Using a shock collar for training a dog to come when called may sound like a good idea. You may have heard that training your dog with a shock collar may be the fastest, most reliable way to train a solid recall, but how true is that? You may have seen trainers using shock collars in videos or demonstrations and portraying this training tool as far superior to all other training tools and techniques, but is training your dog to come with an e-collar really the best way to train? In this article we'll be taking a look at what really happens when your are training a dog to come with an e-collar.
How Shock Collars Work
Many people are attracted to using shock collars to train their dogs, but they might not know exactly how they work.
You may have heard that shock collars only emit a small "static" correction that is meant to help your dog learn.
However, an important piece of information that is often missed, is that, in order for that small "static" correction to work, it must be perceived as unpleasant enough for the dog to want to avoid it.
So when trainers or product representatives are telling people that shock collars don't cause pain or discomfort as they only emit an innocent "tickle" or a "tap" this is misleading information, and unscientific too, because in order to stop a dog from engaging in a particular behavior, that "tap"must be perceived as painful or unpleasant enough for the dog to want to avoid it!
Introducing Continuous Stimulation
To train a dog to come using a shock collar, a training method known as negative reinforcement is used. Negative reinforcement is basically avoidance training at best. What it means is that behaviors that remove something that's unpleasant will reinforce and repeat.
For example, in experiments, rats were often subjected to continuous shock that only stopped if the rats pressed on a specific level. Because the rats obviously didn't want to be subjected to repeated shock, they soon learned that in order to stop the shock quickly, they better press that level! Rats and scientific laboratories aside, something similar happens when training a dog to come using a shock collar.
When using a shock collar to train a dog to come, the continuous shock feature is used. What this means is that you will have to deliver continuous shock until your dog makes the right choice, which is coming to you. This can take a split second, a handful or seconds or even more, depending on the dog's level of training.
Because the decision of coming to you is ultimately what stops the shock, the dog should eventually learn to come quickly so to avoid the shock. So basically, by using the shock collar in this way, the ultimate goal is for the dog to learn how to turn the stimulation (the shock) off.
Risks in Using a Shock Collar for Training a Dog to Come
Using a shock collar doesn't mean that you will obtain a remote-controlled dog that will always mechanically respond to you, no questions asked.
Dogs are not robots or remote-controlled toys and no type of dog training is foolproof. Unfortunately using shocking collars comes with many risks and some of them can be quite serious, so much so that trainers are often employed to fix the problems dog owners or other trainers have created through its use!
Here are some significant risk factors that should be kept into consideration before considering to use a shock collar to train dogs.
- Dogs may panic and run off the first time they are introduced to an e-collar. These dogs are basically trying to escape the shock and are clueless and confused about how to turn it off. There was a case of a dog who ran off and got run over by a car the first time a shock collar was used on him. Sadly, the dog didn't make it.
- Shock is not always felt in dogs in the same way. When a dog is focused on something or his adrenaline levels are high, he might not feel the shock as much as when he is relaxed. For example, when a dog is in predatory drive or sniffing and his brain is highly concentrated, he might not feel the shock much, but the moment he lifts his head he may suddenly yelp in pain. For a soft, sensitive dog, it may take time to recover from this.
- As dogs are presented with stronger and stronger distractions during recall training, the level of shock will have to be increased significantly to get the dog to respond. This causes people to start shocking at higher and higher levels, hurting dogs more and more.
- Not always things go as planned. Dogs learn through associations and some dogs may end up being terrorized of leaving the owner's side because they have developed a strong superstitious belief that moving away from the owner will lead to shock. Sometimes dogs associate other things like objects around them with the shock other than not coming when called.
- Think dogs are "thick skinned?" Think again. Many may find this surprising, but a dog's skin is thinner, much thinner than in humans. According to Vet West Animal Hospitals, the epidermis in dogs is 3 to 5 cells thick whereas in humans, it's at least 10 to 15 cells thick. Fun trivia, can you guess where a dog's thickest skin is located?
- Shock collar training may lull people into thinking they can walk their dog off leash reliably which puts dogs at risk. No dog training is foolproof enough to make it worthy to put the dog in peril.
- Shock collars may end up causing dogs to feel demotivated and fall into a state of learned helplessness.
- There is hard data (eg. Schilder, van der Borg) showing the many adverse effect shock collars can have. See references for studies.
- Many owners depend on shock collars quite a lot which means they let their dogs wear them during training but also keep them on daily for extended periods of time so the collar is readily there in case of the need for a correction. Keeping the collar on for extended periods of time though can lead to "collar sores."
- Many people are tempted to crank the level of shock up when dogs do not respond promptly. Shock collars have a strong potential for misuse. It is not a training tool for the inexperienced or people who tend to get frustrated or angry with their dogs.
- Great timing is essential so dogs know exactly what is causing the shock and what is stopping it. Problem is though that nobody is perfect and timing can be misjudged even by the experienced.
- And last but not least, virtually every thing can be taught entirely using non-aversion based techniques and the best part is that these friendly techniques lack the possibility for risks and serious welfare issues. So if there is an equally - if not more efficient way to train a dog to come when called, why shock a dog in the first place?
- Schalke, E., Stichnoth, J. and Jones-Baade, R. (2005) Stress symptoms caused by the use of electric training collars on dogs (Canis Familiaris) in everyday life situations.
- Training Dogs With the Help of the Shock Collar: short and long term behavioural effects(Schilder, van der Borg) Applied Animal Behaviour Science 85 (2004) 319–334
Diensthund der Bereitschaftspolizei Würzburg, TheHidden - Own work (= "Selbst fotografiert") CC BY-SA 3.0, edited to focus on dog