I got this question from a friend who is dog-mommy to two wonderful, if highly energetic, girls.
My short answer was that in general, I believe that they are used too often by people who want a “quick solution,” and they are not used correctly — and that therefore they end up being used in a way that is unfair and abusive to the dog. I abhor punitive training and think that in nearly all cases it is not only unnecessary but counter-productive.
I also hesitate to completely rule out the use of an e-collar (an electric shock collar). There are a very, very few cases where the use of an e-collar, with a skilled, ethical, experienced trainer, might be justified.
I can hear the howls of my positive-only training colleagues already. I have never used an e-collar to train and don’t intend to. But I have come to see that, in some — very rare — cases it might be advisable to call in someone with e-collar experience to prevent severe harm to or the death of a dog. When making this decision, think about your dog; soft, submissive, anxious, or fearful dogs are never suitable candidates for e-collars. And think about the possible fallout from such a harsh punishment: damage to trust and the relationship with your dog; the dog could shut down or defend himself aggressively; poor timing on your part could punish the dog for something other than the transgression. Make the decision with a full knowledge of your dog, your situation, and the possible ramifications.
Once this decision has been made (after serious consideration of alternatives), it is imperative to choose a skilled, fair, and ethical trainer. Unfortunately, anyone can call himself or herself a trainer. Get recommendations from people you trust and ask the trainer a lot of questions before allowing him or her to place an e-collar on your dog!
Here is an example that illustrates my points.
In Montana, where I have spent several summers, it is perfectly legal to shoot a dog who is chasing wildlife (such as deer). A dog I know well loves to chase deer. Though this dog generally has a strong recall and is a responsive, intelligent dog, when he was aroused by the close presence of deer, he tended to suffer bouts of temporary deafness and forgetfulness. Off he’d go. He’d always come back home after the chase; he probably knew that he was unlikely to actually catch a deer — but the thrill of the chase! Unfortunately there was a real risk that a neighbor with an itchy trigger finger would kill him during one of his illicit chases.
His mom tried working more on his recall, tried keeping him in enclosed yards. Nothing prevented the occasional chase. He learned to open gates. He’d leap out of the car the moment it stopped and he’d wrench the leash from her hands. Desperate, she decided to try e-collar training.
She first called Trainer A, recommended by a friend.
Trainer A has one trick: Trainer A uses an e-collar on any and all dogs for any and all problems. Trainer A spent the first session randomly shocking the dog, explaining that the dog needed to know what he wanted to avoid. This is not training. It does not give the dog any information about what to do or what not to do; therefore the dog does not learn. Fortunately for this dog, there was no second session with Trainer A.
Trainer A’s clients are told that the dog will need to wear the collar (and the owner will need to use it) for weeks, months, or maybe even a few years after their several weeks of “training” ends. This is an admission on the trainer’s part that the dogs are not actually learning anything. And, the behavioral definition of punishment is that it stops a behavior and inhibits the dog (in this case) from repeating the behavior. If the “punishment” must constantly be repeated because there is no change in the dog’s behavior, it is not functioning as punishment. Repeatedly shocking a dog who is learning nothing from the experience is abuse and venting of owner frustration.
Trainer A is a perfect illustration of why I oppose the use of e-collars.
Few trainers are skilled, professional, and ethical enough to use an e-collar appropriately. Even fewer owners are. Trainer A has clients who use their shock collar remotes as if the dog is a TV that can be controlled with the press of a button: Dog doesn’t sit? Shock. Dog is begging at the table? Shock. Owners like having a “simple” way to “control” their dogs. The owners do not seem troubled by the damage that they are doing to their relationships with their dogs. They are not bothered by the idea that they are administering painful electric shocks to their dogs for minor transgressions — or that the dogs have absolutely no idea why their humans are torturing them. Too often, the press on the control becomes a habit or a way to vent frustration when the dog behaves like a dog.
And Trainer A and others with a similar approach do appear to get rapid results — many dogs become terrified to do anything lest they get shocked, so they “behave” — if you consider a withdrawn, anxious, or terrified-into-submission dog to be behaving.
So, back to the deer chaser. After his mom gave up on Trainer A, she got another recommendation and scheduled a meeting with Trainer B.
Trainer B spent the bulk of the first training session making sure that the dog knew what a recall was and that the owner was being fair in giving him clear cues and a chance to respond. Trainer B then walked with dog and owner to a place where deer were grazing (not hard to find in rural Montana). The dog was off leash.
When the dog showed interest in the deer, the owner called him back. He ignored her. Trainer B administered a single shock. Owner called the dog again; the dog responded. Trainer B did a few repetition, had the owner do a few — and ended the training session, stating that, most likely, no additional sessions would be needed.
Trainer B advised that the owner put the collar on the dog whenever they were outside for the next couple of weeks. The owner had to use the collar fewer than a half-dozen times. The dog no longer shows any inclination to chase deer, even when he’s not wearing the collar.
A key difference between the two trainers was that Trainer B made sure that the dog knew what the owner wanted, understood the cue, and was given a chance to respond before administering a shock. This made a clear connection between the transgression (ignoring the owner’s call) and the punishment. The dog quickly understood why he was being punished and decided that obeying was a smarter (if less fun) choice. The punishment was administered very few times. One lesson, with a fair and ethical trainer, taught the dog that chasing deer was not allowed and not negotiable. Even the deer notice a difference, no longer high-tailing it out of the meadow any time they see him.
Deciding whether to use an e-collar should be a very serious decision. While I strongly oppose administering a shock to any dog, in a case where the dog’s life could be in danger and other training approaches have failed, I believe that e-collar training might be justified. But I also believe that there truly are very, very few such situations. Using an e-collar to “teach” your dog to sit or heel is like using a machine gun to deal with a mouse invasion in your house. It’s an extreme over-reaction, it’s not likely to work, and it will cause a lot of collateral damage. If you do decide to use an e-collar, please proceed carefully and choose an experienced, ethical trainer who sees e-collar training only as a last resort for dangerous behaviors.