There are many options for training a dog that spans from positive reinforcement to shock collar training. The type of training one chooses to use will depend on personal preferences, proven past success, and the purpose of the training.
Most often, owners are looking to modify the dog’s behavior to take on specific tasks or participate safely and obediently in a domestic setting.
While training, it is important to pay attention to the dog’s personality traits and how he or she is reacting, as well as the effectiveness and timing of the reinforcement.
Are shock collars suitable tools for training dogs? No, shock collars are not suitable training tools for dogs. Shock collars can cause adverse personality and behavior changes in dogs. Shock collar training focuses on negative reinforcement as a consequence for unwanted behavior. Many alternative types of training are less punitive and more humane.
While there is a little evidence that shock collars are proven somewhat effective for certain dog training purposes, their downside far outweighs any potential benefits.
Are Shock Collars an Effective Form of Dog Training?
Shock collar training falls under the category of positive punishment, where dogs receive a consequence for exhibiting negative behaviors to deter them from behaving in the same manner again.
The shock or jolt is applied as a response to the dog’s unwanted behavior but is not intended to cause harm to the dog.
The most popular uses for shock collar training are to work on negative behaviors such as barking or food aggression, as well as understanding safe boundaries.
There are several settings for the intensity and frequency of the applied shock. Owners can choose the level that works best for the dog’s well-being while still providing a reminder for behavior expectations.
Before receiving the actual shock, dogs receive a beep or other warning signal that offers a softer cue when the unwanted behavior first occurs.
Owners can also pair this gentle prompt with a verbal command to reinforce the behavior they wish to discourage.
Once the dog receives the initial warning, the jolt the dog gets depends on the type of shock collar system that is used, as well as the purpose.
With electric fences, dogs receive a shock when they try to cross a boundary. Remote controls can also be used to control when and how the dog receives the shock.
Pros and Cons of Shock Collar Training
Many negative dog behaviors stem from territorial issues or learned ways to gain attention. Behavior modification can be necessary to help work on these behaviors.
While shock collar training is one way to discourage unwanted dog actions, it is essential to examine both the reasons for and against using this type of reinforcement.
Using a shock collar may decrease the amount of time spent on training. The jolt the dog receives can be enough to quickly stop the behavior from occurring both in the present moment and the future.
For many dogs, the initial warning signal can be enough to help correct the behavior.
With both electric fences and bark collars, the owner does not need to be nearby for the shock collar to work. When dogs get too close to the invisible barrier, the collar first emits a warning before applying a shock if the line is crossed.
Bark collars are designed to have the intensity of the shock match the bark, so even if the owner is inside or away, excessive barking can be addressed.
The owner can control the power of the shock as well. It might be a bit of an adjustment period to find the intensity that works for each dog. Still, for many dogs, the initial beep or vibration can be used in place of an actual shock.
Shock collars are also fairly inexpensive. The price will vary based upon the needs of both the owner and dog, but this type of training is usually much cheaper than hiring a trainer.
Shock collar training is not a form of positive reinforcement. Instead of rewarding the behaviors, an owner wishes to see, the unwanted behaviors are what receive the most attention.
The lack of reward or praise for positive behaviors can weaken the bond between the owner and dog, as well as damage the dog’s self-esteem.
While minimal, the shock a dog receives during this type of training can cause discomfort or pain. For many dog owners, it is just not fathomable to hurt the dog in any way, especially when there is a multitude of other training methods.
Shock collar training requires in-depth knowledge and understanding of the system in use as well as the dog’s needs. If an owner is inexperienced or does not do enough research, the shock collar can be misused and potentially harm the dog.
Most commonly, a sense of fear is instilled in the dog when shock collars are used inappropriately. This fear can potentially lead to more issues down the road.
Instead of simply correcting the negative behavior, there is a level of mistrust established.
With the reinforcement of fear, dogs may start to exhibit different negative behaviors. Biting out of fear, escaping the yard to avoid more pain, and associating going to the bathroom outside with a shock are just a few of the changes one might see during and after using shock collar training (source).
Are Shock Collars Worth the Potential Health and Safety Consequences?
Dr. Richard Polsky published a study entitled, Electronic Shock Collars: Are They Worth the Risks? This study explores the advantages and disadvantages of using shock collars as a training method. He offers conclusions based on researching three types of shock collars: remote-controlled, anti-bark, and boundary training.
He offers up the following as potential risks of shock collar use: random or accidental shock discharges, owner misuse resulting in harm, aggression issues, humane considerations, and behavior modification regressions.
Due to these factors, Dr. Polsky recommends the use of shock collars only in certain situations and after exhausting all other types of behavior training.
Once both the owner and veterinarian have explored and assessed other behavior modification techniques, then it may be appropriate to use a shock collar.
Owners who have been educated on how to use the shock collar appropriately, and carefully evaluated the benefits and risks to this type of training, are the least likely to cause harm to their dogs.
But as every situation and dog are different, the beneficial components of this approach are most likely to be realized if shock collar training is truly the best fit (source).
Is Shock Collar Training Cruel?
The shock collars manufactured today have come a long way from their initial invention sixty years ago. Nowadays, there are multiple settings for intensity, frequency, and duration to help provide a more humane experience if an owner does choose to use a shock collar approach.
It is also advisable, to begin with, a gentler behavior modification approach first before moving into shock collar training.
Working with a trainer, attending classes, or starting with leashed or verbal commands can help both the owner and the dog find the most compassionate solution to their training needs.
Many countries and cities have taken steps to curb the use of shock collars. Austria, Slovenia, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Switzerland, Quebec, Germany, some parts of Australia, Wales, Scotland, and most recently England have all banned shock collars.
Michael Gove, a British Conservative politician who at the time was Secretary of State for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs, led the initiative to ban the use of shock collars in England.
The Guardian quotes him as stating shock collars were “punitive devices that can cause harm and suffering, whether intentionally or unintentionally, to our pets” (source).
Humane Society’s Position
The Humane Society of the United States holds the position that shock collars are the least humane method for dog training.
They maintain that the collars afford a greater chance of abuse stemming from owner misuse or misconduct. These occurrences can cause aggressive behavior in dogs when they learn to misassociate the jolt (Source).
The People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) holds a similar position to that of the Humane Society. They believe that shock collars use punishment and negative reinforcement to cruelly train dogs.
PETA also states that shock collars can cause, “physical pain, injury, and psychological stress, including severe anxiety and displaced aggression” (source).
These initial effects can eventually lead to heart, respiratory, and gastrointestinal issues.
Consequences of Shock Collar Training
While it may be argued that shock collar training works for certain dogs with particular behavior issues, the unintended effects can do more harm than help.
Using a shock collar controls a dog without allowing any room for choice or problem-solving. Instead of working to find the cause of the negative behavior, the dog is instead taught just to meet the owner’s demands and expectations.
Many dogs may adopt an attitude of learned helplessness or regress in their training from this approach.
Not only can shock collars hinder a dog’s learning potential and cause self-esteem issues, but aggressive behavior can also arise as well.
Fear manifesting as hostility can completely alter a dog’s personality and be the cause of unnecessary harm to others.
Check out this short video why you why you may NOT want a shock collar:
Jonathan Cooper and his colleagues at the University of Lincoln in the United Kingdom conducted a study in 2014 to investigate the effects on dogs trained with shock collars. Their research group consisted of 63 dogs split into three equal groups.
The first group was trained with the use of shock collars by professional trainers who were experienced with the technology and methodology. The second group was trained by the same trainers but without the use of shock collars.
The third group was trained by a different set of professional trainers who focused on reward-based training and did not use shock collars.
Prior to the experimental study, a preliminary study was conducted to determine the initial effects of shock collar training on dogs.
The majority of the trainers did not use any warning cues to prepare the dogs for the jolt from the collars, resulting in a variety of negative responses.
The trainers in the experimental study group who worked with the dogs using shock collars followed a different approach. They used verbal commands or beeps to prepare the dogs for the jolt from the collars.
This concept of using a warning signal is a best practice but does not represent how all dogs are trained, as evidenced by the conclusions from the preliminary study.
Trainers or owners who do not have experience with the correct way to use shock collars can, therefore, unintentionally cause harm to dogs.
During the training sessions, dogs in the first two groups, especially the group trained with shock collars, were observed to carry their tails lower and move away from more suddenly from the trainers.
Lower tails are associated with stress while moving away sends the message of mistrust and fear.
Dogs in the first group were also observed to be tenser and yawn more frequently than dogs in the last group. Yawning has been associated with stress, as well as being a sign of conflict in dogs.
Another big difference between the first and last groups was the number of yelps and other vocalizations from the dogs during training.
Although only a small number of dogs in the first group frequently yelped, the highest number of incidents occurred when the strongest settings on the shock collars were used.
Owners referred dogs to all three groups for similar reasons, and most saw improvements in their dog’s behavior after going through training. Owners with dogs in the first group were the least confident in applying the strategies at home.
Many proponents of shock collars attest that this method of training is the most effective when dealing with behavior problems, especially those concerning safety.
However, there is no evidence in this study to suggest shock collar training is any more effective than other types of training.
Training Dogs with the Help of the Shock Collar: Short and Long Term Behavioral Effects
Researchers Matthijs Schilder and Joanne van der Borg conducted a study in 2003 to determine if shock collars cause short-term and long-term effects such as fear, pain, and anxiety.
They wanted to know if those traits were exhibited solely in training sessions or in the real-world as well.
They studied 32 German Shepherds who were going through guard dog training. This population represents a small percentage of total dogs who are exposed to shock collars.
Working-class dogs typically have more energy and tolerance for behavior correction training methods.
Schilder and van der Borg divided the dogs into two groups to study the effects of shock collars. The first group was comprised of dogs who had previously been exposed to shock collars. The second group included dogs who had never used a shock collar before.
The dogs were observed during guard training, obedience sessions, and free-walks. These sessions were recorded to allow for better comparisons between the groups and sessions.
Regardless of whether or not the dogs had experienced previous shocks, both groups that were shocked during training and free-walks had adverse reactions to being shocked.
Responses included lowering the body, barks and yelps, aggression, and trainer/owner avoidance, all of which can be tied to feelings of stress, fear, and potential pain.
When the two groups of dogs (ones who had shock collar training before and those who hadn’t) went through training sessions where no shocks were applied, there were clear differences. The researchers were looking to see if previous shock collar training had lasting effects on the dogs.
The dogs who were shocked in the past showed more stress and fear-related behaviors than the other group during guard dog training, obedience sessions, and free-walks. This evidence suggests that shock collar training has lasting effects on dogs.
During both the guard dog and obedience training sessions, all of the dogs in the study showed more stress symptoms. As training sessions can be high stakes and involve a lot of anxiety, it is not surprising that the dogs had more negative reactions than the free-walk sessions.
The authors conclude that shock training can be a harmful experience for dogs, and the long-term effects suggest a direct negative correlation between the owners and the shocks the dog receives.
As there are both short-term and long-term effects of using shock collars, this type of training puts dogs’ health and welfare at risk (source).
Shock collar training is just one of many options for behavior modification for dogs. While some proponents argue that this type of training is best for severe behavior problems or hard-to-train breeds, shock collars have many negative effects as well.
Owners and trainers should choose to use a shock collar only after trying other options and truly understanding the needs of the dog.
Shock collar training usually focuses on correcting unwanted behavior instead of providing positive reinforcement for desired behaviors.
Due to the short-term and long-term effects of using shock collars, many people choose a different and more humane route for dog training.
The extended effects of using positive training methods far exceed the benefits of shock collar training.