E-collars, short for electric collars, and prong and choke collars are widely used by dog owners and trainers in many countries. Most significantly they are used in America. In some parts of the world they are forbidden and considered animal abuse, their use being restricted by the animal welfare laws. What are these tools, why are they used, what do they cause and most importantly, why every trainer and owner should keep as far of them as they can?
What are these tools?
E-collars are collars that are supposed to shock the dog when it performs an undesired action or does not perform the desired action. They are sometimes used for punishment, but more frequently these days as a sort of a way to tell the dog whatever it is doing or not doing is not desired and it should change it's ways. They are based on negative feedback and negative reinforcement, causing an unpleasant sensation to either stop the action or punish from it. By my experience most people use them with a remote, trying to maintain their control of the dog when the dog is off leash.
A prong collars is a collar that has blunt edge "spikes" inside the collar tightening around the dog's neck and causing an unpleasant sensation when it pulls or when the collar is pulled by a human. They are mostly used to maintain control of the dog when it otherwise does not respond.
The key word in both descriptions is control. Amusingly, these tools that are used to control the dog don't actually teach the dog anything nor do they provide any real control, as control is achieved through training and does not depend on which tools the dog is wearing in that particular moment. True, many trainers and owners use them along with training, in which case it is to be considered the trainer or owner does not have the needed abilities to otherwise control their dog and hence has to rely in discomfort as some sort of reinforcement of one's authority.
There are many tools in dog world that are supposed to help controlling the dog in case it is big and because of some reason does not listen. Having worked with a dominant, aloof dog that has a strong will to fight my authority, I refuse to think a grown up adult needs tools based on pain or discomfort to get the wanted results. Usually there are several options to maintain physical control during the time of training. It's based on one's own ethics whether or not they have will or time to work with those tools. As it is with any learning, getting rid of an unwanted behavior or teaching a new way to act takes time. Using pain and discomfort works with some dogs (not with all, which is also one reason to avoid such tools) and it provides fast results, but there are ways to control the dog (no-pull harnesses, muzzles, long leads...) during the training without having to rely on extremes. Also, keeping oneself away from tools that restrict the dog with pain also forces one to actually TRAIN the dog and CHANGE the behavior through learning, not only through restricting. It is sadly very common that trainers who use questionable tools don't train the dog enough to work without those tools. As soon as they are removed, the dog gets back to it's old habits, indicating it hasn't actually learned anything but to avoid certain actions when it's wearing a certain collar.
Why to avoid them?
Many people who use E-collars and prong collars explain they use positive reinforcement only when they train the dog. They separate the behavior of the dog, such as walking properly on leash, listening to commands off-leash and behaving in public, and tricks such as give paw, sit, stay. The problem here is that this kind on thinking assumes the so called "good behavior" is something the dog already knows and chooses not to perform. It is not taught how to behave, it is just punished from the false behavior, usually something that is very natural to it. The madness of this concept is best explained with a following matter; would you have learned to read if you had been punished from laying on your bed? The good behavior is to be taught the same way as any trick is, and if one already knows positive reinforcement is scientifically proved to be the best way to teach, why would one use an E-collar or prong collar? Why not when teaching tricks, if with teaching behavior? After all, in both situations we talk about the process of learning.
In a study back in 2014 the researchers reported an increase of behavior connected with stress when using E-collars in training. The dogs in a group training with E-collars were showing significant signs of being stressed and tense, whilst in the other groups such behavior was reported far less frequently. Same kind of results were found in yet another study back in 2003, where groups of working dogs were trained with and without the shock collar. In the first study there was an increase in cortisol (the "stress hormone") levels reported as well, though this was not confirmed to be significant later on when studying a larger group. There are other articles, then again, indicating there might be cellular and hormonal changes due to the usage of shock collars, and that being shocked repeatedly may weaken the vertebra on the neck as well as cause damage on the throat.
Prong collars and choke collars can cause severe damage on the dog when it launches. Even if they are "used correctly" there is a possibility these tools may cause severe pain and actual damage, thus the need of using them should be questioned. It is a known fact the effect of these tools is based on the fact they feel uncomfortable on the neck. They are supposed to, because they are supposed to restrict the dog from performing an undesired action, such as pulling on the leash. If the dog, however, does, even the correctly placed collar will tighten up and that may cause damage to throat or vertebra. This possibility is the greater the bigger and more stubborn the dog is. Obviously there are trainers saying prong collars and choke collars can be used perfectly safe, but how is that possible when the effect of the tool is based on the same exact reason they should be banned - they cause unnatural pinch and/or strangle the dog? Out of these two, choke collars cause more damage than correctly used prong collars, but even correctly used prong collars may lead to problems if the dog manages to pull so hard the blunt spikes break the skin or pinch too hard. It is also a tool that WILL hurt the dog if not used in the exact way it is supposed to be used.
fast results or ethic training?
There is no fast lane to success. Learning is a process that takes time. Even if the dog can learn to avoid discomfort and pain faster that it learns to work for it's food in desired ways, it is possible to train the dog both fast and humanely. This requires skill and determination, and as any learning, repeats and time. Using pain or discomfort because of the lack of skill is a poor excuse for any trainer. Wanting to achieve fast results with minimal effort is also a poor excuse. A dog needs time, and if one does not have time, one does not get a dog. Laziness should not be considered as a justification to use controversial training methods.
There are some ways to avoid the need of making hard decisions, too. Not so long ago I was told by an owner of a hunting breed that the E-collar has saved the dog's life many times, stopping it from running on the road. This leads me asking why the dog is kept off leash in such dangerous area? Hunting breeds are known to be challenging considering recall, so one should always make sure the place you let your dog off leash is as safe as possible. One should also work on the recall as much as one just can, so the dog is less likely to wander off.
Scenery above is a good example of using a controversial tool because of the lack of skill, and in this case, a lack of knowledge as well.
It is said we should "agree to disagree", but considering using harmful methods in training I refuse to do so. There have been enough studies and scientific proof showing teaching the dog by using positive reinforcement is the most effective way of training, that we can safely say using controversial training methods and tools is not needed. The fact some trainers still use them because of the lack of skill and understanding is not to be taken as justification. Also, these tools working on some dogs is not a proof they are to be considered good ways to train. We have so many other options, more humane and as effective, that there should not be any need to risk your dog.
Let's talk about the process of learning first.
Negative and positive reinforcement
These terms are often used when talking about training. They both aim for teaching the dog a certain habit, a certain way to act. Negative reinforcement uses punishment of some sort to show the dog what it does is wrong. It creates something nasty or unpleasant or frustrating that teaches the dog it must avoid certain way of behaving in order to prevent the nasty thing from happening. Positive reinforcing will praise the dog when it does right and teach the dog doing something or stopping from doing something gains it a prize.
Both these types of reinforcing work, but positive reinforcement is proven to be more effecting when teaching a new way to behave, whilst negative reinforcement works mostly when the dog must stop a certain learned habit. Using negative reinforcement can cause apathy, and a dog that does not work and try in order to see what it's expected to do can't learn. Fear blocks learning. That is why a dog should never be afraid of punishment, surroundings or anything around when trained. It must be comfortable and calm enough to concentrate.
Negative reinforcement is something to be used with caution and never by inexperienced handler who doesn't know what to do. Then again, no dog can go through it's life without facing negative reinforcement. When the pup tugs in a leash and hurts it's neck, it learns by negative reinforcement that one should not speed around when leashed (or then it doesn't, and continues doing it for the delight of the desperate owner). When the handler must hold the dog in place to calm it down, it learns by negative reinforcement acting like crazy will cause holding it down. By avoiding too rough play it gains freedom.
No matter negative reinforcement has it's place and time, for the reasons listed above it's something to be very cautios about when teaching the dog something. Negative reinforcement trusts in the dog. It is based solemnly in the process of trial and error, learning what is wrong, but it does not TEACH. Learning can happen without teaching, but you can't teach the dog by punishing it from something it does. In order to teach you must use positive reinforcement. Teaching is taking the pupil towards the target by giving it cues and tips and praising it from it's efforts. Teaching is telling ”now you are doing right. Do it again”.
tools to avoid
When trying to raise a dog to behave like a modern dog citizen should, one often stumbless across different training tools. Some of these tools, however, have nothing to do with actual training. They are tools that are supposed to punish the dog from doing something, and they trust in the dog understanding to avoid certain habits it gets punished from.
E-collar is a tool that gives the dog an electric shock when it does something not desired. It may be used to shock the dog when it leaves the area or it may be used when the dog barks. The collar will first make a beeping sound and then shock if the dog continues doing undesired things. This does in some cases cause results, but those results are not based on training the dog. They are based on letting the dog get hurt by the collar until it either learns what to avoid or will learn to stay completely still and silent because it is afraid of another shock. E-collars cause pain, they can cause fear and anxiety and their use is forbidden in many countries by the law. Dogs that have been wearing E-collars also suffer from apathy more than often. Apathy is a state where the dog does nothing, because doing nothing for certainty doesn't hurt it. After all, dogs usually don't connect the pain to for example a bark. They may connect the pain to entering a certain room, or moving, or panting. Whatever the dog sees, smells or hears during the shock may be connecter to the shock rather than the actual reason, for example leaving the yard.
Spray collars are much like E-collars, but they stray scent or air when the dog performs unwanted tasks. No matter they don't hurt the dog, softer dogs can become skittish because of them. There is also a risk for the dog connecting the spray to something completely different than it was meant to. If it happens to bark to the neighbor and gets sprayed, it may as well connect the neighbor to the spray and start to dislike the sight of the neighbor. Spray collars are sometimes used as last resorts to dogs that keep barking indoors, but the results they provide wary from success to an even worse problem.
Prong collar is a collar of metal, usually, that has blunt edge spokes in it. Whenever the dog oulls, the spikes press against it's skin, causing discomfort and it some cases where the dog launches in the leash for one reason or another, even serious injuries. Just like E-collars and spray collars, prong collars do not teach the dog to walk nicely. They teach the dog pulling hurts. That may give results, but one must think how the results were obtained. Dogs also tend to connect hurting with the collar and once the collar is removed, the dog walking nicely beside the owner may be all over the place all of a sudden. It was taught nothing. It still doesn't know how to walk properly in the leash. It just knows not to pull when the prong collar is on. Just like shock collars, prong collars are also forbidden in many countries.
Many anti-pulling harnesses or muzzle collars make the pulling uncomfortable for the dog. They don't hurt, but they feel odd and the dog finds it easier to move, and more pleasant to move, when it doesnät pull. These tools used alone without any kind of training often produce the same result as the prong collar – the dog keeps pulling as soon as the harness is gone.
To avoid this, tools like this require the dog also being praised from good behavior. This way it does not only learn not to pull when the harness is on but that it is expected to walk nicely with a loose leash.
Tools like these are tools that are supposed to help with controlling the dog while teaching it to behave properly. If the dog is large and it may cause problems with pulling during the training, it is better to use good anti-pull harnesses than risk the owner getting seriously injured when his 78kg mastiff decided it wants to go full speed over the street to greet a yorkie.
Treats and toys.
Seriously. Find what motivated your dog, or any animal for that matter, and use that in teaching. Praise good behavior and coach the dog towards something you want it to do. Praise it when it does right. Treat it with food or a moment of play. Positive reinforcement in the fastes and also most long lasting of teaching methods. Dogs are selfish things that do whatever benefits them and causes them pleasure. It is faster and more effocoent to praise good behavior than just plain punishing from wrong.
A properly timed punishment or command is also a good tool. One must of course remember the dog should never be hurt, but in most cases things don't go as they go in books. You can turn your back to a bouncing chihuahua, but I don't recommend it with a pyrenean. You must make the dog stop it's harmful behavior and if it doesn't respond to a high sound, for example, and you can't leave it on it's own, you must gain control. In many cases this means physically touching the dog, holding it in place, preventing it from acting idiotic and scolding it.
Dogs do need discipline. There are dogs you don't ever need to punish or scold, and dogs that need it all the time specially when they are young. See what your dog can handle and never cross the line. Discipline should not hurt. Pain or fear caused by the owner results in losing trust. With dominant, hard dogs it can also be potentially dangerous as they may answer to pain with force and what started as a play will turn into a fight. Never fight with your dog. You are a human being, and the dog knows it. We do not need our teeth to gain authority. You can't win a dane in fight if the dane decides to fight you. So don't make it. Control it, be an authority, but don't become an enemy. Pain creates an enemy.
Those who leave omelas
Dogs are in many ways like us people when it comes to learning. They do things that benefit them and avoid things that don't or that cause them harm. They are usually curious and they may do things that are perfectly normal to a dog yet highly disliked by us people. In moments like that teaching the dog a new way to behave requires knowing the dog you work with, knowing what motivates it and knowing why it does what it does. Dogging a hole in the garden is fun for the dog, it gets rewarded by it's own mind when it digs a hole. To make it stop one must not only make digging the hole more unpleasant than pleasant (scolding) but also offer something else to do. That way it doesn't only get told digging a hole is wrong but that doing something else is actually more beneficial.
In the end there are many tools in the dog world that work, but one must ask oneself with what cost do they work and if they actually teach the dog anything. There is no fastlane to a perfectly trained dog, unfortunately. It may feel tempting to use some tool that promises fast results, but ask yourself at what cost does it provide those results and if there is a possibility it actually makes the problem worse or even creates a new problem.
We expect pretty much from our dogs. Just remember, when you were 12 months old, you could hardly form words and communicate with your parents and you still pooped your pants. No matter the dog develops faster, there is only so much you can learn in a short period of time.
Give time. Give opportunities. Raise your dog so it wants to try new things and please you rather than lay down afraid of another shock of pain.
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