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Let's Talk: Should People Who Use Shock Collars Even OWN Dogs?

Here's what I say: If you need to add shock to your training regimen, you should question why you have a dog.

 |  Oct 4th 2013  |   135 Contributions

When I arrived in my hometown to visit my old friend, Annie, I couldn’t wait to meet her two young Golden Retrievers. After all, I was the proud owner of a Golden Retriever pup myself; we could share stories about raising the dogs, I thought. But in no time, harsh reality set in and my dream of bonding over dogs became a nightmare.

Annie, with electronic controls in hand, introduced me to her dogs and pressed the controls when the dogs jumped up to greet me, when they inserted themselves in my son’s path, and when they wanted to go left if Annie wanted them to turn right. I had never seen a shock collar or its associated controls so it took me a few minutes to grasp what was happening.

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My son, Michael, with his puppy. I don't know who's training who here.

When I understood she was using a shock collar on her pups, I felt sick to my stomach. She was a good friend, so what were my choices here? Should I call animal control? Should I bluntly tell her my feelings? Or should I find other friends to gang up on her?

My first reaction was to leave as quickly as possible before I said something that would ruin our friendship forever. I gathered my two kids and drove away, still feeling dizzy and sick. Once we got in the car, I started to cry. And once my older child understood what was happening, she was horrified, too.

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Even deaf dogs understand the power of treats. Photo by Lisa Cohn.

The thought of shocking an animal touched off primitive feelings in me. It was our job as dog owners to love, protect, and care for our dogs, and to appreciate all the ways they love us, protect us, and boost our spirits.  

It was outrageous that Annie would choose such a negative and violent way to control her pups. After all, her dogs were good-natured, eager-to-please Golden Retrievers -- the easiest dogs in the world to train! My puppy, Hudson, had nearly house-trained himself in a few short weeks. Why would she choose to stand at a distance and shock them for doing something “bad,” instead of cuddling with them and praising them for being “good?”

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Shock collars provide negative reinforcement -- do you want your dog to be afraid of you? Boston Terrier in collar by Shutterstock

In an effort to calm myself and prevent myself from doing something I’d regret, I did a little research, and found an article, “The End of Shock Collars?” in Companion Animal Psychology. It cited two studies funded by the UK’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which said shock collars, otherwise known as e-collars, are unnecessary and also harmful to animal welfare. The studies found that the e-collar was not more effective than rewards-based training for recall and chasing. (These are the scenarios the e-collars are often recommended for.)

I also talked to John, a dog trainer who has helped train our dogs. John is a no-nonsense, well-educated, histrionic, and extreme dog lover. He’s a popular trainer and displays incredible passion about all canine-related topics. So I respected his opinion.

“Shock collars are a training tool, like any other collars,” he said. “You can hurt your dog using walkers and collars that are viewed as humane.” For example, the harness and leash I use, the Wonder Walker, could hurt a dog, if used improperly, he said. And the Gentle Leader-type training tools aren’t always gentle; they can injure dogs' necks, he said.

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Another potential hazard of shock collars: Not every invisible fence is clearly marked. Electric fence by Shutterstock

John suggests that people using shock collars first strap it to their own necks and try them out so they know how the dog feels. Second, they should understand that most e-collars come with a few settings, the lowest being a “buzz,” or sound, rather than a shock. If the dog doesn’t obey, owners can use the “higher” settings, which deliver shocks. At some point -- if the dog owner repeatedly shocks the dog -- the collars turn off to avoid hurting the dog, he said. John said that under certain circumstances, the collars are very effective, but without training, they don’t work.

So, having done my due diligence as a reporter, gathering both sides of the story -- including one from a dog trainer whom I admired -- how did I feel? 

I felt super sick to my stomach. Call me a bleeding heart, a wimp, a pacifist ...

Truth is, when the well-informed, funny and passionate-about-dogs John told me it’s okay to use the collars sometimes, I started reeling with anxiety. Lots of people would take his advice and use the collars!

I imagined myself following his suggestions, choosing to deliver a shock to my dog -- after, of course, zapping my own neck with the first shock. I couldn’t conjure up any circumstance under which I’d choose to communicate with my dog in this fashion.

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Boxer puppy in shock collar by Shutterstock

In this anxiety-ridden state, I called Annie, and, not inclined at that moment to control my tummy’s turmoil, I bluntly asked why she didn’t try to train her dog using a rewards system. After a lot of hemming, hawing, and justification (“They run into the street where it’s dangerous” and “They bother my neighbors”) it all came down to this: She was a working single mom with two children -- and two dogs. She didn’t have time to train the dogs and thought the shock collar would expedite the process. She said she mostly “buzzed” them and rarely used the shock setting.

I thought back to my encounter with Annie and her dogs. They had jumped up on me, headed right when Annie wanted them to go left, and ignored any command she uttered. I didn’t notice if  they were yelping or showing any signs of pain. To tell the truth, I was so upset I didn’t look closely. But, given Annie’s defensiveness, I suspected she resorted to the “shock” setting more often than she had suggested.

The collars, whether in buzz or shock mode, weren’t working and her dogs were running wild. So, here’s the question: If people are too busy to train their dogs, and instead resort to shock collars to speed up the process, should they be dog owners at all?

I think you know my answer. Do I have the strength to tell Annie?

What about you? How would you answer that question? Let me know your feelings about shock collars in the comments. 

About the author: Award-winning writer Lisa Cohn is co-author of the children’s picture book “Bash and Lucy Fetch Confidence,” in which a dog has lots to teach a kids’ soccer team about sports, teamwork, and life. Visit her at Bash and Lucy

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