Dog Gone Problems is a weekly advice column by David Codr, a dog behaviorist in Omaha. David answers dog behavior questions sent in by our readers. You can reach him at email@example.com.
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Dog Gone Problems,
I am a professional retriever trainer. I use an e-collar every day in training my dogs. I'm sure you understand the importance in the timing of a correction. The e-collar is the perfect tool to correct a disobedient behavior when the dog is 150 yards or more from me.
My dogs run hard and are happy doing their jobs, and that is because they understand I will never correct them for making a mistake, but I will correct them for disobedience or lack of effort.
The e-collar can also be the worst tool in the hands of a bad-tempered trainer who doesn't understand its use.
Most retriever trainers go the great lengths to teach the dog how they will be corrected with the e-collar before they ever correct a dog's behavior with it. You never use the e-collar to teach a dog something — only to correct known behaviors.
Food for thought for you. You might want to stress in your column to seek professional advice before using an e-collar.
Shock collars — sometimes referred to as e-collars — are a dog-training tool some people and trainers use. I find the use of the term e-collar interesting, as I think it speaks to the person’s understanding that its a negative tool. E-collar sounds much more acceptable than shock collar.
Full disclosure: I used a shock collar on my faithful companion, Farley, years ago before I started working with dogs professionally.
Shock collars are an example of what is referred to as a positive punishment. It's one of the four quadrants of operant conditioning. Positive punishment sounds confusing to many people, so here is a quick summary of the four quadrants.
- Positive reinforcement: Adding something pleasant or rewarding to the dog to increase the likelihood of the dog offering that behavior again. Petting or giving a treat after a dog does something you like are examples of positive reinforcement.
- Negative punishment: Removing or delaying something to decrease an unwanted behavior. Freezing when a dog jumps up on you or leaving the room when a dog barks at you for attention are examples of negative punishment.
- Positive punishment: Adding something the dog finds unpleasant to decrease a behavior. Shocking a dog for barking or snapping the leash of a pulling dog is an example of a positive punishment.
- Negative reinforcement: Removing something that is causing adverse effects or that is unwanted (by the dog) to increase a desired behavior. An example would be if a dog starts to run away and the handler shocks the dog until it stops running away. The dog realizes that when it stops running away, the shock stops.
As a dog behaviorist, I frequently use two of these four options. The two I do not use are positive punishment or negative reinforcement. I have found that dogs do not respond as well to these as they do with positive reinforcement or negative punishment. Additionally, research shows that using adverse dog training methods is linked to increased risk of aggression and fear, and are therefore often less effective.
An example of positive punishment is using a pinch or prong collar. This device has spikes that rest against the dog’s neck. When the dog pulls, a positive punishment is applied.
The problem with this is that one of the ways dogs learn is through association. So if your dog is wearing a prong collar and it pulls to get closer to a dog it finds interesting, the dog can associate the sight of the dog with the pain in their neck. So you go from having a dog who is interested in something, to having a dog who now has a negative association with that thing.
The same negative association can happen with a shock collar. If your dog is barking at someone at the distance you mentioned and you shock it, the dog can easily associate the shock or negative experience as coming from the person or thing they are barking at.
Additionally, when a dog is barking or expressing itself in many different ways (digging, jumping up, stealing things, growling), it is communicating something. I find it infinitely more helpful for rehabilitation to determine why a dog is acting out and address the root cause. If a dog is barking at sounds outside your home, it may be trying to alert you or ward them off, thinking it's a potential intruder.
If the dog is punished for expressing itself this way, they can easily become frustrated. It may stop the symptom (barking), but I have found it often causes the dog to find other ways of expressing itself (marking, chewing, biting instead of warning with a growl, etc). So you may stop the symptom, but frequently do not stop the underlying cause with positive punishment.
For this reason, dog behaviorists and positive-reinforcement-based dog trainers do not use pinch, prong or e-collars.
I’ve worked with more than 4,000 dogs to date, and have never come across a situation where a pinch or prong collar is needed. My belief is that frequent need for punishment is an indication the training execution or philosophy is flawed and should be re-examined.
The only time I would use a shock collar is to stop a behavior when I have exhausted all other options and I don’t mind if the dog has a negative association. An example includes a dog who eats feces.
No one, under any circumstances, should ever use a shock collar to stop aggression. Study after study shows this will contribute to the problem.
Another reason I do not like using shock collars is because of what I have observed through my Dalmatian, Farley. When I touch him unexpectedly now, he often jolts. I have read a few studies that show a coloration between the constant current emitted from the collar that runs through the dog’s body to the jolting behavior, even years later. Although the studies are new and not conclusive, I agree with their hypothesis and regret using it each time I see this reaction in poor Farley. That shock from years ago is reverberating more than a decade later.
This is certainly a point of contention between dog trainers all over. But I am a firm believer that the ends do not justify the means. I don’t want my dogs to obey because they fear something. I want them to understand and be motivated by what I want. I accomplish this by creating situations where they learn that doing what I want is rewarded. When they offer other behaviors, they are either not rewarded or nothing happens. After all, the title is dog trainer, not dog punisher.
Good luck and remember — everything you do trains your dog. Only sometimes you mean it.