E-collars – why I never want to use them again

No matter where we stand on the training spectrum, from purely positive, to balanced or traditional, we all want the same thing: enhancing the behaviors that we want and decreasing those that we deem problematic, for the benefit of both the dog and owner. As results driven creatures, we’re looking for the quickest and most efficient ways to achieve those goals. But how we chose to get there, will make a world of difference for the dog and for his relationship with his owner. E-collars can sometimes be effective in stopping problematic behaviors, in the short run, but can also have many side effects that could be worse than the behaviors they’re trying to address. I’ve been training dogs for so long, that I have, in my earlier days, used shock collars, so I understand the reasons behind their use.

Shock collarI have read many reports advocating for the use of e-collars. E-collars are sometimes compared to a tap on the shoulder (Pendell, unpublished), with the goal to simply get the dog’s attention. Their advocates have claimed they are a gentle and perfectly appropriate teaching tool; leading to a happier dog and contributing to enhancing the relationship between dogs and owners.

As much as I believe that today’s e-collars are meant to be safe in normal uses, I don’t believe that they’re harmless. A tap on the shoulder may stop a dog when occasionally barking for attention, but it will not inhibit strong emotional reactions unless the stimulation is high enough to make an impression. The reason why e-collars can be effective is because they are so unpleasant that the dog will think twice before repeating the behavior that got punished. Research has shown that when stimulated (or shocked), dogs displayed the following behaviors: lowering of the body posture, yelps, tongue flicking, redirected aggression and avoidance, all signs of stress, fear and pain (Matthijs & al., 2004). There is no doubt in my mind that these collars are nothing else other than a powerful punishment tool.

While I’ve witnessed their immediate effectiveness, I have also watched many dogs get stimulated for no reason at all. Owners with little experience of training and handling of that type of equipment will not always take sufficient precaution to trigger the collar at the right time. They may stimulate the dog by accident, thus making the unpleasant sensation random and unavoidable. The potential to learn anything from the situation has just been annihilated.

growling dog shows emotion

Even in the best of worlds, if only experts were to use such devices, I would still choose to stay away from them. With today’s advances in animal behavior science, we can no longer accept the simplistic interpretations of so called dominant/aggressive reactions. Most aggressive behaviors are emotional responses to what is considered a threat to what they value, including their own safety. So punishing in any way will only increase the underlying emotion: fear. If we apply a very strong inhibitor, we will stop the behavior, but we haven’t taught our companion that the situation is safe, on the contrary, we have just made it worse. The quick fix now has the potential to create even more problems down the road. The dog may one day put teeth on the intruder without prior warning, since barking or growling has been inhibited.

When it comes to training the dog to come when called or stay on a property (in the case of invisible fences), the application of punishment, even when effectively used, also has side effects, as it will also generate stress and negative emotions about the situation itself. If we were to learn mathematics while trying to avoid being scolded or punished in any way, we would quickly develop very negative feelings about our teacher and about mathematics in general. Research indicates that even when dogs are trained by means of punishment, those who experienced e-collars are more stressed than the others who didn’t experience e-collars. Those dogs will continue to show signs of stress anytime the owner is present, even outside of the training situation (Matthijs & al., 2004). A relaxed dog that is not on the constant lookout for an unpleasant feeling will be less likely to display many problematic behaviors, including those we’re trying to stop.

Fig 1: The use of electronic collars for training domestic dogs: estimated prevalence, reasons and risk factors for use, and owner perceived success as compared to other training methods Emily J Blackwell, Christine Bolster, Gemma Richards, Bethany A Loftus and Rachel A Casey*

Fig 1: The use of electronic collars for training domestic dogs: estimated prevalence, reasons and risk factors for use, and owner perceived success as compared to other training methods
Emily J Blackwell, Christine Bolster, Gemma Richards, Bethany A Loftus and Rachel A Casey*

I’ll be writing more on the effects of using punishment in a future blog, but for now, the question becomes about what we really want to teach the dog. Is it just about the result? And if it is, shouldn’t we apply scientifically proven methods that are not only more effective but that will truly enhance the dog’s life while building trust and positive feelings for his owner? A new comparative study from a veterinarian group in the UK (Blackwell & al., 2012), between owners who have used e-collars or punitive techniques as opposed to reward based methods to solve recall and chasing problems showed that those using rewards had a significantly higher rate of success over the two other groups (fig. 1). Technology can often support our training and give us quicker results, but let’s make sure of its positive effect on the dog before we adopt it.

In a world where we have been told that punishing a behavior is how you get rid of it, some have justified the use of e-collars. However, we now know that punishment tends to increase problems, not diminish them (Herron & al., 2009). Dogs, just like humans, are living, feeling and emotional creatures. We need to step away from the old disproven belief that dogs learn best when shown who’s boss through means of punishment and examine the true effects of e-collars. Since our understanding of canine psychology has vastly increased over the past 10-15 years, and has given us more effective ways to treat behavior or training issues, we can no longer justify the use of e-collars. Such devices have been shown to affect the dog’s well being as well as our relationship with them. As many others today I never want to use e-collars again.

 

Jennifer Cattet. Ph.D.

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Jennifer Cattet Ph.D. has been working with dogs for over 30 years, as an ethologist with the University of Geneva (Switzerland), a trainer and a behaviorist (in both Europe and the US).
As Director of Training for a service dog organization in the U.S, she supervised and taught offenders in the training of service dogs.
Today she’s the owner of Medical Mutts (MedicalMutts.com), a company dedicated in the training of rescue dogs as service dogs for conditions such as diabetes, seizures, PTSD, autism, etc. She’s also part of a research team working on understanding the ability of dogs to detect changes in blood glucose levels through scent.
Jennifer also works with Smart Animal Training System on the promotion of reward based training and the development of technology to support it (SmartAnimalTraining.com).

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Posted in Dog behavior, Dog training, Educational, Positive Animal Training, Resource, science
11 comments on “E-collars – why I never want to use them again
  1. Dr. Cattet: please do not limit your discussion on the use of shock collars (sorry, I don’t like the euphanism e-collar electric current which in any other context would be described as “shock”) to +P. There is a whole school of training that makes extensive use of the -R quadrant. This is the so-called escape/avoidance training. Dog are conditioned to respond to the shock such that it STOPS when they reach the owner’s side. This is one way they train recalls but also loose-leash walking as well as off-leash walking. If the dog moves far enough away, the shock is applied and stopped when the dog is back where she belongs.
    It’s also used to decrease latency in some behaviors as well as increase speed of performance in the sam manner. The command is given followed directly by the shock which is continued to be applied until the command has been executed.

    I did 2 shock collar experiments using the very same PetSafe system you have the photo of above.
    Experiment 1 shows how different people experience different levels of shock on different body parts when applying it to themselves. this is more or less to counter the claims that “it doesn’t hurt, here let’s try it out” and the trainer lets them old the collar in their hand.
    In Experiment 2, I set up a series of behaviors that I trained using +R (praise) and +P (single shocks to stop unwanted behavior or to punish for non-execution) as well as the aforementioned -R (sender button held down until the behavior was completed. These behaviors were trained in a language unfamiliar to the subject – Turkish.
    Yes, no dogs were used, but rather human volunteers.
    The experiments were filmed and each subject was interviewed afterwards.

    http://www.auf-den-hund-gekommen.net/-/experiment1.html
    http://www.auf-den-hund-gekommen.net/-/experiment2.html

    • Thank you for posting your research, what an interesting experiment and I love that you used e-collars on humans. You make a very valid point, -R is, as you stated, widely used, and not just with e-collars. Many still apply ear-pinch retrieves for instance.

      I was working with a dog on recalls this morning and his enthusiasm and visible joy while running to his handler were truly contagious. Today we can choose training methods that help reduce the dog’s stress levels while increasing his ability to focus and his desire to participate in the activity. I’m grateful to the fact that reward based training is so effective, but even if it wasn’t, and using discomfort or pain at whatever level would help me train a dog with better and faster results, I still don’t think it would be worth sacrificing the dog’s emotional well-being.
      Jennifer C.

  2. Beth says:

    Fantastic post!

  3. In my profession as a vet nurse I have seen the consequences of dogs with injuries from electric shock collars…….holes the size of a small saucer burnt into necks because the dog has barked through the pain of the shock ……the barking was Anxiety related. The owner was horrified with the consequences.

    They are supposed to be illegal where I live yet people can purchase them on the Internet without understanding the consequences……the get them because they are frustrated….which just tells me they are so frustrated they want to relay their frustration onto the dog
    Simply I hate them, they are a lazy way to train,

  4. Winter Sprite says:

    I agree that much of e-collar use and much of e-collar instruction is incompetent or abusive. In fact, I have found this to be the case with all aversives – most people cannot use them competently, and so I hesitate to offer even a leash correction as an option to a student. I use positive reinforcement training to the very limits of my knowledge and abilities. I have not ear pinched a dog in over 15 years, I don’t even own a choke collar, and rarely train with a leash in the first place. I do everything I know how to do to set the dog up for success and reward it. For 30 years, I felt as you do, that I would never use an e-collar – partly because I had seen them used only to abuse, and partly because I believed as a breeder that I needed to produce dogs with a natural inclination to cooperate. Now, I don’t breed, so I train the dog I have.
    I now have my first dog in 30 years of training that I could not break of leaving me for the amusement of squirrels and other dogs, who ignored all efforts to be trained to come when called. I tried everything I knew, and learned as many new positive methods of managing threshold level, etc. as I could. I also reverted and tried each of my old methods, some of which included quite a bit of drama on the part of the human. Nothing worked. Now, you might say that if I had waited long enough, the positive methods might have worked. But how long would that have been? Three, four, five years? Half the dog’s life span? Ever? Not an acceptable risk to me.
    I was advised by a respected problem solving trainer to try the ecollar. I resisted for a while, during which period my dog continued to either rehearse not coming or to be leash-managed at all times, which did not fit my lifestyle at all. I need and demand a reliable recall.
    With responsible instruction, I learned how to choose a shock level, how to teach the dog the proper response to a shock, and when it is appropriate to hit the button. Continuous shocking and yelping or putting the dog on the ground with the shock are not part of how I was taught to use the collar.
    My dog comes now. The dog is happy when it arrives at my side. The notion that it should obey has carried into other problem areas where I never used the collar at all, again, with no sign of stress once the dog learned what to do. Yes, the dog was initially somewhat stressed (panting, facial expression). But unlike the stress applied for an ear-pinched retrieve, which is to benefit the human’s getting high scores at a dog competition, and which stress also generally disappears later, the stress of learning that you MUST come could save this dog’s life, and I decided that it was worth it.
    I take full responsibility for what I have done, and I know that many people will disagree with the decision. As a person striving to use all positive training, I am simultaneously ashamed of having used the ecollar, since I know it will not go down well with my peer group, and really happy with the results I have obtained so far. Ultimately, it was far more humane than walking the dog down in a fenced yard(which is highly stressful for most dogs), keeping the dog on leash for the rest of the dog’s life, or letting the dog get run over, lost, or attacked by another dog. I cannot yet say whether there will be a long term price to pay. You say yes. I say I don’t see evidence of that so far, but am willing to admit the possibility. The dog still wears the collar full time. I used it for the first time in January, 2013. I haven’t touched the button in probably a month, but I will not be satisfied for some additional number of months. Maybe I will never end up feeling comfortable having this dog off leash in the forest without the collar as an insurance policy. But that will be my problem, not the dog’s. And it is still better than the alternative, because I do not believe that me calling this dog was ever going to be higher value than the environmental arousal. Could I offer a squirrel to play with when the dog returned? No? Then I could not get higher on the reward hierarchy no matter how many impulse control games, walk backs, relationship building training, attempts to be more valuable than the strong distraction, constant – like thousands of repetitions – recalls with reward under lower levels of distraction, with gradual distraction build-up that I did. None of that mattered to this dog, as far as I can tell. This dog needed help to trigger some self-control. Right or wrong, the shock collar provided that without impeding the rest of the dog’s life as far as I can tell.
    Maybe someday I will know a better way that is actually effective. If so, I will use it. For now, I chose the ecollar to solve a safety problem (lack of recall), as the best alternative that I could find.

  5. Wes Anderson says:

    To use shock as an effective dog training method you will need:
    A thorough understanding of canine behavior.
    A thorough understanding of learning theory.
    Impeccable timing.
    And if you have those three things, you don’t need a shock collar.
    –Dr. Ian Dunbar

  6. Hlods says:

    What about when training a deaf dog? Is it ok to use a vibration collar?

  7. David Maynard says:

    I have been training dogs for 30 years and I have begun to use a electric collar on some of my working dogs, but I have never had to use the shock button, I have gotten the intended response 95 percent of the time with the audible tone only. Every now and then I have to use the vibrate button never set above 4 . I have the collar just another tool that I use only for dogs at least a year old. Dave

  8. Jack says:

    e-collars are Elizabethan collars. They are used in veterinary medicine. You should know better with your education.

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