The Trouble with Shock Collars: A Real World Example


Photo credit: Schill via Foter.com / CC BY-NC

A family in my neighborhood welcomed a Great Dane puppy into their lives last fall. The once-gangly, now-100+-lb grey dog regularly greets me and my dog while we walk by his yard with booming barks. This situation has apparently become unacceptable for his owners: this week we have not been regaled with the hound’s vocalizations and he is sporting a shiny shock collar high on his neck.

The training method that shock collars, and all punitive training methods, rely on the operant conditioning strategy of positive punishment. The principal is simple: the dog does something the owner does not like and receives the shock – thereby decreasing the likelihood of the dog to repeat that undesired behavior in order to avoid the aversive consequence. For operant conditioning to be successful, two criteria must be met: timing and persuasiveness. These two criteria are precisely why punitive training methods like shock collars are fraught with trouble – and I’ll tell you why:

Shock collars are not smart.  When using operant conditioning, the trainer’s timing must be impeccable in order to link the correct behavior to the correct consequence, because animals do not possess the mental capacity to link consequences of behaviors that are more than a few seconds apart. Is my neighbor’s dog linking the shock with his barking behavior – or the appearance of another dog? Or a squirrel that just happened to be running down the street at the same time? Or the truck that just drove by?

All types of operant conditioning always involves a little trial and error on the animal’s part. Using aversive consequences for training causes stress in dogs and can likely contribute to the development anxiety disorders, aggression, and a host of other behavioral problems.

Shock collars are not safe. The other vital criteria for successful operant condition is that the consequence of the animal’s behavior must be compelling enough to actually change the animal’s behavior. This is why many dog trainers instruct owners to turn up their dog’s shock collar, despite contrary instructions from the manufacturer.

So what if my neighbor’s dog is connecting the significant shocks to the appearance of me and/or my dog? Well, if human +/- dog = pain, it will behoove the dog to prevent humans and/or dogs from getting near to him – so he will become aggressive towards walkers and their dogs.

Shock collars are not necessary. While I’m having to re-route my walking path due to my safety concerns about my neighbor’s dog (which is actually quite the ordeal for my OCD-anxiety dog), I must admit that I am frustrated by my neighbor’s numerous decisions leading up to this point:

  1. They purchased a dog too large to be adequately contained in their yard
  2. They leave him outside unattended
  3. They are upset that a dog bred specifically for its guarding skills barks at strangers
  4. They chose to install a shock collar on him rather than safely train him to tolerate walkers

Any one of these decisions could have been made differently and our whole neighborhood would be safer! Of course, the welfare of the dog is also a significant concern on mine so I would prefer that my neighbors would train their dog not to bark in a manner that will not cause pain and anxiety.

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Let’s Talk About: Kikopup’s (New!) No Pulling Leash Training Video!

While I DO NOT recommend going to YouTube for dog training tips in general – please don’t trust just anyone who happens to call themselves a dog trainer to give you humane, effective and non-fatal dog training advice – Kikopup is a happy exception to that rule!

Kikopup videos are posted on Youtube for free by Emily Larlham, a dog trainer based out of San Diego, CA, USA who believes positive reinforcement-based dog training advice should be free and accessible to all. The reason that I feel that Kikopup videos are humane, effective and note-worthy can be found in Larlham’s positive reinforcement manifesto. Her dog training methods incorporate psychological, scientific and welfare considerations into compassionate, consequence-based leadership by owners. The effectiveness of this training style is clear in her advanced behaviors and tricks videos!

Today, Kikopup released a new No Pulling! leash training video. (Larlham also has an entire playlist about loose leash walking, covering everything from basic advice to equipment and how to handle reactive or shy dogs on leash.) This new video is particularly great, in my opinion! Here are just a few reasons why I like it so much:

1. Larlham makes a great point about not assuming a dog has any idea of what you want them to do when you attach a strip of nylon to their harness. Loose leash walking is maybe the least intuitive behavior we expect from our pups. Thus, dogs require clear, consistent leadership and positive reinforcement to learn what loose leash walking entails!

2. Even for a dog that isn’t normally shy or reactive, it can be difficult for her to concentrate on their leash manners in a noisy, smell, car-, pedestrian- and other dog-filled environment. In the video, Larlham begins loose leash walking training in a non-intimidating environment so the pup can concentrate on learning. 

3. Despite practicing in a calm environment, some dogs aren’t going to be calm enough to take treats when you’re trying to positively enforce their loose leash manners out in the “real world”. Larlham uses “penalty yards” in the situation where a dog is too nervous to take treats: when the dog pulls the leash, she directs the dog to walk away from whatever the dog was pulling towards.

4. “Penalty yards” doesn’t mean yanking the dog back when it pulls on the leash. The goal of directing the dog away from what they were pulling towards is to teach the pup that pulling doesn’t get her where she wants to go. By encouraging the dog with positive verbal instructions or patting your leg, as Larlham says, and rewarding the dog when she chooses to come towards you, she’s (humanely) learning that she needs to follow her walker’s leadership while on leash.

5. Finally, my favorite part of the this video: Sniffing is as important as the walking during a walk. Larlham makes the great point that walking should provide both exercise and mental stimulation for a dog. As long as the leash is loose, it is perfectly appropriate for a dog to smell all the smells! Teaching your dog, “Let’s go!” after they have had a little sniff and rewarding them for following you is an important part of loose leash skills.

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Winter Dog Walking Tips

In case you are trying, like me, to avoid canine cabin fever for as long as possible, here are some tips to make sure your pup is happy and healthy during the winter walking season!

winterdogwalking

1. Paw protection

Dog paws are not impervious barriers to winter cold, chemicals and other nuisances. Snowmelt chemicals can cause paw irritation and toxicity if the dog licks their paws, and cold sidewalks can cause chaffing and cracking. Dog paw protection is a must for winter walks!

For my dogs, high quality boots were a necessity. I like the Grip Trex ($70) by Ruffwear (and am currently trying out the Summit Trex model ($60) to see if it keeps snow out of the boot better). I’ve also read many positive reviews for the Muttluk’s All Weather or Fleece-lined ($40-60) dog boots. YES, $40-70 bucks is a lot to spend on dog boots but they are a worthy investment. I’ve put my dog’s Grip Trex boots through 3 winter seasons and besides protecting my pups’ paws flawlessly, they still look brand new. Cheaper alternatives aren’t going to do the job and probably won’t last as long.

Dog boots tip #1: You’ve really got to get the right size so the boots don’t come off easily but are still comfortable. Measure your dog’s feet according to the manufacturer’s instructions several times to ensure accuracy. And definitely check out the seller’s return/exchange policy before purchasing in case you need a different size anyway!

Dog boots tip #2: As with any new pet accessory or device, you have to introduce boots slowly and positively. Not many pups are going to be overly thrilled about having boots on for the first time in their lives, but (in my experience) they forget about their footwear disdain when they discover how much more comfortable they are outdoors.

While you’re introducing your dog to the wonderful world of dog boots (or if your dog just really isn’t going for shoes), there are several things you can do to keep your pup’s paws as comfortable as possible in the meantime! First, trim the fur between your dog’s paw pads. This will keep the fur from matting and clumping around snow, ice and snowmelt chemicals. Next, use a paw salve like Musher’s Secret or petroleum jelly to moisturize and minimally protect your pup’s paws from the element. Finally, thoroughly wipe your dog’s paws with a washcloth after every outside excursions, being sure to get in between the paw pads.

2. Coat protection

Depending on how cold it gets where you live, or if you have a short-haired, elderly, young or ill dog, a dog coat is also a great investment. There are some pretty hardcore coats on the market from brands like Ruffwear or Hurtta that will set you back $40-90 and some less impervious dog sweaters from other retailers like Target or Petco for about $20. A wet coat isn’t going to do your pup much good, so if your area experiences severe weather during the winter, opt for a more expensive, waterproof winter coat. If you’re just combating the cold and can avoid rain/snow/sleet all of the time, a cheaper dog sweater might cut it.

Cold, dry winter air is as rough on your dog’s skin as it is on your skin! Ask your vet if an omega-3 supplement could help keep your dog’s skin moisturized and healthy during the winter months (and beyond!). Lastly, it’s a good idea to wipe off your dog’s legs and underbelly after walks just like paws. You may even want to bring a towel with you during walks to remove snowmelt products or snow/ice from your dog’s coat and feet immediately.

3. Keep your dog on leash with a harness

Although hazards for off-leash dogs exist in abundance year-round, winter poses some particular risks for un- or under-supervised dogs. Toxic substances like snowmelt chemicals and antifreeze abound, and if your dog is zooming around off leash, you may not notice her gulp some rock salt or take a lick of an antifreeze spill. Chucks of ice, asphalt liberated from the street by snow plows and sticks are also items your pup shouldn’t ingest but might if left to her own devices. So play it safe and keep your dog on leash.

Clipping a leash to a neck collar is not an optimal way to walk your dog at any time of year because it puts strain on the dog’s neck, leading to breathing problems and eye issues as the result of increased intracranial pressure. It’s also, like, the least efficient way to control your dog’s position in space, which can really be an issue in winter when ground conditions aren’t ideal. Opt for a front-clip harness like the Easy Walk harness and carry a small bag of dog kibble with your to keep your pup by your side during distracting events.

4. Keep it short

No amount of gear and preparation will wholly protect your pup from winter hazards, so keep walks short by breaking your usual walking time into two or three shorter components that are spaced out over the day. Monitor your dog for signs of real discomfort, frost bite or hypothermia. Frostbitten skin will most common occur on extremities like the ears, tails and toes and can look pale or red, painful or numb, and swollen. If your dog is exhibiting shallow breathing or disorientation, get your dog inside immediately and check for a slow pulse – these are all signs of hypothermia and your dog should be taken to a vet ASAP.


References

ASPCA’s Cold Weather Tips

ASPCA’s Winter Skin & Paw Health Tips

VetStreet Article on Winter Dog Walking

Dr. Marty Becker on the necessity of dog coats and sweaters

Ruffwear’s Blog on the Dog Boot Dance