I’m amazed how many tools you can buy that cause dogs pain and fear. There’s the SimpleLeash, a leash and shock collar combo that automatically shocks your dog every time the leash goes tight — that is, every time she wants to smell something, investigate a new person, or lift a leg on a tree out of leash range. Which is to say, every time she wants to be a dog. Behaviorist Patricia McConnell’s “Simply Wrong” examines a few of the many problems associated with these tools, including slick buzzwords meant to dupe well-intentioned owners into buy products that are likely to cause as many training issues as they solve.
There are now collars that shock your dog when he barks, collars that shock your dog at the press of a button for any reason you like, and mats that shock your dog when they place their paws on them. You can even get a handy-dandy Stay! Mat Wireless Crate, which shocks your dog if he gets up from the mat until he returns to it and lies down. Yeesh! If I am reincarnated as a dog, please don’t let it be to a home where I have to use one of those.
These tools are often sold to well-intentioned pet owners swayed by a variety of euphemisms — a shock is referred to as a “sensation,” a “tickle,” a “tap,” a “stimulation.” They would probably be a pretty hard sell if “shock” were used, or if you were told this tool would hurt your dog. If a dog is “man’s best friend,” we sure have a funny way of showing it.
For some dogs, these tools seem to create few unwanted side effects. Like with people, tolerance for pain varies widely among dogs, and for dogs that have a higher pain tolerance and a strong prey drive, a shock of a few seconds is easily trumped by the joy of chasing a deer — in other words, it’s worth the trouble.
For others, the side effects may be more subtle and only readily apparent to someone well-versed in reading dog body language: a succession of lip licks, yawns, and head turns, which are saying, “Please make it stop.”
For other dogs, the fallout is more readily apparent, as in the following situations:
1. Inappropriate urination
A client called me because her dog was suddenly frequently urinating in the house. After a vet confirmed that the dog was not physically ill, we discussed the times that this was most likely to happen. “He pees every time he hears a digital beeping sound,” she told me.
When the phone rang, the microphone dinged, or a timer went off, the dog would squat and pee. This behavior did not start until after the owner had begun using a shock collar to control her dog’s barking indoors. The dog associated the beeping sounds with a resulting shock — and urinated in fear at sounds that were similar to those made by his collar.
2. Fear of doorways
Another client had a 80-pound Weimeraner who bolted through the door to chase traffic, prey, or other dogs. She installed shock mats at the front and rear entries of the home to ensure safety.
After only a few shocks, the dog refused to approach the door — on-leash or off-leash — even after the scat mats were removed. She had to try to pick the dog up and carry him over the threshold just to get him to go for a walk.
3. Unwanted aggression
I worked with a Bouvier des Flandres who was reactive to visitors and my client’s grandkids. She was instructed to shock the dog for growling or nipping. The dog’s reactivity soon launched into full-blown aggression that required treatment by a veterinary behaviorist.
Another client used an electric fence to contain her friendly, socially gregarious Golden Retriever. He would rush to the fence line with a wagging tail to greet visitors, only to receive a shock. Within weeks, he was growling and barking as people approached because he associated their visit with unpleasant things and had adopted a “the best offense is a good defense” strategy.
All of these owners purchased shock tools in desperation, not knowing how to improve their dogs’ quality of life. Some were hoping for a quick fix to long-standing behavior problems. Instead, they ended up having to address the original problem and also repair the damage done by inappropriate training tools and techniques.
Meanwhile, as the number of tools used to inflict pain on dogs in the name of training increases, so do the tools available to those of us who choose to build better dogs through compassionate training techniques. (Automated tennis-ball launcher? Genius!) You have a choice in how you want to approach training your dog, but you should know that not all techniques are equal in terms of the potential for fallout and unpleasant side effects.
Moral of the story? I know there is a better way. Your dog is your partner and friend, and will gladly do what is expected of her if you only teach her what you want her to do. The truth is, it is never, ever ethical to punish your dog, if you haven’t first taught her how to stay out of trouble by teaching her.
Be proactive about preventing training problems and intervene at the first sign of an issue — dogs don’t grow out of behavior problems, they grow into them. Consulting a qualified behavior professional at the first sign of trouble will save you a lot of money, a lot of grief, and maybe the life (or at least the quality of life) of your best friend.