Even if you’ve only dipped a paw into the world of dog training, you’ve probably heard about an e-collar. While some humans are strictly against them, some trainers swear by them. Either way, there’s a lot you should know before you consider using one. Here are two respected trainers’ takes on the controversial collar:
Pro: E-Collars are an effective training tool
These days e-collars use something called electric stimulation, which you may have been exposed to yourself if you’ve ever gone to a chiropractor or physical therapist. It’s not a shock—it’s more of a pulsing wave sensation. And there are many more settings for the intensity, which can range from very low to high—so you have control over what your pup feels.
So how do they work? “E-collars work as a form of negative reinforcement, so it means that a behavior is strengthened by removing a negative outcome,” says Blake Rodriguez, dog behavior expert and owner of Dream Come True K9. For example, if you’re driving in your car without a seatbelt, that annoying dinging sound that stops when you put your belt on is a form of negative reinforcement. “The dinging stops when you perform the desired behavior. And that’s exactly how e-collars function.”
In that sense, an e-collar becomes another way to communicate with your dog—it’s almost like an extension of the leash. But it should never be used as a last resort or a shortcut: “Think about the e-collar as a way to take the language of right and wrong to the next level. So if your dog is pulling, leash pressure might be fine,” explains Rodriguez. “But if your dog goes to run into the street, there needs to be a higher-level correction for the dog’s safety.”
Another advantage of using an e-collar is timing when you’re correcting a behavior: How often can we not get to our dog soon enough when they’re acting out? Getting to your pup fast enough is important the to understand their behavior is wrong. It’s especially effective if you’re working on off leash training, explains Rodriguez. And it can be the difference between life and death if your dog is in danger.
If e-collars are a training tool you want to consider, Rodriguez recommends consulting or working with a professional to incorporate them into your routine. It’s incredibly important to fully understand how and when it’s appropriate to use an e-collar. If misused, e-collars can cause more behavioral problems than they solve.
Anti: E-Collars are an ineffective way to train your dog
E-collars used to be known as shock collars, though the companies that make them have changed their marketing over the years. “It’s sort of interesting how we use e-collar as a euphemism for a shock collar because it sounds less harsh. But they’re essentially the same thing,” says Scott Sheaffer, CDBC, CPDT-KA, a dog behavior specialist and founder of USA Dog Behavior. “The collar is designed to have your dog make negative associations with undesirable behaviors. So if the dog does the right thing they get a treat and if they do the wrong thing they get a shock.”
The problem with this type of training, in Sheaffer’s opinion, is that the definition of “wrong behavior” is infinite. So if you’re trying to train a dog to lay down using an e-collar, there are so many other “wrong” things they can do before they reach the right thing. It can be very confusing for them, and the shock only increases their anxiety, says Sheaffer.
Another issue with the e-collar, according to Sheaffer, is that dogs tend to generalize and don’t always make the associations we want them to. “What I see a lot is people using e-collars that have no idea how to use them and punish the dog with it,” he explains. For example, a dog that counter surfs that gets shocked might start to associate the pain not with counter surfing but being in the kitchen in general. Or worse, they associate pain with their owners being present. When dogs associate pain with humans it can cause them to act aggressively. “I’ve treated so many cases where I’ve had to work with a dog who has been trained using an e-collar and had so much anxiety associated with behavior that was completely unrelated to the problem behavior,” says Sheaffer.
That being said, Sheaffer says e-collar training can be effective in a life and death situation. People with dogs that have the run of a lot of land, like on a ranch, can work with a professional trainer to teach their dog to avoid poisonous snakes, for example. In situations that aren’t life threatening, Sheaffer recommends training your pup using positive reinforcement—so when your dog does the desired behavior, they get rewarded. If your dog is exhibiting problem behaviors, he believes there are other safer and effective ways to correct it. A professional dog trainer with the appropriate qualifications can help you too.