Do electric collars hurt?

A friend of mine on Facebook is having his dog snake-proofed today. The dog works in the Oregon wilderness where there are rattlesnakes, and snake-proofing ensures that the dog, upon smelling or seeing one, will go in the other direction.

The training is done with an electric collar. The collar is put on the dog, and the dog is taken on a walk where he will encounter a snake. If he goes to investigate — and my friend is certain that’s exactly what his dog will do — he is zapped with the collar. The process is repeated until the dog avoids the area as soon as he smells the snake. It’s classic avoidance training.

Okay, for the record, I support my friend’s choice. Working with rattlesnakes is potentially lethal for both handler and dog. Although a positive trainer has suggested a non-e-collar-based solution, that solution has not been tested. If it fails, the dog could die. Who wants to volunteer their dog? Hands?

I’m lucky. I live in western Washington state, and the only snake we have is the garter snake. I don’t have to make this choice. There are people in some states who find poisonous snakes in their back yards. For them, this training is much less optional.

One of the commenters to my friend’s Facebook blurb tried to assure my friend that e-collars don’t really hurt. He uses them on his dog, and he tried it on himself first. It’s just the surprise, not pain.

To which I say: balderdash. (I’d say something different, but there are children reading.)

First, lots of people do exactly what this person did: Before putting the collar on their dogs, they try it on themselves. (Around their arms. For some reason, no one ever seems to want to strap it to their necks.) Their experiences vary. Some people have to go up several levels before the collar becomes truly unpleasant. Others cannot tolerate it on the lowest settings. Dogs are the SAME way. Some clearly find it aversive even at very low levels. Some, though, don’t register even mild discomfort until several levels up.

Regardless, this is the takeaway: Your experience is not your dog’s experience. You do not get to say what is and isn’t aversive to your dog.

(Folks, I have a mouth full of cavaties, I’m sorry to say. All but one in the last ten years was filled without the use of Novocaine or other pain killer. The pain just doesn’t bother me that much. So… should the dental industry base their pain-management on my experience? I’m betting not many people would go for that. People vary. Dogs vary.)

Second, let’s be real about what an aversive is and how it works. An aversive is a stimulus that suppresses behavior. It has to be strong enough to suppress any natural desire that’s encouraging the animal to do something different. It’s highly unlikely that “surprise” would be enough to stop a dog, more or less permanently — or at least for a good long time — from doing something he really truly wants to do.

Let’s take an example of a field dog — a hunting dog — being trained for retriever field trials. A common “factor” that these dogs have to face is brush filled with thorns. However, they are supposed to persist THROUGH it, not cheat around it. (I think it’s nuts, but they didn’t ask my opinion.) The field trainer sets the dog up on a line through some brush. If the dog veers around it, he is zapped with the e-collar.

The stimulus of that e-collar has to be strong enough that, with just a few applications, the dog would rather run through blackberries than veer around them.

That ain’t surprise.

The snake breaking ain’t surprise.

I’m not going to say that the collar is, simply because of what it does, a horrible cruel thing. I don’t like them, and I don’t plan to ever use one. BUT, as I said above, I haven’t been put in a situation where my dog’s life might rely on it either.

I just want you to understand this: If the collar is effective at stopping behavior, chances are the dog isn’t having a good time. Don’t whitewash that. You may decide that the payoff is worth the choice, but don’t whitewash how the collar works. “Discomfort” and “surprise” don’t suppress behavior in a high drive dog. Period.

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5 Responses to Do electric collars hurt?

  1. Cindy M says:

    This is a tough and tricky issue. Having dealt with multiple dogs (scent hunting dogs) who have sustained rattlesnake bites….. if there IS some way to train them IN ADVANCE to avoid the sound and motion of rattlesnakes….. it’s an appealing option. Is it ideal? Hell no. Does it beat treating a dog who was on a normal exercise walk and responded to a normal hunting dog inquiry toward movement/sound and was bitten on the muzzle or leg and whose nose or leg is swelling beyond recognition and beyond the ability of his skin to contain the swelling tissue…. sometimes the benadryl liquid, penicillin, and dexamethasone cocktail don’t do the job and the dog is lost. I’ve cried those tears. Raises important questions about negative contingencies vs. positive contingencies, and research in neuroscience about these type of fear-based learning situations.

  2. Nancy says:

    Thanks for your comment. I did need to use an e-collar with one of my dogs because of cattle chasing (after we invested in double-fencing, which isn’t perfect as we found out the hard way). It has worked, and Vanya gets to continue having off-leash freedom *within* our fencing on our farm, and our neighbor’s cows are safe. But you’re right: the e-collar worked because it’s an aversive.

    For our particular dog, I believe it’s a lot less aversive than a gentle leader tightening around his muzzle (which seems to hurt a lot more than a zap from the e-collar, even though our dog doesn’t mind the GL on his muzzle when it’s loose). And it’s certainly a lot less aversive than being on a leash inside the fenced fields for the rest of his life.

    For anyone curious about these collars, Steven Lindsay’s HANDBOOK OF APPLIED DOG BEHAVIOR AND TRAINING, vol 3, has an excellent and thoughtful chapter that avoids simple generalizations. Reading that chapter helped me make my decision about what was appropriate for my particular dog, in my particular rural environment.

  3. Greta says:

    I agree it’s important not to whitewash how the collar works: by being aversive, something the dog will work to avoid. However, the ways the e-collar may be used in training are more varied and most of them do *not* actually involve the straight “learn to totally avoid” hard zap that is used in rattlesnake avoidance training; that is a rather special case.

    Rattlesnake avoidance: We want the dog to fear and avoid the rattlesnake forever. A big zap makes sense; convince the dog that going near the snake always hurts, so he should leave and go back to the handler. This isn’t about overcoming high drive, though — you would do the same training with a dog who was low drive or with one who was fixated on birds and didn’t even find the snake too interesting (bird dogs are often far more interested in specific birds than other animals, sheepdogs more interested in sheep than birds, and so on). It’s about making a great big point the first time so the dog believes it forever and ever.

    And most e-collar training is NOT supposed to work this way.

    “Traditional collar training: Includes elements of simple positive punishment, but it would not necessarily be done as a drastic “great big point.” In fact, punishment can be very successfully used with a lower-intensity aversive to get the dog to think it’s less fun to do X, and then go choose Y which is rewarded. For example, the dog might receive a moderate level “stim” (very uncomfortable, but not necessarily strikingly painful) every time he looks at a blackbird, but be allowed to retrieve when he moves toward a duck. (I’m not a field trainer — I made up that example — it might not be how it’s really done.) You wouldn’t want to use a big heavy stim for this, because you don’t want to scare the dog off hunting behaviors altogether, and it’s not life or death. I am sure this will work for very high drive dogs as one way to make it easy for them to choose the right behavior and hard to choose the wrong behavior — even though the dial is not cranked up all the way.

    Low-stim negative reinforcement training Plenty of bird dog training is done this way and it involves training the dog that he can turn off the very low stim level by choosing a behavior or obeying a cue. The trainer starts with the dial turned down very low, and then turns it up one notch at a time until she sees the dog react just a little, e.g. stop what he is doing and look perplexed. Once this level is established (which looks like an equivalent of a human hearing an unfamiliar noise or noticing a slight itch and trying to figure out where it is coming from), a behavior is elicited and when the dog does the behavior, the stim is turned off. Once the dog understands how to turn off the stim, the behavior is shaped in higher and higher distraction environments. At first the dog is escaping — the stim is turned on, and then turned off when the dog follows the cue. After that, the dog is avoiding — the stim is never turned on since the dog is following the cue promptly. For a while, if the dog doesn’t follow the cue promptly, there will be a nick — a very short burst of stim — to remind the dog that it should avoid, i.e. perform the cue promptly. When distractions get very big, yes, the dial will be turned up, and pain may or may not be inflicted depending on the dog, the trainer, the distraction… but this shouldn’t happen many times. (And, in my limited exposure, the dog isn’t necessarily feeling it a whole lot more than he felt those initial little test stims — instead, the level is higher because on those occasions when it “needs” to be turned up, the dog is higher on adrenaline and is not feeling small sensations at all anyway — this is a physiologic state that has been studied a whole lot. So the perceived discomfort may not be so great anyway.)

    This can work great with very high drive dogs, and it works through conditioning.

    After all, people say that clicker training a recall can never work with their dog because there is no food in the world that can compete with chasing a deer. And what do clicker trainers say to this? They say “but you don’t just wave food at the dog when he is chasing a deer. You teach him in low-distraction situations that it’s always rewarding to come running when called, until it is a reflex and that reflexive learning takes over even when the dog sees a deer.” We don’t claim that food can, in fact, with no training, outcompete a deer. And the same can be true with LSR- collar training — it’s not the strength of the current that “works” when there’s a deer, it’s all the prior training that produces a reflexive turn-and-run-to-handler, that can kick in even when there is a deer out there.

    Please note that I’m not advocating or attacking any of these training techniques. I’m just explaining that it’s way too simplistic to say that “we have to hurt the high drive dog dog a whole lot in order to train effectively with an e-collar.” That’s not true. Yes, absolutely, the collar works by being aversive. But there are a lot of shades of grey here.

    • Nancy says:

      Greta, thanks for those excellent explanations. I had thought that, for cattle-proofing a dog, we’d need to go with the painful rattlesnake proofing. But instead, we first used low-stim negative reinforcement training with our Vanya, to work on his recalls and leave its (cues he already knew from other training, so we changed the actual cue words). Only then did we bring the cows into the equation, and because of that low-stim foundation, when it was time to introduce the cows, he didn’t need the painful stim that rattlesnake proofing would traditionally involve.

      I see people who certainly misuse these collars, of course. But Vanya’s response to them is much less intense than his response to leash pressure or the GL pressure. When I tried the “poisoned cue” experiment, I felt I had to stop the experiment after the first round of (fairly low level) leash tugs to reinforce the new recall cue. He was far more upset and shut-down by that leash pressure than he had ever been from the stims. This doesn’t mean I’m recommending an e-collar to anyone. But it does mean that I appreciate the careful consideration that Greta gives, and that Steven Lindsay gives, to their complexities.

  4. last few days our class held a similar talk about this subject and you show something we have not covered yet, appreciate that.

    – Laura

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