"I train with a shock collar and my dogs look happy. You should really see the dogs I train, they are wagging their tails and really look forward to their training. "Really? And what proof do you have to back that up? Are you saying that your dog is pleading you to be shocked every time he performs an undesirable, unwanted behavior? Last thing I knew, dogs were naturally drawn to seeking pleasure and avoiding discomfort or pain. But honestly, most footage of dogs using shock collars I have seen feature dogs showing stress and appeasement signals left and right. How relevant these signs are usually ultimately boil down to the dog's temperament and overall stoicism.
Survey Say Stress Not Readily Recognized
Fact: Many dog owners and novice dog trainers (and upsettingly even some seasoned professionals) have a hard time recognizing early signs of stress in dogs.
Let's face it: many dog owners attempt do-it-yourself training techniques before seeking the counsel of a dog behavior professional. Often, behavior change methods involve aversive techniques based on what people read in outdated books or watch on TV shows or YouTube.
Such aversive techniques risk promoting fearful or defensive aggressive behaviors which put dog owners at risk. A study conducted not too long ago found that the use of confrontational methods applied by dog owners were associated with aggressive responses in many cases.
It's also unfortunate that, when aversive techniques are employed, dog owners recognize the negative impact of stress but often risk missing subtle signs of stress in their dogs.
A survey using 1,190 questionnaires completed by dog owners, revealed that more than half of respondents recognized the fact that stress, as a short- or long-term alteration of the dog's psychophysical homeostasis, could potentially have a negative impact on the dog's health causing potential illness.
The survey also found that the ability to recognize signs of stress in dogs was higher among dog owners with higher educational levels. Behavior indicators of stress in dogs that were more readily recognized included trembling and whining, followed by aggression, excess barking and panting.
More subtle signs of stress in dogs though such as looking elsewhere, turning the head, yawning, and nose licking instead were rarely recognized. This indicates that dog owners are unable to intervene and take future precautionary measures in the early stages of stress.
Recognizing early signs of stress in dogs is important as it provides owners with the opportunity to intervene swiftly to help their dogs and prevent putting them into stressful situations so to avoid welfare problems. A rapid recovery of psychophysical homeostasis in dogs can prevent the situation from progressing into overstress and distress.
"But My Dogs Look Happy!"
"Look" is the fundamental keyword here considering that things can be highly deceiving when it comes to interpreting canine emotions and body language. Just because something looks a certain way, doesn't mean it is.
Until the day dogs can talk and therefore clearly communicate with us their emotions, we are doing dogs often a disservice by assuming things, especially when there are chances for dogs experiencing discomfort and pain.
How would you feel if you were spared from the ability to express discomfort next time you were sitting in the dentist's chair? What if every time you raised your hand to signal pain, your dentist ignored you?
Just the other day, I was discussing this with my vet. My vet was telling me that identifying signs of pain in dogs can be quite challenging at times. Vets know this too well as they deal with dogs in pain every day.
To make things even more challenging, consider that the adrenaline associated with vet visits often masks the pain and dogs may act as if they were happy and healthy.
Well, to make the story short, a dog presented to my vet and he looked very happy, tail wagging and all, but then, as she examined him, she noticed that upon touching him in a certain area, his eyes dilated just a tiny-teeny bit. Just to make sure this wasn't coincidental, she touched him in other areas and then, in the midst of this, went back to the specific spot and that elicited again the eye dilation. Bingo! X-rays were taken and the views confirmed the problem area the vet had identified.
Moral of the story: dogs can mask discomfort and pain tricking us humans (and even vets!) into believing they are fine. There are plenty of stories of dogs suffering from the most painful forms of cancer (think appendicular bone cancer) which cause excruciating pain and affected dogs never show any signs other than a slight limp. If dogs can hide this amount of pain, it's therefore easy to overlook the signs of discomfort, pain and stress elicited by a shock collar.
" In all situations where shock has been used there is some damage done, even if we cannot easily see it... Dogs who cease to exhibit a problem behavior usually also cease to exhibit normal behaviors... It's time we replaced everyone's personal mythologies and opinions with data and scientific thinking." ~Dr. Karen Overall
Watch Videos and See the Happiness
Often, I am told to watch videos of dogs being trained with a shock collar by some of the most proficient ecollar trainers out there and I am sadly not impressed. Actually, to be honest, I am revolted and cringe.
I won't make names of the trainers, but the several videos I was persuaded to watch (for the sake of giving some benefit of doubt) are enough for me to stick to my beliefs and what most studies report.
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Many videos show dog trainers training dogs to come with a shock collar and I can see some parts where people may perceive the dog to appear somewhat happy and enthusiastic. These videos though are deceiving once you know what is truly going on behind the scenes when dogs are trained a recall with a shock collar.
When training a dog a recall with a shock collar, negative reinforcement is used. Negative reinforcement is basically avoidance training at best. In negative reinforcement, behaviors that remove something that's perceived as unpleasant by the dog will reinforce and repeat.
For example, in experiments, rats were often subjected to continuous shock that only stopped once 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!
When using a shock collar to train a dog to come, the continuous shock feature is used. What this means is that continuous shock (or repeated tapping) is used until the dog makes the right choice, which is coming when called. 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 is ultimately what stops the shock, the dog eventually learns to come running quickly so to avoid the shock. Of course, this leads to what may seem like "enthusiastic" displays of dogs rushing to come when called, just as you would feel "enthusiastic" when your doctor removes that painful splinter that was stuck in your foot for a while. Personally, I too am very enthusiastic when my plane lands after a bumpy flight and I finally get out out and embrace my family.
Let's not forget as well, that dogs who are wagging, pacing, giving play bows, playing and jumping up are often stressed dogs. The "fool around" phenomenon is part of the dog's stress responses along with fight or flight or freeze. My dogs go into "fool around" mode every time they are the vet. Are they really enjoying being at the vet? Not really, if you would ask them.
Videos of dogs who seem happy when trained with a shock collar may also be heavily edited to remove parts showing the dog manifesting visible signs of stress that people (even non-experts) may readily recognize and find disturbing. Some deceitful trainers may pretend to use the shock collar (when they are not) or use sub-levels of shock they rarely will use when training in real life scenarios (like stopping a dog from wanting to chase deer or from getting near a snake or when the dog doesn't pay attention too many times). The objective is often to draw an audience so to advertise their services, promote shock collar training and provide "proof" of it being totally harmless providing a "happy experience for the dog.".
Only Cortisol Reveals the Truth
Let's face it: there are many intangible concepts in life, and when claims such as "my dog looks happy" are made, that's just based on speculation and personal interpretation. However, in natural science, the good news is that it is possible for several intangible concepts to be quantified.
In the case of determining whether a shock collar causes true "happiness" or potential stress, the most reliable way would involve observing the dog's behavior and measuring the dog's saliva cortisol levels and heart rate. Fortunately, we have studies providing that.
Hard data collected by a study conducted by Schilder and Van der Borg found that dogs who were trained with shock collars manifested lowered body posture, lowered ear posture, high pitched yelps, barks and squeals, avoidance, redirection aggression and tongue flicking. These results show that receiving shocks is a painful and stressful experience to dogs and that it's possible that dogs are conditioned to associate the presence of their owner (or his commands) to the reception of shocks, even outside of the normal training context.
In a more complete study "Behavioural, saliva cortisol and heart rate responses to different types of stimuli in dogs" published in the Journal of Applied Animal Behaviour Science, dogs were exposed to various types of potentially aversive stimuli comprising blasts of sounds, short electric shocks, a falling bag, an opening umbrella and two forms of restrain.
Stimuli that could not be anticipated by dogs such as the sound blasts, shocks from a shock collar and the falling bag were found to induce saliva cortisol responses and a very low posture. The study concluded that in dogs a very low posture may be attributed to intense acute stress considering that the dogs showing a very low posture also exhibited elevated saliva cortisol responses.
Aversive VS Non-Aversive Training
Nowadays, the world of dog training seems to be split in two: aversive and non-aversive training methods. Actually, at a closer look, as with politics and political parties, there are several sub-categories of dog trainers who tend to be somewhere in the middle (balanced trainers) and others being more or less closer to the extreme sides.
A study was conducted not too long ago that went on to explore the effects of both training methods placing an emphasis on the behavioral welfare of the dog and the dog–owner relationship.
On one hand, the study evaluated training based on positive reinforcement (the addition of an appetitive stimulus), and on the other hand the study evaluated training based on negative reinforcement (the disappearance of an aversive stimulus).
Results revealed that, the dogs trained using negative reinforcement–based training methods, showed lower body postures and signals of stress. The dogs trained using positive reinforcement–based methods instead showed increased attentiveness towards their owners. These results therefore clearly suggest that positive reinforcement training methods are less stressful and potentially better for a dog's overall welfare.
Another study found that, not only did shock collar training pose a risk to the wellbeing of dogs, but it also failed to produce superior results in comparison to the results attained by dog trainers not using shock collars and using positive reward-based training instead. All this makes choosing not to use a shock collar a no-brainer, so ultimately what's the purpose?
"E-collar training did not result in a substantially superior response to training in comparison to similarly experienced trainers who do not use e-collars to improve recall and control chasing behaviour. Accordingly, it seems that the routine use of e-collars even in accordance with best practice (as suggested by collar manufacturers) presents a risk to the well-being of pet dogs."~ Jonathan Cooper, Ph.D.
- Applied Animal Behaviour Science Volume 58, Issues 3–4, July 1998, Behavioural, saliva cortisol and heart rate responses to different types of stimuli in dogs Bonne Beerdaab Matthijs B.HSchilder, Jan A.R.A.Mvan Hooffb, Hans Wde Vriesa, Jan AMola
- Journal of Veterinary Behavior, Clinical Applications and Research, Volume 7, Issue 4, July–August 2012, Perception of dogs’ stress by their owners, Chiara Mariti Angelo Gazzano, Jane Lansdown Moore, Paolo Baragli Laura Chelli, Claudio Sighieri
- 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.