Shocking Answers to Shocking Questions

After an article about the use of shock collars in dog training appears, the same questions inevitably come up. Usually, the person asking the question is not really seeking an answer. Instead, they are posing the question as a rebuttal to the position that shock has no place in dog training. The questions posed below in this article are examples of the types of questions bandied around during debates over shock collars and other punitive compulsion tools and methods.

But before we get to the questions, it's important to remember that behavior does not occur in a vacuum. For example, dogs do not "bite out of the blue." Dogs do give signals that a bite is imminent such as body stiffness, growling, lunging. These signals are intended to communicate "I am really not happy with this situation. I want it to stop." What often happens when we ignore these signals is that we've now got a dog left with nothing. What more is left but to bite?

In the case of a dog that has bitten a person, the bigger question is "Why is this dog resorting to biting and what are you doing to keep the public safe?" (We would hope you are conditioning this dog to wear a muzzle at the very least.)

Shocking the hell out of the dog may stop him from biting in that moment, just as punching you in the nose may stop you from doing something I don't like. We have a question in return; what happens when the shock collar comes off? What have you taught this dog? That humans are safe? That he is safe?

"How would you deliver a correction without a prong, slip lead or an e collar? Shoving a treat in front of his nose didn’t work!"

This type of question perfectly illustrates that there is still a huge misconception around how food is used in training. Dogs work for the food. It is not simply handed over on a silver platter. Dogs have to eat, every day. Positive trainers choose to have them earn their food, which they are happy to do. Believe it or not, you work for food every day, too, in the form of a paycheck. But on to the "corrections" bit. In the scenario described, I would advise not using any. Why not? (It's not because we are made of rainbows and sunshine!) Here's why: The dog in question (this was a longer question than included here, the dog had scuffled in a dog park and was ready to go back for more after the initial fight had been broken up) was ramped up and your "correction" interrupted his going back for more. He did not "learn that he must listen to me" because he is not capable of that level of higher thinking when his emotions are so high after just having been in a scuffle. He only knew that he felt pain around his neck (from the prong collar) in that moment. Period. What he more likely associated and connected that pain event to was whatever he was focused on at the time. Sometimes that turns out to be something else entirely, like when a child is in his direct line of sight. Child=pain. Get it? Not good. Then your next issue will be "My dog hates children and I don't know why!"

 "Positive reinforcement only" is hippy- dippy- nonsense!"

First of all, at Positively and the Victoria Stilwell Academy we don't promote the use of positive reinforcement by itself, nor are we what some call 'Purely Positive' trainers. For more on that visit the links above.

But as to this question, we'd remind the questioner that learning and behavior follow laws, just as gravity does. Both the laws of gravity and learning will still happen even if  you do not believe in them. If you tell me that the laws of gravity are made up by egghead scientists who do not live in the real world, you will still fall to the ground should you step off a building. 'Positive' in the behavioral sense means 'adding' something to the environment. It is used in the mathematical sense (addition, subtraction, etc.) not in how you or the learner feels about it. Positive means added and negative means removed. Punishment means stopped.

Let's take Positive Reinforcement for example. You take my hand and if I like it I smile. You are now more likely to take my hand, should you find my smile pleasant. I added something (the smile) that you found pleasant so that behavior is reinforced as in reinforcing a building with steel. Behaviors that are reinforced are likely to be repeated. This is how positive reinforcement works. It's not about the food itself, but about how the food affects the dog's brain. Food didn't always come in 50 lb. bags. Dogs had to find it. So the act of working for food is a very powerful reinforcer for dogs. (If you are interested in more, look up Jaak Panksepp, who called this behavior that lit up the brain the SEEKING circuit.)

"My dog is not safe around wildlife. Don't tell me to keep him on leash!"

Well, we are going to do just that. Let's replace 'dog" with 'lion'. "I want to walk my lion off leash but she keeps killing goats!" Of course she does. She is a predator.  What is a 'dog' to you? That is a serious question. If you believe that a dog is a creature that understands human culture and human verbal language and is capable of understanding sheep = mine and not yours but you are stubborn and keep chasing the damn sheep even though I have told you a thousand times not to, then you are going to continually run into canine/human misunderstandings. If you start by learning what normal canine behavior looks like, then you are further ahead than most.

Here is the deal. In the end, we choose to not use shock, prong collars, or intentional "corrections" to teach our dog.  We would rather spend the time needed (a lifetime) understanding what dogs are, how they learn, and how best to teach them. We added a dog to our lives as a friend, not as an adversary we must zap or correct into submission.

If you insist that your dog "doesn't even feel the zap, that's how low it is!" Then you are using magic to bring about behavior change. The dog does feel the zap and is reacting to it. Shock and prong collars work because they produce (remember, something is ADDED) a sensation that the dog finds unpleasant to punish (STOP) a behavior. That is how they work.

Yes, folks who are excellent observers of canine body language who understand and can deliver precise timing of the shock can affect the behavior of the learner. These are the exact same qualities that positive reinforcement requires. So which would you rather use?

It is your choice.

To use shock as an effective dog training method you will need:
  • A thorough understanding of canine behavior.
  • A thorough understanding of learning theory.
  • Impeccable timing...

...And if you have those three things, you don’t need a shock collar. 

                                                  — Dr. Ian Dunbar

For more articles about this issue, please check out the links below:

Scientific Studies About the Effects of Shock Collars:


Related Reading:

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Positively Expert: Christina Waggoner

Graduate of the Karen Pryor Academy and a 500-hour certified yoga teacher. Christina has been quoted in Dog Fancy Magazine’s Popular Dog Series “Training Secrets For Siberian Huskies”, Orange Coast Magazine, Whole Dog Journal and the elephant journal. Christina has presented at Clicker Expo.


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