How a shock collar WILL change your relationship with your dog, but not the way you may think

Buffy, enjoying some off leash time on an easy hike.

I wrote an article last November about shock collars and how they are not appropriate for adventure dogs, or really any dog. But here I am again, writing another article about this topic that is somehow controversial (I say somehow, since the science on its harms is clear). So why am I writing this again? 

Well, Wednesday May 27th, I woke up to some bad news. While scrolling on my Facebook page I saw this article on Outside Magazine.  It had been out for a while, but I hadn’t seen it yet (I don’t go searching for this author’s articles since I have been frustrated in the past by his lack of expertise and his apparent desire to talk about a topic like he is an expert: See my post Why the right number of dogs might be n+0 ).  But here it was, so I read it and my anger boiled. 

I posted about this on Instagram and tagged some other science-based training accounts to help spread the word and luckily it seemed to take off. So I’m writing this now, to get into more detail as to why this article is wrong, irresponsible, and damaging to dogs. For those who may question my credentials, I am a certified dog trainer (CPDT-KA). To be certified, I needed to have over 300 hours of hands on experience, had to pass a theoretical exam and had to commit to utilizing the Humane Hierarchy with all of my training. I also have to get 36 hours of continuing education credits and provide accurate test taking questions to maintain my certification. So yes, I have more experience and knowledge on this topic than the author. 

The article in question.

Before we begin, I want to be clear that I do think the author loves and cares for his dogs dearly. I don’t think they need to be rescued, I like to think the author did what he thought was best. But it didn’t have to be this way and it’s disappointing to see his reaction to the people who have tried to reach out and discuss this (I will not be getting into more detail about that here). 

Let’s start dissecting this article and all of the important points that were not made. 

The article begins with: 

You should consider using a shock collar to train your dog only if you’ve reached the limits of positive reinforcement, and even then only after enlisting the help and expertise of a professional trainer or veterinarian.” 

This is where it starts to go wrong. “Limits of positive reinforcement”. Although I appreciate that the author mentioned positive reinforcement as a first choice, most trainers would argue there is no limit, only poor execution. But let’s, for fun, say there is a limit. If we use the Humane Hierarchy, a shock collar is at the bottom, so what else should be exhausted first? The top of the Humane Hierarchy is actually what trainers call “management”. Management is all about setting up our dogs for success. The more that our dogs practice a behaviour, the more often it will occur. So if a client came up to me and said “my dog is barking all of the time, help me”, I would ask in what situation it’s occurring, if it’s occurring when they are outside, off leash, etc. My first management tip would be “Ok, let’s stop letting our dog run around off-leash and out of our control in environments where they bark, let’s tether them to us, or bring them inside and use some enrichment to keep their brains occupied and their instincts satisfied.” This is just the start. As far as I can tell throughout the article, it didn’t occur to the author to leash his dog, or he thought this was unacceptable since dogs should be “free” (I highly question people who think a dog is free when they are living with the threat of a shock collar around their neck). If we execute the management and it doesn’t work, then the next step on the Humane Hierarchy is positive reinforcement. 

How would we execute positive reinforcement to teach a dog to stay close on leash and to stop barking (it’s unreasonable and cruel to expect a dog to not bark at all. Dogs bark, and if you want a dog who never ever barks, then you probably need a robotic dog with a silencer. What is reasonable is to train a dog to stop barking on cue)? Firstly, we would set up the dog for success. That means working in an environment where we can have success. So don’t try to teach your dog off-leash recall on a busy trail; instead, teach it first in the house, then outside in the yard, then outside of the yard with a long line for safety, then on a quiet trail, etc. We slowly increase difficulty as long as we are having success. If our dog is barking at people and other dogs, we need to first understand why. Are they excited? Or is it fear-based? This behaviour is often fear-based and we would address that by teaching something like auto-watch. Again, this would be taught in a way where we incrementally increase difficulty but with the dog always having success. Think this sounds slow and painful? Well depending on your dog, this could be slow, but it will be effective. Utilizing these methods will achieve the same results, but your dog will be happier and feel safer in the end.  If it’s not working, you need the help of a qualified science-based trainer. Most importantly though, there is no negative fallout from these methods. 

Lastly, the author recommends working  with a professional trainer and veterinarian. I agree, find a science-based trainer if you are leaning towards using a shock collar and/or a veterinarian behaviourist. But the author makes no mention of having made these steps. Instead, later in the article he says he got a shock collar because of his friend Ty, who is not a professional trainer as far as the article mentions.  

“But it turns out that Teddy is not a Great Pyrenees mix. She’s a purebred Anatolian shepherd. Anatolians are a livestock guardian breed that originated in Turkey and are known for their athleticism and fiercely protective, loving nature. […] But there’s probably one thing you’d want to know about an Anatolian before adopting one: they are to barking what an Arabian Stallion is to running.” 

This often comes up with trainers who use pain in their training “the breed is too stubborn,” “they are born to do xyz, so I can’t stop them without pain,” “they are ‘difficult’ to train.” As Woof Cultr puts it, “No Breed Needs a Heavy Hand.” There are a lot of trainers out there who specialize in working with specific breeds, including Anatolian shepherds, and who have success without pain. In fact, I am aware of one who reached out to help the author, but the help was refused. Your dog’s breed has no bearing on the need to use force. 

“Teddy hasn’t necessarily learned about dog politics. Not every dog is friendly, not every dog wants to play, and not every dog or dog owner understands that a fierce-looking, intently focused, 115-pound Anatolian shepherd bounding up to them at full speed is really just excited to lick them on the face. Ty watched at least five different people scream at me on that hike and then told me to get a shock collar.”

The author talks about how his dog Teddy is young, still learning, and does not understand that not every dog wants to play. What is wrong here? Well first, I agree that not every dog wants to play or be approached by an off-leash dog. That’s an important part of why leash laws exist. When you decide that leash laws don’t apply to you, you are saying “my enjoyment is above yours on this trail, I would like for my dogs to run free, so even if you don’t like dogs, I’m subjecting you to being exposed uncomfortably close to them. Oh, you have a reactive dog? Don’t worry, mine is friendly”. His hike with his friend Ty could have gone so much better if he had leashed his dog. But why not let the dogs run free? Perhaps this hike was on a trail with no leash law, that is fine, but you should have control over your dog. If you cannot have verbal control because your dog has not been properly trained, then leash them up, it’s actually that easy and pain-free. The more they practice that highly rewarding behaviour of bounding around off leash while you try to call them without success, the more they will do it (also calling your dog without success reduces the effectiveness of your recall over time). So instead, don’t set up your dog to fail and leash them up until they are trained.

“Does shocking your dog cause pain? I tried it on myself first: in the lower settings, it starts as an unpleasant tingle before ramping up into something that causes a muscle spasm in the highest setting. I was holding the shock collar in my hand, and at that highest level, the shock spasmed my entire forearm and hand, causing me to drop the device involuntarily. It’s certainly not a pleasant feeling, but it’s momentary and not so much painful as it is intense.”

Shock collar use belongs in the P+ quadrant of training methods. What does that mean? P is for punishment or aversive. Something the dog doesn’t like. + means we are adding something to the situation, in this case, a shock. P+ is for adding an aversive to stop a behaviour (or another way to see it, the dog’s behaviour causes something bad to happen). In this case, we are adding a shock to stop a dog from wandering and/or barking. 

Shock collars can definitely work. There is a reason they exist and the author’s description of testing it on himself is usually how it is justified as “ok for the dog”. But there are 3 very important points which invalidate this test as proving it won’t hurt the dog. 

  1. Perception of pain is unique to an individual. This includes dogs. What is painful for me and someone else is totally different. Testing it on yourself is not proof that it won’t hurt your dog. 
  2. You, as a human being, understand that you are putting a device on that will shock you. You know where it is coming from. A dog does not understand this. Which is why we typically see signs that the dog is stressed when a shock collar is used. They have the added anxiety of not understanding. 
  3. The skin on a dogs neck is thinner (3-5 cells thick) than the skin on a human (10-15 cells thick). A shock collar has to be placed against the skin, not the fur. I will admit, the thinner skin does not guarantee a dog feels more, but it certainly invalidates any notion that you can feel exactly what your dog will feel by testing a collar on yourself.

“After a couple days of trial and error figuring out where the device’s prongs needed to be located on Teddy’s throat to detect barks and how tight the collar needed to be for those prongs to penetrate her thick coat, I got to watch the automatic bark correction in action.”

Trial and error with a shock collar is completely unacceptable. The author should have hired an experienced trainer who was willing to work with this device and experienced in it before trying himself. Applying force to an animal should only be done as a last resort (it’s almost impossible to get to that point if you are a good science-based dog trainer) but should be done with someone who is experienced and understands just how critical timing is. 

“During an evening walk, Teddy barked loudly at a passing dog on the other side of the street, then immediately let out a short whimper. She barked again, whimpered again, then made it through the rest of the walk with no further sound. It didn’t otherwise alter her behavior at all; she displayed no fear, wasn’t any less curious about smells or sounds, and acted like the same vibrant, happy dog we love. She’d just stopped barking.”

This description made me cringe. Yelping is a call of distress for dogs. Either from pain or fear or in this case, likely both. Yes, it sounds like this device was effective in stopping her from barking, but I can guarantee there were signs of fear and a change in behaviour. Most owners are not trained and experienced enough to recognize subtle dog body language (this is demonstrated every time someone says their dog looks “guilty” – that isn’t a guilty look, those are body language cues of submission and fear from reading your body language that you are angry). When looking through the author’s account on Instagram, I saw a video where he claimed the dogs were all relaxed and well behaved. It was clear to me that Teddy with a shock collar on, was stressed. It could be stress from the crowd, or it could be stress from the collar, but the author was unable to recognize this in his dog. 

“Importantly, the collar does not seem to have discouraged Teddy from barking in circumstances that genuinely merit it. We don’t want to deny her nature, nor do we want to stop her from being a good guard dog. Even though it has curbed her overall instinct to bark—even when she’s not wearing the collar—she will still enthusiastically roar at anything she perceives as a threat. ”

This statement confused me. A dog barks when it deems it genuinely merited, dogs do not follow human logic for barking. So perhaps what he is saying is that in some cases, his dog is willing to feel the electric shock of the collar because she is alarmed enough to bark through the pain. If you want a dog who barks to alert you to potential danger, then putting a shock collar on that dog for barking does not make logical sense. The logical course of action would be to teach the dog to stop barking after it has barked to alert you.

“I also wanted to use the device to stop her from focusing on other dogs so much while hiking. If I called her off, I needed her to listen. So, on hikes where other people were present, I started by keeping her on the leash. If we passed another dog and Teddy focused on it too much, I’d call her to try to refocus her attention on me. If she didn’t comply, I’d shock her at level four (of ten), which is her threshold for responding to the stimulus. On a leashed hike where I called her, she didn’t respond, and I shocked her; she listened the rest of the time, with otherwise unaltered behavior.” 

 To me, this is what I would call trigger happy. The author got the shock collar for barking, then opted to use it in another situation where positive reinforcement would be effective. In fact, I have yet to see dogs completely fail at learning to turn away from other dogs and towards their people (even on hikes – by working up to that), with positive reinforcement. This is a great example of going to the bottom of the Humane Hierarchy without exhausting the other options. 

“After those first on-leash hikes with the training device, I’ve begun to allow Teddy off-leash again while wearing the collar. If she spots another dog and runs toward it without listening to me call her off, I’ll shock her. She never fails to respond to that but hasn’t yet progressed to the point where the issue is totally cured off-leash in absence of the shocks. It’s a big improvement regardless and something I have no doubt will prove effective with more time and consistency.”

Here, the author demonstrates that the electric collar is not completely effective. As stated earlier “I told Ty I was afraid of ruining Teddy’s sweet demeanor with harsh correction techniques, but he was insistent that the outright need to use the collar was very infrequent, because it delivered training results almost immediately”, the use of the shock on the collar was supposed to be almost non-existent. As a trainer this tells me 2 things:

  1. Ty is likely much better with his timing, or his dog is better trained, or he doesn’t take his dog to as many locations where he is set up for failure. 
  2. The author does not understand how to properly use the device for training. Properly applied timing would be effective with this device, improperly-timed punishment leads to dogs who are subjected to more pain than necessary. 

It’s also important to note that no device can guarantee a particular training outcome 100% of the time. He says “[Teddy]…hasn’t yet progressed to the point where the issue is totally cured off-leash”, there is no “cure” for a dog being a dog. Dogs are not robots who obey 100% of the time without fail. If there is concern about bringing a dog off-leash to an area because of hazards such as cliffs, then a long line should be used to allow some freedom but ensure there is a safety control.

“Even if Teddy experiences pain from the shocks in a way that testing the collar on myself did not reveal—an unlikely but worst-case scenario that is worth considering—then the return on those very few momentary instances of pain has still been enormous. She’s living a happier, more fulfilled life where she’s included and trusted throughout our travel and experiences. ”

It is hard for a person without professional experience in training dogs with science-based methods to say that their dog is happier and more fulfilled (these terms are also subjective at the best of times). I recognize that the author wants the best for his dog. But sometimes, what is best for our dogs is inconvenient for us. Not all dogs are meant to travel everywhere with us. Being responsible for another living thing means meeting its needs, and some of those needs can vary per dog. Sometimes, leaving our dogs at home with a great pet sitter or in a great kennel is the best choice for them,regardless of what we want. 

What could have been done differently here?

Everything. The author could have sought out a reputable science-based trainer to help him. There is nothing wrong in asking for help. I’m always confused that some people refuse to get help for dog training but will happily pay a mechanic to fix their car because they are out of their league. This author was out of his league but, unfortunately, did not seek help. Does he love his dogs any less? No. Did he struggle with this dog and succumb to what he perceived to be the easy way out, yes. He could have contacted a trainer, put in several short training sessions per week at home and started to see some real progress (all for probably equal to or less cost than the collar). But he chose this method and I’m certain he believes it was the right choice for him, but it wasn’t the right choice for his dog who had no choice in the matter. 

Why should shock collars be avoided? 

As I mentioned earlier, there are negative fallouts from shock collar use. Don’t believe me? Please feel free to read the scientific studies posted here:

Shock collars will change your relationship with your dog but not the way this author implies. The relationship between the author and his dog changed for the better for him, he probably found himself less frustrated and more confident in his dog. But for his dog, she now deals with, at the very least, some minor anxiety since punishment can come at any time. This anxiety can manifest itself later as reactivity, redirected aggression/frustration and health issues related to higher stress (see link to studies above for some examples). 

Final word, if you made it this far and still think you “need” to train with a shock collar, perhaps think for a minute about the large and dangerous animals and whales who are trained every day without the use of force. Would you put a shock collar on a grizzly bear you are training? No, I didn’t think so. Your dog doesn’t need one either.

Thank you’s and other resources: I would like to thank all of the dog trainers and dog lovers who shared about the Outside Magazine post and voiced their concerns. I hope you may consider reaching out to the magazine if you haven’t already. Special thank you to Wolf Cultr, Train with Underdogs, and Dogminded (who also did a great series of story posts breaking down the article in easy to digest pieces) who I initially tagged and who all got the ball rolling on Instagram. As well as the participants in the Force Free Trainers – Solving the Behavior and Aggression Puzzle who reached out to the magazine and author. We are all passionate advocates for animals and we frequently see the fallout of these methods, that’s why we stand up when we see something like this. I hope we can keep standing up together to push back on these types of messages being posted on such large platforms. Also, thank you to my bestie Kelianne who is always there to edit my posts, which need a lot of editing when my passions run so high.

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