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The use of shock collars with dogs, All rights reserved (c) 2012-2018 Frania Shelley-Grielen
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
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
Timing is the essential component in training, whether it is positive or negative reinforce-
ment 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 a version 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
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.
This article is an original work and is subject to copyright. You may create a link to this
article on another website or in a document back to this web page. You may not copy this
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author. Email inquiries to email@example.com
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-resources
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 train-
ing 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
UK Home Office
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advertising and linking to Amazon.com.
"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 live-
stock (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."
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