An Open Letter to Bay Woof Readers: Why You Should Avoid Shock Collars

Dear Bay Woof Readers:

I am writing in regard to the article “Snake Savvy Training for Dogs,” [July 2010 issue], which recommends the use of shock collars to frighten dogs from going near rattlesnakes. I am a positive reinforcement trainer, behavior consultant, and author. As a positive reinforcement trainer, I would never use shock collars or suggest that my clients use them, and I was concerned to see them recommended so casually in this article.

I took offense for a few reasons. First, the article was extremely one-sided. It talked about the use of shock collars as if it is no big deal, when professional dog trainers and behaviorists know that the use of shock collars is certainly not something to be taken lightly. There was no mention of the fact that many dogs have devastating and long-lasting effects from the use of shock collars, or that when something as aversive as shock is used in training, many dogs develop phobias associated with other things present in the environment when shock is used. 

One of the things that I find so offensive about this method is that the dogs are not even given a choice. They are exposed to snakes and then are shocked. This procedure is recommended for dogs of any size or age, including four-month old puppies. How can this be considered humane? 

I have worked with dogs who were previously shocked that displayed highly fearful reactions to going outside, to going on walks with their owners, and to wearing a collar, because these were all associated with the painful shock. Some were fearful around their owners in general. I even met one dog who, after rattlesnake avoidance training, became aggressive when people touched his collar. What an animal’s brain associates with the pain is simply not controllable.

Some people may feel that “rattlesnake avoidance” is a reasonable reason to use a shock collar on a dog, but there are other solutions to this problem. You could simply teach a very reliable recall, practicing it with variety of high-level distractions. With most dogs, if owners are willing to put in the effort, a reliable recall can be taught using positive reinforcement methods. It may take a little more time and effort than pushing a button on a shock collar remote control, but your dog will not suffer any behavioral or emotional fallout from it. For dogs that don’t have a reliable recall, owners can simply keep them on leash or not hike with them in high-risk areas.

Dr. Karen Overall, MA, PhD, highly respected author and Applied Animal Behaviorist stated, “In all situations where shock has been used there is some damage done, even if we cannot easily see it. No pet owner needs to use this technique to achieve their goal.”

In her article entitled “Rattlesnakes and Dogs – What to Do,” behavior consultant Nan Arthur writes, “There are many problems with this method, as one never knows what the dog is actually associating with the shock as it happens… One dog was reported to have attacked a rattlesnake after “snake breaking,” since snakes were associated in the dog’s mind with the pain he received during the “training.” That dog died. Another dog is reportedly now terrified of osculating sprinklers because they sound like a snake’s rattle.”

From the Association of Pet Behavior Counselors article entitled “The Shocking Truth”: “Another significant risk with the use of shock collars is that… a dog may not be able to link the shock to anything at all! This often results in the dog becoming totally confused, anxious and stressed as it repeatedly suffers the pain of the electric shock for no apparent reason.” 

The bottom line is that people need to know what they are getting into when they consider using a shock collars on their dogs. I wouldn’t shock my friends, family members, or clients and I am not about to do it to my dogs or my clients’ dogs. It is not the only solution and I urge people to look at more dog-friendly options.  

Vicki Ronchette, CPDT, CAP2 is the owner of Braveheart Dog Training in San Leandro,