Q: I was planning on getting a shock collar for my dog to help with training, and was wondering if you think shock collars are humane.
My opinion on whether or not shock collars are humane depends on the type of collar you are thinking about.
A shocking type of collar is used for all sorts of training purposes. Electric fences use a shock collar, bark collars come in a variety that uses a shock (as well as a variety that sprays citronella) and then there are shock collars in which a human delivers the shock. This last type of collar is commonly used when training hunting dogs. For example, if you are training a dog that is far away from you, sometimes a shock collar is used to shape behavior in the field.
In general, I believe that electric fence shock collars and bark collars that deliver a shock are a humane form of training. With these collars, the dog has control over whether or not they receive a shock. Once the dog has figured out that if they get too close to the perimeter of the yard they will get a shock, or when they bark they get a shock, they learn to avoid the shock by changing their behavior.
Dogs can learn this very quickly. With the shock collars for barking, for example, sometimes the dog learns to not bark when they have the collar on after just one or two barks.
If you chose to use an electric fence collar or a bark collar, it is important that the dog not wear that collar all of the time. One reason is that sometimes we can see skin sores created by where the prongs of the collar rub against the skin. Also, with the bark collar, it is important that dogs have times during the day when they are allowed to bark. Barking is a normal canine behavior and it shouldn’t be inhibited all of the time.
I have tried both electric fence collars and bark collars on myself — not because I enjoy inflicting pain on myself, but because I never want to put something on a dog meant to be used as an adverse stimuli without knowing what it feels like. I just thought that would be mean.
What I can tell you is that the shock doesn’t really feel painful. I would describe the sensation as very disconcerting and unpleasant.
For the type of shock collars in which the human is pushing a button and the dog gets a shock, I have found that many people use these collars inappropriately. When this happens, it becomes inhumane to the dog. Most people are not intentionally trying to hurt their dog, but it is common for people to not know the right time to deliver a shock.
When using adverse stimuli to shape behavior, the shock needs to be given at the exact moment the unacceptable behavior is happening, and just for a short period of time. If the shock is given at the inappropriate time, you are simply confusing your dog and not achieving your training goals.
There is a lot of opportunity for the human to mess things us with this type of training collar, and only people that really know what they are doing should use this type of shock collar.
A story from the vet clinic
It is not uncommon for an animal to develop an aversion to going to the vet clinic. After all, when a patient comes to see us, we often poke them with needles, trim their claws, shine lights in their eyes and perform other obnoxious and sometimes uncomfortable procedures on them.
We try to make it up to our patients by giving lots of treats and petting, but sometimes an animal will still learn to be afraid at the clinic. This story is about when I had the opposite experience.
Michael and his dog Bubby* would come to see me a lot. Bubby had terrible allergies and would get secondary skin infections all of the time.
Bubby was a 10-year-old golden retriever. Most golden retrievers are very effusive in their attention to people, but Bubby was not like that. He was a very reserved guy, preferring to stay by his owner’s legs for most of his visits to see me.
One day, Michael brought Bubby in because one of his testicles had swollen up. When I saw Bubby that day the abnormal testicle was about the size of a softball. It was red, inflamed, and obviously very painful.
We did an emergency neuter that night and when I removed the testicle I could see pus traveling up the testicular cords into the abdomen. Bubby was very sick from his infection.
When we sent Bubby home with pain medications and antibiotics I warned Michael that Bubby could get worse. If the infection went systemically, it was possible that he could die.
Bubby responded very well to our treatments and I saw Michael and Bubby back two weeks later for his post-operative check. Bubby ran into the exam room and started to lick my face. Never before had he interacted with me like that.
At that point I knew that he realized that I was involved with taking away his pain. He knew that I helped him, and he wanted to show his appreciation in the best way a dog can, with body wagging and face licking.
I am lucky to have many dog and cat friends that visit me at the vet clinic. I am not ashamed to admit that most of those friendships have been achieved through bribery. I stuff cookies in the dog’s mouths and wave feathers on a stick to entertain the kitties.
Bubby could never be bought, which in the human world is the mark of a stand up guy. But Bubby really showed the strength of his character when he expressed gratitude after his ordeal.
Michael passed away last year, and Bubby shortly after, but I will always be thankful to them for giving me one of the coolest experiences of my life.
*Names have been changed to protect privacy.