Don’t be an idiot; don’t use shock collars

While renewing my commitment to training our dogs and brushing up on the literature, I am reminded of a few simple dog-training truths. You know all of these things already, but I am scribbling these principles here as a strong reminder and encouragement to myself.

Rudd Weatherwax training Lassie. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Dog training is hard, you feel me?

Good training requires a lot of commitment.

People are lazy. Myself included. This is why we have dogs with behavior problems that don’t seem to improve. This is why our dogs frustrate us and we feel like neither party is clearly communicating with the other. This is why young dogs are getting adopted out and then returned to shelters a few weeks later.

The truth is that we’re always training our dogs to do something, even when we think we aren’t. Successful training requires a lot of commitment, awareness, and conscientiousness on the part of the dog owner.

You have to be intelligent to be a good trainer.

Time to be offensive!

If you want to be a positive reinforcement trainer, intelligence may be a prerequisite β€” or at least a mild level of intelligence. The less intelligent or less patient among us resort to shock-collar training because it’s easy. This may seem like an extreme statement, but I don’t know of any great positive trainers who aren’t also very intelligent. I also don’t know of any people using shock collars or physical or psychological intimidation who know much (if any) canine science.

Lately, I’ve become increasingly enraged by the success of a shock-collar “training” organization in my area. The “trainers” are not certified by any national training organization, at least according to their website β€” because why would they need to be? All you need to know is how to push a buzzer to shock your dog in the neck. Small children can be “successful” shock-collar trainers.

I’m very dismayed with the rescue that we got our dogs from, as they have become increasingly involved with these shock-collar trainers. Whenever the rescue gets a slightly difficult German shepherd, they ship them off to “board and train” with the shock-collar folks. They love posting before and after videos of these dogs (in fact, the incisive Eileen from Eileen and Dogs has sampled from their videos in some of her excellent posts against shock collars). The rescue’s presence on Facebook and constant promotion of their “training” techniques is actually one of the main reasons I got off Facebook; I couldn’t take it anymore.

In their videos, you see a similar pattern: In the “before,” we get an energetic dog, with the trainer in the background saying stuff like, “As you can see, Roscoe isn’t trained at all, and he is crazy,” while the trainer yells “SIT!” at the dog when the dog is looking at someone else or playing with a toy on the asphalt. And then we get the “after”: All of the life in Roscoe’s eyes is gone. He now walks slowly and tensely next to the trainer, who is gripping the shocking device, and Roscoe now does everything the trainer asks him to do. The trainer exclaims, “See how well he heels now! Look how calm he is!” Yes. And see how you’ve utterly crushed his spirit. That is not a calm dog; that is a broken dog.

Just watch some videos of people working with clicker-trained dogs and compare. There is so much JOY in a positively trained dog. The positive dog is having fun with her human; they are strengthening their bond as mutual trust and encouragement is exchanged. The shock-collar-trained dog? No joy β€” and of course there isn’t! Would you be happy when you were working with someone who electrocuted your throat at various intervals? There is compliance, yes, but at what cost?

I’m not saying you need a PhD in animal behavior to clicker train your dog. But you do need to understand the basics of canine behavior and psychology, to understand why and how you need to do certain things. Otherwise, you will create very serious problems for yourself and your dog in the long run.

People. Be kind to your dogs. Learn some basic canine behavior and science before you start shocking them in the name of obedience training.

First day of school at Canine Campus
A poor photo of me working with Pyrrha in her first class, back in 2012.

How do we break the pattern of laziness, and thus the appeal of shock-collar training?

I’m just as lazy as the next person. If I hadn’t been welcomed into this dog blogging community and found Patricia McConnell before Cesar Millan, I might have resorted to intimidation-based training tactics. I understand why physical and psychological domination appeals to so many dog owners. But knowing what I now know about dogs, it chills my blood to see those techniques used on dogs.

What aspects of dog training do you wish more people knew? What reminders about dog training do you need to hear yourself?


15 thoughts on “Don’t be an idiot; don’t use shock collars

  1. Thanks for writing this! I also find the use of shock collars abhorrent. More than that, I think it’s pretty dangerous to use a method like that with big, powerful dogs – if you don’t manage to break their spirit completely, there’s a chance they could lash out someday.

    I’ve seen people resort to shock collars a lot with high energy dogs like German Shepherds and Boxers (which I have). I think some of the battle is understanding the dog. If you want a slow, docile dog, certain breeds are just not going to be for you. You shouldn’t try to train the personality out of a dog.

    I was able to train my extremely active boxer to do the essentials – walk on the lead without pulling, sit, and lie down – with positive training and a gentle leader (at first). If that could happen with her, it could happen with ANY dog. I agree with you that some people just give up far, far too easily, and that’s why they resort to the shock collar, sadly.

  2. I think the biggest challenge faced by positive training is actually rooted in child rearing. If we’re still spanking our children then why wouldn’t we shock our dogs? We can’t possibly be nicer to our dogs than our children because that would turn the whole world on end. And we can’t “train” our children like our dogs because then we would be “lowering” the species which is something humans absolutely don’t want to do.

    The other big issue, especially in rescue, is that positive reinforcement training takes a lot of time and a lot of commitment and energy which is something that rescues don’t have a ton of. Better shocked than dead, right? Rescues need to move dogs quickly through the system so they can rescue other dogs. It’s the quality over quantity issue that I also struggle with. A lot of times I see people come into the shelter to adopt a dog (usually a pit) and they’re carrying a prong collar. I cringe when I see it, but at least the dog is out of the shelter right? I don’t know, it’s quite the conundrum and something I haven’t completely made my mind up on. That combined with the “I can’t clicker train my dog to stop biting people” myth and the near-instant “results” you get from using positive punishment and it’s easy to see how the shock collar and prong collar people come out as the heroes of the rescue world while the clicker trainers look like elitist snobs who would rather see an animal killed than break with their methodology which is something the shock trainers have been playing up on a bunch since the newest study about shock collar training came out.

    All that said, you’ll never see a shock collar on one of my dogs.

    1. It’s sad that alot of franchises that train dogs use shock collars for all of their training. They show up at your house and instead of getting right into helping your dog you have to sit and listen to a sales pitch about their stupid shock collars. I don’t care who you are, but if you use a shock collar you are not a “Dog Whisper” you are lazy and impatient.
      Dogs learn from association and repetition if you do both effectively then your dog will learn very quickly. I love training dogs I’ve been training them for years and shock collars are a no go when it comes to obedience and so called dog aggression cases. If you’re constantly choking, shocking, or using prong collars then you’re doing something very wrong.

  3. I got into a dispute on Facebook recently where a fellow potcake owner was telling me how much he loathed leashes and that his dogs happily wear their shock collars in order to enjoy “freedom.” I think seeing a dog with one of those terrible boxes around their neck is one of the saddest images, as is the notion of a remote-controlled dog.

  4. Excellent post! I have never used a shock collar on a dog, but I have certainly been around people that agree with this method. What I’ve seen happen is a dog becoming afraid of his own name because he’s being scolded WHILE being shocked, erratic behavior, odd fears, etc. None of this has done any good in actually training the dogs. I hope more people figure that out soon…

  5. The hardest thing about positive dog training is choice. The dog has to be able to make a choice to behave. This is why a few weeks ago I talked about failure–allowing choice means you’re allowing failure, and that’s terrifying. (Many positive dog trainers are super type A women, which makes failure even worse.) Shock collars control the outcome of choice, and punishment of any kind means that the dog will make fewer choices in the future.

    But mostly I just wish people understood that positive dog training is fun. You aren’t just a Pez dispenser handing out goodies. Run around! Play a game! Be silly!

  6. Positive training is the way to go for long-lasting results. However, it does come down to commitment and time and it is part of the lifetime commitment we make to our dogs. There is also research which backs up that the use of shock collars is a welfare risk (see I still have trainers in my area who are recommending shock collars for ‘difficult’ dogs which I think reflects clearly on the quality of the trainer.

  7. The problem, sadly, is that bad positive reinforcement trainers give the rest of us a bad name.

    Shock collar people achieve results. As someone who got their dog from the same rescue you did, I know EXACTLY what you’re talking about. And sometimes I get totally stressed watching all the stress signals the dogs are giving out in those after videos.

    Case in point: I was out to breakfast with my trainer (and boss… I now work for her part time) working on plans for a new class we’re offering when a boston terrier comes up, no lead, no collar, walking in a heel with a guy and his girlfriend. They leave the dog on a sit-stay outside on the table while going inside to get food and then come back out. The dog behaved perfectly…and showed almost every stress sign in the book. Licking lips, tight face muscles, yawning, etc.

    It caused use to wonder if anyone has ever done a study on dog life expectancy based on training methods.

    By comparison, however… we know a positive trainer whose coddles her dogs so much they don’t do anything. They know basic behaviors and even compete in dog sports… but when they “fail” it’s never (according to her) a failure of their training; no, it’s because someone else was coughing while she was working and it was distracting or someone let their dog get too close to the ring… etc. Really, she’s failed to distraction proof her training. And as a result does not have the skill level that you’d expect.

    And that’s REALLY common. People do positive poorly, get poor results, and then others think that’s the best positive training can do.

    On another note though… I don’t hate shock collars quite as much as you do. After a lot of soul searching, i do think there are some dogs it gives a chance who wouldn’t have been allowed a chance otherwise. I’d rather see them taken in by a positive trainer, but in many cases they’d never get that chance. Positive training can take longer, especially with a dog that hasn’t learned how to learn. So their choice is e-collar or be put to sleep. I have a friend whose dog was so reactive she had no choice. There was no counter conditioning it’s response. Now her dog can walk nicely with a group of other dogs and she’s using entirely positive methods to compete in sports, etc.

    Anyway…now that I’ve written you a book, thanks for the post πŸ™‚

  8. I think people are looking for a quick-fix. And maybe you can achieve that with a shock collar. But it won’t last. You’re not teaching them what you want them to do if you’re just administering harsh corrections. For them to really understand, and if you want a long-lasting behavior change – or even just teaching tricks – positive is the answer. I just don’t understand why anyone would choose to hurt their dog instead of turning it into a joy-filled bonding experience. I’d rather my guys work with me because they enjoy it, not because they fear me.

    1. If you’re administering “harsh” corrections with a shock collar, you’re using it wrong. It’s meant to be used on the lowest possible setting where the dog shows so much as a twitch of an ear. I get very frustrated when people rail on against shock collars without ever bothering to research what it is they are disregarding. In my opinion, that’s almost as bad as using the darn collars in the first place.

      That said, I still don’t advocate using a shock collar — it poisons the relationship we have with our dogs. And anyone who isn’t sure can just look at one of the videos from the trainers you mentioned and compare it to a video of Denise Fenzi’s dogs heeling… it’s night and day.

      1. I don’t know, Melissa. I think any level of shock is too much, especially since it’s entirely unnecessary. Why hurt your dog – even on a low setting – when you don’t have to?

  9. It’s sad, but I’ve concluded that people who train with shock collars actually WANT their dogs to fear them; I cannot see any other explanation. Instant results are more important to them than anything else. So they dress it up with justifications (last resort!) and obfuscations (it’s just a tingle!). A very good trainer once said that reward-based methods are SIMPLE but they aren’t EASY. And for those too dumb or lazy to put the time in, shock collars look like a good solution. For me, it’s very reinforcing when I ask my dog “wanna work?” and he dances around in fits of joy. Makes me sad that all dogs don’t have the same response to training.

  10. The ones Caesar Millan recommended only in certain situation are not electric grid collars but vibrating types.

    If you not gonna train/teach dogs from young in the first place, ever wonder why send kids to school similarly too!

    No such things as one method works only!

  11. JanineK – Cesar Millan DOES use shock collars; it’s not hard to find examples of his use of them ( However, I was more referring to his reliance overall on punishment methods rather than reward based methods (which are proven to be more effective and less harmful).

    “No such things as one method works only” – that always sounds reasonable, until you examine the statement more closely. We don’t whip our children any more, even though that is a method of child rearing. We don’t hang criminals (also a method). We don’t use leeches and bloodletting in medicine (also a method). Lots of methods for lots of things are no longer used because we agree they are too harmful.

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