I’ll start off by just laying it right out there: shock collars don’t work, and they are dangerous. This isn’t my opinion, it’s a fact, based on a wide ranging review of the significant body of research data available on these devices and their efficacy. I’ve written this blog post to ask some deeper questions about these devices. Firstly, what is the impetus for developing and using devices specifically with the intent to cause our loved ones harm? Why do many people seem to cling rigidly to the faith that causing pain is a path to improvement, even when the data so clearly invalidates this concept?
From time to time, I’m asked by clients what my opinion is regarding “e-collars”, or “shock collars”. Fortunately, many of my clients have come to trust me as we’ve worked together to improve the lives of both human and dog, and I’m able to effectively communicate the dangers these devices pose. There are other times, however, that I happen to find a shock collar on the counter when picking up a dog for service, or when a client includes a shock collar in the “care package” of food, toys, and essentials that goes along with a pup on a remote stay or day of daycare. Some of those times it’s a first time client, or a client who bought into the misinformation campaigns mounted by the e-collar industry of manufacturers and aversive “quick fix” training programs. On these occasions, clients can act alternately remorseful and defensive when we discuss the facts surrounding the use of these devices. Other times, it feels like I’m “busting” a client I’ve worked with or spoken with in the past about the use of these devices. In those situations, communication can be very tense, and clients are generally resistant to opening a channel of communication on the issue. Perhaps they feel judged simply by being asked about why they’ve opted to use shocks with their dog. In part, that’s why I’ve decided to write this blog post. I want to explore the reasoning for use of the shock collar by people I’d think should know better. I also want to explore the use of these devices in general, what they mean in the human psyche, and what it says about us, from a civilizational and even species level, to develop tactics of damage and pain for the “betterment” of the “other”.
I think I understand what drives some people to use shock collars in the cases I encounter. While I love working with folks to help their puppy become a well adjusted dog and doing general obedience training, I specialize in working with dogs who suffer from reactivity and other behavioral issues. In these cases, many of my training clients are already struggling with serious problems that have significant impact on their lives when I first meet them. In those meetings, I’m some guy they’ve just met who is telling them that there is no easy way to fix the problems they are facing, that coming to a conclusion that meets their stated goals could take many months, even years, depending on the issues involved. I’m sure it’s even more jarring when this stranger tells them that the techniques most likely to be effective are complex, take lots of time, require a permanent change of daily routine that is likely to be no less than profound, and are typically very expensive to learn about and difficult to employ. Would you rather believe that guy, or an ad on the internet that advertises a product or “training program” that claims it can solve all your problems quickly and cheaply? Even if I were to back a dump truck filled with Applied Animal Behavior Journals into their yards showing the decades of proof that these “quick fix” claims are misrepresentation at the best and outright lies at the worst, many completely rational people would think it reasonable to “at least try” the shock collar option. “It can’t hurt, right?”, they might say. “And if it doesn’t work, then we’ll do the hard, expensive thing next”. Unfortunately, the fact is that it does hurt, both literally and metaphorically. Use of these devices is likely to compound behavioral problems, and even result in the development of aggressive behavior in a disturbing number of cases, even when none was present before.
Even if I can understand why it’s tempting to “at least try” something that promises something that’s too good to be true, that doesn’t explain why it’s believable, maybe even appealing on some level, that routine and repetitive infliction of pain as a stimulus can heal, treat, or “fix” engrained behavioral issues. What makes it seem rational to expect that infliction of physical pain will correlate in the way we intend it? Along the same line of thought, I wonder why we would believe that the context for our justifications for using these methods can be understood, or even “forgiven” by the recipient, particularly a canine mind?
Advocates for continued use of the shock collar insist that the collars are more effective than positive reinforcement and other methods. Folks who advocate for the continued use of these devices often point to specific areas that they claim are well served by their use. The top 3 I’ve found repeated in documentation and sales literature promoting e-collar use are barking mitigation, recall, and boundary reinforcement. Objective data produced in scientific studies has shown conclusively that positive reinforcement methods are consistently more effective than the use of shock collars for these purposes, and for many other purposes also studied. In fact, there is not any evidence that shock collars are more effective than other, non-aversive methods for any legitimate purpose. The one area that shock collars and other aversive methods do show an increased effectiveness is producing increased stress and anxiety in dogs. Stress is measured in elevated cortisol levels, and the level of cortisol present in saliva is tracked in most studies, even when determination of stress level is not a primary component of the thesis. Increased anxiety and stress levels in dogs is linked to much higher rates of biting and other aggressive behaviors. This means that the increased cortisol levels produced by shock collar use shows an indirect link between shock collars and aggressive behavior. In fact, the sole use shock collars really seem to have is in intentionally producing an aggressive dog. Who would want to do such a thing? Well, dog fighters, or trainers who violate the ethical protocol of the legitimate professional dog training organizations and train dogs as weapons, to attack on command.
While increased stress and anxiety as measured in elevated cortisol levels points indirectly to an increased risk of aggression and biting in dogs exposed to shock collars, there are some very good objective studies that have investigated whether there is any direct link between shock collars and aggressive behavior. These studies clearly show that there is such a link. Any objective analysis of this subject should include a range of studies focused on unintended impacts, not just on efficacy of the technology in eliciting short term outcomes. This data is currently available, and it is conclusive. Dogs exposed to shock collars definitely show a much higher risk of developing aggressive behavior than the risk faced by dogs who have not been exposed to these devices. Any reasonable interpretation of the data makes it clear that shock collars present a significant danger to dogs’ welfare, which is why every major, reputable dog training organization in the world has banned or at the very least, limited, the use of these devices by members. Concerns for animal welfare have led many governments to pass legislation which bans the sale of these devices in their respective countries.
The fact that shock collars lead to increased risk of biting aggression make it a very reasonable for any professional dog trainer such as myself to inform my clients of the long term risks these devices pose. It is also reasonable, because Bliss Bound Hound’s primary mission is to promote the welfare of dogs in general, and of our clients’ dogs in particular, that dogs who are being subjected to ongoing use of shock collars be restricted from activities whether they might come into contact with our other clients’ dogs due to the significantly increased risk of emergent aggressive behavior. Because shock collars can cause so many problems that our dog care service will be forced to contend with, it is our policy to discontinue our services if a client feels strongly that using an e collar is a must. We don’t just slam the door of course, we try to have a conversation about the issue and explain our position, in hope that our client will seek to employ safer, effective, and more scientifically sound approaches to resolving the issue they are faced with.
It seems to me that if the science doesn’t support the use of e-collars, people must be considering their use for reasons other than a review of the data. Anecdotal or second hand information, suggestions from an ill-informed friend, advertisements promoting these products, all of these may be reasons a person might initially consider use of one of these devices. However, a comment or an ad alone are not normally enough to drive someone to try something they don’t really know much about, especially when it involves a creature we love. There must be something already present within our psyche that makes the correlation between causing harm and helping seem so reasonable to us. Before we become better informed, at some root level, it seems as if the idea that delivering electric shocks will help “teach” a new behavior just strikes us as somehow rational. Perhaps the reason for that can be found in our cultural programming.
Augustine, the ancient Roman philosopher and one of the fathers of the Catholic Church famously said that “true education begins with physical abuse”. This ethos is so deeply ingrained in the Western mind that we believe ourselves when we say “no pain, no gain” and “this is for your own good”. What did Augustine mean? He lays out the answer to that question in his famous philosophical work “Confessions”. In short, he was plagued by his belief that during a youth “misspent” attempting to answer the riddles of life, he led a close friend to join him in an early Christian cult outside the Roman Catholic Church. During this hiatus from the Church, Augustine’s friend died. At that time, the Church teaching held that those who did not embrace the Catholic Church at the time of their death went to hell. Augustine suffered a lifelong internal turmoil about what he felt to be his complicity in his friend’s eternally everlasting torment, and came to believe that the human soul was to be saved “by any means necessary”; that there was a moral imperative beyond the temporary nature of the physical realm that justified doing whatever had to be done to force people to embrace the Church so as to save the everlasting soul. Spanish priests during the Inquisition and the Hacienda system often employed gritty examples of this logic. Heretics were tortured so as to elicit them to “recant” sins and accept Jesus Christ, baptizing the victims before death to insure ascent to heaven. Native Americans were baptized, them quickly executed before they could recant the baptism with pagan tradition for the same reason, to ensure the ascent of the everlasting soul into heaven. By this logic, these acts were not murders, but acts of mercy, conducted out of love, for the salvation of the “savage” soul. Are we acting in this long tradition with our dogs? Is the idea that for our dogs to truly learn they must first suffer one that makes sense to us because of our civilizational history?
It would be easy to suggest that I’m reaching too far back in time, but our recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan illustrate how deeply engrained our patriarchal desire to set the “other” free at the end of gun continues to be, even in our modern era. The warped irony of democracy being delivered with cruise missiles was completely lost on the over 90% of American citizens who supported the wars in both Afghanistan and Iraq when they began. Of course, all of this changes in retrospect, and from our current historical vantage point it makes less sense to imagine that a region which hosts the largest number of ancient, continuously inhabited civilized cities in the world, which has little or no democratic institutional history of its own, would feel very appreciative of folks shoving our systems of thought down their throat while bombing their population. It may seem to be a reach, but I see a clear connection between this tendency to believe fervently that a violent solution must be pursued to achieve a positive outcome, even though that logic is flawed from an objective standpoint. All evidence to the contrary, we seem convinced in many things that the facts must be wrong, and that rescue from “negative” behaviors can only be delivered through “shock and awe”, and in the case of e-collars, we seem to believe that to be literally true.
If the underpinning reasons for the continued use of the shock collar are driven by our civilizational filters, it is only in the preceding context that I think I can begin to understand the appeal of the shock collar. Perhaps we are so enculturated to believe in a connection between punishment and salvation that it seems perfectly natural to us that delivering electric shocks to an animal could actually be an act of mercy.
And yet… what can be said for the use of the shock collar in non-western societies? Perhaps we are driven by instincts that reveal darker components of our nature as a species? Or perhaps the shock collar, which was developed in the context of the western mind, has simply been exported, complete with the mindset that reinforces the logic of its use.
Whatever the deeper reasons, It’s my hope that we all take time to reflect on the options we choose when it comes to caring for our pets. As we bring our dogs inside our homes and reinvent the old 1950s idea of dog ownership in the image of our modern feelings about our dogs, we have to make changes in our conception of dog care that are just as dramatic as the changes in our practice of dog ownership. Science gives us tremendous tools for learning about the effectiveness of various methods, and the data in the study of the domestic dog is improving in fantastic ways. Bliss Bound Hound was created as a resource for the modern dog owner, to help make use of the great science that’s being done in the areas of dog training, wellness, behavior and health. We’re here for all dog owners: puppies who need a great early stage social development experience, or traumatized pre and post-adoption rescue dogs who need therapeutic treatment, we’re a complete resource for the life of the dog. We believe that by re-inventing the dog care industry and focusing on comprehensive care and wellness, we can reduce costs and increase the level and quality of dog care. Working together, we can help to build a fantastic new vision of what responsible dog ownership looks like — and what it should cost. I strongly believe that that new era of dog care is within reach, and that the era of shock collars and aversive methods will soon be relegated to the dustbin of history.