Journal Article: Shock Collars Cause Stress and Unintended Consequences

Title:  Training dogs with help of the shock collar: short and long term behavioural effects

Authors: Matthijs B.H. Schilder, Joanne A.M. van der Borg

Published: March 25, 2004 in Applied Animal Behavior Science

General overview: The authors studied video recordings of dogs in training for police or guard use to compare behavioral responses of dogs trained with remote electronic collars (e-collars) and dogs that were trained without e-collars. The authors noted that the training protocols used for all dogs included punitive techniques such as choke or prong collars, kicks and beatings. The authors found statistically significant increases in behaviors associated with stress (tongue flicking, tucked tail posture and averted ear position) in dogs trained with the e-collars than the dogs trained without the e-collars. The authors also found that dogs trained with e-collars may associate training, the training area and their trainer with stressful stimuli, which is important because it meant that the dogs were not necessarily associating the aversive stimuli of the e-collar with the behavior that the trainer was trying to prevent.

My comments:

Especially when compared to this UK study of e-collar training, this study was not as rigorous as I might have appreciated. Although the authors had a very detailed ethogram (an inventory of behaviors or actions exhibited by an animal) to catalog the study dogs’ responses, the researchers themselves reviewed the recordings. This method is clearly susceptible to bias, because the researchers would have been to tell which dogs were being trained with a bulky e-collar and without one. I wish the researchers had an independent observer score the dog training videos according to their ethogram and performed the analysis on that data. I can’t put much stock in their comparative findings because, whether intentional or not, the researchers may have noticed stress-related behaviors in the dogs they knew had e-collars on if they presumed that exposure to an e-collar might cause increased stress in the dog.

However, I do find the conclusions that dogs trained with e-collars appeared to associate their trainer, the training area and being given commands with stressful stimuli very interesting. From my understanding, e-collars work on the principal of avoidance conditioning: a subject learns a behavior to avoid a painful stimuli.

Here’s why I think this is interesting: the author mentions that most shocks were given to dogs when they did not obey the “let go” command. Using this command as an example, the point of shocking the dog when he (most study dogs were male) did not obey the command “let go” is that the dog learns not obeying the command results in a shock. Instead, it appears that the dogs may have learned that being near the trainer, being the training yard or being given a command results in a shock. If this is true, the e-collars were not doing what they are intended to do.

I found this article to be a fascinating read also because of its commentary on training techniques and breeding standards of guard and police dogs. The description of the “harsh” training protocols is rather horrifying: dogs are taught to bite well before they are taught to “let go”, subject to beatings and kicks and show visible signs of distress just because their trainer is present. The authors comment on the dogs bred for such jobs as purposefully selected to be highly excitable, temperamental and with low biting thresholds. It made me question the ethicalness of using dogs for police or guard work, for both the quality of life of the dog and the safety of communities within which these dogs work and reside.

This article was discussed, in great detail, on Dr. Sophia Yin’s blog.

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