The Use of Shock Collars on Dogs
Rights, wrongs, and slippery slopes.
Posted January 15, 2022 | Reviewed by Vanessa Lancaster
- Force-free tools have been widely disseminated, and science and research tell us that positive reinforcement is best for dog training.
- With aversive training, individual companion dogs may be more or less resilient and able to cope or not cope differently.
- Aversive equipment may momentarily stop the behavior but also create negative associations and increase fear, aggression, reactivity.
Co-authored with Mary Angilly
A slippery slope may sound like an icy patch where you slip and slide, but people use it to refer to situations in which deciding to do something can lead to further actions with undesirable consequences. For example, we might argue that it’s wrong to use shock collars to train dogs, but someone might say something like, “I agree, but I’ll use it only this one time to solve the problem I’m having.” Later on, they have another problem, so they decide to use it again and perhaps again. It sets a poor precedent for future situations that could be handled without using the collar.1
Our obvious preference is to move all dog guardians towards force-free and positive methods of training wherever possible, but we understand that some people, including those who love their pets, sometimes experience a significant amount of cognitive dissonance when they’re told that their prong, choke, or shock collars or other methods of punitive training harm their dogs.2 These situations require a cost-benefit analysis and trainers to choose their battles carefully.
For example, Mary worked with a dog with severe leash reactivity towards other dogs. While talking with this dog’s guardians, she discovered that the dog has an e-collar. When she asked more about it, the guardians stated that they only used the e-collar when they went to the mountains, and the dog was outside off-leash.
They never had the collar on the dog at any other time. They rarely ever used the vibration and never used the shock. Mary asked them to send her videos of the dog in the mountains, including them calling him (to check on their use of the e-collar), and in all the footage they sent, the dog looked happy and confident.
To be very clear, neither of us is condoning the use of this equipment, especially when force-free tools have been widely disseminated and science and research tells us that positive reinforcement is the way to go for dog training. Would we prefer that people didn’t use e-collars at all? Of course. Would we prefer that this equipment was totally banned? Yes.
However, for this particular dog in this particular situation, and with these very concerned and cognizant dog guardians, perhaps this tool allowed this dog increased freedom from restraint and less stress overall. We don’t really know because we can’t ask the dog, but it’s an important thought experiment. After a few sessions with these clients, they told us more about recall and what the positive methods for training might look like.
Currently, this dog is no longer wearing an e-collar in the mountains, and he still has great recall. More information on training dogs to come without shocking them can be found here.
Mary had also worked with clients on the other end of this spectrum, once with a dog who wore a prong and e-collar at all times except at night when he was crated.
The clients initially got a prong collar at the suggestion of a pet store employee to stop their dog from pulling on a leash.
After a few months, the prong collar stopped working, so the clients got an e-collar to continue to help with pulling. From there, they started using it for other behaviors they deemed problematic. After reviewing videos and working with the clients, it became clear that the people used these collars so frequently that the dog was likely getting dozens of corrections a day, with increasing intensity. This dog wasn’t happy or relaxed.
With any tool, piece of equipment, or information, there will always be individuals who take more care than others. When they are recipients of aversive training, individual companion dogs may be more or less resilient and able to cope or not cope differently. Regardless, as we’ve previously discussed about aversive collars, if a piece of equipment or method of training works to stop a behavior, it’s because the animal found it aversive in some way, whether it be annoying, uncomfortable, scary, or painful.
If positive, humane, force-free methods of training and interacting with our pets are widely disseminated and backed by science and research, then what is the argument for using the alternative? If they didn’t notice it or they liked it, it wouldn’t reduce the frequency of the behavior that needed to be corrected. For good measure, see the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior’s recent Position Statement on Humane Training.
For these reasons, we would prefer an outright ban on aversive equipment so certain individuals don’t abuse these tools and misuse them. Whether or not the tools are used “properly” (this is subjective), the potential for negative fallout with aversive methods is significant. Even with a ban on aversive equipment, there will still be those who physically and emotionally harm their animals.
But what about dogs who would otherwise be euthanized? This is a common argument some people use to justify using shock collars. Remember, the use of aversives is elective; It’s a personal choice, and other options are easily accessible.
Unfortunately, there is no magical cure in dog training. The nature of the use of aversives almost guarantees that the root of a behavior “problem” will not be resolved. It may stop the behavior at the moment, but the risks of creating negative associations and increasing fear, aggression, and reactivity are well known. It’s important to consider the long-term potential for negative fallout in those dogs for whom we use “quick fixes” that work at the moment but leave a dog feeling anxious and scared.
A recent study looking at risk factors for euthanasia or rehoming of dogs found that “associated owner variables included the use of punishment-based training and previous consultation with a nonveterinary behaviorist or trainer."
We should look carefully at these results because they speak to the fact that the use of punishment-based training methods may actually be doing the opposite of keeping dogs out of shelters and not being euthanized. And, of course, one can question whether “putting these dogs to sleep” is really euthanasia because they're not suffering from interminable pain or an incurable disease.
By and large, people love their dogs and are doing the best they can for them with the information and tools they have. In an industry that is unregulated and rampant with misinformation, it can be complicated for a well-meaning dog guardian to sift through what’s “right” for their individual dog. But when they do, it’s a win-win for them and their dog, and nothing could be better for developing and maintaining a positive and mutually respectful relationship.
*Mary Angilly is a Boulder-based force-free positive trainer.
1) For more information on why shock collars shouldn't be used, click here.
2) For discussions about the science behind why force-free positive training is better than other methods, click here.
Angilly, Mary and Marc Bekoff. Dog Training Offers Valuable Lessons in Humane Education.
Bekoff, Marc. Dog Training: Blending Science With Individual Personalities.
_____. Trainers Worry About False Claims That Dogs Lack Emotions.
_____. Science Shows Positive Reward-Based Dog Training Is Best.
_____. Choose a Dog Trainer as Carefully as You Would a Surgeon.
_____. Dog Training's Dirty Little Secret: Anyone Can Legally Do It.
Siracusa, Carlo et al., Dog- and owner-related risk factors for consideration of euthanasia or rehoming before a referral behavioral consultation and for euthanizing or rehoming the dog after the consultation. Journal of Veterinary Behavior 22, 46-56, 2017.