Why consider the use of Shock Collars (E-Stimulus, E-Touch) carefully

Dog outsmarts Pavlov and some humans!

Republished September 22, 2010

January 30, 2010

Why consider the use of Shock Collars (E-Stimulus, E-Touch) carefully

This is a bit technical but brief overview on this issue.  I will do my best to make it easy for everyone to understand.  In the JVB (2007) Overall evaluated the molecular and cellular use of shock on the learning process.  She suggested, “we may be changing other behaviors or processes” with these collars technically called E-Stimulus Devices.

Overall (2007) uses what she describes as “a landmark study” by Schilder and van der Borg published in Applied Animal Behavior (2004).  Schilder and van der Borg noticed dogs exhibiting more stress related behavior when using these types of devices.  Stress related behavior continued with the control group, during free time in the handlers presence while at parks, when dogs should be relaxed.  Stress behaviors and/or conflict resolution behaviors is extensively defined in recent dog literature.

The authors, Schilder and van der Borg (2004), concluded three negative effects from the use of e-stimulus devices (shock collars).  They are as follows:

  1. This type of training is stressful
  2. Dogs are feeling pain
  3. Dogs learn to associate the collar with shock and presence of the handler/owner!

Overall (2007) suggests, though some guard type dogs are successfully trained using these devices, other concerns i.e. “heightened uncertainty and reactivity” were reported.  She says,  president of  a regional detection dog group in the US believed “any handler who hits the streets with a dog wearing a shock collar did not have a well-trained or reliably trained dog.”

As said earlier, I am attempting to offer only an overview on the use of e-stimulus devices, aka shock collars, not an in-depth study or research paper.  There appears a growing number of dog trainers schooled to use these devices as standard training equipment.  One such school is located in Florida.  Their slogan “We do this quickly, effectively and lovingly.  Plus we GUARANTEE our E- Touch approach and dog training for the life of your dog.”

Guaranteeing results is a very questionable practice in the discipline of behavior and often advised against in literature when selecting a dog trainer or behavior specialist.  Not even a human therapist will guarantee your results.  This is purely marketing, and when their system fails, because they have not correctly identified any underlying problems associated with a behavior complaint, the owner will either seek other counsel or worse, surrender the dog to an unknown fate at a shelter.

A legitimate concern exists for newly introduced dog trainers, veterinarians, dog owners/handlers, dog-related businesses, and dog owners who are unaware of these findings and literature on the subject is sorely lacking.

The following statement and review comes from a “Letter to the Editor” in response to Overall’s (2007) editorial cited earlier.  The response appeared in the JVB (2008)  published by a “representative” from Radio Systems Corporation, the world’s leading manufacturer of e-stimulus devices which they refer to as “static stimulation.”  The brands represented included Invisible Fence, PetSafe, Innotek, SportDOG, and Guardian Brands.

The author, in the first paragraph says, “We are in complete agreement with Overall…decisions to use such equipment should not be made lightly,” and states their literature includes warnings.  I am purposely omitting the author’s reasoning for suggesting e-stimulus devices as a “legitimate means of behavior modification” that would need discussion on learning theory, highly technical and lengthy paper.  The intended target audience is to bring attention to dog-related business’s, shelter and rescue personnel, foster parents, veterinarians, groomers, daycare owners, and dog owners.

Before making an informed decision using dog-related equipment for purposes of behavior modification, a complete behavior history and medical workup should be completed.  This gathering information about the dog, family, and dog’s environment, help the behavior consultant identify the problem and informed choices how to approach modifying the dog’s behavior.

Additionally, any medical reasons sometimes masquerading and/or contributing to a behavior problem need eliminated first by a veterinarian.

Once these two requirements are completed, any medical problems eliminated, the consultant can begin offering solutions including training, modifying the owner’s behavior, and any necessary management.  If the case involves a dog who has already bitten, a risk assessment is necessary.  The owner/handler, rescue organization, or foster care person is apprised of any risks and recommendations keeping in mind the public’s safety and anyone coming into contact with the dog.

If a certified behavior consultant (IAABC), board certified veterinarian (ACVB), ABS and/or AVSAB member were to decide the use of an e-stimulus device is warranted, then according to the representative the following must be taken into consideration.

The choice of the targeted stimulation is important, and since instrumental behavior (learned) is usually rewarded by its consequences, “not all behaviors are equally likely to be associated with certain consequences.”  They state, “researchers discovered that certain responses can be exceedingly difficult to establish” using shock avoidance!

Here’s the kicker… they admit animals are not ‘biologically prepared’ to associate a negative event when faced with danger.  I’m including any type of fearful stimulus.  It is widely known animals have choices when faced with threatening situations.  They can freeze, flee, defend themselves offensively or offer appeasement behavior (tend-befriend).  The author says, “if a trainer attempts to punish defensive aggression in an already frightened dog, the aggression is likely to escalate,” not diminish.  Aggression, except predatory, is always associated with fear and unless you change the emotional response, you cannot change the dog’s perspective toward that fear.

The author suggests behavior “targeted for suppression” using e-stimulus devices include roaming, chasing vehicles, prey drive and “other high-arousal behaviors far removed from stress.”  The bolded phrase is concerning since “high-arousal” behavior can manifest in a myriad of ways and reasons and often already associated with stress!  An example of “high-arousal” behavior could be jumping, barking, or zooming around the house to release energy!  All of these suggested behaviors, often undesirable “high-arousal” behavior are always associated with the owner, not the dog.

The dog is often responding using normal dog behavior, often perceived negatively by their owners.  Many of these dogs are living in dysfunctional environments.  A dysfunctional environment often does not include clear rules and boundaries associated with the dog’s behavior, and in most cases, owner reinforcement is often present.  So punishing the dog for owner-reinforced behavior, inconsistency, lack of enough outlets for energy expenditure, and generally not meeting a dog’s needs seem rather cruel.

The following statement made by the author needs understood, especially by dog owners considering these devices for training and/or behavior modification.  The author states, “experienced trainers acknowledge…motivating learning through aversive control” is only effective if the trainer concentrates on “one response at a time” and “intermixing behaviors only when performance” of the first target response is “fluent” (reliably trained).

Most problem behavior consists of chained behavior.  For example, dog hears owner’s car arrive home, dog begins to get aroused, owner walks in, dog jumps all over owner.  If they suggest the correct way to use these devices means, the owner/dog trainer must stop the behavior before it gets started, when the dog hears the car!  All other points in the entire chain of behavior must be “fluent” (reliably trained) first, before proceeding to the next!  I have to ask, how many of these trainers are training reliably each sequence in a chain of undesirable behavior with the owners?  This is exactly how positive trainers shape desirable behavior, but without using punishment.

The author’s argument that other punitive procedures, i.e. time out, are ineffective, citing “electrical stimulation is potentially superior to and safer” than other aversive punishment, i.e. spray bottles, restraint, and noxious tastes, is unsubstantiated.  This suggestion is weak lacking any research or quantification.

I purposely left time out from their list; time out, used effectively and consistently, with rules, timing and proper social settings can/is very effective, given the dog wants to stay in the social environment.  If the dog’s social environment lacks rewarding opportunities and training an incompatible behavior, sending them to time out will have no effect at all, in some instances, it may offer the dog relief.  Therefore, the author’s statement is weak and appears to lack understanding correct time out rules and when/where its use is effective.

The author further justifies using electrical stimulation by comparing it to human cases of “self-injurious behaviors,” i.e. head banging.  Dog owners commonly complain about barking, running away and jumping, these common dog behavior problems don’t come remotely close to “head banging” but aversive punishment is commonly recommended.  A recent study, on territorial aggression suggested owners are most responsible for their dog’s behavior.  See related blog post, “Spoiling dogs, is it really good for them? .” Until owners step up to the plate, take responsibility for contributing to their dog’s behavior… after all, it was their choice to adopt or buy a dog…  We will continue to debate this issue as well as how many dogs are euthanized every day and yearly because of unresolved behavior problems.

Lastly, using the author’s own words the use of e-stimulus devices “should never be considered in isolation from positive reinforcement” when used to correct unwanted behavior.  My answer is: if more owners were properly educated in the use of positive reinforcement and life rewards, there would be limited need for these devices.

The only consideration for the use of an e-stimulus device might be to control prey drive.  However, this requires your presence, a dog allowed to roam freely will still be able to kill.  A dog diagnosed with prey drive is a danger to the community and based on a risk assessment, should be remanded to its property, and if taken out in public should wear a muzzle to protect the public and other animals.

Joyce Kesling, CDBC

Certified Dog Behavior Consultant (IAABC)

Professional Dog Trainer (APDT)

Sarasota, FL

http://www.responsibledog.net/

2 thoughts on “Why consider the use of Shock Collars (E-Stimulus, E-Touch) carefully

  1. thanks retrieverman, if e-collars are overused in gun dog training, it would require those who understand that type of training and their reasoning to change. I think the same holds true for military dog training, if i don’t understand why from a personal perspective how can i possibly analyze their current approach versus any alternatives. The main problem i see with e-stim is its arbitrary use in companion dog training and behavior modification. 😎

  2. I think e-collars are way overused in gun dog training, but way the dogs are trained these days is all about putting lots and lots “pressure” on a dog to get it to succeed. This is the culture of gun dogs, especially retrievers.

    To develop more scientific and more modern retriever training, we are going to have to change what we expect out of the dogs. Not that they won’t be as useful. Indeed, they will get a chance to learn and use their problem solving skills– something that isn’t tested in trials or hunting tests.

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