It’s Shocking!

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It’s Shocking!
Jun 18th, 2009 by Deborah Flick

(Previously titled: “Spare the Shock Collar, Spoil the Dog?”)

Three events over as many days added up to what some refer to as a ‘woo-woo’ experience. Not unusual for Boulder, ‘Woo-woo World Central.’ So, when it happens to me, I take notice. Hmm. Maybe I need to write about shock collars.

First, two days ago, Gigi told me about two different articles on shock collars. One, just published on the internet on June 10, was entitled “Vets on Behavior Proclaim, Never Use Shock Collar“. The other, “Shock or Awe?” by Pat Miller, was in Whole Dog Journal, February, 2006.

Yesterday, I walked up to the road to collect the morning newspapers to find two neighbors comparing the shock collars they were holding. “Are you going to use those with your dogs?” I asked, a little stunned. “We’re thinking about it,” one answered. “I’ve heard they’re easy to use and the dogs learn really fast.”

This morning at the dog park a young man was using a shock collar to train his dog. To be fair, the discomfort to the dog was below the “screaming pain” threshold. In fact, I didn’t hear the dog whimper. And, the man did praise his dog and maybe even offered a treat, I don’t know for sure. He and his dog were too far away from Sadie, Romeo, Sadie’s dreamy poodle friend, and me to see that. But, I could see that the dog’s ears were pinned back and it’s tail slung low. Obedient? Looked like it. Happy? No. But, that dog was elated when the training session was over. She ran all around the park chasing scents, her tail high and wagging, ears perked up, a skip in her step. Now, why should training not elicit that same sort of enthusiasm?

I’m sure you’ve guessed my feelings about shock collars, or e-collars, or remote collars, or whatever you want to call them, or however ‘new and improved’ the latest models are. I don’t like them. I would not use one on my own dog, no matter how so-called ‘hard’ she or he was. And, frankly, I think they should be banned, as they are in some countries already. For example, Wales and most parts of Australia. (If you know of other countries or locales when bans are in effect, or where people are petitioning to ban shock collars, please reply and let readers know.)

Whether you support the use of shock collars or not, you probably know horror stories about dogs being gruesomely abused by them, sometimes beyond rehabilitation. I’m not going to tell more of those stories. The worst case scenario is not what I want to examine here.

And, I don’t want to impugn the motives of ordinary dog people who use them. The man in the park, I don’t believe, intended to cow his dog, even though that’s how the dog looked.

Jane (not her real name), a friend of mine, at wits end with her rambunctious, adolescent male puppy, George (not his real name), turned to a local trainer who put a shock collar on him. George and I are buddies. I did not know we were on the same trail at the same time, but George did. I was startled when he ran to me screaming and whimpering and wrapping himself around my legs. The crying didn’t last long. A few seconds. His mom came running after him. She was mortified. “George ran off and the trainer told me to keep turning up the dial until I got his attention. But he kept running. Oh my God. I feel horrible.” Jane is head-over-heels in love with George. I know she would never hurt him intentionally. She was just following instructions.

And, that brings me to the question I want to consider. If we want our dogs to be happy, and I assume most people do (correct me if I’m unfortunately wrong about this)…If we want to maximize our dog’s learning capability, thinking, and responsiveness to our cues… If we want to minimize the risk to our dogs physical and emotional well-being during training, indeed at all times…if we want all these things, then why would we use a shock collar?

Why would we use a training device that primarily relies on punishment and negative reinforcement? Why would we want to shock our dog when she does something ‘wrong’? Okay, sometimes it’s not a shock, it’s a ‘tingle’, according to some trainers, but whatever you call it, it must be aversive enough to make the dog stop the behavior. And, why would we want to deliver a steady stream of current that finally stops when the dog does the ‘right’ thing’–sit’ or ‘down’ or ‘come’, for example? No matter how minimal the current is, it has to be noxious enough for the the dog to notice it and want it to stop. That’s stressful. No wonder the dog in the park lightened up after her training session was over. Wouldn’t you?

Why wouldn’t we rather, for example, lure our dogs to do the behavior we want–’down’, let’s say, and then ‘mark’ the down behavior with a “yes!” or a ‘click’, if you prefer a clicker, as I do. Then immediately we offer a positive reinforcer, something the dog loves. Roast beef. Game of tug. Ear scritch. Praise. Whatever.

And, when our dogs do something we don’t want them to do, especially when they have been taught an alternative desirable behavior that they could do, but don’t? Spot persists in jumping up on Joe every time Joe visits even though Spot has learned to keep all four on the floor, and does so for most other visitors. But, Joe is different. Spot LOVES Joe and wants to get his muzzle close to Joe’s mouth and get in a few kisses, just as he greets some of his doggie friends. Well then, take something away that Spot values. Attach Spot’s leash. Joe, if he is inclined to help, could step back when Spot has fewer than all four on the floor. Joe moves toward Spot when he is not jumping.

Or, alternatively, you could remove Spot from Joe. Spot jumps. You mark the unwanted behavior with a word, “bummer,” for example, and, quietly and unemotionally lead Spot to the nearest room. Put him in the room for a few seconds (that’s right, a few seconds 5-10), and then let him out. If he doesn’t jump, mark that behavior and reward profusely. Joe’s attention and praise could be the reward. If Spot jumps again, back he goes into time-out.

Geeze. That’s so much work! How much easier to just shock Spot for jumping on Joe.

Here’s the problem, two actually, beyond, what I’ve already said. One, your timing with that shock has to be absolutely perfect. As soon as you see Spot begin to raise himself to jump, ‘zap!’ How many of us are truly that observant and have great hand-eye coordination every single time, if ever? How many of us would miss that moment and zap poor Spot after he was in full blown jumping- greeting mode?

Why do you have to be very precise? Here’s what researchers at the University of Hannover in Germany recently concluded based on a study of beagles that received shocks under three different experimental conditions. They wanted to determine the dogs’ levels of stress in response to the shocks by measuring cortisol levels, a stress hormone.

One group of beagles was shocked precisely when they touched the prey, a rabbit dummy. The second group was shocked when they did not obey a previously trained recall command. (Like Jane’s dog, George.) The third group was shocked arbitrarily.

The last two groups showed significantly high levels of stress hormone. And, their stress levels rose again when they were merely taken back to the research area where they were shocked in the first place, but not shocked on the return visit. The dogs associated pain with being in the research space where they were, in fact, previously shocked.

The researchers concluded that the first group of beagles were not as stressed as the other two groups because they were shocked at a precise moment. Not too soon, not to late, and always at the exact same instant of contact with the dummy prey. Therefore, the dogs could control whether or not they were shocked. But, notice, the precision timing required by the person holding the remote. (Are you that person? I’m not.)

The researchers concluded:

Electric shock collars are not consistent with animal welfare. It has to be assumed that pet owners do not have sufficient knowledge about training and skill to avoid the risk that dogs will show severe and persistent stress symptoms. For professional dog trainers the use should be restricted: proof of theoretical and practical qualification should be required…

What is the risk to our dogs, do you suppose, if we click (or say ‘yes!’) seconds too soon or too late? We are training the dog to ’sit’ at a distance. The dog sits then stands back up. We click just as the dog stands. Oops. Too late. How much damage have we done if our timing is not precise? Not much. Probably, the worst that happens is that the dog becomes a little confused, “So just what are you asking me to do?”

To be honest, it does take a little practice to get the timing right so that we are clicking at the moment the dog’s butt hits the ground for ’sit,’ in our example. But, we’d also need practice to perfect our timing in using the remote to zap our dogs. Frankly, I’m willing to risk screwing up with a clicker. I am not willing to risk blowing it with a shock collar.

I’m amazed and perplexed by people who are flustered and frustrated by learning to use a clicker, but who, without batting an eye, grab the remote and push that button to zing their dogs. Why not do what’s enjoyable for and kinder to our dogs, and easier on us. Remember Jane? She’s not alone.

The other problem I want to mention is that of association. There is no guarantee that our dogs will associate the shock they feel to their necks with their own behavior. Let’s consider Spot. If he got zapped when he jumped on Joe, there’s no reason Spot would necessarily assume his jumping ’caused’ the pain and, therefore, stop jumping. Maybe he would associate the pain with Joe. “When Joe shows up at the door, I get hurt. Well, I know how to take care of that. I’ll just bark and growl at Joe until that pain-producing so-and-so gets out of my house!” Great. So now we’ve created a completely avoidable aggression problem. What are we going to do now, zap Spot for being aggressive? Aggression to treat aggression? Not smart. Aggression begets aggression.

So, why are so many people enamored with shock collars? I read an interesting reply to this question somewhere on the internets. “Maybe just like we want our food fast, we want our dogs trained fast and we think something electronic with a remote control will do the job.”

But try thinking about it this way. Go slow to go fast. Learn how to use an event marker–’yes!’ or a clicker. Discover what your dog loves–treats, balls, tug, another dog–and give it to her after you ‘yes’ or click her for doing what you ask–’come.’ ‘down,’ ‘leave it’. Soon, you won’t need the clicker or the reward. You’ll just be able to ask your dog to ’sit’ and she will sit happily because she has so many great associations with sitting.

Once your dog gets the hang of learning in this way, it just gets easier and faster to teach her new behaviors because she has not merely learned a few cues, she has learned how to learn. And, its fun!

How differently do you think our dogs feel when they see the clicker and balls and treats come out compared to when their necks are fitted tightly, which it must be, with a shock collar? I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to stress my dog unnecessarily. I want Sadie to light up when it’s training time.

*For those of you who are still questioning or are unfamiliar with what shock collars actually feel like, check out this young man who thought he’d give it a try, voluntarily, of course.

*Also, visit Shock Collars-Say No. Interesting and informative. And, Responsible Dog – It’s All About Dogs.

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