Editor’s note: To maintain objectivity, our writers cover both sides of certain subject matter. Outward Hound does not endorse the use of shock collars.
Are shock collars bad for dogs? It sounds like something out of a horror movie — shock collars for dog training! When you think of delivering an electric shock to your dog’s neck, you probably think of some of those thriller movies like “Marathon Man,” where they torture the protagonist into compliance.
You might be thinking that there’s nothing good that could come from these so-called shock collars — also known as e-collars — but as with everything else, there are both pros and cons to these kinds of training methods.
Let’s take a look at when you might want to use a shock collar and what some of the drawbacks are.
Are Shock Collars Bad for Dogs? What are Shock Collars Exactly?
Shock collars are also known as dog training collars, e-collars, or electronic collars. These training devices work by first giving your dog a warning beep or vibration, which is followed by a remote shock if he doesn’t stop the bad behavior.
E-collars are probably most commonly used in conjunction with electronic fencing that activates the collar, which delivers a shock at the collar’s contact points when your dog crosses the fence boundaries. The shock level your dog receives ranges from a tickling sensation to a more painful shock.
The idea behind the warning is that your dog will learn to associate the beep with the shock, and he’ll stop the bad behavior before a shock is necessary.
While many dog owners are appalled at the idea of shocking their dogs, these collars – when used correctly – can actually be an effective behavior modification tool.
Why Are They Used?
Shock collars can also be quite gentle if they are set up appropriately. While it is an aversive training method that uses negative reinforcement, it can be useful for dogs who are resistant to other methods for reducing their undesirable behavior. For dogs who routinely like to leave the yard and roam the neighborhood, the use of shock collars can even save their lives.
The idea is that once your dog comes to understand the connection between the shock and the behavior, he will likely stop or at least not do it as much. There is a caveat here, however, because it is possible that your dog won’t associate his bad behavior with the shock. In that case, the shock collar would have little effect.
The collar can also make the situation worse. If, for example, your dog is acting badly because of fear, the shock collar could make him more fearful and cause his behavior to get worse, not better.
That’s why you want to be very careful when using these devices. It’s a difficult decision to have to make so let’s consider the pros and cons of shock collars.
What are the Pros of Using Dog Training Collars?
Despite their bad reputation, there are a few reasons why one might choose to use an e-collar. First, it allows you to fix behavioral problems from a distance. Other types of training methods only work when you’re close to your dog, but that’s not the only time he might engage in unwanted behavior.
Electronic collars allow you to get your dog’s attention even when he’s not close. You’ve probably experienced the situation where your dog sees something and goes running wildly after it, barking his head off. You might yell, but he’s not listening.
This is when a shock collar can come in handy. It will get his attention and cause him to stop the bad behavior. This is also helpful for those dogs who don’t respond to voice commands.
Another benefit of the way shock collars work is that you don’t have to be there. When you use a dog training collar in combination with an electric fence, you can shut down those aggressive behaviors, barking, and your dog’s tendency to run through the neighborhood when you’re not around.
If you don’t address those kinds of behavioral problems, other people will, and you don’t want that to happen. Additionally, when dogs consistently show aggressive behavior, they can pose a real threat to other animals or people. That could mean you might be legally obligated to euthanize your beloved pet.
Shock collars can be effective in suppressing undesirable behaviors, however, and what’s more, they give your dog instant feedback. Another plus is that shock collar training doesn’t even require your presence to use. You can use a remote control to give your dog a gentle shock, and by doing so, he won’t associate you with negative feedback.
Finally, e-collars are affordable training tools that cost much less than the services of a professional trainer. Still, you want to remember that you really need to do more than simply suppress the behavior, so dog training may be necessary in any case.
Try Positive Training Methods FIRST
If gentle training methods and positive reinforcement simply aren’t working, you’ve might need to use something more drastic. Normally, negative reinforcement training methods are not the most desirable ways to train dogs. But with certain behaviors, you have to use effective training techniques or you are doing your pet a disservice.
It’s important to realize, however, that while a shock collar might suppress the undesirable behavior, it doesn’t address the underlying problem.
For example, many aggressive behaviors in dogs are the result of improper or incomplete socialization. To really address that problem, you would need to work with your dog to socialize him better. Additionally, your dog could react to the pain of the shock with more aggression, not less.
The Cons of Using Dog Training Collars
Okay, so we’ve seen several pros of using shock collars as a training method, but what about the cons?
As the old saying goes, you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. That is true for dog behavior just like it’s true for human behavior. As a result, you’ll want to try a humane training program first.
It’s hard for most dog owners to envision causing their best friend any kind of pain, so they typically prefer positive reinforcement methods too. E-collar training is clearly a negative reinforcement training method. As such, it’s less desirable, but what about how effective it can be?
One of the biggest cons to the use of aversive training is that it doesn’t address the underlying problem.
As mentioned above, e-collars can suppress undesirable behavior, but you really need to work with what’s causing your dog to behave badly. What’s more, there’s a potential for misuse and even abuse with e-collars.
It’s not so much that the owner will shock the dog too much, although that can happen; it’s more that since you are not there to control the electric shock frequency, automatic bark collars and electric fences can deliver too many shocks or even shock your dog unintentionally.
Reinforcing undesirable behaviors
If that happens, your dog will only become confused and may also become anxious because of it. If your dog starts to associate fear with people, objects, or situations because of the e-collar, that can create other behavioral problems.
For example, your dog could develop a fear of going outside because he is confused about when he receives a shock. He only associates it with being outside.
That is exactly the opposite of the behavior modification you were trying to achieve. Also, if you’re using electronic fences, keep in mind that the fence shocks the dog when he leaves your yard and when he returns. That can result in your dog not wanting to come home once he has gone out of the yard. This is the opposite of the desired behavior.
Because there are so many drawbacks to the use of shock collars, many animal lovers have decried them as inhumane. The potential for things to go wrong is high since you’re not always in control of the negative feedback your dog receives.
As a loving dog owner, you wouldn’t want to think about your pet being repeatedly shocked in your absence. Still, you might be wondering if there are less painful methods available, and the answer is yes. Let’s take a look at some gentler alternatives.
Alternatives to Shock Collars
There are lots of other options for behavior modification dog training. Of course, you can always work with a professional dog trainer to work through your dog’s behavior problems. This is a more effective training method for aggressive behavior or for other behaviors that need correcting when you’re around.
For those kinds of behavior problems that occur when you’re not around, there are other non-shocking types of collars. For example, vibrating collars get your dog’s attention with vibration instead of shock. These can be equally effective and are useful for deaf dogs who can’t hear voice commands or a clicker.
Another type of collar that is useful when your dog barks too much is a bark collar. Many of these emit a burst of citronella or air that catches your dog’s attention. Others work by emitting an ultrasonic sound only your dog can hear.
It’s important to note that another dog’s bark can cause your dog’s collar to trigger. It’s best not to use it when other dogs are around. Also, some high-pitched barks don’t trigger the spray collars. Spray collars would be ineffective for dogs with that kind of bark.
Still, these are much less problematic alternatives to e-collars or prong/pinch collars. If nothing else is working, you might consider these before shocking your pet.
So what’s the verdict on shock collars? Like many things, it’s complicated. Of course, positive reinforcement training methods are always preferable. But what if those aren’t working and your dog’s in danger of getting lost or creating problems that could result in the need to put him down?
In that case, a dog training collar might be an option as a last resort. If you absolutely have to use one of these collars, you want to adjust the electric current intensity to the lowest shock level to get the job done.
You want to be as gentle and as mindful as possible when using aversive training methods. It’s a good idea to only use it while you’re around to control any possible problems. You can even pretend to leave but circle back to watch what happens if your dog tries to do something bad. That way, you can be sure that your dog is not harmed by this training device.
You also want to make sure you buy a high-quality collar. A high-quality collar should work as intended and doesn’t deliver unnecessary or overly intense shocks. It’s also essential to adjust the training once your dog’s behavior has changed.