Monthly Archives: May 2014

The Truth About Shock Collars

Shock collars, or”electronic training collars” as they are also euphemistically called, are still prevalent in many training circles despite the modern emphasis on positive, reward-based methods to modify dog behavior. However, there is a great deal of confusion surrounding the use of shock collars, and all sides are confused–including many people who use them and opponents who want them banned.

Shock collars work by delivering a low-level shock to a dog. (FYI, there are electronic collars that rely on vibrations instead of shocks or have vibration-only options.) Most shock collars allow the intensity of the shock to be adjusted to fit the dog’s specific tolerance level. All this sounds quite harmless, and indeed, shock collars do not physically harm an animal (though if left on too long, the metal contacts can cause horrible hot spots on a dog’s neck). However, many studies have shown that shock collars and other training methods that rely heavily on correction cause stress in dogs and can even provoke aggression. (See our previous blog post on the science behind dog training or this post by Dr. Sophia Yin).

With studies showing that dogs subjected to regular shock training experience greater fear and anxiety, why then, do so many trainers still rely on shock collars? The answer is simple. Shock collars often produce results–or at least they appear to in that they can suppress undesired behaviors and make a dog comply with commands.

I speak not just from book knowledge but actual experience. In my approximately 30 years of dog training experience, I’ve spent years trying out various training techniques, from clicker training to bridge-and-target to punitive-based methods. Decades ago, I even used shock collars and occasionally showed others how to use them. I met with trainers who are very well known for being extremely experienced with how to properly use shock collars (even traveling to Las Vegas to meet with a well known shock collar trainer there to learn how to properly use this tool).

Today,  I do not generally recommend the use of shock collars because I’ve seen first-hand the harm they can do, especially in unskilled hands. That is not to say they may not have a use. For example, if one is working a high drive hunting dog off leash, and the shock collar is a safety device used to recall the dog in a highly distracting environment where the dog’s life may be in danger, then yes, having a remote connection to a dog you can’t keep on leash out in the wilderness may very well make good sense. In addition, sometimes shock collars can be used to extinguish other behaviors that could cost a dog his life. Because these devices do have a narrow range of legitimate uses, I don’t believe they should be banned.

I do, however, believe that most pet owners who use them to extinguish undesired behaviors or competition dog people who use them to get a robotic, technically-perfect dog that will retrieve and heel with precision are very likely mistreating their dogs.

There is no reason to use a shock collar to get extra points at a competition. When people use a shock collar for that purpose, they are really using it to satisfy their own egos or pocket books. Ideally, competition activities should be fun for both the handler and the dog. For breeders, competition is meant to showcase dogs that have a natural propensity to perform specific work. Shock collars make competition less enjoyable for dogs and don’t showcase a dog’s natural propensities (after all, if you’re shocking a dog to force it to retrieve, release an object, or heel with precision, then presumably you weren’t able to get those results without shocking the dog).

As for pet dog owners, many times these owners turn to shock collars to stop a dog from pulling on leash, breaking stays, or being reactive to dogs or people. The worst thing to use a shock collar for, however, is to extinguish that type of reactivity, especially fear-based aggression. Using a shock collar does not eliminate the underlying reason the dog is reacting. So, a dog that reacts out of fear of other dogs or people is still afraid after having its external behavior modified through repeated shocks. It simply isn’t engaging in the vocal behaviors that cause him to be shocked.

What that means is that the dog’s cues to others about how he or she is feeling are suppressed. Worse, often dogs begin to associate the presence of the thing they are afraid of with the shock, so they become even more fearful and anxious about those things, but they can’t adequately show that they’re anxious or fearful. Their natural propensities to engage in behaviors designed to communicate “keep your distance!” (i.e., barking, growling) are suppressed.

And then, someday, that suppressed dog may be brought so over his emotional threshold (but it will look like he’s being calm and quiet when really he’s just trying to avoid a shock) that he won’t be able to help reacting. That’s when he’ll “just suddenly snap with no warning.” Then, most likely, the unfortunate dog will be deemed legally dangerous and euthanized.

Sadly, the dog was giving warnings before, but the owner just shocked the warnings right out of him. Society won’t thank those owners, and neither will the dog.

Shock collars are the most easily misused training device in existence. In order to be effective, an owner’s timing must be precise and the shock appropriate to the dog’s temperament (high enough to modify the behavior but not much higher than that). Misuse of the shock collar can easily, as I’ve shown, make a dog’s behavior worse. However, it’s almost impossible to do training harm to your dog using positive, reward-based methods, even when your timing stinks (in that case, the training may just be ineffective rather than outright harmful).

If you find yourself consulting a trainer who often relies on shock collars or is quick to recommend them, please find another trainer.

How to Properly Socialize Puppies

I get many questions on how to properly socialize puppies, and the topic is important enough to discuss in detail. In addition, as part of my work with Chako Pit Bull Rescue, I see many puppies pulled from shelters that have a few strikes against them in the socialization department, especially those that were placed in isolation due to medical issues.

Many people underestimate the role proper socialization plays in a dog’s development. It is really important–and I mean really– to ensure that young puppies are regularly exposed to different and new things. They should frequently walk on different surfaces and be exposed to various sights, sounds, and noises every day, multiple times a day.

The prime socialization period for a puppy occurs during the first three or four months of her life. During this time, the puppy’s brain is developing rapidly and, as such, she’s learning about the world very quickly. However, there are complications to properly socializing puppies. It’s not as easy as thrusting them into different environments and hoping for the best.

For instance, puppies are incredibly vulnerable to picking up potentially fatal diseases. Parvo, for example, is quite prevalent in the environment and highly contagious, especially to puppies. A puppy’s immune system isn’t really fully mature until about four to six months (and, in some cases, a year). That is why puppies need a series of vaccinations every few weeks.

So, you shouldn’t just take your puppy to a park and let him or her romp around. Because of this immunity issue, many people keep their puppies isolated at home for the first four months. Unfortunately, isolation is one of the worst things for puppies. Puppies need stimulation. Their brains need to explore and learn about the world, not just about your house and backyard.

Additionally, some puppies go through what is called a “fear stage.” This is a period of time during the puppy’s development where things that scare them may impact them later on, either affecting them throughout their lives or resurfacing after they mature. In addition, some puppies go through a fear stage where suddenly things that were familiar to them become slightly scary, and they act unusually timid. A puppy may go through one, two, or no fear stages during his first 4-5 months.

Regardless of whether a puppy goes through any fear stages, puppies are particularly susceptible to having negative experiences carry life-long consequences. Of course, how negative those consequences are and what triggers a puppy’s fear will vary based on the puppy’s own genetic makeup. Some puppies are naturally more confident, resilient and brave. Other puppies are intrinsically more cautious, timid, and less resilient.

So, how do you properly socialize your puppy without risking death or lifelong phobias? Use the following guidelines:


Take your puppy out with you, but not to places where other dogs frequent. For example, hang outside a department store, on cement, and let your puppy take in the sights and sounds of the parking lot. Make sure your puppy is enjoying the experience. If your puppy seems uncertain, relocate to a calmer environment where there’s less stimulation. Always have lots of treats with you and, yes, please do let people (not other dogs) gently say “hello” to your puppy. Even puppies with medical issues, like Spunky Brewster shown below, need as much stimulation and enrichment as possible (Spunky was adopted through Chako Pit Bull Rescue; she’s shown below on one of her outings).


When planning outings with your puppy, time them around your puppy’s vaccination schedule. A vaccination isn’t really effective until about five days after delivered, and for puppies, vaccination effectiveness only lasts a few weeks. Five to twelve days after your puppy’s vaccination is the best time to take your puppy out to new public places, and you should take your puppy out somewhere new at least once every other day during this period.

Weigh the risks and benefits of every outing. To me, personally, the lifelong risk to a puppy of being too isolated during his first four months outweighs the slight risks of contracting a disease (assuming you are careful where you take your puppy).

Keep in mind that puppies under 8-9 weeks of age may not benefit at all from vaccinations (because maternal antibodies may inactivate the vaccine), so take EXTRA care with very young puppies; it’s best not to let them on the ground in public. You can, however, hold them and let them take in the sights and sounds.

If you take your puppy someplace a little riskier disease-wise (for example, to a friend’s yard for a BBQ, take a large thick blanket and an ex-pen. Spread the blanket on the ground outside, preferably on cement, and place the ex-pen on top of the blanket to hold it down flat). Never let your puppy walk around where other dogs frequently potty, and if you see droppings from other dogs, keep your puppy well away from the area.

Take your puppy to pet stores, but let him or her ride in the cart. If you’re really paranoid, you can put a blanket in the cart or wipe it down (note, alcohol wipes don’t kill the Parvo virus, but the likelihood of your puppy getting parvo from the inside of a shopping cart is slim).

Ensuring Positive Experiences with Other Dogs

Do not let dogs you don’t know interact with your puppy. You don’t know the vaccination or temperament history of the dog. Disease aside, having an unfamiliar dog bite your puppy is a great way to give your puppy a negative experience that could set him up to distrust dogs well into maturity.

Do set up supervised play dates between your puppy and other dogs or puppies that you know to be safe, properly vaccinated, and who will interact well with your puppy and help reinforce proper dog manners in your puppy. Be careful about letting your dog interact with other puppies unless you are reasonably sure her puppy playmates are free from disease (especially Parvo). Keep in mind that puppies can have the Parvo virus for days without showing symptoms. If setting up playdates between two puppies, it’s best to make sure both puppies receive baths prior to their interaction (you may gain a slight benefit in reducing the risk of one puppy contracting a disease or parasite from the other puppy).


Obstacle Courses and Puzzle Games

Set up little obstacle courses for your puppy. Lay an ex pen down flat and place tempting treats on it to encourage your puppy to walk over it. Lay a shower curtain down so your puppy walks on that new surface. Get your puppy used to walking on hard surfaces, soft surfaces, smooth surfaces, and rough surfaces. Let them work puzzle toys. Hide treats in boxes and let them push the box around or rip it up to get the treat.


Give your puppy different toys to play with–LOTS of different toys. Toys that are soft, hard, fuzzy, smooth, squeak, crinkle, etc.


Acclimate your puppy to things he or she is likely to encounter throughout life. Get your puppy used to riding in the car, safely of course. Take your puppy to your vet’s office every once in a while, but not for an exam (keep her off the floor). Just ask the staff to give her treats and say hello quickly so she doesn’t always associate the vet’s office with getting stabbed, poked, or prodded (make sure to ask your vet’s office in advance about the best times to drop by). It’s best to do this before the first time your dog will need to be stabbed with a needle at the vet’s office. You want the puppy’s first experience at the vet’s office to be fun.

Also, get your puppy used to grooming. Gently touch his feet and ears frequently. Teach him to enjoy handling by making it a positive experience (using high value treats can help).

Overcoming Fear

If your puppy finds something scary or overwhelming, try to make the scary thing seem fun and happy, but if need be, end the outing or the encounter. Never force your puppy to interact with or approach something she finds scary (but a little gentle encouragement can help).
Puppies gain confidence by overcoming challenges or fear (so gentle encouragement to approach something a puppy is slightly wary of, combined with lots of praise and treats, can help your puppy build confidence).

Incorporate mini exercises into your puppy’s life to expose him to knew things and teach him how to overcome insecurity. For example, two or three times over the course of a couple months, open an umbrella you don’t care about, set it on the ground, and toss treats at it. Let your puppy explore.

If you have an older dog, it’s great to use the older dog to show the younger dog the ropes. For example, if your puppy is afraid of a big ball, and your older dogs thinks the big ball is just great, let the older dog go up to the big ball. Play with the older dog and the big ball. Make it seem like the most fun in the entire world. Your puppy is watching and learning, and odds are, your puppy will then decide the big ball is something that’s not going to eat him, and he’ll really want in on the fun. Monkey see, monkey do. Dogs do learn by observing.

In short, give your puppy at least one positive new experience every day for the first four months of his life. Carefully supervise your pup’s interactions and reactions to ensure your puppy isn’t too overwhelmed. By providing positive, new, and different experiences on a regular basis, you will set your puppy up for a lifetime of being better able to handle strange and potentially stressful encounters later in life.

The Science Behind Dog Training — Myth, Fact, and the Unknown.

There are a lot of different ideas about what is right and wrong when it comes to dog training and behavior modification. In fact, there’s an old saying, “The only thing two dog trainers will agree on is what at third dog trainer is doing wrong.” To separate the fact from fiction, I’m going to focus on a few of the more popular ideas and look at a bit of the science behind dog training.

I’ll start by defining, in simple terms, the ideas behind classical and operant conditioning because these concepts are important to modern dog training.  Classical conditioning comes from a famous experiment by Russian Psychologist Ivan Pavlov, circa 1901. Pavlov set up an experiment with a dog and a bell. In simplest terms, a bell would ring, and food would then appear. This experiment, in essence, paired a neutral stimulus (the bell sound) with an unconditioned stimulus (the taste of food). When food appeared, the dog would salivate. Soon, the dog started salivating when the bell sounded, even before the food appeared. At this point, the bell sound became a conditioned stimulus and the dog salivating in response to the bell became a conditioned response. Put simply, the dog became conditioned to automatically salivate in response to the bell.

This is the very early precursor to forms of training involving a different type of conditioning — operant conditioning. Clicker training, for example, is a form of operant conditioning. Operant conditioning, in simplest terms, is a behavior modification that uses rewards or punishments to either increase or decrease the likelihood that a behavior will occur. Many people confuse classical and operant conditioning, and the easy way to remember the difference between the two is that classical conditioning involves making an association between an involuntary response and a stimulus, while operant conditioning is about making an association between a voluntary behavior and a consequence.

I won’t go into all the ways operant conditioning can function, but I’ll list the most common ones briefly. You can reward an animal for desired behavior. You can punish an animal for undesired behavior. You can remove a negative stimulation when the animal performs the desired behavior. You can remove something the dog likes when the animal stops performing the desired behavior.

For example, you can give a dog a treat when the dog sits (reward desired behavior). You can spray a cat with a water bottle when the cat jumps on the counter (punish undesired behavior). You can remove an unpleasant stimulation (such as from a shock collar) when a dog moves toward you (for example, you can apply a low, continuous electrical shock that stops as soon as the dog moves toward you in response to a “come” command). You can end a fun game when the dog starts to get too mouthy or jumpy. All of these are examples of operant conditioning when a dog begins to associate a voluntary behavior with a consequence.

All of these training methods have proven effective in some situations, or else no one would ever use them. People repeat techniques that get them results (which is actually a form of operant conditioning)! The issue, however, is not whether one can get immediate results with a particular training method. The real issues we should consider are (1) the long-term results from a particular method, (2) the risks and benefits of the methods, and (3) the ethical implications of the methods.

The Effectiveness of Reward vs Punishment

For purposes of this blog, I’m using reward to mean something the dog likes and punishment to mean something the dog doesn’t like (in simplest terms). There’s all kinds of lingo that I’ll avoid (negative reinforcement, positive reinforcement, positive punishment, negative punishment; you can get a decent overview of those here). Most modern studies demonstrate that positive training techniques are, in general, more effective than techniques that rely on punishment. In fact, one recent study concluded that punishment-based techniques increase the likelihood of aggression. Meghan Herron from the School of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania concluded that punishing techniques when training dogs tends to increase the aggression in the animals. However, not all punishment evokes aggression to the same extent. For example, 43% of dogs that were hit or kicked reacted aggressively, whereas only 3% of dogs given a quick verbal correction and 6% of dogs given a leash correction reacted aggressively.

Positive methods, on the other hand, are much less likely to evoke an aggressive response and are therefore safer to employ.

positive training

Why then, do so many people still resort to punishment? The quick answer is because it seems to work much faster in many situations than reward-based methods. For example, a dog that is shocked when it touches a fence is much less likely to touch the fence a second time.

In fact, the natural world provides many forms of “punishment,” though in the natural world, that term isn’t really appropriate. However, negative consequences are partly how animals, human beings included, learn what dangers to avoid. For example, when a child reaches to touch the flame on a stovetop, the moment her hand is burned, she yanks it back and cries. Odds are, she’s not going to touch the flame again! In fact, her experience touching the flame makes a much greater impression on her than any verbal warnings her mother and father could’ve given her about the perils of touching fire.

As another example, a wolf that tries to eat a porcupine gets a face full of quills and, if it survives, is unlikely to mess with a porcupine again (with the exception of canines vying for the Darwin Award). Skunks are also incredibly adept at inflicting negative consequences to those who harass them. Some creatures, in particular cats, are particularly adept at employing punishment to affect the behavior of those around them, as evidenced by this fun video.

In fact, intense experiences (i.e., involving fear, pain, etc.) are more vividly imprinted on the brain than most other experiences. There is a survival advantage to this memory imprinting, of course. In the wild, an animal that “forgets” a dangers and repeats a mistake is unlikely to survive.

So, many dog trainers rely on punishment to change dog behavior, but unfortunately, there are negative repercussions to overusing punishment that such trainers don’t consider. As studies show, punishment can increase aggression (i.e., flight or fight response). In addition, in nature, negative consequences are intermittent, not constant. Intermittent stress can be beneficial to animals. However, daily stress caused by constant punishment during training is not healthy. An animal that lives in fear of constantly being corrected will begin to exhibit other behavioral and health issues (inappropriate urination, chewing, vocalization, etc.).

Stress and adrenaline go hand in hand. The occasional stress-induced-adrenaline response helps keep animals sharp and responsive. A constant state of fear and anxiety, however, have a much different and more profound impact on animals. Dog trainers should not utlize techniques that put dogs in a constant state of fear; they should not use punishment to change all undesired behaviors.

Positive techniques, on the other hand, put dogs in an entirely different emotional state. Dogs learn commands better when training is fun. Children learn the alphabet by putting it to a tune, not by getting shocked whenever they miss a letter. Fun and learning should go hand-in-hand.

Punishment, on the other hand, does have a place, but not in the way most traditional dog trainers believe. When something is a life or death issue, the brain needs a quick and fast imprint to maximize an animal’s chance of survival. So, in summation, your daily dog training should be fun and positive. When you think about using more intense punishment, ask yourself how serious the situation is. Is it akin to a life or death matter? Is there a very serious safety issue at hand? For example, if you have a dog that tends to go over or through a fence in the blink of an eye, and you’ve tried positive methods and aren’t getting the results you need, that’s a serious safety issue that may require a different strategy.

A dog that gets out of a yard can be killed by a passing car, get into fights with other animals, and even end up confiscated by animal control. While you could stand outside all the time watching your dog, not even that action may be sufficient for a dog that can jump a fence in the blink of an eye. In that case, you’d have to keep the dog on a long line every time he’s outside. While some may opt to do so, others may want to try to stop the fence-challenging behavior completely, especially where other, less reliable family members may let the dog out and not be as diligent. A hot wire might be an appropriate tool to try to discourage your dog from touching the fence. Recognize that, to be most effective, punishment should be more along the lines of a “natural consequence” of a behavior, and it should happen every time the animal does something. It should also be intense enough to adequately discourage the behavior. Finally, punishment should never actually harm the animal (so if you’re using a hotwire, make sure it’s high enough to discourage behavior but not so high as to traumatize your dog; In fact, if it’s too much for you to touch, it’s too much for your dog).

Every time an animal tries to eat a porcupine, it’s going to get a face full of quills. Every time your dog touches the fence, it’s going to get shocked. It can avoid the face full of quills or the shock very easily. The consequences are consistent and entirely avoidable. Your dog isn’t living in fear, wondering when it’ll be hit or yelled at next. He knows the fence equals danger, and to avoid that danger, he avoids the fence. Even more importantly, the punishment is completely removed from you, the owner. The dog doesn’t just avoid the fence when you’re around. He avoids the fence all the time. He doesn’t see the punishment as coming from you, he sees it as a consequence of touching the fence.

Punishment can take many other forms, too. Many people don’t want dogs to jump on them for attention. When you turn away from a dog that jumps on you, that’s a form of punishment as I’m using the term. You’re doing something the dog doesn’t like in an attempt to alter behavior. When you pet a dog the moment it sits, you’re rewarding the desired behavior by giving the dog exactly what it wants–attention!

In fact, in society, we use reward and punishment all the time to convey to others what we desire and don’t desire. We boycott companies that implement policies we disagree with, for example. Boycotts are a form of punishment–an attempt to hurt a business’ bottom line and convince it to change its undesired policy. On the other hand, we may make a point to support a competitor with a different policy to reward that business decision. Parents use reward and punishment frequently in child-rearing, even parents who never lay a hand on their children.

Both reward and punishment have a place in dog training. However, knowing how, when, and at what level to use them is important. Your every day interactions with your dog should be fun and rewarding. One significant point to remember is that you can rarely create a more serious problem by using positive-based methods, but by inappropriately using punishment, you can very easily turn a mild behavior problem into a very serious one.