or she lives in. Instead they will find it scary, dangerous and unpredictable. There is also a possible behavioural outcome called “learned helplessness” where an animal has essentially given up on trying to figure out how to make the discomfort stop. They do not know what to do, so they just stop. This is especially likely with a tool like a shock collar being used by someone who does not understand how to use it and how critical impeccable timing is for positive punishment. I know many people would read that and say “I use a shock collar and my dog is totally fine”. Some dogs have a high tolerance for discomfort. Breeds such as retrievers were bred to jump into half frozen ponds to retrieve ducks, their tolerance for discomfort is very high. But does that make it ok? In my professional opinion, no. If you want to know more about the negative impacts of aversive’s, you can check out this article, or for those more scientifically motivated, Coercion and Its Fallout by Murray Sidman goes into much more detail.
There is a better way, a scientifically proven way to train your dog which is safe and will improve your relationship with your dog and improve how they feel about our human world. You are your dog’s protector, champion and their whole world. You should be a source of positive experiences, love and encouragement. It is our job to make sure our dogs understand the human world and what is expected of them in this world. So follow this training mantra: reward behaviour you like, ignore behaviour you do not like. It is that simple. You do not need to shock your dog into recalling, not jumping, not barking, etc. Instead, teach them what is expected of them and make it fun! I love nothing more than seeing happy dogs who love working with their owners.
Finally, if you are not yet convinced, try this exercise in empathy. Dogs live in a human world, they cannot understand our words and they are trying to figure out what is acceptable behaviour. If you were unable to speak the language of a culture and were being shown how to operate within it, would it be easier and more enjoyable to learn while being encouraged and rewarded for your achievements? How do you think it would feel to be trying to figure out how to operate within that culture and be painfully and mysteriously hurt every time you did something wrong that you did not even know was wrong in the first place? Which would you choose? I’m fairly certain I know your answer. I definitely know a dog’s answer too.