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.