I recently observed a dog training session at a local PetSmart. Positive reinforcement signs and methods were everywhere. The dogs are rewarded with praise and the occasional treat. So, I was surprised to see shock collars on sale in the store. I’m not picking on PetSmart. I shop there often, and I love the fact that they host adoptions from local shelters. Other pet shops sell shock collars too. To me, they seem cruel.
So, I’ve asked a few trainers and pet shop owners about them. Many comments were off-the-record; no one seems to like them–even the stores that sell them. Eric Goebelbecker, CPDT-KA and owner of Dog Spelled Forward LLC, a dog training program in Maywood, NJ, was willing to answer my questions.
Pet News and Views (PNAV): Why don’t you approve of shock collars?
Eric Goebelbecker: “Shock collars are tools that are designed to deliver an averse stimulus from a distance or at least without any effort by the human. I think this makes it very easy for someone to deliver a high rate of an aversive stimulus without any regard for side effects. My real problem with the collars is how they are sold.
“Some manufacturers and retailers sell them as a panacea for a variety of ills, playing up the high tech training aspect without explaining the high risk of fallout. It is possible to create some very serious behavior problems with these collars, if you don’t know what you are doing. Invisible fences and no bark collars also use an aversive shock to stop an unwanted behavior–such as crossing a boundary or barking.”
“In the case of the bark collar, dogs often bark because of an external stimulus such as another dog, noise, people passing by, etc. If they are repeatedly shocked when barking at these things, they may start to associate the shock with what they see. This makes what was a barking issue a serious behavior issue.”
“Concerning an invisible fence, if a dog spends a lot of time on the boundary getting shocked or even anticipating the shock, she can develop–barrier frustration–or develop the same sort of negative association the bark collar can create. Selling these items retail to an inexperienced pet owner is very irresponsible.”
“Some trainers play down the aversive aspects of the collars with euphemisms like tap, stim, and push. It may very well be possible to make the stimulus from the collar feel very light, but at the end of the day it is an electric current and they don’t really know how it feels to the dog. I’ve seen videos of trainers proudly demonstrating the same basic obedience training with shock collars that most of us train with treats and it makes me feel ill. Treats are described as a crutch, while having to shock the dog is somehow virtuous? Please.”
PNAV: Tell me a little bit about the benefits of positive reinforcement training.
Eric: “Positive reinforcement is easy. By rewarding the behaviors you want, you get a dog that happily does what you want. It’s really that simple. The techniques don’t require any special skills or tools.”
PNAV: Cesar Millan uses aversive techniques. Can you comment?
Eric: “Cesar Millan has done a good job of showing people that dogs with serious behavior problems can and should be helped. He does seem to have good handling skills, but sometimes his descriptions of canine body language would be laughable if the dogs were not in such distress.”
“Millan uses very aversive techniques and suggests a version of ‘wolf pack theory’ that is not only inaccurate in regards to dogs, but also inaccurate when used to describe wolves.”