This is worth a look. It may be tricky to wade through the all the slick marketing that some trainers and manufacturers apply in order to pull the wool over dog owners’ eyes. But the fact of the matter is that it’s really rather simple if you can look beyond their sly tactics.
Shock collars deliver an electric shock to your dog. Your dog must find this significantly aversive in order for it to effect their behavior. Otherwise, it would implement no motivation for the dog to alter their behavior. Although, sometimes a system is used where a lesser shock is conditioned as a warning system indicating an impeding stronger shock if the dog continues to fail to comply. But this is initially achieved by pairing the weaker shock with a stronger shock. An interesting factoid here is there’s a study in which researchers used electric shock collars on low settings to simulate arthritis pain, which is just a lovely kind of sensation, isn’t it? *
Some trainers go so far as to use multiple shock collars placed on multiple points on the dog’s body. The high throat and soft under-belly are favorite targets as both are quite sensitive areas. Some people will argue that the dog’s fur or hair protects the dog from the worse of it. This isn’t true. Some also argue that dog’s thick skin protects the dog from the brunt of it but this also just isn’t true if you look at the science of the matter.
Shock collar electrodes are two metal points, more narrow at the ends than at the base. They part the hair or fur in order to make direct contact with bare skin. Hair/fur offers the dog no protection from the stimuli and at times, injuries can develop on the skin due to irritation from metal on skin. This holds particularly true for collars that are worn for extended periods of time, like electric shock fence collars.
It’s a point of fact that dogs actually have thinner, more sensitive skin than humans.
“Canine skin has several layers, including an outer epidermis that is constantly being replaced and an inner dermis that contains nerves and blood vessels. Canine skin is thinner and much more sensitive than human skin.” *
“The epidermis of a dog is 3-5 cells thick however in humans it is at least 10-15 cells thick.” *
Electric shock collars are used in two ways:
The first way is positive punishment. Positive denotes the addition of a stimulus and punishment denotes the decrease of a behavior. So this would be the addition of a shock in order to decrease a behavior. An example: A dog barks and is shocked in order to decrease barking.
The second way would be negative reinforcement. Negative denotes the removal of a stimulus and reinforcement means the increase of a behavior. So the removal of prolonged shock (holding down the button to provide duration of shock) in order to increase a behavior. An example: Shocking a dog until they sit down. (Yes, the dog is often shocked until they chance upon the correct response.)
Some claim that there’s a third way but this is misleading and in my opinion, rather cruel. They claim that it can be used as a marker (a signal to denote that the desired behavior has been performed, to mark that specific behavior). Some even claim that this can serve as a “reward” to the dog.
This is accomplished by giving the dog only two choices. A weak shock for compliance, or a stronger shock for disobedience. Not much of a choice, is it? This is done mostly to try to convince people that electric shock doesn’t have to be perceived as an aversive stimuli. Again, this isn’t giving the dog much of a choice. Which would you prefer to get for the correct decision? Personally, I’d go with what hurts less. Or better yet, no electric shock at all.
Now that you know how it’s applied, let’s look at why it’s really not all that great.
Your dog has a behavior problem. Let’s say he growls at other dogs. You can shock him for this aggression but that doesn’t address why he feels the need to be aggressive towards other dogs. It doesn’t treat the cause for the aggression. The cause is merely swept under the rug while the symptoms of the underlying problem are being suppressed. Not cured, but suppressed. And for who knows how long? The reason why your dog was acting this way is still very much present and unresolved. It’s slapping a bandaid on a problem. It also doesn’t tell the dog what you want them to do instead. Wouldn’t teaching the dog an appropriate way to cope be immensely helpful? Why would you pay a professional trainer to do a half-asked job?
Not only does it not resolve the underlying issue, but dogs are associative learners. They lack our human reasoning and logic. They don’t understand how shock collars work. Your dog could very well associate the electric shocks with other dogs (or whatever else he may be near or looking at, perhaps children? Yes, it happens often) and this can serve to compound the issue or add on an entirely new issue. The fact is that most aggression is caused by fear and insecurity. Some trainers attempt to tie up these loose ends by implementing an even stronger shock to suppress the outward signs of this problem as well. What must it be like to be in your dog’s shoes? All behavioral problems have a cause that need to be addressed in order to be effectively treated.
What if your dog’s undesired behavior is due to a health problem? Will electric shock fix a slipped vertebrae? Will it balance a dog’s thyroid? Will it correct a dog’s brain chemistry? No, but you may succeed in teaching your dog that it’s not safe to let you know when they don’t feel well. Do you want your dog to hide signs of illness?
Does electric shock make a person a better teacher? If you don’t teach a dog how to perform a behavior in a way that they can understand, will shocking them clear up their confusion? Might the added stress just add to their confusion? What’s more is that shock collars will sometimes misfire, causing even more confusion. * Even the most expensive and most recommended shock collar models are known to do this. Further more, often the pain from the shock is enduring, lasting even after the dog has effected a behavior change. The punishment lasts even if the misbehavior does not. If a dog is set up for failure, will electric shock increase their odds of success? Perhaps, but why would one set a dog up to fail and then punish the dog for the human’s poor training? Why not just train better?
Does electric shock ensure safety? No, it really doesn’t. A dog can always choose to put up with the shock if the behavior they’d prefer to perform (like leaving the yard) is more reinforcing than the shock is punishing. Dogs escape their electric fences every day and are picked up by animal control, still wearing their collars. That is, if they survive traffic and other perils of running loose. Is a life worth this gamble?
Electric shock collars might be advertised as quick, easy and effective but when you delve deeper into their application and use, they’re really not the answer to anything that a health check, management and better training couldn’t accomplish without fear and pain to your dog.
* http://barksfromtheguild.wordpress.com/2012/10/25/two-shock-collar-experiments-carried-out-on-people-not-dogs/ and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5B6KHpvC-Ww