The Canine Shock Collar Debate

Are “electronic training collars” a positive training tool or evil incarnate?

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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 more moderate positions in the middle of that chasm 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.

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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.

I’ll be clear: Like many other trainers and behavior professionals who adhere to a positive training philosophy, I find the idea of using the shock collar abhorrent under any circumstances. And WDJ’s mission statement asserts, “The methods we discuss will endeavor to do no harm to dogs; we do not advocate perpetrating even minor transgressions in the name of ‘greater good.’ ”

We receive numerous inquiries from dog owners who have heard about “remote training collars” that can be used in a positive or dog-friendly training program.

We’ll borrow the definition of “dog-friendly” from the Association of Pet Dog Trainers (APDT), an international organization with more than 5,000 members worldwide. One of the APDT’s stated missions is to advocate for dog-friendly training, which it has defined as “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.”

The following is a description of the electronic collar training products on the market, and why we regard them as inherently unsuitable for use in a truly positive or dog-friendly training program.

How they work
A “remote training system” is comprised of a controlling transmitter that is held by the dog handler, and a collar that holds a small unit that contains a radio receiver and batteries, which power the electrical shock delivered by the collar. Metal “contact points” protrude from this unit, and the collar is fitted on the dog tightly so that the points come in snug contact with the skin on the dog’s throat. The handler uses the controls on the transmitter to cause the unit on the dog’s collar to deliver an electrical shock to the dog.

Trainers who use and like the e-collars argue that the products sold today don’t even remotely resemble the shock collars of yesteryear.

Collars commonly used 15 years ago generally featured settings that delivered three to five levels of shock or “stimulus.” 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 and very momentary action. Their intent is to create a non-aversive stimulus (sometimes referred to as a “nick” or “tap”). Indeed, Innotek’s ADV-1000 model has 15 levels, while the Dogtra 200NCP goes even further, with a dial that ranges from 1 to 100.

Other improvements over the years include increasingly sophisticated technology that:

• Reduces the likelihood or prevents your dog’s collar from being “set off” or interfered with by “stray” radio signals – or even someone else in your area using the same type of collar.

• Offers the operator the ability to quickly and easily change the level of the stimulus from the remote control.

• Enables the collar to respond instantaneously to the signal sent by the controller, so there is not a “lag” or delay in delivering the stimulus to the dog at the exact moment that is desired.

• Increases the distance at which the collar can be activated by the transmitter.

• Reduces the potential for the unit on the collar to malfunction (especially in wet conditions) in such as way that causes physical or emotional trauma to the dog.

Of course, these improvements tend to be reflected in the higher-quality, higher-cost products on the market. Unfortunately, low-cost, low-quality products are readily available to consumers.

How they are used
Shock collars were initially used primarily for the administration of harsh “positive punishment” and/or “negative reinforcement” (for definitions of these terms, see “the Four Principles of Operant Conditioning” sidebar). If your duck hunting or search and rescue dog took off after a rabbit when he was supposed to be doing something else, you’d hit a button on a hand-held remote control device to shock/stop him with a significant electrical jolt. In behavioral terms, this is called “positive punishment”: the dog’s behavior of “crittering” makes a bad thing (shock) happen and the behavior consequently decreases.

Or, if your dog didn’t come promptly when you called, you’d hit the button and keep the button pressed, delivering a constant and unpleasant stimulus until the dog came and sat in front of you; then you stopped pressing the button. This is “negative reinforcement”; the dog’s behavior of coming to you makes a bad thing (shock) go away, and the behavior of coming when called increases.

Again, “dog-friendly” trainers primarily use 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 shock collars.

Some trainers use a noise or vibration feature on some of the new e-collars as a behavior marker for basic training. Rather than using a reward marker such as the word “Yes!” or the click! of a clicker (followed by a reward), these trainers use the noise or vibration feature as a “keep going signal” to tell the dog he’s doing the right thing and to continue doing it. Some of these trainers also use the “stim” feature on a low setting as a mild “interrupter” – like a tap on the shoulder, to say, “Hey, look at me!”

Proponents of the collars frequently tout miraculous results, such as rehabilitating a fearful, unsocialized dog in 20 minutes, or installing total off-leash control in five days or less – all resulting in happy, unstressed, well-behaved dogs and greatly enhanced relationships between dogs and owners.

Fans of the technology argue that the label “shock collar” is no longer appropriate, and create new names for their tools and techniques, such as “e-collar,” “electronic collar,” “e-touch,” “stim,” and “tap.”

Of course, the collars do work – at least some of the time. When querying some on-line training discussion groups about their experiences with the collars, I had one particularly enthusiastic report from Jeff Dege of Edina, Minnesota:

“After a year of not being able to ‘proof’ my Jack Russell Terrier’s recall (and several incidents of a failed recall that could have killed 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. Then I bought a quality remote collar and paid the trainer for private lessons.

“It worked amazingly well, and very quickly. We were doing off-lead agility exercises in the back yard 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. 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 twice. Since then, I always have him wear the collar when we practice off-lead in the back yard, but I’ve never needed to correct him.”

Dege concludes, “I do not, and will not, recommend electronic training collars without qualification. They’re easily misused. But I think they have their place, used in moderation, with some dogs.”

Of course, if the collars didn’t work sometimes, 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.

But so do horror stories.

What can go wrong?
Even with the new and improved products, things can go wrong. In response to my inquiries, I received a number of compelling stories from owners and trainers who related a wide range of negative experiences (see “Shock Collar Stories From Trainers and Owners” sidebar) they had with both training collars and “electronic containment systems.” (We have included some of their comments regarding fence systems, though we aren’t really discussing those here. See “Simply Shocking,” February 2003, for an article on “e-fences.”)

Part of the conflict in perception of the collars’ effect may come from different trainers’ interpretations of, and responses to, the body language of dogs when the shock 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. But another trainer who attended the same seminar reported that 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.

Some trainers argue quite convincingly that they use electronic collars only at a low setting as a gentle way of communicating with dogs. If pressed, however, most of them will readily admit that they do 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.

My fear is that if you’re tempted by those trainers’ arguments to use a 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. By the time you find out, it may be too late to undo the damage to your dog, your relationship with him, and his relationship with the rest of the world.

The eternal divide
Steve Lindsay, a 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.

In his recently released Handbook of Applied Dog Behavior and Training: Volume Three, Procedures and Protocols, Lindsay writes, “The combined advantage of immediate and reliable radio-controlled delivery of precisely regulated electrical stimulus make electronic training a viable and humane alternative to any traditional techniques for applying negative reinforcement and punishment.”

Lindsay bemoans the fact, however, that “large numbers of radio-controlled e-collars are sold in pet stores to relatively naive 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.

Lindsay also chastises collar manufacturers for not being more forth-coming 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.

Holding an opposing opinion is Dr. Karen Overall, a highly respected veterinary behaviorist and author who ran the Behavior Clinic at the University of Pennsylvania Veterinary School for more than 12 years. “Let me make my opinion perfectly clear,” says Dr. Overall. “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 his or her goal.

“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.” Dr. Overall also warns, “Dogs who cease to exhibit a problem behavior (through the influence of a shock collar) usually also cease to exhibit normal behaviors.”

Despite any amount of positive feedback from shock-collar proponents, and in consideration of the negative reports I continue to receive, I choose to use only those training tools and methods that are clearly dog-friendly – designed to encourage dogs to think and offer behaviors without fear of aversive consequences.

In the end, owners must make their own decisions about whether shock collars are appropriate tools for their dogs. Check out the references cited in “Resources” if you still need help deciding your position on the issue.

 

Also With This Article
“What You Can Do”
“The Four Principles of Operant Conditioning”
“Shock Collar Stories From Trainers and Owners”

-Pat Miller, CPDT, is WDJ’s Training Editor. Miller lives in Hagerstown, Maryland, site of her Peaceable Paws training center. For book purchasing or contact information, see “Resources.”

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