|The Unintended Consequences of Shock Collars|
Green Acres discourages the use of shock collars on pets for containment, training via positive punishment or negative reinforcement, or management of barking because they; 1) cause pain and stress, 2) they can cause aggression and 3) because there are alternative humane methods to training and containment. Shock collars are banned in many countries because of concerns for animal welfare. We share those concerns.
What Is A Shock Collar?
A shock collar looks like a standard collar that has a small box with two metal electrodes attached to it. The collar is designed to be worn around the dog’s neck. The collar is fit on the dog so the electrodes penetrate the dog’s fur and press directly against the dog’s skin. When activated, there is a potential of 1500 volts to 4500 volts across the electrodes, which delivers a painful electrical shock to the dog1. Some collars may even operate at higher voltages. Unfortunately, it is impossible to confirm voltages because manufacturers are very secretive about the amount of voltage their systems apply. In addition to shocking your dog, these collars can actually cause burns, something we have observed on dogs wearing these devices.
Currently, there are three types of shock collars in use; 1) underground/non-visible fence containment collars, 2) remote training collars, and 3) anti-bark collars. The manner in which the collars are activated varies with the type of collar.
Underground fence containment systems administer a shock to the dog when they cross a buried wire. Typical collars emit an audible warning tone or beep as the dog approaches the wire and ideally the dog will stop upon hearing the warning tone and will not get a shock. However, if the collar is to be effective at all the dog will need to be shocked at least once. During the training phase with this type of shock collar, small flags or some other visual indicator are supposed to be placed in the ground making the invisible border visible.
Remote training collars utilize a transmitting unit, held by the person. By pressing a button on the transmitter, the person can deliver a shock to the dog from a distant location. A warning tone may sound before the shock. The shock is used as a form of positive punishment (the dog is shocked when it does something the person does not want). For example: if a dog where chasing the neighbors livestock it would be shocked in the hopes of stopping the behavior. Remote shock collars may also be used for negative reinforcement (the dog is shocked continuously until it exhibits a desirable behavior). For example: if a dog does not come when called it would be shocked continuously until it returned to the handler. People typically use these collars for treating behavioral problems (chasing livestock/ predatory behavior, poor recall) and in dog sports such as field trials and hunting. There are even a few dog trainers that advocate their use for training typical pet dog behaviors such as sit and stay.
Anti-bark shock collars work by detecting when the dog barks and then administering an electric shock as a form of punishment, in theory, stopping the dog from barking.
Scientific Evidence Outlining the Concerns with the Use of Electric Shock
There is no doubt that shock collars cause pain. While proponents might call it a “stim” a “tap,” or a “static charge” we know from the science of operant conditioning that the aversive stimulus (electric shock) must be sufficiently aversive (i.e. painful) in order to cause a change in behavior.
Multiple studies2, 3, 4, 5 have reported that shock collars definitely cause undue stress on a dog. A study of guard dogs2, specifically bred for toughness and low sensitivity to pain and stress, found that training with shock collars caused long lasting stress effects to the point that the dog continued to associate their handler as aversive even outside of a training context. The dogs exhibited behaviors clearly associated with fear and anxiety long after they had received shocks. The scientists conducting this study stated: “The conclusions, therefore are, that being trained [with electric shock] is stressful. That receiving shocks is a painful experience to dogs, and that the dogs have learned that the presence of their owner (or his commands) announces reception of shocks, even outside of the normal training context.”
Another study3 examined the use of shock for training to stop undesirable hunting/chasing behavior. This study also revealed the dogs found being trained with shock to be very stressful. The authors concluded “…the general use of electric shock collars is not consistent with animal welfare.”
A third study4 compared the features of several shock collars and examined how they are used by typical pet owners. The researchers concluded “for a subset of dogs tested, the previous use of e-collars in training are associated with behavioural and physiological responses that are consistent with significant negative emotional states; this was not seen to the same extent in the control population. It is therefore suggested that the use of e-collars in training pet dogs can lead to a negative impact on welfare, at least in a proportion of animals trained using this technique.” (p4).
The scientists conducting this study4 also observed that the instruction manuals that came with these products did not explain features well. When the individuals using the collars were interviewed they could not explain how to use the collar properly and often indicated that they had failed to read the instructions or ignored them. The researcher’s conclusion: “…some of the reported use was clearly inconsistent with advice in e-collar manuals and potentially a threat to the dog’s welfare.” (p25)
As noted in this study, misuse and inappropriate use of shock collars is not uncommon. One of Green Acres’ staff witnessed such misuse at a field trial event right here in Maine. A dog owner with two dogs was working with one of his dogs and had a second dog in its crate. The dog that he was working with did not respond to a command so the owner pressed a button on the remote to shock the dog. The dog still did not respond to the command so the owner shocked the dog again. This happened three times. Meanwhile the dog in the crate was yelping each time the owner was intending to shock the dog he was working with. It was not until our staff member pointed it out that the owner realized he was shocking his dog in the crate and not the one he was working with. It would seem that the owner had picked up the wrong remote unit.
Because of the findings of Studies to assess the effect of pet training aids, specifically remote static pulse systems, on the welfare of domestic dogs4 scientists initiated a fourth study; Studies to assess the effect of pet training aids, specifically remote static pulse systems, on the welfare of domestic dogs; field study of dogs in training5. This study was designed to investigate how dogs would react when a shock collar was used per the manufacturer’s instructions. The study looked at three different groups of dogs; all with owners that had reported their dog either had a poor recall or chased cars, bicycles or animals. One group of dogs was trained with a shock collar by dog trainers that had been trained by shock collar manufacturers; the second group of dogs was trained by the same dog trainers but with positive reinforcement. The last group of dogs was trained by members of the UK APDT (Association of Pet Dog Trainers) using positive reinforcement. The conclusion of the researchers: “…the study did find behavioural evidence that use of e-collars negatively impacted on the welfare of some dogs during training even when training was conducted by professional trainers using relatively benign training programmes advised by e-collar advocates.” The study also demonstrated that the shock collar was not any more effective at resolving recall and chasing behaviors than positive reinforcement training. This supports another recent study6 that concluded: “more owners using reward based methods for recall/chasing report a successful outcome of training than those using e-collars.”
You can read a summary of study 4 and 5 at: http://www.companionanimalpsychology.com/2013/06/the-end-for-shock-collars.html
Shock Based Containment Systems
It is our belief that individuals that choose underground fence systems for containment are not intending any ill will towards their pet; in fact it is often quite the opposite. People want to give their pet as much room to run as possible and they believe that an underground containment system allows for more “freedom” at less financial cost. The problem lays in the lack of understanding about the pitfalls of this type of containment system and the lasting harm that may come to the dog.
In our experience, shock collar systems, where a dog hears a beep followed by an electrical shock at their neck if they continue across the boundary line of your property, create a false sense of security for dog owners and often cause a dog to become fearful and anxious, especially towards other people. The false sense of security comes from the fact, as many have observed, the non-visible fence does not always keep the dog within their property. A dog can see, hear and smell beyond the invisible line buried under the ground and may be attracted to something on the other side of the line causing them to blast through the “fence,” resulting in their getting a shock. If the dog wants to return to its yard it must now suffer a shock to do so. If there is not something very attractive in the yard there is little incentive to come back home.
Additionally, these containment systems do nothing to prevent others dogs, animals or people from entering into your yard. A regular fence has a much higher probability of keeping a dog in and keeping others out, thus ensuring the safety of your dog.
People also have a tendency to think that since there is a containment system in place; their dog can be left alone in the area and they leave the dog unattended even through most of the manuals for these systems explicitly indicate you should remain with your dog at all times as they are not a substitute for a reliable fence. They do not offer you the same level of freedom as a conventional fence.
Electric shock often causes anxiety in a dog because it hurts. The cause of that pain is then often associated with what the dog was focused on at the time the shock occurred. This could be something totally benign such as; another dog, a neighbor’s cat, a person or someone’s child passing by your yard. For example, if a dog sees your neighbor’s child, runs toward it intending a friendly greeting, and in its excitement crosses the invisible line and is shocked, it is quite likely that your dog will associate this pain with the child. Your dog may now feel anxious and possibly aggressive towards all children. The same can happen towards adults as well as other animals. (See How Does Pain Cause Aggression- Case #1 below for a real example)
While dogs do not always get the shock, sometimes they just hear the beep, that uncertainty in itself can create even more anxiety. If you’re from the Midwest you can relate; the anxiety starts when the tornado sirens go off whether the tornado happens or not.
If people approaching cause the dog to get a shock, or even just a beep (a reliable predictor of a shock or the system wouldn’t work) and the dog has nowhere else to go (the fence essentially traps them in their yard) then the dog is going to do everything possible to drive those people away – including taking an aggressive posture which may increase the probability of creating a dog with territorial aggression.
Other factors to consider are how you dog will feel about their yard, the space you have designed to give them “freedom.” Sadly I have consulted with clients where the experience of being shocked in the yard causes the dog to refuse to go into the yard. Even more distressing, I have worked with clients where the dog now trembles in terror anytime it hears a beep that sounds anything like the beep of the shock collar (e.g. your mobile phone when you get a text, the smoke alarm when the battery is low). The beep even without the shock can and does cause anxiety.
Lastly, like most pieces of technology, shock collars can malfunction. I know of people that have used shock based containment systems where the battery has stopped working which means the collar will no longer beep or shock. More frightening, I have been told of cases where the collar has malfunctioned resulting in the dog being shocked continuously until the battery dies.
The companies that design, manufacture and sell these shock collar systems are unregulated and are primarily interested in profit. They are under no regulatory obligation to report problems that have already occurred. If you do report problems to the manufacturer, you will likely be told you did not follow the directions properly.
Since these products are not regulated, we have no idea how many problems have occurred or how severe those problems have been. While these companies claim their products give pets more freedom, keep pets safe and even save pets lives, these claims are not supported by published scientific evidence. In fact the evidence in peer-reviewed literature on the subject of shock collars suggests the exact opposite.
Some people argue that using an underground fence to contain their dog gives the dog more freedom. Dr. Karen Overall, a veterinary behaviorist answers that argument like this: “It’s a myth that invisible fences provide dogs with more freedom. In fact, these devices violate the principles of three of five freedoms that define adequate welfare for animals: Freedom from pain, injury, and disease, Freedom to express normal behavior and Freedom from fear and distress.”13. The five freedoms Dr. Overall has mentioned are Brambell’s Five Freedoms – a standard for assessing animal welfare since the 1960’s15.
Alternatives to using a containment system based on electric shock include; a real fence, a small fenced kennel area on your property, and more frequent walks/exercise with your dog – something that that would be good for both you and your dog.
Shock Collars for Remote Training
Electric shock via remote control is used to positively punish (a momentary shock to decrease behavior) or negatively reinforce (an ongoing shock to increase a behavior) a dog.
Our own experience in dealing with dogs that have behavioral issues, as well as scientific research by experts in the field, indicates that using tools that cause pain and fear can actually elicit or increase aggression and other behavioral problems.7,8 Fear, anger and confrontation are all stressful. Physiologically a dog’s body will react in the same manner as a human’s when stressed. Stress causes an increase in the hormone cortisol as well as other biochemical changes.9 Studies completed in Japan and Hungary in 2008 demonstrated that dogs that were strictly disciplined had higher levels of cortisol and that these increased cortisol levels were linked to increased aggressive behavior. The many adverse effects of using punishment led The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB) to publish guidelines on the use of punishment in training in 2007.10
While punishment can temporarily stop a behavior it often causes new and additional problems. A study published in Animal Welfare by E.F. Hiby in 2004 concluded that dogs trained with punishment were more likely to demonstrate behavior problems and were less obedient than those trained with positive, reward based methods.11 Another study, published in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior by Emily Blackwell in the fall of 2008 found that dogs trained with punishment had higher aggression scores while those trained with rewards had the lowest scores for fearful and attention seeking behaviors.12
For a real example of the use of a remote shock collar and its consequences, read How Does Pain Cause Aggression- Case #2 below.
Alternatives to using a remote controlled shock collar include; more effective management of your dog and its environment and a reward-based training program. As for performance sports or working dogs, Green Acres staff and students, as well as many others, have successfully trained dogs for field trails and search and rescue using clicker training and reward based training. Some of the most amazing working animals in the world, those working for the U.S. Navy, have been trained exclusively with reward based training.
Shock Collars Used for Excessive Barking
Barking is a very normal and very complex behavior for a dog, meaning that there are many possible reasons a dog barks. One of the most frequent reasons a dog barks is due to anxiety. If a stressed dog suddenly receives a painful shock on its neck it is much more likely to become even more stressed and increase its vocalizing, thus receiving more shocks. These collars cannot distinguish why a dog is barking so just keep shocking away. Because they are triggered by sound, even another dogs bark can trigger the collar around a dog that is being quiet. For this reason alone, these devices should never be used in multi-dog households or any places with multiple dogs like a boarding or daycare facility. Sadly there are such facilities in our community that use these devices.
Working with a qualified dog behavior consultant to determine the cause of the barking and to assist in developing a management and behavior modification plan to address the barking will have a higher probability of success.
How Does Pain Cause Aggression?
The use of positive punishment in the form of choke collars, prong collars and shock collars can cause aggression. This occurs because the anxiety and pain the dog feels when shocked or choked is often associated with whatever the dog was focusing on at that instant rather than their own behavior. Both real life cases described below illustrate how using a shock collar created aggression in previously friendly dogs.
“Jake,” a very social dog, bounded off to greet every person he saw. Jake’s guardians were concerned about him leaving the yard because he frequently went to visit the neighbor. For what they believed was his protection, the family installed an underground fence system that would keep Jake in their yard. They trained him to the system per the manufacturer’s instructions.
A few weeks after the system was installed, Jake saw the neighbor out in her yard. Since Jake had always liked his neighbor he ran straight for her when he was shocked for crossing the line. This happened a few more times, the once friendly Jake always getting shocked as he ran towards the neighbor. Then one day Jake was inside his home when the neighbor knocked on the front door. When the family opened the door, Jake saw the neighbor and immediately reacted by biting her in the leg.
To Jake the neighbor was the predictor of the shock, and he now associated the neighbor with being shocked. This incident could have been prevented with the installation of a good, old fashioned fence or by providing Jake with supervision when he was out in the yard.
“Jenny”, would drag her guardians around on leash, especially when she saw another dog. Jenny was just curious and friendly and wanted to greet the other dogs, but her guardians were older and Jenny was a strong dog. They had made no attempts to train Jenny, and were frustrated with being pulled all over anytime Jenny saw another dog. They went to a big-box pet store where it was suggested they purchase a remote shock collar. They were instructed to shock Jenny whenever she pulled on her leash.
On their next walk, Jenny, as she always had done, moved forward in friendly greeting when she spotted another dog. Jenny was fixated on the dog she wanted to meet when she was shocked. The next time Jenny saw another dog on a walk she immediately became anxious. As the dog approached, Jenny lunged, but this time she also growled and bared her teeth. Jenny had become very afraid and was trying to look fierce to scare the dog away before it hurt her when she was shocked yet again. Jenny, now anxious and confused about other dogs, has learned to become defensively aggressive.
Jenny’s guardians did not train her to stop pulling; all they succeeded in doing is making a previously dog friendly dog, dog aggressive. If they would have enrolled Jenny in a reward based training class or made use of a Sensible or EZ-Walk Harness or Gentle Leader they could have taught her to walk nicely without ever causing her any pain or fear.
These are not isolated occurrences. I have training colleagues throughout the country that could tell you of similar incidents.
What Do the Experts Say About Shock Collars?
A study published in 20001 looked at five dogs who were subjected to shock collar containment systems and who later bit people, resulting in a law suit. No dog had a prior history of displaying aggression towards people and it is believed that the dogs received a shock at the time of the attack. There is no evidence to suggest that the humans bitten were acting in a threatening manner prior to the attack. In all cases, the dogs bit the victim repeatedly and uninhibitedly, resulting in serious bodily injury. Other studies on the use of electrical shock on other species, including humans, have noted the extreme viciousness and intensity of shock-elicited aggression.
Noted veterinary behaviorist Dr. Karen Overall says this about the use of electrical shock for training animals: “To understand people’s willingness to shock their dogs and cats (and sometimes horses), one important association needs to be acknowledged: people reach for tools such as shock when they feel helpless to address their pet’s behavioral concerns and when they feel that this is the only way that they can keep their pet safe and alive. Unfortunately, companies that make and market shock collars prey on these concerns, claiming that their products keep pets safe and save lives. There is no published evidence to support these claims, but there is now considerable evidence published in the peer-reviewed literature that refutes them. Anyone considering the use of shock for behavioral problems— whether it is a remote/ bark activated shock collar, a remote controlled collar, an invisible fence, or a device such as a Scat Mat that shocks anyone who touches it— should know:
1. The use of shock is not treatment for pets with behavioral concerns.
2. The use of shock is not a way forward.
3. The use of shock does not bring dogs back from the brink of euthanasia; instead, it may send them there.
4. Such adversarial techniques have negative consequences that are dismissed/ ignored by those promoting these techniques”14
As the late Mahatma Gandhi said “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” While we recognize both managing and training a dog can be frustrating at times, there is always a better way to deal with a situation than using electric shock.
1 Polsky, Richard, (2000), Can Aggression in Dogs Be Elicited Through the Use of Electronic Pet Containment Systems?, Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, 3(4), 345-357, http://www.dogexpert.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/Electronic-fences.pdf
2 Schilder, Matthijs B.H. and van der Borg, Joanne A.M., (2004), Training dogs with help of the shock collar: short and long term behavioural effects, Applied Animal Behavior Science 85 (2004) 319-334, http://eldri.ust.is/media/ljosmyndir/dyralif/Trainingdogswithshockcollar.pdf
3 Schalke, E., Stichnoth, J. and Jones-Baade, R., Stress Symptoms Caused by the Use of Electric Training Collars on Dogs (Canis familiaris) in Everyday Life Situations, Current Issues and Research in Veterinary Behavioral Medicine, http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0168159106003820
4 Defra AW1402 (2013) Studies to assess the effect of pet training aids, specifically remote static pulse systems, on the welfare of domestic dogs. University of Lincoln / University of Bristol / Food and Environment Research Agency. Final report prepared by Prof. Jonathan Cooper, Dr. Hannah Wright, Prof. Daniel Mills (University of Lincoln); Dr. Rachel Casey, Dr. Emily Blackwell (University of Bristol); Katja van Driel (Food and Environment Research Agency); Dr. Jeff Lines (Silsoe Livestock System). http://randd.defra.gov.uk/Default.aspx?Menu=Menu&Module=More&Location=None&Completed=0&ProjectID=17568
5 Defra AW1402a (2013) Studies to assess the effect of pet training aids, specifically remote static pulse systems, on the welfare of domestic dogs; field study of dogs in training. Final report prepared by Prof. Jonathan Cooper, Dr. Nina Cracknell, Jessica Hardiman and Prof. Daniel Mills (University of Lincoln). http://randd.defra.gov.uk/Default.aspx?Menu=Menu&Module=More&Location=None&Completed=0&ProjectID=17568#Description
6 Blackwell et al., The use of electronic collars for training domestic dogs: estimated prevalence, reasons and risk factors for use, and owner perceived success as compared to other training methods, BMC Veterinary Research 2012, 8:93, http://www.biomedcentral.com/1746-6148/8/93
7 Bradshaw J.W.S., Blackwell E.J., Casey R.A. 2009. Dominance in domestic dogs - useful construct or bad habit? Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research, May/June 2009, pp 135-144. http://www.journalvetbehavior.com/article/S1558-7878(08)00115-9/abstract
8 Herron M.E., Shofer F.S., Reisner I.R. 2009. Survey of the use and outcome of confrontational and non-confrontational training methods in client-owned dogs showing undesired behaviors. Applied Animal Behavior Science, 117, pp. 47-54. http://vet.osu.edu/assets/pdf/hospital/behavior/trainingArticle.pdf
9 Scholz, Martina, and von Reinhardt, Clarissa: Stress in Dogs, ©2007, Dogwise Publishing
10 American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior 2007. AVSAB Position Statement - Punishment Guidelines: The use of punishment for dealing with animal behavior problems. http://avsabonline.org/uploads/position_statements/Combined_Punishment_Statements1-25-13.pdf
11 Hiby, E.F., Rooney, N.J., Bradshaw, J.W.S., 2004. Dog training methods—their use, effectiveness and interaction with behaviour and welfare. Anim. Welfare 13, 63–69. http://www.ingentaconnect.com/content/ufaw/aw/2004/00000013/00000001/art00010
12 Blackwell, Emily J., Twells, Caroline Anne, Seawright, Rachel A. Casey. 2008. The relationship between training methods and the occurrence of behavior problems, as reported by owners, in a population of domestic dogs. Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research, September/October 2008, pp 207-217. http://www.journalvetbehavior.com/article/S1558-7878%2807%2900276-6/abstract
13 Overall, MA VMD PhD DACVB CAAB, Karen, Manual of Clinical Behavioral Medicine for Dogs and Cats, Mosby 2013, location 4757
14 Overall, MA VMD PhD DACVB CAAB, Karen, Manual of Clinical Behavioral Medicine for Dogs and Cats, Mosby 2013, location 4862
15 Hanson, Don, 2010, Brambell’s Five Freedoms, Green Acres Kennel Shop web site, http://www.greenacreskennel.com/dog-behavior-and-training/brambells-five-freedoms
Recommended Reading & Links
Can Aggression in Dogs Be Elicited Through the Use of Electronic Pet Containment Systems? - http://www.leaonline.com/doi/abs/10.1207/S15327604JAWS0304_6;jsessionid=nFup
Training dogs with help of the shock collar: short and long term behavioural effects - http://eldri.ust.is/media/ljosmyndir/dyralif/Trainingdogswithshockcollar.pdf
Association of Pet Behaviour Counselors Press Release on Shock Collars -http://www.apbc.org.uk/article2.htm
Dog Trainer & Author Pamela Dennison on Invisible Fences - http://www.positivedogs.com/articles/electronic_fencing.html
Pressure Necrosis/Burns from shock collar used with underground fence system - http://en.allexperts.com/q/Ask-Veterinarian-700/Pressure-Necrosis.htm
Comments from the Readers of this Website
Dear Don, I want to thank you for the comprehensive information on your site regarding e collars. In desperation, we purchased one for our dog. Unlike many folks referenced in the studies, I read a lot about how to use it before ever putting it on my dog. I then worked a few days using only the beep. Then I tried the next phase using the lowest setting. I did not like the results. Cagney showed me some apprehension toward me. (which is totally unacceptable and the last thing I ever want). I took the collar off immediately. After a bit, I was petting him and noticed he felt warmer on his belly and below. The whole thing didn't feel right so I am returning the collar. Cagney has a big problem with doorway behavior. He is extremely protective of me and my husband when anyone enters. And he has nipped at people when they have gotten up from the couch and walk across the room. I intend to go back to either my former behaviorist or someone else. But not to these collars. I thank you so much for sharing this info as I know you care deeply for dogs. Bless you. Now I will work on the guilt I have for even purchasing this item. I need to do the work of working with my dog....not relying on a quick fix. Sincerely, Jo Anna K. – January 2015