In the dog training community, very few topics will solicit more debate than remote training collars. Commonly referred to as shock collars, and e-collars. This type of collar gives an electrical shock when a button on the remote is pressed. These collars typically have other functions such as vibration and tone. There is another variation of these collars that do not require a remote, instead the collar is paired with a wire buried in the ground which is used to train dogs to not leave the yard, also known as perimeter training. This is often referred to as invisible fence. There are also collars that respond to sound used to eliminate or reduce barking.
Trainers often either love or loathe e-collars with few trainers falling in the middle. Opponents of e-collars typically claim that e-collars are abusive and unnecessary. Those trainers against e-collars are often, if not always positive reinforcement only trainers. Meaning they do not use compulsion in their training programs at all. Instead, they rely on treats, clickers and noninvasive training methods. Some trainers claim that shock collars can cause a dog to become fearful or even aggressive. Arguments have also been made that shock collars or any training method that causes discomfort will negatively impact the relationship between owner and dog. Animal advocacy groups have claimed that e-collars can malfunction, cause burns and other permanent physical damage.
The proponents of e-collars claim that they are invaluable for off leash training and are a reliable training device if used properly. Many e-collar trainers claim that e-collars give them more ability to train in real world scenarios when a leash just isn’t realistic. Proponents also cite that shock collars do not cause burns, or other physical damage to a dog.
My Opinion on E-collars
I do often use e-collars, but I do not believe that these collars should be used by anyone other than experienced dog trainers. I also feel strongly that all necessary groundwork training should be completed and proofed before an e-collar should even be considered. I do not in anyway condone the e-collar being used on an untrained dog. I also do not believe that an e-collar needs to be used at higher levels. When I use an e-collar, I am not attempting to cause pain, I am simply looking for an ear flick (the dog to move the ear showing that they felt something) or other indication that the dog felt something. If the dog jumps, whines or shows other signs of discomfort, the collar setting is too high.
While I use e-collars often in my training programs, I understand that some dogs simply cannot handle an e-collar regardless of how low the setting or how careful the introduction of the collar is made. As far as the claims about physical harm caused by an e-collar, in over 10 years of using an e-collar, I have never seen burns or any other physical damage caused by an e-collar. Once I saw a dog’s fur become discolored because an owner didn’t remove the collar as directed. I have read accounts about irritation caused by the nickel plated prongs coming in contact with a dog’s skin, but have never seen this personally. None of these accounts though reached even remotely close to the damage that some anti-ecollar trainers and animal advocacy groups have claimed.
I have though seen damage done by harnesses, choke collars, flat collars, and head harnesses. I have seen trachea damage from a dog’s constant pulling on flat collars and I have seen trachea damage caused by owners over correcting with choke collars. I have seen harnesses rub dogs raw where the front legs meet the chest. I have seen muscle damage from a dog pulling too hard on a head harness. Not to mention sores on muzzles from head harnesses.
Can an e-collar cause pain, stress, neurotic behavior and increased aggression? Absolutely, but with a major caveat, E-collars are like almost any training method, in that if used incorrectly they can cause harm. keep in mind though, the harm done by incorrect e-collar training is far more often the creation of anxiety and fear more than physical harm. I am by no means mitigating the real harm that e-collars can cause, I am simply explaining that more often than not, the damage is psychological not physical.
So, why do I use e-collars even though I just said that can negatively impact a dog?
There is one simple truth about dog training, positive reinforcement training alone is not effective enough to ensure off leash obedience in highly distracting situations. A dog that really wants to chase a squirrel for miles through the woods will most likely not turn away from that squirrel for a treat. Proper training and the use of an e-collar can absolutely be used to train in this situation. The ability to “reach out and touch” a dog in highly distracting situations is when an e-collar shines, if used correctly.
A dog that hasn’t perfected off leash obedience isn’t truly trained. I do not see obedience as a trick, I see it as a way to ensure a dog’s safety at all times. Many owners don’t see the importance of off leash work until they really need it. Like in the above example or if a dog gets out the front door and is about to be hit by a car. This is when the obedience is needed the most. These are scenarios that just can’t be trained for on leash and typically where a pure positive reinforcement training program falls short, those real world scenarios.
To conclude, e-collars are a viable training method, once the proper training on-leash through positive reinforcement has been perfected. E-collars should never be the first step of a training program. Also, only professional trainers knowledgeable about e-collar training should ever implement an e-collar training program. In addition, e-collars should not be used to solicit pain, but should be used to nudge or refocus a dog on the handler and to a positive reinforcer. Lastly, not all dogs can handle e-collar training especially already neurotic, anxious or aggressive dogs. Please remember, e-collars should never be used to address aggression, as it most likely will cause aggression to worsen.