Electronic Collars vs Traditional Leashes for Exercising Dogs on Town Streets—a Cause of Debate in One Small Town in Missouri

By Sophia Yin, DVM, MS


A reader, Donnie Rion of Carl Junction Missouri, recently emailed with the following dilemma, which will be debated in a town council meeting later this week.

The town I live in is looking to revise their leash law to allow dog owners to us electronic leashes to walk their dogs. Are they good enough to physically control dogs in all situations? One reason council is looking into this is that there are people here that have golf carts and they are complaining that is to hard for them to drive their golf carts and hold onto their dog leashes at the same time, so they want to be able to use electronic ones so they don't have to hold onto a leashes while the drive a golf cart.

What People Think Happens When You Use an Electronic Collar

When people think of electronic leashes, known more precisely as electronic shock collars, they imagine their dog trotting next to them in an unerring path as if held in place by an invisible force field. With this “miracle cure” for pulling or even running away, they envision everything they can do on their walk now that they can safely ignore their dog—listen to the radio, text-message their friends, or just power ahead in a daydream state. And even if a squirrel, cat or another dog crosses their path, they imagine that the invisible forcefield will magically hold the dog by their side.

What Really Happens When You Use an Electronic Collar or Electronic Leash

While, in the hands of an expert, many dogs can learn to consistently trot by one’s side even in the face of major distractions, for most owners this is not likely to occur. There are several reasons for this:

First, the dog has to be taught to stay next to you and to do so at all times. For the collar to work, the owner must be able to give the shock right when the dog starts getting ahead, falling behind or walking or moving too far to the side, even after the dog knows the heel behavior. For instance if the dog sees a buddy and starts to run off to greet him, the owners must deliver the shock immediately as he starts, not 1-2 seconds later. That means, the owner must always be holding the electronic collar with finger on the delivery button or the dog will know that sometimes he has at least a 2-4 second window to do something a human might consider naughty. And, if the owner cannot deliver the shock at the very start of the dog running off, the dog is not learning that running off is the problem.  In the dog’s mind he is being punished for whatever he is doing at that exact moment he receives the shock.

Even if the owner is able to always be ready and holding the remote control at all times, there are other factors too. The collar has to be charged similarly to how you’d charge a video camera, and it must be snuggly fit. A loose fit or weak charge results in an unreliable shock. The dog must always wear a real electronic collar rather than wearing a fake or dummy collar. Dummy collars are often used in place of an actual electronic collar when the owners have to use the real collar on another dog but don’t want to pay for two electronic collars. Another thing most people don’t consider is that all electronic collars are not created equally. Some are poorly built and don’t consistently work.

One huge issue, regardless of how careful one is in addressing all of the concerns listed above, is when using the collar, the shock level must be at the right intensity for the dog’s level of distraction or the dog’s level of excitement. In one situation a low level shock, just enough to remind him of what happens if he doesn’t respond but not enough to startle, scare or hurt him is most appropriate. A low level may be all that’s needed to get the dog to move back by your side. But in another situation, like a squirrel running by, anything short of the “super high” setting and Rover won’t even feel it. In fact, even with the collar set to deliver the highest level of shock, some dogs will ignore the pain when they are extremely motivated to perform the undesired behavior.

You can’t really solve the problem by keeping the collar on “super high” at all times. If Rover just drifts one step out of place it’s not really fair to give a shock that will make him leap out of his skin. Many owners would hesitate to be so unfair and they would elect to avoid correcting this little error at all if they only have the option of using a super high level shock. As a result the dog’s grey zone for where he’s allowed to be would get wider and wider. Of course if you have the collar on a level appropriate for correcting small errors and Rover suddenly bee-lines after a deer, your first zap is too low and you then have to adjust the level—most often with your free hand. That adds 2-4 seconds as you try to reach the appropriately high level.

Even More Can Go Wrong in the Hands of the Average Dog Owner

Now let’s add into this mix the fact that most dog owners are not dog training experts. So whereas an expert may expect the dog to trot along in a perfect heel position and every time the dog surges slightly ahead or falls behind or starts straying to the side, the dog gets a zap, the regular dog owner has shades of grey not to mention long periods of mental snoozing on the job. The typical dog owner’s criteria for using the collar changes randomly. Their dog runs ahead of them or weaves back and forth or is in the general area and it’s okay at least nine out of ten times. Then once in a while that same behavior earns a zap. Its not unusual that the owner never quite trains their dog what heel position is in the first place. Because realistically if they did, they could just wear a hands free leash (such as the buddy system) which ties around their waist so even when using an electronic collar the leash would not be an inconvenience at all.

In my experience, about 95% of individuals using an electronic collar use it incorrectly or are in a family where at least one of the family members who handles the dog uses it incorrectly meaning the dog gets mixed signals about what is or is not appropriate behavior. I’ve also seen many people use it to punish their dog for something it did 3 to 5 minutes earlier.  They are angry so hit the button while the dog is not engaged in an inappropriate behavior.  The dog cannot be expected to learn what is allowed and what is not under these conditions, which sadly are not uncommon.

Now Add the Golf Cart Issue

On top of all of the electronic collar issues there’s one more factor—the golf cart. If it’s on a bike path without cars and with very low traffic and the driver is very focused on both driving and on the dog, it may be ok. But dogs plus moving vehicles in the street are generally not a good mix. When on leash you’d have to be careful that the leash doesn’t dangle too closely to a wheel or that you don’t accidentally pull the dog close enough to be run over.  Off leash on a regular two-way street with regular cars, eventually a town dog will get run over while the owner multitasks by holding the electronic collar, keeping an eye on the dog, and also trying to watch the road. Add the ubiquitous cell phone to the mix and it’s a real recipe for disaster. It’s also possible that the dog could help create an accident with another vehicle. So the entire issue of having dogs on electronic collars so they can be exercised next to golf carts on regular residential streets without a leash is a safety issue for dogs as well as everyone else on the road. If it’s on a bike path with low traffic, the safety vs risks are up to your city council to decide.

To find tips on how to get into shape with your dog read the drsophiayin.com blog article “Get Fit with Your Dog: My New Years Day Dog Human Exercise Workout” as well as my Huffington Post blog article: A New Year’s Day Resolution: Get Fit With Your Dog.

To learn how to run with your dog read “First Steps on Running with Your Dog."

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Positively Expert: Sophia Yin

Dr. Yin is an internationally-acclaimed veterinarian and applied animal behaviorist who lectures and teaches workshops to dog trainers, shelter workers, and veterinary staff, and is the author of three books including a veterinary textbook and DVD set on behavior. Her "pet-friendly" techniques have set the standard of care for veterinarians.


23 thoughts on “Electronic Collars vs Traditional Leashes for Exercising Dogs on Town Streets—a Cause of Debate in One Small Town in Missouri

  1. Allen Neese

    Would like advise on training a dog to stop chasing deer. Almost 2 year old GSD male. Well trained and will walk on heal with or without leash. Knows leave it comes on command and also on whistle to come if out of my call. But when deer are spotted he goes deaf and takes off. I would like to discuss some ideas. Have started taking a air horn to blow as soon as he gets focoused on the deer. I then say leave it left and sit. Broke his focous but went straight back to the deer. He was on long leash so he could not get away. My son ( the GSD) always get compliments every we go and most people want me to teach their dog. This is really his only fault but he has been know to leave me for 4 hrs before he returns. Very dangerous and I am looking for another route to follow. Have gotten may tips from the show and have put them to use.

    Allen Neese

  2. Cassandra Walton

    I am so frustrated with my 2 year old min. dachsund. Watching the show I have taught him to sit, stay, leave it and come. He has a doggy door and is house broke, or was. He has just started cocking his leg up on my 2 year old daughter's bedding. I am now washing bed linens everyday. My husband is ready to get rid of him if we do not find a solution. My children and I are attached to Dusty and do not want to let him go. Today he has been locked up in his kennel for most of the day. Please help me I am desperate. How do you stop him from marking his territory?

  3. Sheila Fuhrmann

    I was wondering with the dachsund 2 things. 1. is he neutered? 2. Is he getting out enough?
    My male 10yr old Lhasa mix only marks where another dog marks. As in my brothers bedroom where his ex's dog pottyed .
    I am sure there are other reasons but I leave that to the experts.

  4. Amy

    It's really amazing how people will respond to a thoughtful, interesting article and all they can talk about is me, me, me. This blog seems to have a real problem with selfish people demanding free consultations from experts, most of them sounding like they didn't even read the article, just went looking for a box to type up their issues and of course never dreaming of actually paying a professional in person... but I guess that's the curse of a famous dog trainer having any kind of forum for people to give "feedback."

    Dr. Yin, this is a great article, and I'm bookmarking it to refer people to who think using a shock collar will be easier than actually putting in the time to train the dog. It's important too to remember that dogs who get unpredictable shock punishments will often be easily spooked, and if also off leash may well run directly into the path of danger.

  5. Katie Galvin

    A very thorough article. However, I'm completely astonished that it doesn't state what is, in my opinion, the blatantly obvious! It is so cruel & unnecessary to 'shock' a dog in order to make it obey our human rules! A dog has to exercise great impulse control to behave how we want & surely we should be encouraging & rewarding them when they do so rather than 'punishing' them when they do not. Never mind that they are often used incorrectly & the timing isn't quite right: they shouldn't be being used at all! I appreciate that this point doesn't directly address the writers query, but i feel that it is far too important not to mention.

  6. Liz Oiness

    I think the real issue here is that if you are too lazy to WALK when you walk your dog, or don't have the control of your dog to be able to take it to a dog park or throw ball in your yard if you are unable to physically walk the dog, then you have NO BUSINESS walking a dog without secure physical restraint in the first place. GET OFF YOUR BUTT OR DON'T HAVE A PET.

  7. William

    I think most owners that use electric shock collars they should be wearing one cause they are complacent and use it when they don't need to use it cause ther in a day dream, go back to the old ways and use a lead if not have it set up so when your dog strays you get the zap instead of the dog. Why do u think there not aloud in some states and country's like Australia cause ther inhumane

  8. Stella

    I initially found myself wanting to disagree with the article in support of relatively off-leash dogs because the choice of words sometimes seemed a bit over the top. Then I remembered that any decent dog owner, with the patience and ability to train their dog would be able to train their dog without the use of a shock collar. Of course that isn't the issue at all. The issue is that dogs and people are unreliable and even a great dog with a great owner on a leash or off a leash is unpredictable and a shock collar only adds elements of chance and error.

  9. Jim S

    Shock collar is kind of mean. Although I would have liked to put one on my ex-wife. We might still be married. I use a harness with my golden retriever. I have watched most if not all “it’s me or the dog” episodes and many dog whisperer episodes on TV. So I could probably train her to walk like a good dog next to me but haven’t. She does so little wrong without any training and her pulling is just enthusiasm. She seems to be happy and having fun on our walks. Good genes I guess. Or maybe she was suppose to be human and got put in a dog’s outfit by mistake.

  10. Laura

    What I find disturbing is that this appears to be a neglect-induced form of abuse. These people are not only lazy enough to have to drive carts to walk their dogs, but also don't want to hold a leash while doing so? Isn't one of the benefits of having a dog to give you an excuse to go for daily walks? If these people have no interest in holding a leash or walking on their own two feet, why are they interested in having a dog. Perhaps they should consider another form of fluffy that requires less walks. But then will they not clean their litter/cage because they don't like to do it from their carts? And what about leaving behind dog-bombs? Do they get out of their carts to pick up the poop or do they just leave it there, because if they're too lazy to walk and too lazy to carry a leash, would they not also be too lazy pick up poop? Do they walk their dogs so they don't have to clean the back yard? I don't get the logic of the dog walking in a cart mentality. I mean, if they're in wheelchairs, that's one thing (although I still wouldn't dig the electric collars in that aspect), but these are golf carts.

  11. Imbi

    Um, if you can't hold onto a leash about 3/4 inch wide by 1/8 inch thick, how are you going to drive your golf cart holding a REMOTE CONTROL for your collar. Sorry, this is a "duh" before we even get into the discussion of how much training is needed for the dog to even understand what the shocks are supposed to mean. And whether your dog wants to receive shocks in the first place. THINK, people!

  12. Andy

    First a dog is never more consistant then their handler and the training that was put in and second an E_collar is a tool like any other peice of training equipment and does not take the place af a good foundation in training that beeing said get you fat ass off the golf cart and take youur dog out for a run and don't put him in harms way dogs and golf carts don't mix well as for people who put down the use of e_collars have you ever felt one have you ever used one do you train dog for a living and have you ever had to train a dog that someone had to bet their life on ie. pollice army or the like if not then you opinion does not count

  13. Gary Abelov

    When I read that this "debate" was taking place in Missouri, my immediate reaction was "it figures"....Did you know that nearly a million puppies a year are shipped from this redneck state? Are you aware that nearly every county in the state thinks the puppy industry is just fine? Seriously! Prop B is about to be overturned because the majority of Missouri's counties think the puppy mill's are perfectly O.K. In Missouri, shock collars are considered cutting edge, high tech dog training equipment. Don't waste your breath or your time.

  14. Claire

    This is in response to Cassandra:

    It could be many things... Neutering helps if it is a marking behavior... could be an anxiety thing... or a medical thing... Have your pup checked by a vet! Maybe a urine infection??
    There is helpful advice on http://www.dogstardaily.com too....
    Look up belly bands! They can help when needing to re-housetrain a small adult dog.
    He may be stressed from a new change in the environment?
    Hope this helps...
    Good luck!

    Most people don't know how to find help... It doesn't take much effort to point them in a positive direction if it helps a dog to not loose its home....

  15. Laurie

    I agree with everyone that the issue is the golf cart and the people's laziness. The people must be trained first.

  16. jcamp44

    whether or not someone uses a shock collar, well, thats a debate no one will win. if someone wants to use one, they will. my problem is the fact that if MY dog is a on a leash, and YOUR dog is on an invisible one, what happens if YOUR dog decides to attack MY dog? my dog is stuck on a leash, and you would be shocking yours during the scuffle, probably causing your dog to attack even harder. fantastic. ::sigh::

  17. Marika

    Again, I'm happy that shock collars are against Finland's animal cruelty and animal abuse laws, so we don't have them here. I really think that this law should be utilised everywhere.
    And the golf carts, wtf?? Totally agree with Liz. "GET OFF YOUR BUTT OR DON'T HAVE A PET."

    When I watch Victoria's show I'm always stunned by people's laziness. I really don't understand the question that seems to be necessary to everyone in the show: "How often do you take him/her to walks?" And some say they do it like once a week or so. Really?? I have a german shepherd male and we go for long walks everyday. Of course some times walks have to be more short, but usually we are out something like two hours per day. And in addition to walks we do positive obedience training.

  18. B Holmes

    As a professional dog walker we have been asked to use remote shock collars on client dogs.

    Our view though is that they can have some use as a short term training aid if you use them as a platform to ingrain the required response to a different stimuli such as a dog whistle and we have seen some effective work done on that basis.

    We are naturally against the use of such methods but we have seen situations where poor recall in the dog has created dangerous situations such as the dog running out into roads in front of traffic . A quick and effective solution has therefore been required and remote collars have been effective there with proper use.

    Following the article though, the requests we have had usually follow a pattern of using a remote collar as a tool for ongoing control of the dog - to stop them doing things like going in water! Our philosophy is to let dogs be dogs, be social, run about, play etc. and we take them to places where it is safe to do that. We're lucky now to be in a position where we can say no to people who don't buy in to that philosophy.

    The real problem here goes back to the golf carts though. If someone who owns a dog can't invest in enjoying a walk outdoors in the fresh air for their own benefit, how do you expect them to invest the required time and effort to train their dog properly?

  19. Chris Bridgwater

    Well written piece. I really don't want to see a total ban on e-collars in the UK. They DO have a place in training some undesired behaviour in some dogs. Not to be used in everyday traing. Certainly they could be misused by novice dog people as described.

    Some handlers had just better keep their dogs on leads.


  20. Pingback: How does a dog shock collar work?

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  22. jrhumphrey89

    I am going to have to disagree with all of this. I am 26 and got my first dog recently a black lab. He has grown into a 2 year old 120 pound beast that loves to run and play. A week ago if i dropped his leash while on a walk he would turn around grab it in his mouth and run off down the street. After one week of using the Garmin xc sport dog training collar I never put him on a leash again. He comes every time I call him now and I almost don't even need the collar anymore. We go hiking every morning now and he gets to chase ducks around the lake.

    The way to train a dog with a shock collar is to keep your finger on the vibrate or sound alert for the collar. As soon as you see your dog thinking about doing a bad behavior tell them no and vibrate or sound alert the dog. If they continue very quickly vibrate or sound alert, immediately followed by shock then, and call them to you. You will need to practice button pattern so you can do it quickly the first time in the correct order. Try to calm the dog down if they shock has impacted them try to comfort them. It sucks :(. They will very quickly get the idea that when the vibrate or sound alert goes off they better stop what they are doing and come to you.

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