Remote stimulation training collars, also known as e-collars or shock collars, have grown in popularity over the last decade. They are viewed as a quick and effective way to control a dog’s behavior, especially from a distance. They work by giving the dog a short electric shock or “nick” when a button on a remote is pushed.
Proponents of these collars use them for everything from teaching basic commands to long distance recall. Many users have found that they can successfully control a dog’s behavior with the use of these collars.
The science of modifying behavior
Remote collars use is based on operant conditioning, which was made famous by Edward L. Thorndike and B.F. Skinner. In operate conditioning, there is an antecedent, followed by the behavior, and the consequence of the behavior.
Consequences can fall into what behaviorists and ethologists know as the four quadrants. These four quadrants are further divided into two categories: those that increase behavior, and those that decrease behavior. In behavioral terms, reinforcement is something that increases the likelihood of a behavior being repeated. Punishment decreases that likelihood. Both reinforcement and punishment can be positive (something is added) or negative (something is removed). The four quadrants are as follows:
- Positive reinforcement: Something the subject enjoys is added as a consequence of the behavior, increasing the likelihood of the behavior happening again. Johnny cleans his room and gets ice cream.
- Negative reinforcement: Something the subject finds unpleasant ends when the behavior is performed, causing the behavior to increase in frequency. Johnny’s mother yells at him until he cleans his room. When he cleans his room, the yelling stops.
- Positive punishment: Something the subject finds unpleasant is the consequence of the behavior, causing the frequency of the behavior to decrease. Johnny is late for dinner and he gets a spanking.
- Negative punishment: Something the subject wants is removed as a consequence of the behavior, causing the behavior to decrease. Johnny is late for dinner and mom takes his cell phone away.
In addition to the four quadrants that define consequences, there is also the possibility of extinction. Extinction is when a behavior is neither reinforced nor punished. If an organism expends energy in order to attain a particular result, and that result doesn’t happen, the behavior will eventually stop and be replaced with a behavior that achieves the desired results.
Johnny whines for a candy bar at the grocery store. His mom ignores him. He gets louder and louder, but eventually gives up. When Johnny realizes that whining does not result in a candy bar, but that asking nicely does, he stops whining and begins saying please.
The use of remote stimulation (shock) falls squarely into the positive punishment category where the dog receives a shock for unwanted behavior, although some might consider their use as negative reinforcement (shock the dog until he does what you want).
The efficacy of shock in dog training
It is undeniable that training a dog with a shock collar can produce results. The use of shock, and any other form of punishment, is that it tends to quickly diminish unwanted behaviors. It is extremely easy to understand why someone who is having issues with a dog who barks would choose to put a collar on the dog that resulted in a quiet dog. The collar is an example of positive punishment, but the quiet dog is an example (for the human) of negative reinforcement.
The dog stops barking (unpleasant stimulus ends as a result of behavior) so the person continues to use the collar. The efficacy may, however, turn out to be short term, with the desired result continuing only when the collar is on the dog.
Once the collar is removed, the behavior may come back. In addition, there is a chance that an owner that is reluctant to harm his dog may actually desensitize the dog to the collar by turning it down too much, and allowing the dog to get used to the sensation. That owner will find himself forced to turn the collar higher and higher to get the desired results, resulting in the risk of both physical and emotional injury to the dog.
It is much more difficult to get behaviors with a remote collar. Because the collar is unpleasant to the dog, it suppresses unwanted behaviors, but does not build new ones. A dog’s handler may choose to use it to eliminate all other possibilities for the dog thereby forcing the dog to select the desired behavior in order to avoid shock, but this is not an efficient way to get a desired behavior. One great example is using a shock collar to prevent excessive barking, which you can read more about in this article on anti-bark devices for dogs.
Imagine if you tried to teach your toddler to say “apple” not by showing him an apple and praising him when he identifies it, but rather by spanking him for any word that was not “apple.” Your toddler might accidently say “apple”, but without several repetitions would not necessarily connect it to the lack of spanking. More likely he would simply stop talking altogether long before he understood what you were trying to teach him.
The effects of training your dog using shock
The use of shock in training has been proven to cause an increase in stress hormones in dogs who were not completely sure why the shock was received. An experiment was done where three groups of dogs were trained with collars.
The first group received a shock that had a very specific antecedent (touching a prey animal). The second group received a shock for failing to come when called, and the third group received shock randomly. The first group was able to connect the shock to touching the prey therefore reducing stress hormones, but the other two groups experienced the same steep rises in their stress hormones. One can imagine how stressful it is to receive a painful stimulus and not know what is causing it or how to make it stop.
Another study showed increased behavioral signs of stress in dogs that were trained with shock collars. The increased stress was not only present at the time of training, but showed up three months later with increased cortisol levels found in the dogs trained with the electric collars. These studies were performed not with amateur trainers, but with experts in the use of these collars. This study showed that even done perfectly, training with shock collars causes additional stress on the dog, and long term effects on the dog’s attitude towards the training situation.
Imagine the same collar in the hands of someone who is not an expert. Trainers spend years perfecting the timing of their delivery of both rewards and punishment. If the timing is off, the dog doesn’t learn nearly as quickly, and is much more stressed. The average dog owner has neither skills nor understanding of how best to use this equipment.
In addition, this same study proved that the use of electronic collars resulted in the same success as training with reward based training. This is significant, because the training done in this study was the same training that advocates suggest is best done with these collars. Many e-collar trainers even go so far as to suggest that this sort of training cannot be done with reward based methods. This study proved that statement to be entirely false.
There was no discernable difference in efficacy of training done with shock compared to training done with only reward based methods, but the dogs trained with the reward based training showed none of the same behavioral signs of stress and anxiety during or after training. The use of these collars simply cannot be justified by the erroneous suggestion that they are more effective, even in the situations for which they are most relied on by e-collar trainers. Reward based training proved to be just as effective with no welfare consequences.
What about electric fences?
Electric fences have grown in popularity over the years for use as containment systems for dogs. There are several reasons dog owners choose these systems over traditional fencing. Some find fencing unsightly. Others prefer the lower cost of these containment systems when compared to chain link fencing. Some live in areas where fencing is difficult due to landscape or even neighborhood regulations.
These containment systems come with many of the same issues as electronic training collars. Increased stress and anxiety from the shock is coupled with the frustration and stress dogs typically feel at boundaries can result in aggression.
Imagine a scenario where a neighborhood dog, confined to his yard by one of these fences, runs to the fence and receives a correction when people walk by on the sidewalk. Not only can this upset some pedestrians who do not know if the dog is contained, but the dog has a high probability of associating the correction with the antecedent. The antecedent in this case is the pedestrian. If a dog thinks that every time a pedestrian walks by he will receive a painful stimulation, he will become more and more reactive when pedestrians walk by.
If that collar battery dies and that dog goes through the boundary, he may attack anyone unlucky enough to walk by his yard. Another concern with these systems is the safety of the dog inside the yard. Any dog or other predator can walk freely into the yard, while the dog with the boundary collar is trapped inside. The dog may be attacked or even stolen. Where a solid fence might offer some protection, an electric fence offers your dog none.
In addition to predators coming in, your dog may escape. Batteries die, and if your fence has an underground wire, these wires can easily break without your knowledge. Some dogs have been known to bolt through these boundaries ignoring the shock for the right motivation. Once free of the boundary, your dog can not return to your yard. He is trapped outside the boundary and cannot come home.
Potential fallout from the use of punishment in training
The use of punishment in training dogs has a long and robust history. Dog training is completely unregulated in most places, so you may be allowing an unskilled, inexperienced, or misinformed individual to take charge of your dog’s training. We know that poor timing in training leads to confusion on the dog’s part, only the most skilled trainers are able to deliver the consequence perfectly the majority of the time.
With new studies proving that punishment does not increase effectiveness of training. But it does have potential fallout that is not seen with reward based methods, especially when the timing is not perfect. This fallout may include:
- Avoidance behavior. If your timing is not good enough for your dog to know exactly what he is being punished for, your dog can easily project the punishment onto you. What this means is that your dog learns that certain behaviors can never be performed when you are present, but they are okay if you aren’t around. Trainers see this all the time when punishment is used in an attempt to housebreak a dog. The dog has an accident on the floor, and is punished for it. Instead of learning not to pee in the house, the dog actually learns not to pee in front of you. One of the keys to successful housetraining is knowing that your dog has “done his duty.” But if you punish him for mistakes, you may find that he will never eliminate in front of you, meaning you will never know when he does or doesn’t go. Instead, he will wait until you leave the house, or he will sneak behind the couch and soil your home where you won’t see it. Another place where we see avoidance a lot is in recall (coming when called). If your dog associates you with painful stimuli, he will not want to come to you. If your dog avoids you, any training you attempt will be severely inhibited.
- Learned helplessness. There are self-proclaimed dog experts that elicit learned helplessness deliberately, but it is not a good sign, and it does not aid in training. Learned helplessness is when your dog decides that there is nothing he can do to avoid punishment, so he does nothing. Your dog may lay down and take on what some trainers erroneously term “calm submissive behavior”, but what we now know is actually the dog’s way of giving up hope that the punishment will ever stop.
- Temporary suppression. Punishment can suppress behaviors, but it does not address the underlying cause. If your dog is growling at another member of the family and you punish him, he will stop growling, but the feelings he was trying to communicate with the growl are still there. If your dog doesn’t like strangers, and he reacts badly, and is punished when strangers are present, you have not changed his opinion about strangers. You have simply suppressed the signs.
- Increased aggression. Suppression of emotions has a tendency to lead to volatility. Dogs that are not allowed to express their frustration or fear in other ways, and feel trapped or powerless to use any other method, can and do resort to more extreme aggression as a result of punishment. In addition, if your dog perceives you as the source of the punishment, he may resort to aggression in order to protect himself. He may also decide that, if he is punished for his behavior every time a guest comes into the house, guests are the cause of punishment.
He will then be even more upset when guests show up (although punishment may cause him not to show it) and he will resort to aggression in order to protect himself from the perceived threat. Every trainer has heard “he just attacked for no reason!” There is always a reason. Address your dog’s fear and anxiety using scientifically proven methods as prescribed by both the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior and the American College of Veterinary Behavior: Without punishment.
It is an undeniable fact that, even under the best circumstances, using shock in training can have serious fallout. The manufacturers of these collars do not deny this. According to a white paper from Radio Systems website, they acknowledge the following potential fallout with these collars:
- “Shock may result in fearful or aggressive response to a person or other animal near wearer.”
- “Shock can trigger aggressive behavior or stress severe enough to interfere with learning.”
- And in the case of containment systems “Dog may be injured or traumatized by other animals crossing or approaching the boundary.”
Again, these statements are on the manufacturer’s website. They do not deny the danger both your family and your dog may be in if these collars are used for training or containment.
The truth is that only an experienced and skilled professional trainer who knows about dog behavior and body language should be allowed to use a shock collar to train a dog. There is simply too much to lose for an untrained individual to attempt to use an e-collar.
But it is also true that an individual with the necessary skills and knowledge would have no need of such a device. Training can be performed much more safely and just as effectively without the use of this expensive and painful piece of equipment.
If you’re interested in other kinds of collars, we have a great article on the different types of dog collars to consider for your pooch.