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.

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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Journal Article: Are Shelter Dogs More Aggressive? and “Perfectly Safe” vs. “Vicious”

Title:  Human directed aggression in domestic dogs (Canis familiaris): Occurrence in different contexts and risk factors

Authors: Rachel A. Casey, Bethany Loftus, Christine Bolster, Gemma J. Richards, Emily J. Blackwell

Published: December 11, 2013 in Applied Animal Behaviour Science

General overview:

These researchers distributed 14,566 surveys and received 3897 completed, legible responses (26.6% response rate). The surveys assessed owner demographics, basic info about the owner’s youngest dog (origin, age, breed, neuter status) as well as training methods (grouped into positive reinforcement/negative punishment or positive punishment/negative reinforcement) and instances of human directed aggression or avoidance of humans in multiple contexts. The researchers used their survey results to create three multivariate models for aggression directed towards family members, towards unfamiliar people entering the home and towards unfamiliar people outside of the home.

[Brief explanation of multivariate models: In this case, this means that the authors took all of the questions they asked about in the surveys and entered them into a statistical model as variables, such as “breed type”, “age”, “neuter status”, etc. These variables were assessed for their ability to predict an outcome variable, which were the aggressive responses in various contexts from the surveys for this research. Using exclusion criteria, variables are eliminated if they didn’t predict the outcome variable very well. The final model contains only those variables that, in combination, predict the outcome variable “well”, according to various statistical standards. For more information, see this NIH article on multivariate analysis.]

The model with the outcome variable of aggression directed towards family members included owner age, dog age and neuter status, training method, attendance to training classes (except puppy classes), breed type and origin of dog. The model with aggression directed at unfamiliar humans entering the household included owner gender, owner age, dog age and neuter status, attendance to puppy classes and breed type. Finally, the model with aggression directed at unfamiliar humans outside the household included dog age and neuter status, puppy classes, ring craft classes, training category and breed type.

My comments:

Let’s start with my complaints about this article. I felt “aggression”, as assessed through the surveys, was again poorly defined. The authors briefly acknowledged that there may be discrepancies between owner interpretation of dog behavior but seemed to feel that differences might be gender based. I’m not sure how substantiated this theory is, but this issue could be circumvented by clearly defining “aggressive” behaviors in a certain way. Obviously, recall (a respondent’s imperfect memory)  and reporting (a respondent’s voluntary suppression of information) biases will still exist but these are issues inherent with surveys.

Although the authors clearly define their study population as a convenience sample, I didn’t think this was appropriately included in the interpretation of the results. Half of the respondents had received this survey at a dog show or dog-related event, which is very unrepresentative of the general dog-owning population in my personal experience. I’m not sure if wide-scale dog owner demographics are available but I feel like the inclusion of so many people who were motivated to attend a dog show makes the generalizability of this study to the general population of dogs and owners is questionable.

My final critique is the interpretation of owner gender, owner age, dog gender/neuter status and dog breed variables in the final multivariate models. The authors did a nice job of comparing their results with previous studies but for these variables in particular, the discussion got confusing. It basically came down to the fact that previous studies have both agreed and disagreed with the results from this research for these particular factors. So do these variables contribute to a dog’s risk of human direct aggression, and why is that? The authors just sort of shrugged in answer. I’m all for being open and honest about your findings, but…really? That’s about half of the final variables in all three models! If there really isn’t anything you can conclude from these variables except that more research needs to be conducted into each of these variables, why were they included to begin with?

Finally, the interesting bits of the study. First, there was the origin of the dog. Compared to dogs obtained from breeders, dogs from rescue groups had a 2.6 times increased risk of aggression towards humans and dogs obtained from an “other” source (pet stores, internet sites, etc.) had a 1.8 times increased risk. Are shelter dogs at greater risk of human directed aggression? There are two potential explanations to this apparent finding:

1. Yes, shelter dogs have an increased risk of human directed aggression because A) human-aggressive dogs are more likely to surrendered to a shelter and/or B) being in a shelter could somehow make a dog more aggressive towards humans.

2. No, shelter dogs are not actually more likely to exhibit human directed aggression but it appeared in this study as the result of owners of dogs from rescue centers being more likely to report human directed aggression because A) they may feel less “responsible” for the dog’s behavior since (in most cases) they aren’t the first owner (i.e. less reporting bias than owners who obtained their dogs from a breeder) and/or B) they may be more attuned to their dog’s behavior because of its unknown background (i.e. less recall bias than owners who obtained their dogs from a breeder).

So which is it? I have no idea – I suspect it’s a combination – and I wish the authors’ had delved into this finding a little more. Or maybe someone could pay me to do that!

Next, the authors found that dogs that were aggressive in one context were not likely to show aggression in another context. This is really interesting finding because it supports what all those behaviorists have been harping about (that dogs exhibit aggressive behavior in response to certain perceived threats in certain contexts) and goes against the popular theory that some dogs are “vicious” while other dogs are “perfectly safe.” These researchers furthermore added that their finding that pit bull-type breeds (Staffordshire Bull terriers, other bull breeds and mastiff breeds) that are frequently deemed vicious by popular culture and breed-specific legislation did not have an increased risk of human directed aggression compared to the baseline group (cross breeds).

Attendance to training classes (except puppy classes) was associated with an increased risk of human directed aggression in this study. The authors concluded that this could be because A) these classes somehow increased dogs’ aggressive behavior or that B) owners with dogs who exhibited human directed aggression were more likely to take them to training classes. Additionally, I think there could be an increased awareness of dog behavior in owners who have been instructed by a qualified dog trainer.

In a somewhat related vein, this study also found that certain training methods were associated with an increased risk of human directed aggression. Dogs of owners who reported using any kind of positive punishment or negative reinforcement had a 2.2 increased risk of aggression direct at unfamiliar people outside the household and a 2.9 increased risk of family directed aggression. The relationship of factors is unknown: A) do owners with aggressive dogs “resort to” punitive training methods more often or B) do dogs trained with punitive measures develop aggressive behaviors more often?


 

A small note of my own personal opinion: it would be useful to know if shelter dogs are actually more likely to demonstrate human directed aggression. Why?

  1. Human directed aggression from dogs puts the humans around them at risk of being bitten, which could result in psychological trauma, serious injury or even death.
  2. Aggressive dogs aren’t happy dogs. Behaviorists tend to think that dogs exhibiting aggressive behavior are fearful and anxious.
  3. If aggressive behaviors are being exhibited in a limited number of contexts, they could possibly be resolved with fairly minimal behavior modification* or management. Small(ish) effort = happier dog + safer humans. That seems like a good deal to me!
  4. Rescue groups try their darnedest to send their adopters home with as much information as they need to succeed with their new family addition. If dogs from shelters really are more likely to demonstrate human directed aggression, adopters ought to be prepared for it!
  5. If dogs from rescue centers really aren’t more likely to exhibit human directed aggression and it’s really that owners who got their dogs from breeders are unaware of or unwilling to admit to their dog’s aggressive behavior, this also needs to be addressed. Reading a dog’s warning signals can keep dogs happier and humans safer!

*Owners of dogs exhibiting any kind of aggressive, territorial or otherwise concerning behaviors should seek the help of a trained veterinary behaviorist or certified animal behaviorist before attempting any kind of behavioral modification!

Journal Article: Skip the Training Classes?

Title: The relationship between training methods and the occurrence of behavior problems, as reported by owners, in a population of domestic dogs

Authors: Emily J. Blackwell, Caroline Twells, Anne Seawright, Rachel A. Casey

Published: September-October 2008 in Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research

General overview:

The researchers handed out 250 surveys to people walking their dogs or visiting veterinary facilities in several locations in the U.K, and 192 completed surveys were returned. The surveys asked for demographic information about the household as well as dog training methods that the owners used and potentially undesirable behaviors that their dog(s) displayed. The researchers found no significant association between attendance in formal training classes and total number of undesirable behaviors reported by the owner. This study also found that type of training method was significantly related to undesirable behavior scores, while the breed, sex of the dog, number of children in the home and previous experience of the owner was not associated with the number of reported undesirable behaviors.

My comments:

Overall, I thought that this research was fascinating but the presentation of the methods and findings was messy at times. I know there is always a word count limit in academic journals but that’s no excuse to pump so much information into an article that you can’t fully explain what you’re presenting – just split it into two papers!

Okay, getting past my troubles with the writing, I thought the survey seemed fairly well done. There was a high response rate and the authors acknowledged potential issues with their sampling techniques. Within the survey, the authors listed out all potentially undesirable behaviors they could think of (which were grouped into the following categories: Control, Separation, Aggression, Fear/Avoidance, Attention-seeking, Compulsive and Reactions to the following: other dogs in and outside the home, unfamiliar and familiar people, and being “told off”). The authors then asked which behaviors the owners actually felt were undesirable, which allowed for differences in owners’ perceptions of “bad” dog behavior.

I will complain that the authors did not define what they meant by “aggression” in the paper, which could be problematic if they also did not define what consisted “aggression” in their survey. “Aggression” can be subjective: when your dog barks at another dog, do you feel your dog is being aggressive or fearful or trying to get attention or something else entirely?

Despite these issues (which essentially all surveys are wont to have), the results are super interesting. The authors highlight the lack of correlation between attendance to formal training lessons and total number of undesirable behaviors displayed by the dog, and that nearly all owners did some sort of training with their dog. The authors felt that this may have been because of the availability of dog-training help in books or online. This finding didn’t hold true for puppy socialization classes, as dogs who experienced puppy classes were far less likely to be reactive to dogs outside the home.

Very few (18%) owners sought help for undesirable behaviors while 98% of dogs exhibited some type of problematic behavior. Now, the majority of the owners surveyed had previous experience with a dog, so perhaps they had sought outside help with another dog in the past. Regardless, this finding really highlights the lack of conversation between veterinarians, animal behaviorists and trainers about behavior problems that could lead to a dog being euthanized or surrendered to a shelter.

The super concerning finding (to me) was that nearly 3/4 of all owners used some type of positive punishment. If you’ve read my post on science-based vs. dominance-based training, you’ll know that behaviorists and researchers are increasingly in agreement that positive punishment (such as yelling, hitting, electric collars, noise distractions like cans of pennies, etc.) have no place in humane, effective dog training. If more owners sought outside help for behavior concerns, perhaps fewer owners would resort to ineffective, inhumane training methods. 

The authors found that owners who used positive punishment reported more undesirable behaviors from their dogs and, conversely, owners who used positive reinforcement only reported significantly less undesirable behaviors. This could be explained by several different causes: 1) as the authors speculate, perhaps owners with dogs that exhibit a large number of undesirable behaviors “resort to” positive punishment more often; 2) dogs who are subjected to positive punishment develop more undesirable behaviors for the reasons I talked about in this post; 3) a large proportion of the survey sample reported using positive punishment, so it could be a mere sampling issue.

So, overall, I’d say DON’T SKIP THE FORMAL TRAINING CLASSESEthical, well-informed dog trainers can help eliminate the use of positive punishment, which will increase training effectiveness as well as the quality of life for the dog, and decrease aggression, fear and other undesirable behaviors displayed by the dog. Furthermore, having a relationship with a certified animal behaviorist is, in my opinion, as important as having a relationship with a veterinarian.