Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Shock collar, freedom, and what is "best".

It's been a while.  Mostly because I've struggled with how to approach the topic we will be discussing today: shock collars.

I started using a shock collar on Tess last winter, as she approached her 2 year birthday.  I needed a tool that bridged her leash work, and total freedom, while working within the confines of where I live - ie, no where is truly safe for a young dog off leash.  There are roads, and livestock - both of which will kill a dog (the latter from the rancher shooting my dog.....).

You can work and work and train and train and train......but when you unsnap that long line, you must let go of some control to be successful. And I couldn't.  When Tess ventured more than 20 feet away I would recall her.  She soon tired of this game where every 20 seconds she had to abandon whatever she wanted and come back.  Her ultimate reward and what she values is freedom  and I was quickly teaching her that I was absolutely no fun.

When faced with the following choices:

a.  Keep her on a leash always for the rest of her life
b. Complete freedom, relying on my verbal commands for a half deaf dog to protect her from things that could kill her.
c. Use a tool, such as a shock collar, to allow her to fulfill her need of freedom, and give me some confidence that I could get her attention.

I chose C.  Because it best fulfills her needs, while balancing her safety and wellbeing.

Option B? Every dog will bite, every horse will buck, and even the best trained dog won't recall every single time instantly.

One dog in my household, one we affectionately refer to as the "perfect puppy" broke my arm when he ignored a recall and ran at me instead.  If putting a shock collar on my dog means she won't chase that rabbit across the street for 5 more feet before returning, and thus not getting hit by a car, then it's worth it.

Tess's solution to option A is to find "opportunities" for freedom, and even with extensive training, if she only got freedom when she took it, it would become a stressor and then it would turn into a problem behavior. Last fall we were rapidly approaching a point where "2 roads divide".  Were we going to go the route of no freedom, and depend on my human "perfection" to make sure she never ever ever got out and if she did hope that my "just in case" training kicked in?  Yeah right.....Or were we going to find a compromise that gave Tess what she needed, while giving me some control to insure her potential safety?  While not compromising her welfare in the process?

Some of this decision depends on the dog.  Breeding matters, what they are bred for matters, and what I have is a smart, opinionated dog.  Who loves freedom.  She loves me too, but she's bred to run and explore. Not giving her opportunity for freedom would be like punishing a lab for playing fetch. 

My partner is a hunter and uses a shock collar on his hunting dog so I was familiar with their use, and I had access to a very nice one.  Price is important.  The more expensive collars deliver the same consistent stimulation everytime.  The cheaper collars are unpredictable and sometimes the level of shock is higher or lower, even when the settings haven't changed.  I strapped the collar to my own arm first and experimented with the settings.

I was pleasantly surprised.  Levels 1-3 were less intrusive than a cell phone buzzing in my pocket.  Not painful at all - more like a buzzing/vibration.  I have no doubt that the higher levels really do feel like a shock, and hurt, but I AM NOT DOING AVERSION TRAINING, I am reinforcing commands and training she ALREADY HAS AND KNOWS and so I will not be using it at those higher levels.  The only situation I would use the higher levels is if her life was in danger.  If she's running towards a busy road and for some reason isn't coming back and it's the choice between zapping her at the highest level and grabbing her attention, or her running into the road, I know what my choice will be, even if she experiences some pain. 

I put the collar at Tess and found that she would responded (lowest level that there was some indication that she noticed something - expression of "where did that come from?") at level 2.  Taking it onto the trail, I found that if she was watching me and expecting a command (or wet from swimming), she worked at a level 1.  If she was some distance away and tracking a bird or rabbit, I may have to turn to level 3.  For this dog, if I feel the need to work at levels above a 3, it probably means that I have a training hole and I need to go back to the basics with a line for control. 

A veterinary behaviorist asked me how I was sure Tess wasn't experiencing pain from the collar?  It's a good point.  It didn't hurt me, but how can we be sure that the dog doesn't experience something different?

The answer is that we must evaluate the animals behavior and use that as an indication of pain.  Tess is a wimp.  If she even THINKS something is going to hurt, or if she is surprised she will vocalize.  Quite loudly.  She's also quite opinionated.  Going along with something "just because" is not her thing.  However, this is quite subjective and to say "she would vocalize" has a ton of arguments against it (what if something about the collar makes her not able to vocalize?) so let's use a more concrete example.

A favorite tool of veterinary behaviorist is the head collar.  I've used a head collar on Tess since she was about 4 months old and have incorporated it into a lot of our training.  I've introduced the head halter "properly", with the help of a veterinary behaviorist and numerous trainers.

What is Tess's reaction to the head collar?  She will refuse to come out of her kennel.  She will actively run away from me, refuse to make eye contact, and run with her tail tucked and back hunched.  Once on, she will work in it without complaint, but her body language before putting it on tells me and anyone else watching EXACTLY what she thinks of that particular tool.  It causes her stress.  She is a dog were really resents physical restraint and to her, the halter is represents the height of physical restraint.

What about the shock collar?  Tess runs over to me and sits with her "smile" face.  If I have it in my hand she will run along beside me doing nose touches.  She can't wait to get it on.

So which tool is causing stress, distress, and pain?  Just because by "convention" the head collar is considered "more humane" from our human point of view, do we not get to consider the dog's point of view?

Every dog is different - the German Shepherd in my household LOVES her head collar.  She responds to it like Tess responds to the shock collar.  However, if I tried to use the shock collar on the GSD, we would probably melt into a little ball just like Tess's response to the head collar.

For Tess, I think the responsible choice is the shock collar.  Stress derails training and sets up an environment where it is almost impossible to effectively learn.  Because I've been able to take the halter/collar/leash out of the equation, Tess's off leash training has taken off exponentially and I have my "dream" dog who can safely go out on the trail and condition with me.  I've been able to completely de-stress our outdoor off leash training and as a result Tess is more responsive to me and what I'm asking, and isn't worried that any moment her freedom is going to be curtailed.  I'm making the freedom work FOR me instead of AGAINST me. 

I am not so naive as to think that the shock collar is the answer to every training problem or every dog.  There are very very few tools that I think can be universally applied to every animal (the "leash" comes to mind).  I think the responsible trainer evaluates each animal individually and uses techniques that eliminate stress, aid in learning, and provides safety for the dog and handler.

I've seen the shock collar misused.  I've been so sickened by it's use that I've had to walk away and let my partner confront and handle the situation because I was past being able to form words.  However, I would argue that many other standard training tools are also misused and cause mental and physical harm to man's best friend and the use of any tool requires thoughtful application.

To those behaviorist that argue that all training should take place within the limits of positive reinforcement........what is the reinforcement category of the "gentle" leader/head collar (many different brands)?  It is a combination of positive and negative punishment.  Positive reinforcement is a powerful way of training, especially when teaching a new behavior.  And I think that it is wise to critically evaluate how you are teaching a behavior - release from pressure? (negative punishment) shaping/clicker training? (positive reinforcement) Leash corrections? (positive punishment).  It may be effective to use a combination of techniques and the combination may change as you move from teaching to reinforcing a behavior.

When I taught the sit, I taught through positive reinforcement (shaping with cookie rewards).  I reinforced with cookies (positive reinforcement).  I continue to reinforcement now (2 years later) through a combination of intermittent positive reinforcement (cookies) and positive punishment ( guiding with her collar into a sit if she does not respond to my request).

***Remember that positive punishment doesn't mean hitting or slapping or other physical violence!!!!!!  It is the addition of a stimuli that is not a reward - in this case the fact that I'm touching and manipulating her).

***Remember that positive reinforcement is adding/giving something to the animal that it finds desirable - ie cookies.  It can also be physical petting, freedom etc. The point is that it has to be something the ANIMAL - not necessarily you - find desirable.

How does this connect to Tess's off leash work?  9/10 times when she I have her recall to me, I can send her back out to play.  What if I had given her a cookie and then snapped a leash on her?  Since she values freedom over cookies, she just gave up something she considers of high value for something of a lower value.  If I do that too many times, I have just "devalued" my recall.  By using the shock collar I have been able to give her MORE positive reinforcement reward she highly values.  No wonder our training and bond have increased so dramatically in a short amount of time.  This high amount of positive reinforcement is why Tess is so happy to see that collar.  The gentle leader/Halti/holt?  For 2 years I worked like MAD but could never get the amount of positive reinforcement high enough to outweigh the positive/negative punishment for that tool, which is why our off leash work suffered.  Yes, we still use the collar on leashed walks and it's still a tool I use, it's just not necessarily the ONLY tool in my training box.

I know that this is a controversial issue/tool and it's not often that we can have an honest, open conversation between the "sides".  I've sat through too many presentations by behavior "authorities" on how anyone that uses this tool is abusive, and since hunters murder/kill animals "for fun", aren't interested how to humanely treat their dogs.  Putting my hunting connections aside, I wonder what they would think of this vet student's food processing/slaughter background?  But I digress.

From those same people that condemn all uses of shock collars I get compliments on how happy, well trained, and adjusted Tess is. 

What's your take on the issue?  Would you use a shock collar?  Under what circumstances?  Do you view them as a training tool or a last resort?  What kind of training would you do with it?  Aversion training or reinforcement only?  How do you rank it with other tools?  Does it depend on the dog? 

 My bottom line is this:
-the collar is used for reinforcement, not teaching a new behavior
-I like to wait until the dog is mostly an adult and isn't going through any type of fear behavior before introducing
-I watch the dog carefully for signs of stress and discontinue/reevaluate if necessary
-never use the collar out of anger
-Realize that timing is paramount - if you can't time a clicker and positive reinforcement consistently, AND if you don't have a plan of exactly what you WANT and can make it very black and white for the dog, it's probably not time to go to the shock collar. 
-Not every dog is a good candidate for the shock collar.


  1. I feel like you wrote my story with Kenai for me. He does the same thing with the head collar/halter before I put it on. Ducks away from eye contact, tucks tail, and evades my every move. The remote shock collar though? He begs for it. He licks it before I put it on and if I don't put it somewhere he can't get to it when I remove it he does the same thing. He LOVES it. And he's a model citizen with it on barely testing his boundaries. Mine has two tones in addition to shock, good tone and bad tone. I never used the good tone from the beginning, but the bad tone I always use to precede a shock. It took him very little time to associate the tone with a potential shock. As a result, it is a VERY rare occasion that I ever have to shock him. Just that warning tone is enough and I love that because it isn't me hurting him in any way. It allows me to utilize that brain of his for good. Its the best device I own as far as training goes. It enabled me to form trust in Kenai off-leash and build on training. I've incorporated certain whistles and arm gestures to tell him to hold up and wait on me or to come to me on the trail because of that collar. Best tool ever. My only regret is that I didn't get a fully waterproof version as Kenai has turned into quite the water lover!

  2. The tones on my color are really low pitched and I don't think that Tess can hear them which is a bummer. I totally agree with you about how it builds trust and really enhances training and relationship with the dog. I wanted to cry from absolute joy the first time I went on a walk with the collar and I saw how relaxed and responsive Tess was and I realized I really did have the dog I had always wanted - it was the use of the shock collar that allowed it to happen - we had the training, but I was missing that bridge......like you I rarely have to use it. The collar helped establish how often she should check in with me via eye contact and like you I've established some body language/arm stuff so from a distance she'll change directions etc. while we are out on a ride.

    I also think that if you have a dog off leash you have a duty to keep it from bothering anyone else you might meet on the trail - which means if we meet anyone one else I immediate call out to Tess and put her in a heel position along side my horse. I love being able to enforce the heel from horse back and show off how obdeient and responsive my dog is. I ride in an area that is "unofficially off leash" and I it's so important for me to demonstrate to the ranchers in the area that my dog is under voice control - and not the kind of voice control that involves shouting multiple commands at my dog......It's hard to complain about a dog with a recall on the first command, who then obediently heels until released and isn't allowed to molest or interfere with other humans or animals we meet. And I credit it to collar and me being willing to do what I think was the right thing by my dog.

  3. More later when not in class/on phone, but...are you confident that in the hypothetical (and hopefully never realized!) emergency situation, upping the stun would get Tess's attention/responsiveness back, versus making her panic and run faster away? (I mean this as a sincere question, not a gotcha.)

  4. Upping the stim, that should say! Autocorrect strikes again.

  5. Hannah - good point, and yes, I'm sure. Her default when something painful and scary happens is to bolt towards me as fast as possible and stay as close as possible. I've worked really really really hard with tess on that the heel position by me is the "safe zone". If she's confused and scared, she can return to that position and await further instruction. I've reinforced it and reinforced it over and over and over in a positive reinforecement manner only and it's really paid off. I have 2 examples - one with the shock collar and one without:

    With the shock collar: I've actually used a higher shock to see what happened, and situation presented itself........She saw a chicken across the road. She started to bolt towards the said chicken across the road. I turned up the collar, hit the button and her head immediately whipped around, saw me and ran towards me. I gave her a cookie. I didn't say anything, I wanted to see what would happen if she was distracted by her number one stimulus (she is a bird dog after all) and all she felt was the shock from the collar. I've made it very black and white that any stimulation from the color means look at me and see what I want. it doesn't me come, it doesn't me sit, it doesn't mean anything except "Mom has something to say." And that's all I need - partly because she's half deaf and can't triangulate my position based on sound, and partly because she's very driven and focused and can tune out visuals and sound easily, but not "touch" and at the lower levels that's exactly what the collar is - a touch.

    Without the collar: On the flip side, stuff sometimes happens so fast that there is no time to use the collar or even say something. One morning I had her at my side off leash, at the level of my front wheel while biking to school. A car pulled in front of me from the right and almost hit me. All I had time to do was to brake really hard. Tess, just from the sound of my brakes and being in tune to the fact that I had stopped quickly, and being confused by the sudden turn of events decided the best place to be was in the heel position as FAST as possible. I'm not sure if she'd had a leash on whether that situation would have turned out so well....

    So in summary, it's not just the collar - there has to be a strong obdeience foundation there as well that the collar is building on. The collar doesn't fix the relationship. Also, I think I wouldn't use the collar on a dog with fear issues. Part of Tess's issues are that she is fear-LESS. The golden retriever in the house is a "velcro dog" because the world is a very scary place. Tess is so NOT that dog and is very resilent (which is good, considering some very scary things have happened to her like being attacked by a german shepherd, badly, several times before she was a year old). Personality DEFEINITELY comes into the play when deciding which tools to use and how to use them.

  6. Thanks for the elaboration and that makes sense! I have zero issue with somebody using a shock collar (or most other tools) with the kind of thought/care/results you describe. If the dog is at least as happy and confident in and after the collar as they were before, then all is well in my world.

    But yeah, use of a collar at more than bare-minimum levels would fall into the last-resort category for me, personally. I might consider a vibration/buzz/beep as a recall/attention cue. I can't imagine a scenario where I'd use one for training/correction/proofing, though. Reasons!

    - I am crap at training with corrections. I'm not above a raised voice or a leash pop, but I've drifted awfully close to positive-only with my current project dog just because it turns out that mark-and-reward training makes more intuitive sense to me than the traditional obedience methods I was taught with previous dogs. My timing is much, much better with the marker stuff and it's much more forgiving in the particular ways that I need a method to be forgiving.

    - My older dog is extremely soft and anxious. My young dog (also just turned two; we've had her a year) is physically strong/insensitive, mentally tenacious/intense, and emotionally has a timid streak. She responds super-well to marker training and will turn herself inside out trying to learn and to give the right answer, but she can lose confidence in sometimes funny and unexpected ways. Also her breed is well-known (and designed...) to ignore aversives in pursuit of a goal. I feel like any correction that she would find meaningful would have to be given at a level that I'd find ethically untenable.

    - Logistically, it's easy for me to just carry treats when I have the dog with me and/or to come up with some other reward on the spot. I guess that if I were going to use a shock collar or some other piece of specialty gear, it would eventually become just as second-nature to have that as well/instead? But for my purposes (sport dog, and dog that needs to respond even if I can't get my hands on the collar controls right then), I need her not to be equipment-wise. (I also need her not to be treat-wise, but that hasn't been an issue for us thus far.)

    Comment break because I type too much!

  7. Luckily what we're doing is working well. The young dog has a fantastic recall, including away from her major distractions, and a fantastic drop-and-stay at a distance. A bunch of other stuff, too, but those are my top two for a barn dog and an off-leash hiking dog, so. I haven't found anything yet that I can't teach her through mark-and-reward to a reliable-enough level, and I feel like this approach gives me more useful/interesting feedback than the traditional way ever did. So I am happy. If we hit a wall on something important, I will maybe reconsider? But in meantime, I think, just not for us.

    (Though again, if someone else has the right temperament and skill set, and their dogs have the right temperament, and everyone's happy, I have no objection to that.)

    I am with Tess on the head collars! Dog gets to decide what's aversive just like, as you say, they get to pick their own reinforcement. So if she hates the head collar, I think you're very smart to go elsewhere.

    I am curious about this bit:

    "How does this connect to Tess's off leash work? 9/10 times when she I have her recall to me, I can send her back out to play. What if I had given her a cookie and then snapped a leash on her? Since she values freedom over cookies, she just gave up something she considers of high value for something of a lower value. If I do that too many times, I have just "devalued" my recall. By using the shock collar I have been able to give her MORE positive reinforcement reward she highly values."

    Maybe I'm misreading -- is there a reason you couldn't/didn't use freedom as a reward previously the same way you're doing now with the shock collar? What you're describing is a big part of how my clicker dog's recall was developed/is maintained: recall, reinforce (and sometimes incorporate a collar-grab or leash attachment/removal), release to play some more.

  8. I think that my "wall" was the fact that she couldn't hear me consistently at a distance - The realization that she was probably guessing what I wanted at least 30% of the time, and all those agility exercises where I say one thing but make my body language do something different were incredibly unfair, AND that the problem gets work the more distance or background noise is increased......that's when I decided to go with the collar. In the absence of the hearing issue I actually think I probably wouldn't have hit the wall that made me consider the collar for our simple off leash trail stuff.

    So regarding the freedom/reward/recall thing. Because of the inconsistency of her responding because of the hearing issue (it was really weird - it was obviously not a training issue but she would only recall on the first call maybe 70% of the time. But she wasn't chosing to ignore me and when she realized there was a recall she would come RACING back to me super happy. it made no sense and it was truly like I didn't exist some of the time. I couldn't figure it out until I was taught in class that the excess white/deaf connection doesn't have to happen in both years - it can just ahppen in one and I made the connection, and after watching her trying to trianguate my position based on my voice in an open field where she coudln't immediately see me and watching her completely freak out that I realized that there was a physical issue going on). Because of that issue it was more like 4 or 5 out of 10 times she would be sent back out. Now, that I know that she can "hear" me 100% of the time, she recalls 100% of the time and I'll send her back out no problem unless we are done for the day.

    Hope this made since. I'm late to class and need to run and can't reread and edit for clarity.

    1. Oh, I did misunderstand. That makes sense. Really interesting!

  9. Thinking of shock collars makes me immediatly think of Toby and how he could feel when it was on. Do you leave Tess's on all the time at this point, only when you're going out?

    I feel a little mean/gleeful saying this, but I was all hoping you would try out the higher settings and report how those felt too.... >:D

  10. Hasn't.been an issue. We were using a cheaper collar and trying to do adversion training so a little different scenario.

  11. I just ran across this blog on the side bar of a different blog, but just read every word of both the post and the comments.

    I have a yellow lab who is mostly deaf. He has been his whole life but it seems to be getting worse with age. He is about 7. I tried some old fashioned obedience training, the stuff I learned when I was a teen showing in Obedience classes, and was able to teach him some basics, but when it because apparent that he couldn't hear me, it all sort of fell by the wayside. Fast forward several years and now I have 3 labs and 2 of them (him being one of them) were out of control. Mainly in the sense that the word "come" was not in their vocabulary. My mom is a lab breeder and had been telling me that training techniques have come a long ways since I was training and that I should find a class that did clicker training for my 2 boys. So I did. Well clicker training didn't work so well for my dog (the other one belongs to my OH). He would watch me because he knew I had food and he is highly motivated by food, but the clicker meant nothing to him. So the trainer suggested I use a little light. It worked just as well as the clicker did on the other dog and the training went wonderfully.

    But now here is my problem, (I'm sure you can see this coming) If he is off lead and sniffing around, that cool little light doesn't mean much to him to let him know that I need him to look at me. If he can't see it, it is pointless. If he cannot take his eyes off of me then he might as well be on a leash. He will come will called but only if he can see me and see my hand signal.

    So what you have just given me is my next step. I have never been a fan of shock collars, but again my experience is archaic and the collars back then had one setting and it caused serious discomfort for the dogs. Knowing that now their are better options makes all the difference. All I want is something to let him know to look at me. Once I have his eye, he is mine.

    Thank you so much for this post. When I have more time I am going to have to go back and read some of your archives.

    1. ARgh, I hate it when I do that. "Knowing that there..."

    2. Thank you for sharing! I would absolutely be interested in how in turns out for you, please come back and comment and let us know. Regarding the collars - just FYI I'm using a Tritronics brand - not that I'm recommending that particular brand, but that's the "level" of quality I recommend. If I was buying my own (as opposed to using one that my family already owns) I would buy one that has a "high" "low" button for a certain setting. Right now, I have to turn the "wheel" up or down from 1 or 2 or 3 depending on what her arousal level is at the time and it can be clumsy to do. Better to be able to leave it at "2" at be able to hit "low" or "high" button. On my unit I do have the option of "continuous" versus a discrete stimulation button. I like that because I can work with lower levels of "shock"/stimulation if I have the continuous option and I feel like I can tailor the stimulation better, such as using a "pressure/release" message instead of just the point of stimulation. Just some things to think about when you are looking at different models.