The shock collar, remote training collar, or electronic dog collar is most commonly used in four areas -
- Keep dogs inside our property. Our dog is corrected every time he nears the fence. This is also known as an invisible fence, or underground fence.
- Stop dogs from barking. The collar automatically delivers a correction whenever our dog starts barking. If he continues to bark, the force, duration, and frequency of the shocks will be automatically increased.
- Train dogs and stop problem dog behaviors. Shock collars are most commonly used for off-leash training. However, some dog trainers and pet owners also use it for behavioral issues such as food aggression, and dog aggression.
- Teach dogs to stay away from dangerous animals and objects. A common use is in rattlesnake aversion training. A dog is shocked hard, but a small number of times (2-3 times), when he nears a caged rattlesnake. This teaches him not to approach rattlesnakes in the future.
The use of shock collars on dogs is a very emotional topic. Discussions will often degrade into personal attacks, accusations of dog cruelty, and other types of name calling.
In this article, I will try to stick to the facts, and consider both the good and the bad of dog shock collars.
Electronic Collars vs. Shock Collars
Not all electronic collars are used as shock collars. There are three main modes – 1. Beep mode, 2. Vibrate mode, and 3. Shock mode.
All electronic collars have the shock functionality, but the beep or vibrate functions are optional.
1. Beep mode
In this mode, a beep is emitted whenever the collar controller is pressed. This beep can be used as a marker, in the same way that clickers are used in clicker training.
For the beep to be an effective marker, our dog needs to have received prior training in associating the sound with a positive reward. This will condition him to stop and wait for his reward whenever he hears the beep, similar to when he hears the click in clicker training.
Alternatively, the beep can also be used to get our dog’s attention, or to interrupt his current action. This is similar to blowing a loud whistle. For this to work, we must only use the interrupt signal on very rare occasions. If applied too frequently, our dog will become accustomed to it, and just ignore it.
2. Vibrate mode
In this mode, the collar vibrates, similar to how our pager or phone vibrates to get our attention. Like the beep mode, this vibration can be used as a marker, or as an interrupt.
Note that both the beep and vibrate modes do not deliver an electric shock to the dog.
3. Shock mode.
In shock mode, the electronic collar will deliver an electric current to the dog through two contact points at the dog’s neck.
This electric shock will cause pain and physical discomfort to the dog, otherwise it would not be effective in conditioning the dog.
The amount of pain delivered to the dog will depend on three key factors -
- The power/voltage of the electric current,
- The duration of the current, and
- The frequency of the current.
The amount of pain that the dog actually feels will also depend on the physical characteristics of the dog, including size, skin and fur, as well as the temperament. Some dogs are more sensitive to pain than others.
Sometimes, words like stimulation are used to describe shock collars. I even saw them described as gentle training collars.
Beware of these sales gimmicks. Accept an electronic collar for what it is. If you choose to use it, make an informed decision that is based on the actual pros and cons of the system, which I will discuss below. Note that the subsequent discussion is solely based on the shock functionality of electronic collars (not on the beep and vibrate modes).
Shock Collar Advantage 1
The electronic collar allows us to control the amount of pain delivered to our dog, and administer that pain from a distance.
- Too much force and our dog may break down and become extremely stressed, or fearful.
- Too little force and our dog will get habituated to the corrections, and just ignore them.
Master aversive trainers are able to deliver just the right amount of force, so that the dog will not repeat a bad behavior, but at the same time, he will also not become unbalanced and fearful.
Unlike other aversive methods, the shock collar allows us to easily adjust the amount of pain delivered to a dog, and to keep that level of pain consistent in subsequent corrections. We can also administer the pain from a distance.
Shock Collar Advantage 2
The electronic collar can automatically deliver a shock correction to the dog, even when we are not there.
Another challenge of implementing proper aversive corrections, is using the right timing. We want to correct our dog as soon as he performs an unacceptable behavior, and stop correcting him as soon as he stops that behavior.
Shock collars can be tied to a particular trigger event, such as barking or proximity to our fence-line. In this way, a shock is automatically and consistently delivered to the dog, as soon as he starts to bark or tries to escape. In fact, the invisible fence, or shock-anti-bark systems are convenient, because we do not even have to be there to deliver the corrections.
Shock collars such as these may sound tempting and easy to use, but unfortunately, consistent and automatic timing does not necessarily mean correct timing.
Studies show that automatic collars are dangerous because tying a shock correction to a single trigger event, such as barking or proximity is too simplistic, and will frequently result in bad timing. This can subsequently lead to aggression and other dog behavioral issues.
There are some anti-bark collars that use sound aversion to stop dog barking, for example, the Ultrasonic Anti-bark Collar. However, customer reviews have been poor because the sound stimulus is often insufficient to prevent the barking behavior.
Shock Collar Advantage 3
With an electronic collar, the source of the aversive stimulus is less clear.
When we use other pain-based aversive techniques, it is usually obvious that the pain comes from us. This may teach our dogs to associate people with physical distress, which can also lead to fear. In this way, aversive training has a high risk of losing our dog’s trust, and weakening our bond with him.
For example, when we apply a leash correction, it is apparent that the pain originates from the leash, and sometimes (if not redirected) from us. Therefore, the dog may decide to fight with the leash, or worse, with us.
This is less of a problem with shock collars because the source of the pain is obscured, and there is no leash to fight with. However, electronic collars may cause a whole host of other problems including dog aggression.
Most experienced aversive dog trainers are good at redirecting the source of an aversive stimulus away from themselves, so that the dog is not really sure where the pain is coming from. They are also very careful about not over-correcting the dog, so that he does not develop fear and stress issues. Automatic shock collars have a high risk of over-correcting a dog.
Shock Collar Disadvantage 1
Shock collars can increase aggression in dogs.
According to Polsky’s study, dogs kept in shock containment systems (i.e. invisible fence or underground fence), showed extreme aggression towards humans, over and beyond their normal behavior.
Polsky’s results show that a big danger with electronic collars, especially automatic shock collars (e.g. anti-bark collars or invisible fence collars), is that they may cause dogs to make the wrong associations, and learn the wrong things.
Dogs may associate the pain from the shock collar with the environment or with objects in the environment (including humans , dogs, or cats), rather than with their escaping or barking behaviors. This may lead to anxiety over those objects, which can ultimately result in fear aggression.
Dogs that have been conditioned in this manner may attach negative associations with the yard itself, and may no longer want to set foot in there for worry of pain. They may also start to attack humans and other animals that wander too close to the fence perimeter.
Some dogs may get habituated to the shocks, and learn that if they can tolerate the pain close to the fence-line, they can escape. Once they escape, they are rewarded with no more shocks. In this way, the dog learns that escaping is a good thing, whereas staying in the backyard is not.
Shock Collar Disadvantage 2
Shock collars can increase stress in dogs and reduce their quality of life.
Schalke et al. conducted a shock collar training study on fourteen laboratory-bred Beagles. Shock collar training was conducted over 7 days, for 1.5 hours per day. Then the dogs were released to freely hunt for 5 days, and to hunt on leash for another 5 days. Schalke’s study showed that the dogs who
… were able to clearly associate the electric stimulus with their action, i.e. touching the prey, and consequently were able to predict and control the stressor, did not show considerable or persistent stress indicators.
~~[ Excerpt from ScienceDirect.com ]
However, the two other groups of dogs that were not able to so clearly predict and control the delivery of the shocks, showed elevated stress levels, with the highest levels present in the dogs that were arbitrarily shocked.
Most importantly, the group of dogs that received a shock for not abiding by a recall (Here) command, were also significantly elevated.
Even more distressing, is that the results remained the same when the dogs were reintroduced to the testing area after four weeks. Their stress levels remained high even though they did not receive any shocks during this reintroduction period.
The results from Schalke’s study indicate that shock collars are extremely risky to use even for the short term. Stress levels of the dogs were high after just 7 days, and were elevated as soon as they returned to the shock treatment environment. This is consistent with Polsky’s study, which show that dogs associate the shock and stress they receive with the environment itself.
This study provides strong evidence that shock collars are inappropriate for most kinds of dog training, as even simple recall training will result in elevated stress levels, and a lower quality of life.
Shock Collar Disadvantage 3
Shock collars can weaken our bond with our dog.
Polsky’s and Schalke’s studies show that dogs often associate the pain from electronic collars with their environment, as well as with people, animals, and other objects in that environment. Even after shocks are no longer administered, the dogs still attach the environment to something stressful and negative.
Would you want your dog to associate home, or even your backyard with this type of stress? Or worse yet, do you want to risk your dog attaching this type of stress and negativity with you?
Remember that Schalke’s results show this negative attachment forming in a matter of 7 days.
Alternative to Shock Collars
Truly, there are better ways to train and manage our dog than resorting to shock collars.
When I first got my Shiba Inu, I had a lot of problems with him. I was using aversive training at the time, and briefly considered the use of electronic collars because the other aversive-based methods were not working well.
Instead, I decided to give reward dog training a chance. After watching Cesar Millan in The Dog Whisperer, I was under the false impression that reward methods would not work on my dominant, stubborn, and aggressive Shiba Inu.
Reward training is not a miracle cure, and it will still take a lot of work, consistency and patience to train our dog. However, reward techniques can work on dominant, stubborn, and aggressive dogs. It has worked well for training my Shiba Inu. In fact, Shiba stopped showing aggression toward me and others, after I stopped using pain-based methods.
Proponents of electronic collars sometimes argue that they are used to save a dog’s life by preventing him from running into traffic.
It is important to note that off-leash recall is never 100% reliable, whatever equipment or training methods we may choose to use.
This is why there are leash laws in most neighborhoods. This is also why off-leash parks require dogs to be on-leash when they are in the parking lot area, or in areas that are close to roads and traffic.
I use a no-slip collar and secure leash to walk my dogs in the neighborhood. I also regularly check the collar and leash to ensure that they in good working order.
Off-leash exercise can be had in fully enclosed spaces or large parks, where we are far enough away from traffic that a failed recall, will not result in an accident. Do not play Russian Roulette with our dog’s life.
After reading the results of Polsky and Schalke’s scientific studies, it is difficult for me to come up with cases where the shock collar would be appropriate in dog training. Perhaps the only case would be in animal aversion training, such as teaching our dogs to fear and stay-away from rattlesnakes.
Some people try to argue that certain dogs or certain dog breeds need shock collars or electronic collars. They say that strong-willed and independent breeds that love to run like the Siberian Husky can only be trained using electric shocks. What do you think? Do some dogs need a shock?
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