Electric collars – no thanks

It won’t surprise you to discover that I am not a fan of electric collars for training dogs. Not because they aren’t effective but because they don’t do what people think they do. Training suggests the learning of a skill and as the aim of these devices is to create an aversive stimulus they are clearly only capable of being used as a punisher or for negative reinforcement training. You can’t teach anybody anything using punishment alone as punishment merely stops behaviour, albeit temporarily. It does nothing to change the long-term motivation of the recipient unless you cause a trauma so deep that it burns into the recipients core being. Effectively you create a phobia. This may (worryingly) be alright with you but there is a problem. It is impossible for you as the controller of the collar to know exactly what the dog will associate with the pain or the severity of the pain itself  until after the event.

What a lot of advocates of shock collars (many of whom claim to have tried the device on themselves and claim it’s not that bad) fail to take into account is that as a human we are able to rationalise the sensation but for the dog there is no understanding of what this pain that appears to come from nowhere is all about. The surprise alone may have an overwhelming effect let alone the consequence of the pain. You also have no way of knowing what the dog is going to come to associate with the traumatic event. It may associate the location or may generalise and become fearful of similar locations. It may become fearful of the surface it was stood on or the proximity of a certain person, persons, types of persons or generalise to include all persons. It may associate the action it was doing at the time and this may be the intention you had, but it is all too easy to catch behaviours or elements of a behaviour that weren’t intended. The other issue is that use of these collars, even if handled by a master dog trainer with hindsight, foresight and the ability to read the dogs mind, will have side effects. Pain, punishment, fear and distress all take an emotional toil on the dog. Stress causes chemical changes in the brain, just one of which is an increase in cortisol. Too much stress causes distress, which can be thought of as the cessation of normal physical or emotional functioning. Stress has a cumulative effect, and just as you can’t tell the true effects of each individual use of the collar, so you can’t tell what the cumulative effects will be. The signs will be there, but they may not become evident to you until considerable harm has been done. We are all aware of the effects of too much stress at work or of post traumatic stress disorder. Dogs may not have spoken language but be under no illusions, they can and do suffer mental distress and suffering in exactly the same way as you or I. As if the risks of a one-off session aren’t high enough, many dogs are trained continually or have multiple exercises taught or modified with the use of these collars. This will have an effect on the dogs stress levels which will affect future behaviour but will also serve to close the dog down. New situations and learning new exercises can become stressful in themselves, purely because of the bad associations made with training. Dogs trained in this manner are not good problem solvers, rarely cope well in an operational environment and will never be as confident as they could and should be if a less punitive training style were adopted. The fact that the dog is enthusiastic in training sessions is a sign that he enjoys utilising his natural drives not an endorsement for shock collars. Those of you who believe your dog likes the collar because he gets excited then I’m afraid your dog is just clued up to the upcoming training and is excited for the reason just stated. Try a little experiment to let the dog know the collar causes the shock (something I bet he hasn’t worked out yet). Activate it on his nose. Does he still get excited to see his collar? I thought not.

Just to clarify my comment in the second statement, shock collars are effective. Effective at producing an electric shock. There is no doubt that some people are able to train dogs to a high standard and that they use these tools. The collar isn’t the bit doing the teaching however, it is doing the stopping. It is punishing undesirable behaviours. This type of training comes at a cost and that cost is the well-being of the dog. Please do not use these items and if a trainer recommends you do then walk away and find a trainer that can help you train your dog with methods that give him the respect he deserves.

The bond between man and dog has been forged through a symbiotic relationship that spans thousands of years. Don’t abuse that relationship, respect it.

 

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