Shock collars for dogs: either love 'em or hate 'em. There is not a lot of middle ground. What there is a lot of is myths. People have formed a lot of opinions based on the opinions of others concerning shock collars. Not too many of these opinions about shock collars are based upon first hand knowledge or fact.
I am training a Llewellyn Setter puppy named Zeke. Zeke's owner, Gregg, recently bought a shock collar to aid in the training of Zeke. Gregg mentioned this to the owner of the training facility where Zeke is taking puppy classes. This is not a direct quote, but a summary from this person and a host of others:
Shock collars are simply torture devices. They are cruel. They damage the relationship between dog and owner. I've never used one and I will never use one.
Unfortunately, the most vehement opponents of the shock collars are too often those who have little to no working knowledge of a shock collar.
Myth #1: "Shock Collars Are Torture Devices"
A shock collar is a training tool which applies a negative stimulus to the dog. It can be used in the correct fashion to train a dog. It can be used improperly to cause a dog extreme pain. A leash can also be used properly as a training tool and improperly to cause extreme pain. The important word is "improperly". Used properly, a shock collar is no different than a leash as a training tool.
When you first fit a dog with a shock collar, the goal is to find the working level. The working level is the lowest level that the dog will notice. You put the collar on the dog and start at the lowest level and shock the dog. You gradually increase the level until there is a notice. Ears perked up, or the turn of the head. A yelp from the dog means it is too hot. You want to avoid vocalization. Just a "what was that" look from the dog. If the ears fall back and the tail tucks, the collar is too hot.
When using a shock collar, the key is to apply the least amount of zap needed to get the job done. Early versions of shock collars had very little means of adjusting the level of the shock. They were permanently set to "weld" and, because of this, good for very little. In contrast, modern shock collars have a huge number of levels. My shock collar has 48 levels available, all the way from imperceptible to the smallest of dogs all the way to quite hot for the most stubborn of dogs. Many levels are also useful to avoid overstepping. Overstepping is when level 5 is too little for the dog to notice and level 6 causes the dog to vocalize (which indicates that the level is too high).
To further prove it isn't a torture device, here is a video of me shocking myself:
Myth #2: "You Cannot Train A Hunting Dog Without A Shock Collar"
Many people who buy their first hunting dog will immediately go and purchase a shock collar. This is done because of the notion is that one cannot train a hunting dog without a shock collar. This is simply false. Hunting dogs have been trained for hundreds of years. Shock collars have only been around since the 70s.
Here is a true statement: If you do not know how to train without a shock collar, you will not know how to train with a shock collar. The shock collar is a negative training tool, but if you do not know how to use other negative training tools, the shock collar will be of no use and may cause harm to the training of the dog.
Before the shock collar, the tool of choice was the long leash, also known as the check cord. This, like the shock collar, is a tool that is used to apply negative reinforcement. The shock collar is really no different than the old school check cord.
One thing that needs to be noted: A dog can be trained for field work without using negative reinforcement. It is being done and a growing band of trainers are discarding their check cords and shock collars. A year ago I wouldn't have believed it, but the proof is in the pudding.
I use a shock collar. I am not ashamed of this fact. But, I am also making strides to use the shock collar less and less. With every dog I train I am getting smarter and using the collar less. I do this not because there is anything wrong with the collar. The fact is (agreed upon by most egghead trainers) that positive techniques stick best. I know this as fact even as I continue to train with a shock collar. My toolkit is not yet deep enough to totally discard the shock collar. But I am committed to training my animals to a higher and higher standard, and this means I have to get smarter and use less electricity.
Myth #3: "Shock Collars Are Negative...I Only Use Positive Training Techniques"
This isn't so much a myth about shock collars as it a criticism of those who oppose them in ignorance. Many trainers eschew the use of shock collars because they are a negative technique but often I find that these same trainers are using negative techniques. The loudest criticisms come from trainers who are already yanking and tugging their dogs in order to gain compliance. It is a shame because, as negative training goes, some softer dogs take to the shock collar better than the yanking and tugging from the long leash. I've seen videos of dogs being yanked and pulled and really have seen these dogs shut down, and then I've seen these same dogs blossom when trained with the shock collar. Truth be told, such a dog would be particularly well suited for a positive-only training. Unfortunately, at this time, I've found no books available that teach gun dog training with positive-only techniques. If it existed, I would buy the first copy.
Myth #4: "Shock Collars Destroy The Relationship With The Dog"
When hunting with a hunting dog, the hunt happens not because the dog is highly obedience trained. The hunt happens because the dog and the human realize they are a team. I cannot find the birds. The dog cannot bring the birds to the ground. Hunting with a dog is a symbiotic relationship. Each party realizes that together we are better than either of us is alone. The best training one can do with their dog is to reinforce this relationship. If this relationship were to be destroyed, there would no longer be a point to maintain the relationship.
In other words, if the relationship between hunting dog and hunting human were destroyed, the hunt would cease to happen. I have hunted hundreds of times with my dog...the relationship is quite intact, in spite of the fact that I use a shock collar.
Myth #5: "Shock Collars Are A Shortcut"
This is one I heard recently, by a gentleman who has yet to finish training to completion a single gun dog. He was implying that using a shock collar was in some way cheating and a lazy way of doing things. Others have stated that it is a short cut and a means to reduce the amount of training that is required.
Using a shock collar is not cheating or is it a lazy way of training a dog. It does not shorten or hasten training in any way. In fact, in most instances, training behaviors using a shock collar looks identical to the negative-but-non-shock method. When training a dog to come when called, the first step is to train a recall using positive techniques. Treats. Later, the dog is put on a long leash or check cord and the dog is called. If the dog does not respond, the dog is reeled in or tugged on until it comes it. Now, if one is going to use a shock collar, it is only at this time that the shocking is introduced. It is overlayed on top of the reeling in or tugging. A transition is made to the shock collar. Once the transition is made to the shock collar, then the drilling begins. Repetition of the lesson is what is used to cement the lesson. The lesson needs to be repeated and proofed in all sorts of distractions. It is work, for both the pupil and trainer. If the check cord is going to be the tool of choice, then that needs to be drilled and proofed in different locations and with different distractions. The shock collar is not a shortcut. Rather it is an extra step, and regardless of the method chosen, drilling and repetition is required.
Shock collars are not the torture devices they are often portrayed to be. Nor are they the magic bullet to fix everything that is wrong with your dog. They are a tool, and in certain circumstances, this tool can be used to shape and modify dog behavior. There are other tools available as well, apart from the shock collar. Some of these are positive and some are negative. With any tool, one has to know how to use it in order for it to be effective.
Update (1/21/2015) - If you liked this post, please consider taking a look at some of my other posts...
- Dog Barking: A Non-Intuitive Fix
- Spay Or Neuter: Playing The Odds With Your Dog
- Shock Collar For Your Dog: Training The Recall
- Dog Aggression: One Thing That Works
- Don't Spay Or Neuter Your Dog
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