When Good Rescue Groups Make Bad Dog Training Decisions

Penny is one of my dogs, and she overcame extreme anxiety and fear issues without the use of force or intimidation.

Penny is one of my dogs, and she overcame extreme anxiety and fear issues without the use of force or intimidation. Photo: Alex Andes

Dog is abused, abandoned, neglected. Dog is rescued. Dog has behavioral issues stemming from a difficult past. Rescue group calls in a trainer, who puts a shock collar on the dog to "fix" him and make him adoptable.

While the above scenario may be oversimplified, it happens all too often in the rescue world. I worked on all sides of rescue for many years, from temperament testing dogs in shelters, to fostering, to helping rescue groups find force-free trainers...the list goes on. I have seen the good and the bad of the rescue world.

I find it especially terrifying when I see pit bull rescues using punitive trainers for their dogs. I'll never forget a video I saw of a trainer using prong collar 'corrections' to teach a dog the 'place' cue. Unbelievable! Any force-free trainer could have taught the same cue in less time and with zero stress on the dog. And this same trainer works frequently with rescue groups, particularly pit bull rescues.

I am a pit bull advocate and a lover of pit bull-type dogs. Which is why I'm adamant that anyone who has a pit bull or similar breed in their care must hold themselves to the highest standards when it comes to training and care. These dogs are sensitive and eager-to-please, and are especially good candidates for force-free training. Many of them have endured unimaginable abuse and neglect, and to put them through the stress of shock collar training or otherwise aversive training is nothing short of irresponsible. And if you fight fire with fire when dealing with an aggressive dog of any breed, you're asking for a dog that's going to explode.

I understand how stressful it can be when a dog is pulled from a shelter and develops behavioral issues in a foster home. And I have no doubt that rescue group volunteers want nothing but the best for their dogs. But I've seen many of those rescue groups fall for the "magical cure" promise that e-collar trainers and dominance-based trainers love to make. They are delighted to find that they can send the "broken" dog away and have him come back "fixed."

What frightens me most about these types of situations is that the nature of shock collar training just about guarantees that you will not absolve the root of a behavioral problem. Yes, it might stop the behavior in the moment--let's use aggression, for example. Where are you channeling the fear and frustration that's causing the aggressive behavior when you use an e-collar? If the dog is no longer reacting, yet you have done nothing but 'correct' the unwanted behavior, a much more sinister thing could be happening under the surface. First, you may see that fear and frustration appear in new ways or in new unwanted behaviors. Or, that dog has had its stress and fear signals ignored for so long that it has entered a state of learned helplessness--the dog has mentally shut down.

If you were afraid of spiders, and I smacked you on the head every time you reacted negatively to the sight of a spider, would you suddenly begin to like them? Certainly not. Externally, you may stop reacting negatively for fear of being smacked, but your internal fear would probably worsen. So when a rescue group adopts out a dog that appears to have its behavior problems 'solved' by an e-collar trainer or aversive trainer, what they are really adopting out is a ticking time bomb. And in the same way that your fear of spiders would grow, that dog that has been adopted out is likely at risk for worsened aggression or fear.

Rescue groups--I beg you. Do your research on dog behavior and the dangers of punitive training methods before you send your dog away for any type of training. The best trainers will want to work with you, not take your dog for two weeks to "fix" the behavioral issues, and will be dedicated to making your dog feel safer and more confident.

I know that there are so many incredible groups all over the world that protect their dogs from punitive trainers (I personally volunteer for one such group), but for those that don't--do yourself and the dogs in your care a favor, and steer clear of e-collars, prong collars, and the like-- and the people who will put them on your dogs.

The best trainers have the skills and the knowledge to train dogs of all breeds without the use of quick fixes like shock collars. I had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Ian Dunbar at this year's APDT conference, and want to leave you with one of my favorite quotes of his:

"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."

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Positively Expert: Alex Andes

Alex Andes is the owner and head trainer of Peach on a Leash Dog Training & Behavior Services in Atlanta, GA.


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