Harmful collars

Some of the tools and equipment used in dog training vary widely due to various opinions and experiences by people who work with dogs. In the past, and unfortunately still today, aversive equipment is used to ‘force’, ‘correct’ or ‘punish’ dogs into doing what is required. These include (but are not limited to) the shock collar, choke chain, prong collar and citronella collar.

To understand the effect of the equipment on the animal, it is important that we understand how the equipment works. One very important question to start off with is: have you ever tried any of these pieces of equipment on your own neck?

The shock collar (also known as the electronic collar or e-collar)

Shock collars are widely advertised to serve as a deterrent, for example to stop barking or to keep your dog inside your property. Most have settings where you can set the intensity of the electric shock, and some may deliver a high-pitched sound or vibration as warning signal. The intensity can be set from a mild shock to an intense shock.

This equipment is said to be used to train dogs to refrain from unwanted behaviour; thus, if the unwanted behaviour is offered, a shock is delivered after the unwanted behaviour is performed and the unwanted behaviour will stop. Although it is stated that no physical/lasting damage is caused to the dog, have you ever wondered what is happening with regard to the emotional state of the dog? However this equipment is viewed, it stays a method of reprimand and does NOT teach the dog how to behave differently, only to stop what he is doing. In many cases the dog may find some other behaviour to replace the unwanted behaviour with, in order to not receive the shock.

Shock and spray collars are mostly justified by people using them with the following statements:

  • It will not do any lasting harm.
  • The adjustable levels allow you to control the intensity of the shock.
  • These kinds of collars are especially successful on ‘stubborn’ dogs.
  • Fast results.
  • The owner need not be present when using the shock collar to stop the dog from barking.
  • The electric current causes pain and discomfort to the dog, yes, but otherwise it would not be effective in conditioning the dog.

The statements above need to be carefully considered, as they have NO place in the training or handling of dogs. To explain, let’s use the example of using a shock collar to stop a dog from barking. By giving a shock to the dog’s neck when he barks, the natural method of communication used by the dog is altered. When a natural behaviour is withheld, the dog may become aggressive, confused, anxious, may show distress, become depressed or can even go into a total emotional shutdown – it all depends on the personality of the dog. It will require a mindset change for human handlers to be able to handle their dogs in a respectful and positive manner and without punishment.

First do no harm

With today’s research in dog behaviour, better understanding of correct training methods, ethics and the concept of ‘first do no harm’ towards our animals, there should be NO reason why a dog must receive pain in order to train him or change his behaviour. What actually happens when using pain to train a dog can be explained by looking at how dogs learn and how the shock affects the learning process.

The dog will be conditioned to a warning signal (sound or vibration), followed by a shock if he does not respond. Through this method the dog is actually being conditioned to fear the warning signal. When the dog then responds correctly, the warning signal is removed and the level of fear is reduced, thus he feels relief at the signal being removed. This conditioning is aversive as the dog will comply to avoid receiving the warning signal or the eventual shock. Contrary to what some people might think, NO learning takes place in this instance. Learning new behaviours cannot happen when punishment is used, as it suppresses the learning part of the brain. Dogs will respond to this kind of handling only because of trying to avoid the punishment.

What happens in the dog’s body?

Because punishment creates fear in the dog, the heart rate will increase and the pupils will dilate, along with various other physiological changes. The dog’s body is being prepared to handle whatever fear situation is presented, noradrenaline is released and he mentally goes into the fight/flight/freeze system to avoid danger. While in this instinctual state of mind, the ‘thinking brain’ is bypassed because the dog needs to respond instantly in order to do what he considers as protecting his own life. The only experiences the dog will receive through this are various ways of how to react when pain is inflicted.

Coming back to barking behaviour, a better way of dealing with unwanted barking is to find the reason why the dog is barking, how the barking behaviour is being reinforced, and then teaching the dog acceptable behaviour in place of the barking behaviour by use of reward-based training methods and scientifically proven behaviour modification techniques. This is but one example of how a dog CAN be handled humanely without delivering any kind of punishment or aversive method to achieve results. A qualified animal behaviour practitioner can assist in guiding you to achieve the desired results.

Prong collar and choke chain

In much the same way, other aversive tools are employed to instil pain or discomfort on a dog, but basically have similar consequences on the dog as in the case of the shock collar. Although here we find the added risk of physical damage to the body.

Prong collars and choke chains are designed to inflict pain on the dog, thereby getting the dog to ‘submit’ to requests. A common excuse for the use of these collars is: “I don’t choke my dog.” The second most popular is to call the equipment something less offensive, like a training collar and not a choke chain. Whatever name you use for these collars, they are used as an aversive tool. On these collars, the dog may quickly learn to read the signs just before the leash is going to be yanked in order to avoid whatever punishment is going to be inflicted. Whenever the handler’s arm starts rising, the dog may brace himself for what is to come. Even if you are a person who never yanks on the leash, your dog may still react to another animal or human and lunge forward, possibly causing damage to the vertebrae in the neck or the oesophagus or trachea.

What to use instead

Highly advisable is the use of a flat material collar in conjunction with the correct training techniques in order to be successful. If you have a ‘strong-willed’ dog who pulls and jumps, I would suggest a head halter along with the collar or alternatively with a harness. Rather use these instead:

  •  Dog collar
  •  H-harness
  • Step-in harness

Using these tools with the correct handling and training methods will reward you with the following results:

  • Your dog will not be at risk of experiencing fear during training.
  • When there is no fear, learning is enabled.
  • Your dog will enjoy learning and will WANT to work with you.
  • You will have a mentally balanced dog who can think through different situations.
  • Your dog will excel in obedience exercises and will be happy doing them.

Research into canine behaviour has only really started in the last two decades and the field is still relatively unexplored. However, valuable studies have shown that punishment ALWAYS has consequences. I would implore anyone to rather consider using methods that train dogs in a positive manner through the assistance of a well-educated trainer.