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.