Use of shock
or e collars
The use of shock collars with dogs, All rights reserved (c) 2012-2018 Frania
Should you be using electric shock collars on your dog? How much do these collars hurt?
And are they any better at controlling problem behaviors than positive training
methods? Electronic shock collars or “training” collars are readily available in much of
the world but that’s changing. In January of 2018, Scotland banned the use of shock
collars. The devices are already banned in Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Austria,
Switzerland, Slovenia and in parts of Australia. Should the United States be next?
Whatever side of the electronic fence you’re on the use of 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. Rural or suburban dog owners with dogs that chase or worry livestock chase
cars and joggers and attack dogs off lead have a whole other set of behaviors to contend
with. Head halters, choke chains and shock collars (which work by delivering an electric
shock) are frequently recommended and used. Newer versions of shock collars now
feature vibration and noise settings (in addition to electric shock settings) that
manufacturers advertise as aids in “training”. Theoretically, the “training collar”
would never be dialed past those noise and vibration settings and such settings would be
set at the lowest possible levels. Vibration settings on these collars can be increased
sevenfold in intensity, which can harm the neck area (an added concern for small breeds
with fragile and sensitive trachea's) in addition to causing great discomfort. But again,
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 or
applying an electric shock on approaching a sheep or running after a car.
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 the essential component in training, whether it is positive or negative
reinforcement it must occur at the exact moment of the behavior to create an
association. 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 that 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.
A study by Cooper, Cracknell, et al compared training methods using shock collars and
those using positive reinforcement with dogs exhibiting problem behaviors with recall
and livestock (sheep and chickens) worrying and chasing. These are the sort of
behaviors that are notorious for justifying the use of shock collars. However, the Cooper
study found that the rewards based training was equally effective in changing those
unwanted behaviors. The study further found that the difference between the methods
resulted in shocked dogs exhibiting increased known responses to pain with vocalizations
such as whines and yelps. No such vocalizations were observed in the group trained with
positive methods. Stress related changes in behavior observed in the shocked dogs and
not in the positively trained dogs included an increase in body tension, yawns, paw lifts,
panting and other “distinct changes in behavior including sudden changes in posture,
tail position and vocalizations that are consistent with pain and/or aversion in dogs.”
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.
Owners instructed in continuing the training methods used in the Cooper study
expressed greater confidence in being able to implement the rewards based methods as
opposed to using the 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 of
The Cooper study observed five experienced shock collar trainers at work using the
devices. Results showed only one trainer out of the five attempting to determine an
initial setting for a dog’s response to the device. Two trainers fitted the collars onto the
dogs without any attempts to test a response to any settings or determine if the devices
were working. One trainer started with a low level setting while the remaining trainer
started with the highest level of shock available on the collar.
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 or for entertainment
has also been observed such as repeatedly shocking a dog for running away when the
animal returns or is captive.
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.
Now that the number of countries and municipalities limiting the use of electric shock
collars is increasing along with their availability and use; knowing more about them
needs to be the first step to consider in taking either step further.
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.
Cooper, J. J., Cracknell, N., Hardiman, J., Wright, H., Mills, D. (2014). The welfare consequences and
efficacy of training pet dogs with remote electronic training collars in comparison to reward based
training. PLOS ONE. 9, e102722. doi: 10.1371/journal. pone.0102722
Electric Shock Collars. (2018, February 10). Retrieved from https://www.thekennelclub.org.uk/our-
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
All rights reserved (c) 2012-2018 Frania Shelley-Grielen
"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".
UK Home Office
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"A study by Cooper, Cracknell, et al
compared training methods using
shock collars and those using
positive reinforcement with dogs
exhibiting problem behaviors with
recall and livestock (sheep and
chickens) worrying and chasing.
These are the sort of behaviors that
are notorious for justifying the use
of shock collars. However, the
Cooper study found that the
rewards based training was
equally effective in changing those