Next to using choke chains and prong collars, nothing is more controversial in dog training than shock collars. The more we know about animal behavior plus the growing movement toward positive rewards-based training is helping many dog professionals to rethink the use of all of these devices. But sadly, some people have not taken the time to become educated or just are not convinced and continue to use the devices despite the known harm they may cause the dog – psychological harm.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with shock collars, they are collars outfitted with a battery-operated device that delivers a shock to the dog when the dog misbehaves or fails to follow a command. Usually controlled with a remote device, the collar is often used by trainers of hunting dogs. Or worse yet, the hunters skip working with a trainer, buy the collars and try to train the dogs themselves. But it’s not just hunters who use the collars. I was at a party during the holidays and met a man who proudly told me that he trained his dog using a shock collar. He boasted that the dog cowered and listened to him even if the man simply picked up the collar and showed it to the dog. I think he was trying to impress me with his dog-training prowess. Wasn’t he surprised when I abruptly ended the conversation and found someone else to chat with? By his demeanor, I knew not to argue the point with him.
When a shock collar is properly used, the trainer delivers a tone as a warning when the dog does not obey a command. Then the dog should be given the opportunity to perform the command correctly. If the dog still doesn’t obey, the instructions say to give the dog a shock. Most collars have an intensity setting for the shock, from very mild all the way to quite painful. Should the dog continue not to obey when given the shock, the trainer is instructed to give the dog a stronger shock. When used improperly, the trainer skips over the warning tone and goes right for the shock, often the strong painful shock, and doesn’t give the dog an opportunity to do the right thing.
Shock collars are basically a shortcut to train dogs to be quickly obedient, regardless of the psychological damage they create. A shock collar, which is a punishment-based tool, motivates the dog to learn through fear of punishment. Studies on animals and humans show that we learn better when we are feeling good, and don’t learn as well when under stress or threat of punishment. Rewards-based training, on the other hand, encourages the dog to think for himself and want to learn and obey. The dog is rewarded with food, praise, affection or play (or all four of these rewards) which makes the dog feel good and better able to learn. But rewards-based training can take more time.
The problems with punishment-based training arise when you look at the personalities of dogs. Some dogs are very happy, people-pleasers who don’t need much of a correction to learn. An overly stern correction causes the dog to cringe and become fearful. These dogs frequently shut down and become so nervous that they are afraid their every move may get them punished. They do not know how to avoid the punishment. More strong-willed dogs will take the shock without a flinch and need increasingly stronger shocks to get them to listen. The dog becomes oblivious to pain and dangerously high levels of force are required to get the dog to obey. These dogs tend to become aggressive and no amount of rehabilitation will resolve their issues.
Reject the quick fix shortcut and opt for the long run – a dog trained with rewards-based methods instead of punishment-based will be a happy, confident and loving companion.
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