There are few things that cannot be accomplished with reward-based positive reinforcement dog training. Squirrels can learn obstacle courses. Fish can learn to swim through hoops. Dogs can read! So why is there still widespread use of shock collars for dogs?
Yesterday, GPS titan Garmin, which sells a line of GPS-enabled dog collars for hunting dogs, announced their purchase of Tri-Tronics, an Arizona-company that also makes collars of this kind. But Tri-Tronics’ main business is shock collars for dog training. When I heard about this sale, I was shocked (not literally –thank goodness). But there’s been no kind of public outcry–no Facebook petition. The failure of any kind of nascent boycott movement reminded me that a majority of dog owners don’t think of shock collars as anything out of the ordinary.
After all, shock collars work. But so does water boarding.
To understand why shock collars and positive reinforcement techniques both work, it helps to have a little Behaviorism 101: Every single action has a consequence that is either reinforcing, which means it encourages the chance that the behavior will repeat, or it’s punishing, which means it decreases the likelihood that the behavior will happen again.
Reinforcement and punishment can be either positive or negative. But, in this context, “positive” doesn’t mean “good.” It just means that something is added. And “negative” means something is taken away. Everything in life results in a consequence that is either reinforced or punished. There are four quadrants:
- Positive reinforcement: You do something and then something good happens (Cook a meal and everyone raves. Result: You’ll make the recipe again.)
- Negative reinforcement: You do something and then something bad stops happening (Bang on the ceiling and your neighbor turns down the loud music. Result: You’ll be inclined to bang the ceiling again next time the music is too loud.)
- Positive punishment: You do something and something bad happens (Run a red light and you get a fine. Result: You’ll be less likely to speed.)
- Negative punishment: You do something and something good stops happening (Miss curfew and your parents take away your allowance. Result: You’ll be less likely to stay out too late.)
As a positive reinforcement dog trainer, I encourage behaviors I like by creating favorable consequences that will make my dog do what I want him to do. This works so well that it obliterates the need to utilize negative reinforcement or any kind of punishment. Using positive reinforcement, you can train animals to do some pretty amazing things. Many service dogs and working dogs are trained using only positive reinforcement. Dogs who are taught using positive reinforcement tend to think that training is the coolest thing ever. Amos imitates Sponge Bob’s happy dance every time we start to train:
Electric shock collars are a tool used in negative reinforcement: To get a dog to sit using an electric collar, you turn on the shock and only turn it off once his butt hits the floor. The behavior is reinforced because the pain goes away. Immobilizing a prisoner and pouring water on his face until he speaks? Same idea. Except we’re doing this to creatures we supposedly love. This isn’t just bad for your soul: It’s also bad for your dog’s health. Repeated shocks produce the kind of stress that will raise a dog’s cortisol level, which can to all kinds of physical problems and ultimately shorten their lives.
Shock collars can also, of course, be used as punishers: the dog gets zapped every time he attempts to jump up, or tries to exit the boundary of the invisible fence. This also can work, but oftentimes the dog doesn’t necessarily equate the shock with the stimulus we perceive. This is Pavlovian conditioning, except dogs don’t have words to tell us the connections they’ve made. The dog gets shocked for jumping up on the UPS man, for instance, and decides the UPS man causes electric shocks, not the act of jumping. Or he races towards a squirrel, goes through the electric fence, and bam. Shock! Now squirrels are bad. Often, people with electric fences have dogs that bark like mad at anything outside of the fence’s perimeter. In dog language, they’re likely saying “Hey! Humans! Stay away! There’s a squirrel out there and he’ll give you a shock!” Either that, or else it’s “Fuck you squirrel!”
We have dogs in our lives because we love them. So why would we want to cause them this kind of confusion? If my dog isn’t understanding what I’m saying or what I want, I’d rather the consequence be that I give him a treat he didn’t deserve rather than give him a shock he’ll never forget.
Defenders of shock collars like to proclaim that the shocks are minimal and don’t cause the animals any real pain; seeing the look of terror on the faces of dogs I’ve watched get shocked, I kind of doubt that. Unfortunately, dogs can’t verbally describe the sensation of having electricity zapped into their necks. But YouTube is full of quite a few humans who’ve experimented with shock collars on themselves.
Yow. I think I’m going to go invest in a map.
For a good summary of some of the recent studies that have been done on the use of shock collars, I direct you to this nice roundup of articles and recent studies on training with electric collars.