Is it okay to use a shock collar on my dog?


Dear Dog Trainer,

I have an electric collar on my dog to keep him from leaving our yard. It works great — he never leaves the perimeter, and I think he’s only been shocked a handful of times. I have a friend who also has a shock collar for her dog and said she was able to use it to teach her dog to sit and even do some agility tricks. I don’t get how to do that. Can you explain? 

Dog Collar Lady 

Dear Dog Collar Lady,

First of all, let’s just clear up the fact that you and your friend are using two different kinds of shock collars. Yours is triggered by proximity to the electric wire that you installed around the perimeter of your yard; your friend’s dog’s collar is more likely operated by remote control. There is another kind of popular electric collar that is set off by the vibrations in your dog’s throat when he barks. The goal of these collars is to reduce barking. You can see humans demonstrating all three kinds of collars in this video.

I’ve written a good deal on TheDogs about some of the problems involved with using shock collars in animal training. But mostly, I’ve focused on the use of shock collars to stop behaviors– behaviors such as running out of the yard, or barking, or going in the wrong direction while assisting a hunter. In these instances, the dog usually receives a quick but detrimental shock to the neck when he is out of bounds, or barking, or going in the wrong direction. If there are multiple shocks, they come one at a time. Fun stuff. The goal, in these situations, is to stop behavior. For this, shock collars may work…but the fallout is often not worth the benefit.

But there’s an even worse application of this form of training: Using the shock to elicit desired behaviors. In this kind of training, the shock does not cease until the dog does the correct thing. For instance, I once met a poodle whose owner had taught him to go to his dog bed by giving him shocks whenever he was anywhere in the room that wasn’t on his bed. The bed was the safe zone, and it was as if the rest of the room were filled with swarming snakes. The dog learned the task. But I wouldn’t say it was a happy home.

All behavior –including every behavior in which you are engaged right this moment! — has a consequence that falls into one of the operant conditioning quadrants: positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, positive punishment and negative punishment. Technically this kind of shock collar training is not considered punishment — it’s negative reinforcement, “negative” because the presence of the desired behavior (sitting on the bed) takes away the bad thing (pain), which encourages the likelihood that the behavior will happen again in the future. (Eight most important words to remember when training a dog? Reinforced behaviors are more likely to happen again). Guilt and nagging are also negative reinforcement cohorts: If the behavior (say, calling your grandmother) results in the taking away of the annoying thing (your mother texting you hourly to tell you to call your grandmother), then I may be more inclined to do the behavior in the future. You might not enjoy calling granny, but the ten minute conversation is less annoying than the constant notifications on your phone from mom mom mom mom mom mom.

Lili Chin shows how her dog Boogie’s recall behavior could be affected by punishment and reinforcement.

Another example of negative reinforcement is water-boarding, the torture procedure that involves holding a wet cloth over someone’s mouth until they beg for mercy. Apparently, the experience feels a lot like drowning.  Here is the late Christopher Hitchens going through the water-boarding procedure for Vanity Fair magazine:

The desired behavior (telling the persecutors what they want to hear) will result in the taking away (hence, negative) of something bad (the feeling that one is drowning).  It works. And every time it works, the torturers are reinforced. They got what they wanted. So they do it again! Because…reinforced behaviors are more likely to happen again.

Waterboarding: A visual primer.

But there’s usually an unintended result to any kind of negative reinforcement: When all is said and done, your subject is probably not going to be to keen on you. The detainees are never going to buy their torturers a beer. Even if it isn’t clear to your subject that you’re specifically the one determining the presence or absence of the bad thing, he is still probably going to associate the bad stuff with you in some way, just because you are a part of the picture when it’s happening. I guess that isn’t such a big deal if you’re in the CIA and you’re using negative reinforcement against the Taliban. If you are waterboarding someone, you’re most likely torturing someone you probably thinks should die anyway. Either that, or you’re a terrible big brother. But dogs are, in theory, creatures we choose to have around because they love us. And we love them. So why the hell are we shocking them at all?

Of course, most of the collars we’re talking about operate via remote, so you need not be that close to your dog feels the shock. But I don’t think that will necessarily help him feel good about you. He might not directly associate your presence with the pain, but he may trust you less in any case. After all, it’s because of you that he’s at the darn training facility to begin with. Next time you try to get him in the car to go somewhere, he might not feel like getting in there with you.

In an excellent post on the problems of shock collars by Eileen of the site Eileen and Dogs, we see the process of using electric shocks in basic training. Fortunately, we’re spared from seeing an actual dog try to maneuver this stressful situation. But the stuffed animal stand-in does a pretty good job. Someone get that dog an agent!

If you can stomach it, Eileen has a host of other videos on her site– videos in which we can see the process as used on real dogs (some are promotional clips from Sit Means Sit, a training chain that is big on this type of training). Negative reinforcement can be effective in getting desired behaviors. These videos show that. But they also show countless dog body language positions that I’d say translate into something like:  Oh my god what the hell is going on! Make it stop! 

So how do you get a dog to do something like stand on a turned over bin without using a shock collar? So glad you asked! Here, Eileen shows us. This time, the dog she uses is real, and that wagging butt translates roughly into this: I love training, I love my owner, and I love standing on bins.  

Do you have a question about dog training? Ask A Dog Trainer!


3 Responses

  1. Eileen Anderson

    January 31, 2013 11:33 pm

    Really well explained article, and thank you for the links and featuring my videos. I’m so glad you included the positive one. The waterboarding and shock stuff gets hard to take. Thanks again.

  2. Bill Stavers

    February 3, 2013 3:32 pm

    a well thought out post, Anna Jean; you might like Susan Friedman’s article, “What’s Wrong With This Picture? Effectiveness Is Not Enough,” which supports your thinking and amplifies your points, where she makes a case that effectiveness of punishment, alone, is not enough.
    Thanks for taking the time to write the article


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