Use of shock or e
collars with dogs
The use of shock collars with dogs (c) 2012-2017 Frania Shelley-Grielen all rights
With reports from Gainesville, Boston and sightings on the streets of New York City the
use of “e” collars (shock collars) on dogs are on the rise. Well intentioned dog owners
turn to trainers and pet store personnel on advice to control a dog that pulls or barks or
gets up on furniture or any other unwanted behavior. Head halters, choke chains and
shock collars (which work by delivering an electric shock) are frequently
recommended and used. But just how effective are these collars? Do they work? And
does hurting your dog to change a behavior actually make sense scientifically? When I
originally wrote about shock collars reader response was high and controversial. With
the growing popularity of shock collars it makes sense to look at them again:
The vast majority of these products work by delivering positive punishment or
negative reinforcement. In the case of negative reinforcement an aversive or
unpleasant stimuli such as pain or discomfort is caused by for example, the tightening
of a prong collar due to a dog pulling on a leash. When the dog stops pulling the pain
ends. The goal is for the dog to learn to associate the pulling with the pain and not
pulling with the lack of pain. Positive punishment introduces the unpleasant stimulus
when an unwanted behavior occurs, such as kneeing a dog in the chest when it
attempts to jump on a person.
In a review of shock collar literature commissioned by the RSPCA, Emily Blackwell and
Rachel Casey write that shock collars are used as both agents of positive punishment
and negative reinforcement, a feature that is of benefit to proponents of their use.
Misuse of the collars has welfare concerns.
Blackwell and Casey note inherent difficulties in the use of shock collars and
unintended associations,the shock may not necessarily be linked with an unwanted
behavior rather a trainer, location or situation. Therefore, an attempt to control
excessive barking at the dog run using a shock collar may turn into a situation where
the dog run is now associated with the shock and not the barking. Even when a shock
collar is no longer used dogs have been known to continue to associate the shock with
the trainer or situation and exhibit signs of stress.
A study by Schilder & van der Borg observed that when trainers were working with
dog wearing shock collars: “the command was followed by a shock so quickly that the
dog was unable to prevent a shock. This leads to unwanted conditioning: the dog has
learned that getting a command predicts a shock.” In reference to this study Blackwell
and Casey write that if this occurs with professional dog trainers it is even more likely
to occur with the general public.
Timing is key in training, whether it be positive or negative reinforcement. Blackwell
and Casey say the danger of unwanted associations exists in both scenarios. The
difference with unintended associations caused by unpleasant or painful stimuli is that
the avoidance learning (demonstrated by our fictional dog who now refuses to enter the
dog run) lasts a very long time and is very difficult to correct.
The use of a shock collar as a successful training device is problematic at best, for
starters, studies have shown that training with positive reinforcement is more
successful than the use of negative reinforcement (only positive reinforcement is used
training assistance dogs in the UK). The study also found that the use of punishment
correlates with a rise in the number of unwanted behaviors.
When researchers compared citronella collars with shock collars the citronella collars
were found to be more effective (and preferred more by owners) and when dogs are
trained with other severe training methods such as physical punishment they were
found to exhibit fewer stress related behaviors than when trained with shock collars.
Shock collar advocates contend that there is an art to the use of the collar with some
researchers calling for a licensing system for qualified users and that properly used the
dog responds in a manner that would indicate no apparent discomfort. Blackwell and
Casey raise two issues in response; working dogs with high levels of excitement may
tolerate shock more readily in order to perform the task at hand such as herding sheep
or tackling criminals. Additionally calibrating the appropriate level of shock for an
individual dog requires knowledge of breed, nature, present temperament, past
experiences with shock, thickness of the coat and how moist the skin is at the moment
The potential for abuse exists with shock collars as well. The devices are able to deliver
extremely high levels of shock which have been found to leave neck lacerations
particularly in inclement weather. Deliberate abuse due to anger has also been
observed such as repeatedly shocking a dog for running away when the animal returns.
The authors point out other issues including the use of shock collars to control
aggressive behavior countered with numerous studies showing “that pain caused by an
electric shock is a well documented stimulus for aggression in a wide variety of
species”. Fear can found aggression as well as anxiety over separation from an owner.
Shock collars have also been shown to exacerbate fear and fear based behaviors.
Some municipalities and countries are limiting their use (Wales recently banned them
and parts of Australia restrict their use only to behaviorists and trainers). With shock
collars so readily available and so widely used knowing more about them might be the
first step to consider before using them.
Blackwell, E. and R. Casey. (2006). The use of shock collars and their impact on the welfare of dogs: A
review of the current literature. Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
Schilder, M.B.H. and J.A.M. van der Borg. (2004). Training dogs with the help of a shock collar: short
and long term behavioral effects. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 85, 319-334
"studies have shown that training
with positive reinforcement is more
successful than the use of negative
reinforcement (only positive
reinforcement is used training
assistance dogs in the UK). The study
also found that the use of punishment
correlates with a rise in the number
of unwanted behaviors".
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