Recently I came across a blog post promoting e-collars for a big name brand. I was surprised and disappointed in the level of support it received, leading me to once again examine my position on the use of these tools. First off, from here on out I am calling them one thing: shock collars. Not the "softer side" of what they are: e-collars, static collars, training collars, remote collars...shock collars. I did quite a bit of research for this post, which lead me to change my shopping habits so that my dollars, where possible, were not supporting retailers or manufacturers of shock collars. This past week, I've done even more delving into the history, sale and prevalence of shock collars and examined more deeply why, exactly, I am so vehemently opposed to them.
I'm not arguing the effectiveness of shock collars. Shock collar training works through operant conditioning - the same principal as positive reinforcement. Modern studies are proving that reward-based methods are both more effective and pose a reduced risk for distress and lasting negative psychological effects. The use of shock collars falls into two of the four quadrants of operant conditioning - negative reinforcement and positive punishment. The collars are commonly used in one or both of these ways:
1. The dog receives a shock for an undesirable behavior, such as barking or digging (natural dog behaviors). This is an example of positive punishment, because you are adding an aversive consequence to reduce frequency of a behavior.
2. The dog receives continual shocks until it does the desirable behavior, such as being shocked continually until it is in heel position. This is an example of negative reinforcement, because you are taking away an aversive consequence to increase frequency of a behavior.
A shock collar, by design, is always an aversive tool. What does aversive mean? It means "causing avoidance of an unpleasant or painful stimulus." Those fancy shock collars that have one hundred different levels just give the ultimate precision in discomfort. Call it "annoyance," "stimulation," "just a tap" - it is unpleasant enough that the dog changes its behavior in order to avoid it. I watched a manufacturer's instructional video for an anti-bark collar - the dog in the video jumped and cowered when it received a shock for barking, and the video warns not to accidentally receive a shock yourself. It is instinctual for a dog to hide its pain, and even if the owner tries the shock levels on themselves, how is that any guarantee that they are feeling the same thing the dog is feeling? Pain tolerance varies by individual, which is why in the many reviews of shock collars that I read, there were complaints ranging from "my dog didn't feel anything" all the way to "my dog cried and hid the rest of the day."
The fear of malfunction alone should be enough to make people think twice about using them. There are no regulations in place regarding the performance or reliability of these products. Again, based on pages upon pages of reviews that I read, there were instances of buttons being stuck down and the dog being shocked for unknown durations, and contact points causing actual burns on skin. If you think these are old or outdated examples before the technology was improved, they were all from readily available products in 2014. Shock collars range in price from $39.99 to upwards of three hundred dollars. I suppose as with all things...you get what you pay for.
Many people reviewing shock collars report that they only have to reach for the remote for the dog to "know what's coming" and behave. When I train with my dogs, I love to see their open-mouthed, tongue-lolling grins and their butts wagging because they know what's coming...a yummy treat or a favorite tug toy. I don't understand why you would want your dog not to be motivated by good things, but to suppress behavior out of fear of bad things. One of the things that bothers me about a shock collar remote is the distance it provides...people who probably wouldn't dream of hitting or kicking their dog have no qualms about pressing a button that causes their dog to yelp or jump. The dog doesn't know where it came from, and there was no physical contact. It is the same kind of sneaky rationalization that much of the advertising language from the shock collar manufacturers and retailers use, softening "shock" to "static" and "correction" to "stimulation."
I asked my Facebook followers to tell me the first word that came to mind when they thought of shock collars, and created a word cloud from those results:
Given that it's my audience, built mainly of like-minded, force-free-philosophizing dog lovers, the results are no more surprising than a leading shock collar manufacturer's press release stating that 86% of people already using shock collars found them to be an effective training tool. The people already using these collars are not the minds I'm hoping to change, no more than they are going to change mine. There is absolutely nothing that could convince me to put a shock collar on my fearful, sensitive, reactive dog or my calm, gentle, normal dog.
In all my thinking, discussing and reading, I've come to realize that my own distaste for the collars is tied more esoterically to cultural attitudes. I see parallels in the use of shock collars to animals bought on a whim and later dumped in shelters for not conforming to expectations. The assumption is often made that dogs are just supposed to intrinsically know how to behave, even though many of the things we want them to do or not do are against their very natures. I question the desire to control them - often suppressing the very behaviors that define their dogness - with the push of a button. I can hear the criticism now "but don't you use a clicker - isn't that a button?" A clicker is simply a marker, no different than saying "good dog" except that it allows for more consistency and precision. It is not an attention-getter or some kind of remote and it is not even positive reinforcement on its own, but the promise of positive reinforcement. The shock collar remote and the beep or vibration "warning" mode that many possess are the threat of positive punishment.
I know that many of my readers are on the same page and while it is nice to be in good company, my aim in these sorts of posts is to reach the one or two people who may have already bought a shock collar but are hesitant to use it, those with reactive dogs who are thinking of it as a last resort, or someone who thinks there can be no harm in trying it. I'd ask you to reconsider, to do your own research, and to ask whether you would rather have a dog working with a currency of trust, or one working with a currency of fear.
The Welfare Consequences and Efficacy of Training Pet Dogs with Remote Electronic Training Collars in Comparison to Reward Based Training
Amazon reviews of Remote Shock Collar
The Pet Professional Guild
Training With Grace