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There is a trainer I know who posts a lot of short videos of her own dogs and dogs owned by clients of her board-and-train business. The dogs always look very well behaved and lots of people leave complimentary comments on these posts.
I’ve never seen a comment mentioning the shock collars that every one of the dogs wears. (Or the shock collar combined with a choke chain or pinch collar. Always the shock collar, and often the second pain-inducing collar, too.)
Again, judging by the comments, no one seems to be bothered by the subtle signs of stress and anxiety the dogs in training display. If the dog is “behaving,” the trainer never raises her voice, and the dog’s tail wags at some point, it all looks good to most people (apparently).
Now, it could be that some people DO comment or ask questions about the collars and the trainer deletes them. I would put money on a different possibility, though; I’m pretty sure that this trainer so thoroughly believes in and relies upon the collars that if someone DID comment, she would strongly defend their use.
Quick-fix methods can be seductive, but…
In general, I try to keep WDJ as free as possible from negative appraisals of training techniques and gear that we don’t support. I’d rather that we talk about the many reasons we advocate for the techniques and gear that we love. But I worry sometimes that many people can’t tell the difference between what we would call dog-friendly training and training that’s focused on quick, telegenic results.
I know that quick-fix methods are seductive: “I sent her an unmanageable dog who barked at the door, jumped on everyone, and couldn’t be walked on leash, and two weeks later, now look at him! He’s calm and I can walk him without being dragged down the street!”
But my question is, at what cost? What was that dog’s total experience? A dramatic transformation does not happen that quickly without a certain amount of pain and discomfort and lack of initial comprehension.
Note that I’m not talking about the use of a shock collar to deal with a specific behavior that the owner or training has been unable to stop in any other way, something that may well shorten the life of the dog if the behavior is unchecked, such as taking off after animals (not responding to a recall cue off-leash) or failing to respond to a “leave it” cue in rattlesnake country. That’s a separate debate we could have. But what I’m talking about here is the use of a shock collar to teach dogs to perform every sort of sit, down, stay, come, go to your bed, every-day type of behaviors – the same behaviors we can teach 8-week-old puppies to do on cue with a handful of cookies.
Now, I have to add that this trainer is skilled and experienced. I don’t see the kind of obvious fear that an unskilled force-based trainer induces in his clients’ dogs – the videos posted on social media don’t show dogs who are overtly cringing or flinching. They do show dogs who display more subtle signs of stress: licking their lips, ears back, tucked tails, yawning. In a few videos, it takes a sharp eye, but you can see the reaction a few dogs make when they have hesitated to perform the requested behavior and are being shocked: a long blink or a momentary grimace before they perform the behavior they have been asked for. You can see it, but only if you know what to look for.
I bet her clients are genuinely happy with the results – pleased to discover that their dogs are capable of being calm and compliant and have learned a few behaviors on cue.
Dangers of using shock collars
There is no denying that in the hands of an experienced trainer – an even-tempered person with superior skills at observing body language and good timing – collars that shock or apply painful pressure to the dog’s neck can teach a dog to perform certain behaviors (in order not to suffer a painful consequence) in fairly short order, and without the appearance of violence. But this sort of training is anathema to me, and to most “positive only” trainers, for many reasons. Here are just a few:
- Training methods that use pain can emotionally scar some dogs. Dogs may learn to perform certain behaviors in order to avoid pain, but many lose trust and interest in having a loving relationship with humans.
- There are certain dogs who respond to pain with aggression. You can’t always predict which dogs this will be, but the odds are higher with dogs who are fearful and those who possess more than the average amount of self-preservation instincts. I would argue that from their point of view this constitutes simple self-defense. But the pain-based trainer will respond to the dog’s aggression with greater and greater pain, because if the dog’s aggression successfully (from the dog’s view) ends the training session, the trainer will fail, so the trainer will feel compelled to increase the pain until the dog “submits.” Unfortunately, if the dog’s aggression escalates enough, at some point the trainer is likely to inform the owner that the dog is dangerous and defective and the dog usually ends up dead – euthanized for behavior that was introduced in response to the training method.
- While the trainer might have good timing, observation skills, and judgment, few owners do. When the dog is sent home with his new shock collar and the remote control is now in the hands of his much-less experienced owner, it’s inevitable that the collar will be activated at inappropriate times: when the dog tried to do the wanted behavior but the owner didn’t recognize it as such, after the dog had stopped doing the unwanted behavior but the owner’s timing was delayed, when the owner is angry at the dog for perceived misbehavior, and so on. As the “corrections” make less and less sense to the dog, and he fails to clearly see what behaviors work to stop the pain and which don’t, his “training” will deteriorate – and so will the relationship between the dog and his owner.
In my view, the introduction of a button that is pressed to cause discomfort that will increase compliance from another living being – just this, alone – would indicate to me that the button-presser should spend his or her time with a stuffed or electronic toy dog rather than a thinking, feeling being of another species.
Again, I don’t like to discuss training methods that we would never promote, but I’m not sure that novice dog people are ever told about the potential for harm that quick-fix tools like shock collars can cause. And when a dog owner with an unruly dog sees the “before and after” videos, many happily sign on, without being informed about the potential for fallout. They probably haven’t been told up front that the dog’s seeming calmness and compliance comes with a remote control – one that they will have to learn to utilize in order to maintain those behaviors. Were they asked if they are willing to continue to hurt their dogs into the indefinite future? Or have their dogs learn to associate them with the pain?
The goal of the kind of dog training we describe in WDJ – dog-friendly training, positive-reinforcement-based training, fear-free training, call it whatever you want – is to cultivate communication with and cooperation from our dogs, not just assert control through superior strength or power. Communication and cooperation with other beings is most soundly built on a foundation of mutual comprehension – and this takes a little bit of time! But if the process of learning about each other is rewarding and enjoyable for both parties (canine and human), the bond between them will be strong, even if communication breaks down at times.
Let’s talk about it
*Please note that this place on the WDJ website – the blog spot – is where my personal thoughts are posted. The word “blog” is short for “web log”; it came into being to describe the sort of sites that were devoted to journaling and other personal posts. This isn’t an “article” about the evils of shock collars; it’s where I am trying to work out my personal discomfort with both the use of the tools and the general public’s seeming inability to detect or understand the potential for quite serious fallout from their use and misuse.
Trainers: Do you have personal experience with using shock collars for training garden-variety behaviors? (Let’s confine the discussion to this.) Do you have experience working with dogs who were shocked by different trainers or owners before you were consulted? If so, what can you tell us about these experiences?
Owners: Have you paid someone to train your dog with one of these devices? Were you told up-front that a shock collar would be used on your dog? What has your experience been? Has your dog seemed different in any way?
I don’t participate in competitive dog sports or obedience trials, but I do love watching dogs and their handlers having fun, and appreciate how much time it takes on both sides to become proficient. While progressive participants focus on teaching dog sports in a humane way, there is still a tendency amongst many in the sport, obedience and companion dog world, to focus on gaining compliance at all costs, which usually involves a certain degree of negative reinforcement and positive punishment.
The word ‘obedience’ has negative connotations partly because the training methods used to gain compliance have traditionally been very harsh, and while there has been an effort in the last twenty years to move away from compulsion methods both in the companion and working dog world, compulsion is still widely used in both. But how did obedience training evolve from a set of working and show dog rules to what we use today and why is it so difficult for some people to move towards a kinder way of teaching? To understand the foundations of obedience training, we have to go back to the 18th century.
Beginning in England in the late 1700s, informal dog competitions were held at county fairs. By the 1800s, dog ‘shows’ for hunting breeds were held in local taverns and in 1891 Charles Crufts, a general manager for a popular dog biscuit manufacturer, founded what was to become the largest dog show in the world. With 22,000 dogs competing for Best in Show at Crufts, it is imperative that all dogs behave well in and out of the show ring.
The practice of formally training dogs, however, did not become main stream until the 1920’s thanks to a German Shepherd called Rin Tin Tin. Americans of all ages were transfixed as Rin Tin Tin entertained and amazed them. The fearless dog, found in the French trenches in WWI by an American soldier, was brought back to the United States and thrilled movie and TV audiences with his ability to jump great heights and save the day. In fact Rin Tin Tin became so famous he was credited with saving Warner Brothers Studios from bankruptcy and by the time of his death was one of the biggest stars in Hollywood.
But the popularity of Rin Tin Tin was soon to be surpassed by a rough coated collie called Lassie. For fifty years audiences fell in love with this beautiful, obedient dog, who was so devoted to her little boy, she would travel miles and endure great hardship to get to him. It was the first time that any focus was put on the human/animal bond.
While these canine TV stars were showing audiences all over the world how smart dogs could be, a military and police dog trainer, Colonel Conrad Most, laid out an understanding of operant conditioning concepts such as primary and secondary reinforcement, shaping, fading and chaining. He was followed by another high profile military dog trainer called William Koehler. As the head animal trainer for Walt Disney Studios, Koehler popularized the trend of obedience training dogs and used methods designed to ‘improve attentiveness and off-leash control.’
But like most military dog trainers, the Koehler method of training was based largely on the principles of negative reinforcement and positive punishment. Koehler believed that praise should be given for good behavior but the dog should be punished for being disobedient. In operant conditioning, ‘negative reinforcement occurs when the frequency of a response increases if an aversive event is removed immediately after the response has been performed.’ An example of negative reinforcement in dog training is the use of the “choke chain”. After experiencing unpleasant yanks on the chain, many dogs work hard to avoid it. Koehler applied corrections with choke chains to turn a dog round quickly or to stop dogs from pulling. Unfortunately the ‘yank and crank ‘em style’ is still practiced extensively today, both in companion and working dog training.
Modern day dog trainers might not agree with many of the methods utilized by Most and Koehler, but their contributions certainly made training dogs more mainstream. Fortunately their methods were challenged by vet behaviorists and trainers such as Dr. Ian Dunbar and Karen Pryor, who are widely credited as being game changers in the dog training industry. Then of course came the TV dog trainers – Barbara Woodhouse in the UK and Ian Dunbar in the USA and UK, who paved the way for other trainers to take the TV dog training show concept to new levels of popularity. It’s Me or the Dog with yours truly and The Dog Whisperer with Cesar Millan, showed two very different styles of training that created a clear divide in the dog training world.
Most and Koehler were by all accounts excellent trainers but they failed in one very important way. They did not look at obedience from a dog’s point of view. Handlers that still utilize their training methods, tend to focus on honing their techniques, learning the laws of operant and classical conditioning, working on reinforcement schedules and learning how to implement punishment effectively. You only have to watch competitive obedience to see their legacy at work. But a dog’s emotional well-being should not be ignored, and fortunately, even those who compete in obedience trials, are beginning to teach their dogs in a more humane way.
Whether dogs are trained to work, show, compete or merely fulfill the role of canine companion, modern dog training is now moving away from obedience at all costs. The very word ‘obedience’ is being replaced with words such as cooperation, collaboration, team work and assistance. These words move people away from the idea of having dogs obey at all costs, to consider the whole dog. Training should help promote confidence and self-control in our dogs while gaining the cooperation we want without the need to dominate or intimidate. Thankfully obedience is soon becoming a word of the past as we move into a more enlightened time of learning and discovery.
Even dogs who aren’t natural retrievers can learn to play this game.
Despite the popularity of fetch, it’s not always easy to get cooperation from our canines. There are four basic steps to teaching your dog to play this game, as well as ways to address challenges, including dogs who want you do to the fetching, dogs who prefer keep-away, dogs who won’t drop the ball, and dogs who get so excited that they jump on and nip you.
A few dogs are really good at fetch (and some will even play it by themselves). All you have to do is find a likely object—a ball, a stick, a pine cone—throw it and enjoy the fun of a good game with your dog. If you have one of these dogs, you can give her lots of exercise and she will, quite literally, consider you the best game in town. For the rest of us, there are ways to teach a dog to fetch so that you can both enjoy playing it.
How old is your tail-wagging bundle of joy in human years? According to the well-known ”rule of paw,” one dog year is the equivalent of 7 years. Now scientists say it’s wrong. Dogs are much older than we think, and researchers devised a more accurate formula to calculate a dog’s age based on the chemical changes in the DNA as organisms grow old.
POSITIONING THEMSELVES FOR REINFORCEMENT First off, sorry. The title was designed to get your attention. We cannot forget about stress and anxiety but rather than focus on those conditions we assume a dog is experiencing, let’s get down to the business of behavior. It has been important that people have been encouraged to […]
This is the most basic heeling game that I work with my own dogs, and I work it a lot. For life.
Every move is followed by its opposite. So….hard control to the inside (left pivot) is followed by a fast spin the opposite way (effectively a right or about turn).
There is often a side step as I transition from the driving direction (clockwise) to the control direction (counter clockwise). That sidestep cues him to switch to control and get ready.
I am giving him a ton of hand help to keep his feet on the ground and his head high when he pivots to the left and then again to push and drive forward to the right. In general, dogs that leap on left turns/left pivots are doing so because fine muscle control is hard for them, so I’m pushing that issue and letting his body practice the movement before I ask him to do it for himself.
While scientists are trying to find a vaccine for COVID-19, the rabies virus continues to kill 59,000 people every year. But unlike COVID, a vaccine has existed for more than a century. Vaccinating dogs can stop the spread to humans, but systemic challenges make that easier said that done. In a new study, scientists where grassroots campaigns to stop rabies work — and where they need to be coupled with large-scale efforts.
Researchers have found that dogs adapt their communicative strategies to their environment and that owner behavior influences communicative effort and success. Experimental results found no evidence that dogs rely on communication history or follow the principle of least effort and suggest that owner behavior has a bigger impact on canine communication than previously thought.
Wear a Face Mask, or Not?
Question: I’m hoping you can settle a disagreement a friend and I are having about proper etiquette when walking or running with our dogs: Should we be wearing face masks?
Answer: Short answer? Yes. Do the right thing and wear a face mask when out in public. This is not a political position, it’s a public-safety issue, much like wearing seat belts and not smoking indoors in public places.
Sure, in the age of Covid-19, there are many gray areas when it comes to interpreting current health ordinances. Much depends on where we live—on our state, county and local rules. There is, however, a growing body of accepted, science-based evidence about the virus’s transmission and how that intersects with reasonable health precautions and common courtesy. So yes, we believe it’s better to err on the side of caution (and precaution), and recommend that people always wear a mask when out in public—with or without their dogs.