It's no secret that I have an abhorrence of punishment based training. The methods I particularly despise are prong, choke and shock collars. I think though, of all of them, using shock to train a dog is top of my list and something that I will never cease to talk about in order to educate the dog owning public as to why they shouldn't use them, or allow them to be used on their dog.
I am going to begin this blog by using myself as the subject, but I want you to really think about how this also applies to a dog......
Someone Get me a Flame Thrower!!
I have a phobia of spiders. A real “Burn Down the House With A Flamethrower “phobia of them. When I see one, I want to head for the hills (well, actually I will jump away and scream) and I usually try to get as far away from that thing as I can. They can be itty bitty lil’ spiders and still, they will have the same effect on me, so intense is my phobia.
Imagine there's a big spider, and someone is confining me to a small space, say 6ft in circumference with some sort of rope and though my urge is to get away from that killer spider as far and fast as I can, and the adrenaline (fight or flight hormone) and other stress hormones are by now racing through my body, I can only move 6ft. The person holding the rope gets fed up with me acting scared, leaping around and screaming like a thing possessed, so every time I scream, or try to jump out of the way, that person zaps me with an electric shock. Because the adrenaline is flooding through my body, I will keep trying to get away and might keep screaming and become really frustrated that I can’t get away. Every time I try, there’s the painful electric shock again. I might be so upset and scared that I might try to lash out at that person and give ‘em a good slap upside the head!
Add to that, I really can’t understand why I am getting the shocks. The person holding me in place isn’t saying anything to me that I can understand; sounds like a foreign language. I am trying to let that person know that I am terrified and just want to make sure that spider stays away, but they don’t seem to be understanding me.
If this carries on for long enough, I will be overwhelmed and start to feel helpless. I cannot get away from either the spider or the pain. I am terrified and there is nothing I can do about it so I lapse into a state of what is called learned helplessness. I will stop moving. I may sit down or lie on the ground, keep still and more or less accept my fate.
What do you think the outcome of this experience will be? I think that I am going to become even more afraid of spiders than I was before because I will be associating it with even more fear due to the pain.
**It's appropriate to note here that many of the dogs that are seen in videos and shows made by Cesar Milan you will see dogs in a state of learned helplessness. CM likes to call it “calm submissive” which is complete gobbledegook and is an expression that means nothing in bone fide dog training. His behaviour towards the dog either using shock collars, choke or prong collars, leash yanking, or other physical punishment such as kicking, hanging etc. has resulted in the dog giving up hope of escaping its situation, and lapsing into a state of learned helplessness**
Click here for an article explaining about learned helplessness as it applies to dogs. As with learning theory, learned helplessness also applies to humans.
So at this point, I have only been shown what I should NOT do when I see that massive spider. Nobody has tried to teach me what to DO instead. For this reason, I will continue to be afraid of spiders, even after someone removes the shock collar from my neck. At first, the memory of that pain from the shock collar tells me not to react if I see a spider because I don't want another shock. However, I still have a phobia about spiders (even more so now) and after some time has passed since the shock collar was removed, I will eventually react to a spider by screaming and trying to get away as I did before. If someone is near me at that time, I might lash out because I fear they may try to restrain me or shock me again. My emotional response to spiders has in fact intensified.
What if, instead of causing me pain and even more fear, someone had tried to help me get over my phobia of spiders? With kindness, patience and positive reinforcement, though I might never really like them, I can learn not to feel the way I used to. I may be able to acknowledge a spider is there, but walk on by without reacting. No more screaming like a wild woman or wanting to use my ninja moves to floor someone. (OK it’s true; my ninja moves often only appear when a Daddy Longlegs is involved. Then I am Expert Level).
Reactivity and "Aggression" in Dogs
The saddest thing in all of this is that most apparent aggression/reactivity cases in dogs are due to the dog being anxious and/or fearful just as I am fearful of spiders. There are very few out and out aggressive dogs. If you are going to use pain and intimidation on an already fearful dog, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to work out that it’s going to make things worse, and not better. With punishment based training the dog does not exhibit that undesired behaviour simply because the fear of the pain is stronger.
When shock collars are used to train dogs, in most cases you will find that the dog has to keep wearing that shock collar. This is because without the shock collar, the dog will revert to his former behaviour, simply because nobody has taught him what to do instead.
In the case of dogs with aggression/fear issues, the shock collar may not only exacerbate that fear, but cause other behaviour issues in the process (remember me starting to want to slap someone when I hadn’t before?) If the dog was routinely shocked around other dogs, or people, or other stimulus that he was afraid of, then the dog may decide to redirect towards those things as well.
While a human being, with a more sophisticated brain than a dog, might be able to overcome the trauma of being trained with punishment and/or a shock collar, a dog may not recover. The dog may forever become distrustful of humans and have emotional trauma. If the dog had aggression issues towards dogs and humans which were “dealt with” using a shock collar, or some other sort of severe punishment, one day the fear may become too much and the dog will be able to produce enough stress hormones like adrenaline to get through the pain barrier and react. But of course, he has been taught not to physically show that fear and so he may aggress without warning. This becomes an unpredictable and sadly, dangerous dog.
Oh, dogs don't feel pain like us!
Among the excuses trainers might use are phrases like “it’s just a tickle, like static and it doesn’t hurt the dog”. "Dogs don't feel pain like us". This is untrue. The way punishment works is to cause PAIN. The skin in a dog’s neck is apparently around 3 to 5 layers thick. In a human it’s around 10 to 15 layers thick. It doesn’t take much to see that a dog’s skin is very sensitive. That’s also why prong collars work.
It's Science, Folks!
Using scientifically proven methods like desensitisation and counterconditioning, force free training can help a dog change his emotional response to the thing he is afraid of, be it other dogs, humans, bikes, vehicles – you name it. Changing the dog’s emotional response is lasting. If the training has been undertaken properly and thoroughly, the dog will have no need to revert back to his former behaviour.
How to Train Your Crocodile
If only all trainers used the science of positive reinforcement to train dogs!
There are people out there using science to train some of the most dangerous predators on the planet. If they can use force free training on crocodiles, lions, tigers, elephants, orcas and any other species that you care to name - even fish, then a mere dog should present absolutely no problem. Learning theory tells us that every single species learns the same way. If you are interested in understanding more about learning theory, (it also applies to humans) click here for an article which explains in fairly simple terms what it means.
The image below is of biologist Soham Mukherjee using positive reinforcement to train a Muggar Crocodile to target a stick. Notice the big chunk of meat in his right hand.
To any trainer who claims “no two dogs are the same” or “no two dogs learn the same way” (which is something I have heard ad- nauseam), I say, "what about Learning Theory" as mentioned above. If you don’t understand what that is, or you do understand it but you can’t apply it to a dog, then you don’t have enough education to be training animals. You are doing your clients and their dogs a huge dis-service by making them think you are training the dog. Training involves education and understanding of dog body language, behaviour, and learning theory.
I have a favourite quote from Dr. Ian Dunbar, lecturer, vet behaviourist and dog trainer, a person who helped set me on my path to dog training. He is someone I and many other force free trainers respect. He says:
“…To use shock as an effective dog training method you will need:
If you have these three things, you don’t need a shock collar…”
Dog owners should question in advance, any trainer that they plan to use. Ask them if they plan to use a choke, prong or a shock collar or indeed use “corrections” of any sort. If the answer is that you might need any or some of those tools to train your dog please - walk away. Do not allow them to give you any excuses as to why your dog will only respond to this type of training. Again, remember what I said above about learning theory. This is someone who is not educated enough to use modern, science based methods to train your dog. This is someone who thinks that they can accomplish a quick fix to your dog’s behaviour using pain and force (and I freely admit, they will, but this "fix" may not be long lasting and it will almost certainly result in some sort of fall out at a later date). Ask the trainer what continuing education they have pursued during their career, and where.
The Pet Professional Guild has a great document called "The Ten Questions to Ask Your Dog Training Professional Before You Hire Them" to help people who are thinking of employing a dog trainer. Click on the title to be taken to the document.
Modern force free dog trainers who are educated in dog behaviour don’t need to use any tools that cause pain or fear to help you with your dog. They will have pursued continuing education in order to help them acquire as much knowledge as they can to help you both.
I am happy for anyone to ask me about my continuing and past education. They can also ask me what methods I use to train. I will happily explain the force free methods I use and be able to explain the science behind it. I make sure my website makes it quite clear that I only use force free methods.
Speak Up For Your Pup!
Please, dog owners you MUST be advocates for your dogs. If you employ a trainer and are uncomfortable with the methods the trainer is using, then say so. Don’t be afraid to walk away. Our dogs can’t speak and we have to speak for them. No dog should ever suffer pain, force and intimidation in the name of training. It is never necessary and it is cruel and damaging to your relationship with your dog.
I’ve had quite a lot of clients who have previously been to punishment based trainers. The usual story is that they have maybe had a couple of sessions and then realised that they don’t like what is happening. I offer no judgment, but applaud them because they have advocated for their dogs and walked away. They have realised that there is a better way.
The modern, force free movement is growing and my fervent wish is that one day, most punishment based trainers will seek better ways to train dogs using the science of force free training. I would be happy to welcome those trainers with open arms.
All dogs deserve a life of being able to trust those that care for them; a life where they experience the love and respect we have for the wonderful sentient beings they are.