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.
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