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Training Your Dog with a Shock Collar: How Will You Decide?

Updated on February 2, 2016

The Big Decision

How you train your dog, and the tools you choose, are decisions that set the tone for your life with your dog. This hub gives objective information about how dogs learn, and gives the most current information available about the best ways to train them, and how shock collars fit into that. The decision to use or not use a shock collar is one that could affect your dog's health and even survival. Choose wisely.

Shock Collars Cause Pain

If you are going to use a shock collar, the first thing you have to accept is that you will never know how much you are hurting your dog. Now wait, you say. The manual tells me just how to set the shock. I hold the collar probes to my wrist and set the output at #1 and press the button. Keep raising the number until the tingle is annoying. Start there with the dog. OR: I put the collar on the dog and start testing the shock, and choose the setting that makes the dog turn its head to try to figure out what just happened, or startle a little.

Apply common sense to the above. You are a human. You tried the collar on your wrist, not tightly around your neck with the probes properly applying pressure. Perhaps you weigh 100 - 200 lbs. Your dog probably weighs less, meaning the shock will affect him more (there are other factors as well). Plus you know the shock is coming when you press the button and you are in control of it. (Things hurt more when you aren't prepared for them.) And for the second method: you know from common sense that your dogs all experience pain differently, and that also, some are more stoic, some are more sensitive. The dog that reacts more visibly may not actually be hurt more.

So you just have to admit to yourself that you are going to administer an unknown amount of pain to your dog. Maybe you are fine with that. Let's keep going. But take note that something that sounds very scientific and objective, dialing the numbers up and picking a level based on your own subjective feelings or your observation of your dog's reaction, gives you no real information about the pain your dog will feel. I wonder what else about shock collar instructions we should take with a grain of salt?

How Dogs Learn

There's a whole lot of hoo haw out there about how we're supposed to train dogs. We need to be dominant, show them who's boss, thwart their plans to take over the household. We have to whisper to them or have secret magical powers. That's just crazy. In your heart you probably know that.

It's much simpler. Dogs, like all creatures, do what works to get them what they want. Since about 1940, humans have understood the basic processes of learning. Here's a short course in behaviorism. Behavior has consequences. Behaviors that get the creature what it wants get repeated. Behaviors that result in bad stuff happening will fade away. That's it.

If you are in control of the stuff your dog wants, you have the power to modify your dog's behavior. You've got the key to the house, the ability to open cans and bags, and the big brain. There is no way you have to hurt your dog to get them to comply with what you want.

Maybe it will help to know that people train 2-ton walruses, polar bears, lions, and alligators without devices that cause pain. They train them with food treats and play and other things they enjoy. Really! And the result of that is that many zoo and other captive wild animals no longer must be put under anesthesia to have health and wellness screenings. They get on scales to be weighed. They offer their shoulders or hips for shots. They let their mouths be examined. They take pills willingly. They have incredibly improved quality of life now that these techniques are used.

The same methods that people use to train these wild animals--animals that could run, swim, or fly away or kill you in an instant--work just great on dogs. And what people who study animals and these methods have learned, is that hurting a creature is generally a barrier to learning, and causes it not to trust you. You know that in your heart, too.

Yes, Shock Collars Cause Discomfort, Or They Wouldn't Work

Remember above where we talked about how behavior and consequences work? If a behavior is followed by something nice, the animal will repeat that behavior. If a behavior is followed by something unpleasant, the animal will do that behavior less. There is no neutral way to induce behavior. If a shock trainer says that all the collar does is tap the dog to get its attention, like a friendly tap on the shoulder, think again. The only way a tool like a shock collar can work is if it hurts, irritates, or scares the dog. If it starts off "neutral," it will never work. Why would a dog reliably stop doing something it enjoyed if it felt the equivalent of a friendly tap on the shoulder? Check out a blog post on this: It's Not Painful. It's not Scary. It Just Gets the Dog's Attention! Now it is possible to use it to cause the most discomfort to the dog at the beginning, then as the dog learns the system, you can use a different setting that only **threatens** to hurt the dog. Just as, after a rider has let the horse feel the whip, they can later just swing the whip without touching the horse and get responsive results. So, with some skill you can end up mostly **threatening** your dog instead of hurting her. Then you can feel like a real hero.

Sometimes shock trainers seek to prove that the shock doesn't hurt by putting the collar on themselves. They'll place the probes on the arm or hand. Here's a suggestion. If a shock trainer ever offers to do that, agree on the condition that they put the collar around their neck. And you get to hold the remote, set the magnitude, and administer the shock to them. You can make a game of it. You can teach the trainer a behavior. Wave your arms, push them into position, and zap them when they get it wrong. Speak a language they don't understand. Let the shock collar do the talking. You decide when to shock and how high. If they don't learn fast enough or if they try to get away from you, dial up the shock.

Good luck. Almost no shock trainer will wear the collar and put the remote in someone else's hands.

It's More Than Just a Tap

This video (using a stuffed dog) demonstrates how initial shock training sessions work, and shows graphically how long the dog is actually being shocked. Shock trainers have cute euphemisms for the shock, like a "tap," or a "stim." That makes it sound really short. But in actuality the shock may be on for long periods as the dog tries to figure out what it is supposed to do to get the shock to stop.

Shock trainers despise this movie. Some write whole blogs on how terrible it is and how I know nothing about shock training. Shrug. It is based exactly on a training sequence by a professional trainer using a shock collar in a video he published on YouTube. And you can find plenty of videos that are even more extreme--more shocks, longer duration, dogs with less of a clue of what they need to do. And these are with real dogs.

What We Know about the Effects of Shock Collars

Things that animals don't like are called aversives. Hurting or scaring an animal are both aversives. If you use an aversive when an animal is doing something you don't like, and that causes the animal to do that thing less in the future, that's called punishment. But if you use an aversive when an animal is doing something you don't like and it makes the animal stop doing that thing right then but it still does it just as much in the future, that is technically not punishment. (Yelling usually works like that.) It generally makes humans feel better because hey, the animal stopped doing whatever it was, at least for the moment. But if the animal does it just as much in the future, the animal has not been trained. It has just been hurt or scared, for no future benefit.

So the logical result of this is that someone using a shock collar needs to know exactly how high to set the shock. Too high, and you could scare the dog for life. Too low, and it may get the dog to stop for a minute, but they will continue in the future. So how do you find that exact right amount of pain? Pretty tough, with what we learned previously. Remember, we don't really know how much pain the dog is experiencing. It also can vary day by day depending on the dog's situation.

So why should you listen to me? You've got eight shock collar franchisees out there saying that training with shock is the best thing since sliced bread. How about you decide to listen to me because there is objective proof that shock collars harm dogs, and I'm going to show it to you? You can bet that the shock collar trainers are not going to show you these articles.

Why Training with Punishment is Tricky

Dogs are geniuses at noticing what is going on in the environment and making associations. They notice way more stuff than we do. So let's say you are in your front yard practicing training your dog with a shock collar. You say "Sit" and shock the dog until he sits. You don't notice that the first few times you used the shock, just before you hit the button there was a truck driving by. It is quite possible that you have just made your dog scared of trucks instead of improving his sit. This happens even more often with electronic fence collars. Whatever makes your dog run up to the fence boundary, say, a bicyclist, or the mail carrier, will soon be associated with the shock. Then the dog gets scared of people on bicycles or mail carriers.

Now what about a behavior that normally gets the dog something he likes, but you don't like the behavior. How about dumping over the trash can? For purposes of this example, let's say that you have the collar set at the perfect level; it will be highly unpleasant to the dog but won't scare him so badly that, for example, he attacks you. (This is not rhetoric, but a distinct possibility. There is evidence for many mammals that a sudden sharp pain can evoke an aggressive response. See the section about aggressive dogs.) So today you are home and in your kitchen and your dog is wearing his collar and he dumps over the trash and you shock him. Tomorrow everything is the same except you are in the other room when he dumps over the trash so you don't shock him. (And by now almost everybody knows that if you shock him later, after the deed is done, he won't associate the shock with what he did. Even if you point at the trash can or push his head into it. Dogs' intelligence just doesn't work that way.)

So anyway this happens several times. When you are there to catch him he gets shocked, and when you aren't he gets to play in garbage. Sometimes the behavior has an unpleasant consequence, and sometimes it has a pleasant consequence. Your dogs can likely learn the difference. What has he learned? Probably to not dump over the trash when you can see him. He has probably not learned that dumping over the garbage is generally bad. He has likely learned that dumping over the garbage while you are watching is bad. It could still be a lot of fun when you aren't there. In that case that's an easy problem for him to solve: wait until you are gone, then get into the garbage. For the shock collar solution to work, you have to be there watching him all the time, or have taken fairly elaborate steps to teach him that the shock can happen when you are not there. And if you were there all the time--you could just prevent him from getting in the garbage, couldn't you?

Being the Leader

You don't need to hurt your dog to be the leader. And you know what? Contrary to what the old fashioned trainers still like to say, wolves and dogs don't generally assert leadership that way either.

Did you know that the guy who wrote the seminal research on wolf pack behaviors and "alpha wolves" has retracted and corrected his original conclusions from his research? Whatever Happened to the Alpha Wolf?

  • Wolves don't form rigid hierarchical packs. They live in family groups, with a breeding pair, offspring, and maybe a couple of aunts or uncles. They don't typically have battles to gain rank in some (nonexistent) hierarchy. That whole wolfpack thing came from studying unrelated captive wolves who had been thrown together in a group in an artificial situation.
  • Dogs aren't wolves. They evolved separately a few tens of thousands of years ago. Dogs have evolved with humans and probably have lived as scavengers rather than hunters for the last ten thousand years. Feral dogs tend to form very fluid groups. You need a set group if you're going to have a rigid pecking order.
  • Dog don't think people are dogs. This is another thing that is pure common sense, but the pack theory people ignore it. Dogs are completely aware of different species. They don't think cats are dogs. They don't think turtles or horses are dogs. Why should they think humans are dogs?

(The above three points borrow heavily from Kathy Sdao's wonderful book, Plenty in Life is Free)

Whenever you read a dog trainer's insistence that you have to be the pack leader and always precede your dog out doors and eat before him, I give you permission to snicker a little bit. This person has just announced that their training methods and knowledge of dogs are WAY out of date. And their beliefs make them slaves to their dogs, not the other way around! I don't have to modify my behavior to prove anything to my dogs. My dogs go out the door in front of me when I tell them to, or stay back when I tell them to. I eat before or after them, whenever I damn well please. I'm in charge of the doors and the food and that is abundantly clear to them. (If you really wanted to emulate a wolf or even a feral dog, you would regurgitate food for your dogs. We don't see these trainers telling you to do that!)

Go ahead. Make my day.
Go ahead. Make my day.

Aggressive Dogs

Well OK, you say. I get it that with a normal dog, I don't have to hurt them to teach them to sit or shake hands. But what about aggressive dogs? We need to do something to stop that behavior. If they are dangerous we need to get through to them that the way they are acting is not OK. How better than with a shock collar?

Actually, aggressive dogs may be among the worst candidates to use a shock collar on. Most aggressive dogs are not willful, mean, or "dominant." Most are scared. Dogs who are yelling at the end of their leash are like a person screaming "Go Away! Go Away! Go Away!" Not exactly the picture of confidence. (Confident aggressive dogs tend to act more like Dirty Harry: look you in the eye and say quietly, "Go ahead, make my day.") So if your dog barks and growls, say, at other dogs whenever he comes within 20 feet of them and you use a shock collar to try to get him to stop, you are making a grave mistake. You have just fulfilled your dog's worst fear. He was scared of the other dog, and sure enough, something really bad happened. He got hurt by a shock. He will most likely be MORE scared of the dog next time. And while you may succeed in getting him to stop acting out, you have not solved the intrinsic problem, and you have probably made him more dangerous by shutting down his warning system.

Also, there is ample research that many, many species of animals respond to a sudden sharp pain, such as a shock, by biting. Doesn't that make sense? A lot more sense than that they will suddenly grow a halo and behave perfectly because someone is hurting them with electricity.

But I Need a Shock Collar to Save My Dog's Life

Many trainers who use, promote, and/or sell shock collars like to bring up dire warnings of what will happen if you don't use them to teach your dog to stay away from snakes.

On first examination, the snake thing seems possibly like an OK idea. If there were one time it might be OK to hurt your dog a little bit, it would be to teach him to stay away from something you don't have control over that might kill him, right? If only it were so simple.

First of all, if your goal is to get your dog to see a snake and run the other way immediately, you are probably going to have to do something very harsh to get that effect. A low setting of a shock collar is not going to do it. To teach your dog to fear and avoid snakes takes a sudden, painful shock, and the snake aversion trainers repeat this a number of times, sometimes over several days. The amount of aversion the dog learns is going to be related to the magnitude of the shock (as long as it is timed well. See below). But there's that problem again. Keep in mind that there are no regulations or specifications on shock collars, and they can malfunction. So when using such a large amount of shock, you'd better pray that that doesn't happen.

OK, let's say you got through that. Your dog went to Snake Camp and is now afraid of snakes. He may also be afraid of the guy who runs the camp (review the research papers above), certain types of collars, the location of the camp, and numerous sounds and odors that he was exposed to there (and you don't know what those are). This all depends on how well the trainer is able to isolate snakes as the trigger. So now you are back home. If you and your dog go to the woods and he is charging through the brush off leash at top speed, he could run right over a snake and get bitten. He didn't have time to see or smell it. So the training didn't help in a very likely snake encounter scenario.

But hang on, maybe the snake didn't bite him. It didn't strike or it missed or it didn't react at all. He then becomes aware of the snake. So let's say his training works. He backs away. But no shock is happening. As with the garbage can scenario above, where he can learn that the shock doesn't happen if you aren't there, if this happens a few times he could learn that he doesn't get hurt when he sees a snake outside of Snake Camp. Or his aversion could just fade over time. If you Google "snake aversion refresher" you will see how many major snake aversion trainers make yearly returns part of their program. But this is a double edged sword. Knowing how specifically dogs learn things, I have to wonder how many dogs learn from this repetition that they only get shocked at Snake Camp.

I'm doing my best to tell the whole truth in this piece so yes, it could possibly work. **IF** the trainer used the right level of shock. **IF** they were certain (harder than it sounds) that the shock were associated with the snake and only the snake. **IF** the dog didn't learn that he was only shocked in the presence of snakes when the collar was on. **IF** they exposed the dog to different venomous snakes in many different scenarios. **IF** the whole experience didn't ruin your dog's temperament and outlook on life. **IF** you could catch your dog as he was running away from the snake. **IF** it's OK with you to hurt your dog with such a large chance of the training doing harm or simply failing. You might be lucky for a while. But if you you make it through all the other "ifs" and live in an area where there are that many snakes, sooner or later, your dog could learn that snakes don't cause shock anymore. That's what the snake aversion trainers say themselves.

But there are two things you can teach your dog without pain that will help with snakes that will also help in all kinds of other dangerous situations. 1) Teach your dog a fabulous recall. Make sure that coming when called predicts marvelous things, and train your dog until he LOVES coming to you. 2) Teach your dog to drop into a down position on cue right where he is standing. If there is a danger between you and your dog, you don't want to call him to you. You want him to freeze right where he is. The great thing about these things is that you can teach him these behaviors in all different places, and continue to reinforce them in your life together. So you won't get the "Snake Camp" effect.

There is now a business in Tucson, AZ where dogs are taught with positive reinforcement (no shock) to notice and and avoid snakes. I hope that this business is replicated all over! That website gives more information about shock based snake avoidance trainer including videos.

Making a Decision

If you were planning to buy a car, and the only person you consulted was a Subaru salesman, what kind of car do you think he would tell you to buy? Probably not a Honda or a BMW. And for sure he wouldn't say that all the models are crappy this year and you should wait until next year. Salespeople who are on commission have a financial interest in your buying their product.

Sorry to state the obvious. But you need to apply the "obvious" to shock collars. If you search for articles that say shock collars are OK and you eliminate all the ones that are by people who sell shock collars, stores that sell shock collars, companies that make shock collars, and people who are ready to charge you for them to train their dog with a shock collar, guess what's left? Not a whole hell of a lot.

There are entire dog training franchises that use, and sell, ONE TOOL. A shock collar. The trainers know how to train one way. And you can bet that those trainers get a nice markup on all the collars that they sell to the public.

Because of the title of this article, there are probably ads running to sell you shock collars and other tools and methods based on punishment. Obviously I don't support those ads. And I want you to notice something. I am not trying to sell you ANYTHING.

But How Do I Get Him To Stop?

I can hear you asking: "OK, reinforcement sounds fine for stuff like sit and coming when called, but my dog does things like jumping on visitors and chewing my furniture. How do I get him to stop? You said above that punishment is what works to diminish behaviors."

Most dog behaviors that people find objectionable are natural dog behaviors. They are not trying to get on our nerves or take over the household. They are just doing what comes naturally to dogs. For a great book about this, read Jean Donaldson's The Culture Clash. For these types of behaviors, the best approach is to prevent the dogs from practicing the obnoxious behaviors and simultaneously be training them to do something else instead.

It's true that punishment diminishes behaviors, but punishment doesn't have to hurt or scare the dog. There is a thing called negative punishment, where you take away what the dog wants when he does the undesirable behavior. For instance, for most dogs, if every time they tried to jump on someone that person removed their attention, turned their back, or left the room, they would stop jumping. If you combine that with rewarding them for what you do want, like getting on a mat, sitting, or having all four feet on the floor, you can address that problem pretty quickly.

Teaching Sit To Greet

In this impressive video of teaching a dog to sit to greet, what we tend to notice first is the click followed by a treat, which gets the dog very quickly to start putting all four feet on the floor and/or sit instead of jumping. But also notice what the trainer is doing at the beginning, when the dog is jumping all over her. She is standing up straight and speaking to the human. She is not giving the dog her attention. Removing the thing the dog wants when he performs the undesired behavior, when paired with showing the dog what he's supposed to do, eliminates unwanted behaviors quickly as long as the people are consistent. This dog was used to getting what he wanted by jumping. He got attention. The trainer didn't give him attention for the jumping, which was probably a completely new experience for the dog, but at the same time she showed him how to get something else he wanted, food treats, for nice calm behavior. She will be able to phase out the treats after the dog gets the hang of it and give the dog what he wanted in the first place, attention, when he greets her calmly.

If your dog is engaging in dangerous behaviors such as snapping at people or biting, there is no shortcut. You need to call an experienced trainer or qualified behaviorist for help. The money you pay if you address this right away will save you money in the long run, and may save your dog's life. A good source for finding trainers who use modern scientific methods rather than force is Truly Dog Friendly Trainers. These are the people who come in and mop up after shock trainers try to "cure" aggression by hurting the dog.

Your Head or Your Heart?

Guess what? There's no difference! Your heart already tells you it's not right to hurt dogs as part of a hobby or if they do something you don't like. And you know what? There's a ton of research done on behavior modification that agrees with that! This is one of those situations where the humane answer is also has scientific backup.

This kind of decision is also known as a "no-brainer."


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