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.