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April 26, 2010

I wanted to let everyone know that plans for my Be the Change idea are underway, and I’ve taken your concerns and questions to heart in how the coalition structures educational and giveaway ideas. If all goes well, we may be ready to roll out officially in the next 4-6 weeks. Since that’s a bit down the road, though, I wanted to write about my sense of these issues.

Intent in Dog Training

I absolutely agree that the intent of the person matters.

At the same time, many people turn to more punitive dog training methods without fully understanding the strategy or the possible ramifications. Maybe they’ve seen it on TV. Maybe someone they trust recommended it. Maybe they haven’t had to train a dog in a LONG time and don’t know that things have changed.

I plan to write about it more later, but for now let me just say that I’ve had THREE separate friends ask me in the last 6 weeks or so about using a shock collar. In most cases, someone else has recommended they go the shock route, and they either call or email me, which gives me a chance to weigh in and offer ideas and perspective.

These are people I like, trust, respect … and with whom I’ve done side-by-side volunteer work in a couple different arenas. In other words, these are people who, in general, share the same worldview and values.

And, yet … frustration drives them toward shock collars.

(I’d also argue that their expectations of their dog’s current capabilities based on age, breed, or amount of training don’t align with reality, but that’s a discussion for another day.)

So, can I impact people who knowingly and with a true intent use punishment or harsh methods with their dogs? Probably not. I don’t intend to engage that demographic.

Can I maybe get some alternative information out there and try to raise awareness among other people? I hope so.

Blaming the Tool

While I LOVE a good analogy, being the literary girl that I am, there is a big difference to me between a shoe someone wears while kicking a dog and any kind of pain-inducing dog collar.

The shoe has another purpose.

A dog collar designed to hurt, surprise, or startle a dog does not. (And, yes, having a fearful dog has greatly changed my thinking on this.)

Indeed, any dog training tool can be misused. That’s why we’re working to find dog training partners so that anyone who receives one of our humane collar prizes also has access to professional help and instruction on their use.

Slip Lead Here, Choke Collar There

Honestly, I have no issue with slip-style leads being used in the vast majority of performance dog scenarios — conformation, agility, etc.

In fact, we own a British-style slip lead (made from rope). It’s just SO much easier to lasso Lilly before or after an agility run this way.

So, yes … there is a vast difference between someone who knows what’s what using a slip collar vs. someone who only sees it’s “choking” potential.

That said. I’ve actually stopped using Lilly’s slip leash in public, unless we’re in an agility setting because few people get/see/understand the nuance there, and I don’t want people who see me and Lilly in public to think it’s one thing when it’s something else entirely.

My Friends Who Shock

I’ll be clear about this. I indeed do have friends — yes, friends … people I like and respect — who use shock collars. I do. Sometimes it’s for field training of hunting dogs. Sometimes it’s an insurance policy against rattlesnake bites or dangerous encounters with wildlife.

In some cases, it’s a bit like religion or politics where it’s better to agree to disagree. In other cases, I know someone has:

  • The scientific and dog training knowledge
  • The dexterity and timing
  • The temperament to use one well

Knowing what I know about how FRUSTRATING some of these dog training issues can be, I’m fairly confident in saying that few people have this combination that, in my mind, at least, sets up situations where shock collars have the potential to be used as humanely as possible.

Still … I think getting shock collars out of the hands of even a few people is worth it.

My One Shocking Experience

I’ve written before about my ONE experience with using a shock to break a bad habit in a dog. If you’d rather not click through, his name was Cody. He’d been returned a couple of times to the shelter for jumping even 6 foot fences. He continued his wayward ways with us.

We ran a “hot” wire across the top of the fence because he had to hook his elbows first to clear it. He took one shock to the armpits and NEVER jumped the fence again. Maybe I was lucky. It was a long time ago before I really knew anything really about dog training.

When Lilly became a creative escape artist as a youngster, we went a totally different way to break that habit, including providing enough at-home adventures so that she didn’t go off seeking her own fun.

(If you’re wondering, I’m no fan of invisible fences and the shock collars that go with those because I know too many dogs who take the hit and keep on running and because they don’t keep out other dogs. In our rural area, there are a number of roaming, marauding dogs, and I’d rather they stay the heck away from my dogs. Call me old fashioned, but I like real fences.)

The Big Be the Change Question

I could have focused all my efforts on the Be the Change efforts on what I have going over on my Dog Food Dish blog for Promoting donations of pet food to community food banks or animal shelters/rescues via Dog Food Action Day is an idea with which I suspect few people would quibble.

Maybe I should have stuck to something easy and less potentially controversial.

But, when Lynn Haigh (famous for @frugaldougal and the Twitter PawPawty) asked, “What one thing would you change in the dog world, if you could … ?” saving even a few dogs from punitive collars topped my list.

About the Author Roxanne Hawn

Trained as a traditional journalist and based in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, USA, I'm a full-time freelance writer for magazines, websites, and private clients. My areas of specialty include everything in the lifestyles arena, including health and home, personal finance and other consumer interests, relationships and trends, people and business profiles ... and, of course, all things pet related.

I don't just love dogs. I need them in my life. Seriously.

  1. Sam, My observations weren’t directed at what you commented. Maybe you’re right about there still being some ignorance out there. You know we all come from our own perspective of knowledge. It’s so hard for me to imagine someone really doesn’t know about puppy mills and pet store sales these days, yet people still claim ignorance to the problem.
    Roxanne, I know smart dogs (and Lilly is one smart cookie) can have run ins with snakes, my Emma has had as well. Last year, I saw her almost step right on a rattler. But I think we sometimes underestimate their natural abilities.

  2. If you were referring to my comment, Kerri, I was talking about those who really have no idea how positive reinforcement training operates. When someone comes from a family where the dog training was always the “traditional” style or something, they may not even know what a clicker is, or that you can shape or modify behavior using rewards. So, it’s ignorance of the fact that there are other methods out there – I honestly don’t think every one knows, some of this stuff is pretty new.

    If someone willingly chooses to use a training collar when they know that there are other training options out there that can correct their issue (ex. teaching a basic recall with an e-collar before trying to actually train it), then yes, that’s laziness. But, I don’t think you can change those people’s minds. I think positive trainers can have the most impact on those who really don’t know any better.

    PS – Roxanne – I’m trying to get some more info on positive-trained obedience dogs. Will let you know if I find anything good (right now I’ve gotten some training tutorials and stuff, but what I’m really looking for is someone actually showing their dog).

  3. Kudos for taking on such an endeavor!

    As for top obedience dogs, I have friends that run in such circles. Prongs are used because it is a quick fix. The dog learns where the “safe” zone is for healing, fronts, and finishes.

    The same can be achieved by using the clicker, but a lot of these same people dismiss that because the old way always works for them.

    I have a couple of friends pushing me to get much more competitive in obedience instead of just competing for titles to prove this point. But honestly, scores are not a big thing to me. Having fun with my dog is.

  4. I’ll go out on a limb here and disagree with those who have said that shock collars are used in ignorance. I think they’re used in laziness. It takes more patience to invest time in positive training methods than it does simply shocking a dog into submission. As you can see, Roxanne, I’m not a fan of them. People know that getting shocked hurts, so it isn’t ignorance to not understand that’s negative reinforcement. I think all the way back to maybe the early 90s when my nephew was using a shock collar on his dog. I challenged him to put it on his own leg and when he did, he got rid of the collar. (Gee, those DO hurt). As far as snakes, we’ve lived in the wilds of the Ozark Mountains for 3 years now. Among the abundant wildlife we have here are at least 3 different poisonous snakes. ALL of my dogs (including the 2 large ones who are allowed to roam the property on their own), sense and make a wide birth around all snakes. I think sometimes we also don’t take into account that dogs have natural instincts we maybe do not and I don’t need a shock collar to help them with their intelligence/instinct.

  5. Yeah, I’ve heard it a couple of times, and I’ve never had anything to say back to it. I’d find it really sad if there were no top dogs that were trained using positive methods.

    On a bright note, a Rottweiler breeder on a forum I’m on is training her youngest puppy without the use of corrections. I haven’t seen a progress report in a while, but it looked to be going really well initially.

  6. I like the premise of this. The biggest thing that bothers me is how many people jump to negative reinforcement training methods before trying positive ones. (I’m really disturbed at the number of puppies that I see wearing prong collars, for instance.) Many times, it is ignorance that causes this, so, in those cases, education and an idea like this can go a long way.

    I do have an old chain collar laying around. It’s funny, because I would have NEVER purchased one, but the rescue that I got Marge from walked all their dogs on them, NOT as a means of correction but as a safety precaution (impossible to slip out). Though that’s probably a misuse since it deviates from the original (possibly physically harmful) purpose, I have to admit that in that situation, I’m totally fine with it. There are still times when I slip it on her solely out of convenience, and since I do not use corrections, it doesn’t make a difference to her.

    I have a question that maybe you know the answer to. As you probably know, prong collars are pretty much used on all top formal obedience dogs, usually in conjunction with positive stuff too. One defense that I’ve heard from obedience people is that it is impossible to train a perfect attention heel without the use of a training collar, citing the “fact” that there are no top OB dogs who were trained with exclusively positive methods. Have any info on whether there are a few of these around? It’s got to be possible to do. I think it’d be really interesting to compare/contrast dogs if there are.

  7. Not long after we rescued Buster (a GSD), we tried a shock collar. A trainer friend recommended we give it a try – but only after he trained us on how (and how not to use) it. To a degree, the collar worked. But soon, we stopped. Why? Because it didn’t work all the time, and the temptation to turn up the shock is there. Because we thought our dogs deserved something better from us than being shocked. But ultimately – because the collar wasn’t creating the training partnership we wanted with our dogs.

  8. Very well thought out and well explained. I’ve seen so many neighbors who turn to shock collars from the start to keep their dogs from running away while off leash. They don’t even try to teach using positive methods first. For them, I like to use the analogy of teaching a child to read using a shock collar – just shock him every time he makes a mistake and eventually he’ll figure out how not to make mistakes. But, he’ll probably be damaged forever.

    If you can get people like them to consider alternatives to punishment methods, it would be a HUGE accomplishment.

    While you obviously completely understand that the equipment isn’t the same as intent, the equipment can be a means to educate people.

    I like the shoe vs a pain-inducing collar contrast.

  9. I’m often, well, shocked by the people who are okay with using shock collars — including my yoga teacher! She spent several minutes before our class yesterday talking about how dogs have a larger energy field than humans (and horses even larger than dogs). All I could think about while she was talking was her admission after another class that she used “gentle” shock under some circumstances. You wouldn’t think that disrupting a dog’s energy field would be a good thing under any circumstances, would you?

  10. Great points Roxanne and good for you for reaching for the stars! I agree that there are too many people out there who just have no knowledge of what using methods like shock and pinch collars really are. A campaign like this should certainly be directed at them, not the die-hard old-school devotees of out-of-date training methods. Hopefully you can open some people’s eyes. 🙂

  11. Shock collars don’t always work for snake aversion either, and there positive ways to train that, too.
    My frustration with this is that the shock collar trainers now appeal to the general public with euphemistic terminology. In one Fred Hassen video, he likens the Sit Means Sit collar to a clicker, for gosh sake. Not even close. Why should a dog have to get shocked to learn targeting. He probably didn’t even notice the slight hesitation in the dog on each trial, but I did. My dogs target with joy!!!! Why? Because the only thing they got was a click – not a “stim” (More euphemism).
    If Wales can ban these things, so can we.

  12. Some interesting thoughts here. I’m far from a shock collar supporter, but I have taken some heat for saying that they might have a purpose in some applications, such as snake aversion.

    Unfortunately with “trainers” out there using them for simple obedience and/or aggression some get the idea that they are a high-tech quick fix rather than really a throwback to older and more punitive methods.

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