I originally wrote and published this article on the blog back in November 2018. I’ve had a couple of people ask me about e-collars lately and, since it’s currently National Train Your Dog month, I thought it was the perfect time to revisit this topic.
I’m on a bit of a crusade against the use of e-collars – also knows as shock collars. They are dangerous to dogs both emotionally and physically. When I say “e-collar” I’m referring to electronic collars not “Elizabethan” collars used by Veterinarians (a.k.a. the cone of shame).
There are a lot of well-meaning trainers out there who recommend e-collars as a “harmless” way to train your dog.
Years ago, when I was struggling to get my dog, Jake, to behave appropriately, I thought, well, if e-collars are recommended by trainers, they must be fine. I was desperate, so much of what I had already tried hadn’t helped. So I put a shock collar on my dog. The e-collar did not change his behavior, not in the long term. All it did was let him know that some of his gear shocked him. I regret it and will never again use a shock collar on him or any other dog of mine or a client.
So, what are e-collars?
They are shock collars. Literally. They are electronic devices attached to a collar that deliver an electric shock to your dog when you press a button on a remote.
Shock collars cause both physical and emotional harm to dogs.
Physical Dangers of Shock Collars:
Burns – many dogs suffer burns at the electric contact points
Cardiac Fibrillation – the electric current can cause damage to a dog’s heart.
Psychological Dangers of Shock Collars:
A study published by the Department of Clinical Sciences of Companion Animals at the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands found that the potential for harm in the use of e-collars is high. I want to share their findings with you because, lately, I’ve been seeing proponents of this device claim that there aren’t any studies that prove shock collars are harmful and that is simply not true as this study shows.
I am hoping to dispel some of the myths around using shock collars and to educate people on their negative effects.
I admit that I did a lot of questionable things during my journey with Jake. He was my first dog and a troubled dog and I didn’t know any better. I was ignorant and, although I tried to do my best for him, I often made harmful mistakes due to that ignorance. I’ve learned from my mistakes and I hope that you can, too.
The Utrecht study used scientific methodology to examine the effects of shock collars on dogs in every day training environments. What they found were high instances of pain, fear, avoidance, pain-induced aggression and pain-induced submission even after use of the e-collar was suspended!
Do any of us want that for our canine companions?
In direct contrast to the common pro shock-collar argument that the shock is more of an annoyance than actually painful, researchers actually found that shocked dogs exhibited behaviors that are universally accepted as signs of pain and fear.
Vocalizations, especially high frequency squeals, yelps and barks normally associated with pain
Biting attempts that can be interpreted as pain-induced aggression
A swift head movement, down and to the side, often followed a shock – a characteristic sign of pain
This evidence of fear and pain at being shocked led researches to conclude that receiving shocks may “be perceived as a traumatic event by a dog.”
One dog in the study continued to react as if being shocked during training even though the last time it had received an actual shock was a year and a half before! This certainly debunks the argument that the effects of shock collars are temporary and easily forgotten by the dog.
Is the welfare of shocked dogs impaired?
The short answer is, yes. Researchers found that, in comparison to dogs not trained with a shock collar, the shocked dogs:
Are more stressed overall while in the training environment
Are more stressed than non-shocked dogs outside of the training environment – in the park, for example
Shocked dogs DO connect their handlers with getting shocked (another popular argument of e-collar proponents is that dogs don’t realize it’s their handler shocking them. This study dispels that myth.)
Shocked dogs can also come to associate specific commands with getting shocked. For example, one dog in the study who was shocked when receiving the “heel” command, yelped in pain when next required to “heel” even though he had not been shocked that time.
The knowledge that a dog owner, like myself, who repeatedly shocks their pet during training, like I did, can come to symbolize pain and fear to their pet is heartbreaking. I have never met a pet parent who wanted that kind of relationship with their pup. But that is exactly the kind of sad relationship these devices create.
Based on their findings, I’m sure you are not surprised that the Utrecht researchers concluded that “shocks received during training are not only unpleasant but also painful and frightening” to dogs.
The scientific evidence shows that:
Shocked dogs are more stressed during training than non-shocked dogs
Shocked dogs are more stressed in general than non-shocked dogs
Shocked dogs are stressed by the presence of their handler because they anticipate being shocked
Researchers surmised that all of this stress likely has a negative impact on dogs’ long term well-being and that reward based training is healthier and more effective than aversive methods.
I can tell you from personal experience that when I stopped shocking Jake and committed to positive training methods exclusively our relationship AND his behavior improved tenfold.
For an example of how reward based training works, download my No More Pulling ebook to teach your dog how to walk politely on leash so your walks are far more fun and no longer frustrating.
It sounds like you are talking about ecollar use that either uses cheap equipment with not enough graduation in the settings, and or just heavy handed, ignorant use.
I’ve seen impressive results with *clearly* no trauma to the dog, on super low settings-similar to a moderate pop on the lead but giving you that communication at distance. Upstate Canine Academy is one centre that does amazing stuff with it.
I understand there are (a lot?) of idiots out there. But I think it’s a great tool in good hands.
I’m actually talking about the use of any electronic collars regardless of how skilled the handler is. The device no matter the setting is aversive and do definitely cause “trauma” to the dogs. I 100% do not advice or condone their use. Studies have shown that the anxiety these cause when used remains with the dog even when the devise isn’t in use. They can also damage the relationship between dog and person. I know many traditional and even balanced trainers use them but the latest science points overwhelmingly to their use causing more harm than good. I also do not recommend “pops” on the leash. Train your dog to do the things you want them to do without those fear and punishment based methods and you will be a lot happier and so will your dog. I also don’t think people who use these devices are idiots. They are just people trying to train their pets but don’t have the best information to do so. I was the same years ago. I saw first hand the damage these can cause and now know better. If you use them, please reconsider. Do some research on their negative effects and see if that doesn’t change your mind. Thank you for reading and commenting on this article. I’m happy to talk more about this subject!
You are wrong, here is why(detailed):
The first thing you don’t understand is that dogs are pack animals that need a strong leader. In the wild, wolfs will correct lower ranking members of their pack with “aversive” behavior, a lot of the time they will even “bite” each other in the throat. Wolfs/ dogs are build to have relationships that are based on dominance and pressure, that’s completely normal for them. To not have that is in no way freeing. The best analogy i can come up with is someone without a job who is living on welfare and is playing video games all day long every day. After two weeks, it’s not that fun anymore and the person will develop psychological issues. I am not saying, that positive reinforcement is bad or something. It should make up the majority of the Training. It’s the easiest way to teach the dog what he needs to do and it’s a lot of fun for the dog. The problem with it is, that if you ask a lot from the dog, you have to give it a lot so in order to get the dog to do a complicated agility routine or something like that you have two options. the first one is starving the dog so he will do it for food(not nice) or you can make him soooo crazy about his favorite toy that it’s basically the only thing the dog ever thinks about. also not very good. It’s basically like an extremely severe video game addiction in humans (also not good for the dog) and it’s not even giving very good results. for example, you can basically ruin years of training in a seeing eye dog, just by petting it because in order for the training to work, the dog has to think he is living in a bubble, where the handler is the only person the dog will ever play with or get food from. This means, that the best way to get your dog to listen to you is to have a strong relationship with your dog, where you are the pack leader. This of cause only works if you act like a pack leader, which does include setting up reasonable rules, that the dog can follow and enforcing them. This doesn’t mean beating the dog or choking him with a leash or anything like that but there is nothing wrong with pushing the dog around or tugging on a leash or things like that. Of cause you need to make sure that the dog actually knows what you want him to do (body language, commands that he learned with positive reinforcement etc.) Now about e collars, first of all (modern) shock collars do not cause burns. If a collar is too tight, the electrodes can damage skin by just poking too hard and if the collar is too loose, the collar will move around and the electrodes will be rubbing on the skin. A collar is also certainly not strong enough to cause cardiac arrest/ cardiac fibrillation(a term google doesn’t know btw, i assume you mean ventricular fibrillation, which is something that can happen during cardiac arrest, where the heart basically tries to contract but doesn’t get a strong enough impulse to actually do so which results in it twitching at a fast pace without moving any blood) Now about the other problems you mentioned. At least they are real but they all result from mistakes the human make and have little to do with the collar. The first thing you have to do when using a collar is to find the lowest setting the dog notices while holding the dog by the collar. (i will explain why in a sec.) If you try out a collar on yourself, you will notice that when you try to find out what the lowest setting you can feel is, you don’t get a massive shock if you reach that point where you can feel it, you only get a slight tingle, if you go up, the tingle will of cause get stronger but the strongest setting of a modern collar should still not be painful. all you feel is your nerves being stimulated(also not dangerous). The next thing you have to do when using a collar is to teach the dog, that the electrical impulse is not coming out of nowhere but that they are coming from you(this is why you need to gold the dog by the collar). If the dog doesn’t understand what is going on, he will of cause get scared and yelp and do all these things but not because he is in pain. It’s a feeling he doesn’t really like, he doesn’t know where it is coming from etc. if you do this a few times like that, the dog will get traumatized no matter how strong it actually is, as long as he can feel it. And if you just use any setting and it’s too high, the dog will also get traumatized, this isn’t rocket science. If you use a collar correctly, it should stimulate the nerves in the throat area just enough so the dog realizes it (if he is chasing a squirrel, the dog is more focused, and his brain will ignore a lot more of the things going on around the dog than if the dog is sitting on a sofa doing nothing), roughly simulating a correction from another dog (the light throat biting i mentioned above). The most important thing here is that the dog understands, that this is directly coming from you and not a ghost. And the second thing is, that the dog needs to know what you want him to do. stress only occurs, when can’t do anything about the weird annoying feeling, or at least thinks that he has no influence on it. The way we know this is through rat experiments where the rats got electric shocks where the researchers gave the them different ways to control if they got shocked or not. They found out, that the rats would only get stressed if they couldn’t control the shocks (for example with a button that they had to press if they got a signal) (we are talking about negative stress that actually does a lot of damage to the nervous system) The rats that did get to control the shocks just became very alert and didn’t suffer at all (even if the researchers made it so hard for them that they got shocked every now and then). I don’t know exactly what the scientific evidence understands as stress, it could be that they mean negative(harmful) stress, that they got by strapping a few collars to some random dogs who didn’t know what an e collar is and tried to train the dogs with them, just to “prove” a point or it could be that they also classified positive behavior like alertness as stress which wouldn’t be wrong exactly but more like lying by omission. Anyway, if used CORRECTLY, which a lot of people just don’t because they don’t know any better, like you, an e-collar is nothing more than a leash with a martingale collar or something like that just for long range. You can certainly make huge mistakes with equipment like that, it should not be used on an untrained dog. Before you can even think about using one you should have been training basic and mid level obedience for a few months, the puppy should already understand what you want from him etc.
I’m going to end this here, where i live it’s 1 am and i’m tired. I’m pretty sure that this was a bit incoherent in a few places because i can’t concentrate anymore but i hope it’s not that bad.
Hi, thanks for the comment. You will find if you do some research that the alpha/pack theory to which you refer was based on a flawed study of captive non-family wolves – so not wolves behaving in a natural way. Dr. Mech who devised the study and proposed the theory has since come out publicly to say that he was wrong and no longer believes what he proposed back in the 1970s. I know that it is hard to give up a methodology that we have become comfortable with but that is the nature of progress. Just like it is no longer commonplace to beat children it should no longer be commonplace to punish dogs in order to train them. They are sensitive intelligent creatures who deserve our respect and compassion.
There are many ways to use eCollars, some of which are actually not aversive. I had been vehemently anti-ecollar for 50 years. My only knowledge of them were aversive shocks – essentially being misused.
I highly recommend reading The Art of Training Your Dog by the monks of New Skete. Their program uses positive, food-based training to teach the behaviors and limited use of the e collar at a very low level only when/if needed to gain attention. I’ve used one on myself. It’s a lot to try to explain here, but definitely worth a read even if it turns out to further solidify your stance against them. I read it to learn more for that reason. I just like to know as much as I can about things.
Like many posters, I had only known them to be used aversively and to “light up” dogs. I’ve learned it doesn’t have to be used like that in any way, shape, or form, nor do they have to be used for life.
Thank you for your comment although I have to disagree with you that there is ever a time to use an e-collar in a non-aversive way. I know the monks recently put out an updated book and I do not recommend it at all due to their advocacy of shock collars. Even limited use is aversive as the studies on this device have shown. Using pain in training, even in a limited fashion is aversive and will suppress rather than change behavior.
Thank you for writing this article. I too, was a first time dog owner with a troubled dog. She started reacting to other dogs. An e collar trainer sold me the lie that it would fix her.
Boy was I wrong. He lit her up with the e collar when we walked past dogs and i immediately saw her change for the worse.
She associates other dogs to a shock now. I saw the light and personality drain from her and our relationship has never been the same. I do regret it and I threw the e collar away.
Now I’m focusing on purely positive training and I’m slowly starting to see her trust me again. I’m so sad.
Oh Emma, your comment made me cry. Your and my story are the same. You can rebuild your relationship as you see is starting. Jake and I overcame those days. Keep being positive and patient. Dogs are full of forgiveness. I didn’t know until it was too late either that e-collars make aggression worse! All the best wishes for you and your dog moving forward.
I’m sorry, but I just don’t know what you’re all doing with e-collars. E-COLLARS, not shock collars. There is a huge difference.
I have a strong-willed German Shepherd. (But aren’t they all?) She’s super smart, learned everything quickly, and was wonderful to walk on a leash… until the rest of the family was walking ahead. Then she went nuts and there was no getting her attention or stopping her. We worked with a trainer and tried EVERYTHING. The misery of those walks and the training with my increasing frustration were far more damaging to her than the e-collar we eventually got. We worked with a trainer, and it was a last resort. I wish we’d tried it sooner. Our girl is very sensitive, so we never turn it up very high, at all. I tried it on my own hand. My son tried it. I don’t what on earth you’re calling an “e-Collar” that causes burns, but the pulses were not painful.
Our girl never showed any signs of stress, trauma, or pain. After months of struggling, it took only about a day or two to get her to walk without pulling when the rest of the family was ahead of us. With a couple weeks, it didn’t even take any effort on her part—she was walking calmly and happily, able to focus, and we were barely touching it after a month or so. That was years ago—she’s never been anything but an absolute joy, no matter who we’re walking with and where they are—since we worked with her wearing the e-Collar. All day, she watches me for the “getting ready for a walk” signs. When she sees me going in to my sock drawer, she gets a big, dopey grin on her face and starts running up and down the hall way with her tail wagging wildly. Maybe you’re thinking dogs still don’t get praise? Cause that isn’t true, either. The pulse from the e-Collar just brought her attention back to me just long enough to be aware of me again. She was praised profusely each time, and that tail was STILL wagging.
So… traumatized? I think not. That e-Collar made us BOTH happier, in the long run. They key is: e-Collars ARE different than shock collars and you must know how to use them for training (in terms of timing not in terms of “so you don’t burn your dog”). Should they be used for every little thing? No, that’s overkill. Are they a good solution to training issues? Heck, yeah. Are they better for your dog than turning walks into something they dread? Heck, yeah. We have another puppy who immediately started showing the exact same behavior. I tried a couple other things first, but quickly decided I’m not going to waste time stressing him out for weeks over this.
Talking about e-Collars this way, and lumping them in with shock collars is doing a serious disservice to those who would benefit greatly from this training method.
Unfortuantly you had a trainer that was not good if they were putting your dog in high distration areas and just “lighting them up” with the e collar. That is improper use. The dog should be slowly introduced to distractions after it is accustomed to the e collar and trained on basic commands first with it. Putting a dog in a high distraction situation and putting the e collar on a high number to correct it when it looks at other dogs is not the correct way. This does not mean e-collars are not great for training, it does mean your trainer did not know what they were doing.
I appreciate your thoughts on this but e-collars are aversive under all conditions. Whether they are used correctly or incorrectly, they are detrimental to the emotional well-being of dogs. Yes, they work, but the cost to your dog’s emotional health is too high. Using electronic collars is akin to spanking a child.
Do you condone the use of the Sit Means Sit e-collar program. Their program seems well managed.
Hi Michelle, no, I don’t recommend the use of electronic collars (even on vibrate) for any training at all. Studies have shown they increase anxiety in dogs even when not wearing the collars or being shocked. I’ve also seen this myself in working with dogs who have been shocked in the past (even by me). There are better, more effective ways to train a dog. Positive training provides long lasting results by changing a dog’s behavior rather than suppressing it (as punishment based training does). It’s also a lot more fun for both canine and human.
If you are comparing a $20 shocking device to a a proper e-collars You are so wrong. They don’t shock the dog the stimulate the muscle. I have experienced level 20 on myself which is barely even causing discomfort and I work my dog at level 5. Please do some research before spreading wrong information.
Hi Victoria, I wholeheartedly disagree with you on this. There is a big difference between a person feeling the shock and a dog because the person understands what is going on and is in control, the dog doesn’t and isn’t. There is also no need to train dogs through punishment when you can train them more successfully through positive reinforcement. I know that punishment/correction based training has been around for a long time but the most recent data supports positive training. Ultimately, it is more successful and humane.
You are on the wrong side of this argument, telling all of these people not to use e collars because you yourself were too uneducated to train your dog correctly. It is not right to generalize good trainers who have trained hundreds compared to the one you admittedly didn’t know how to train properly. You are a problem spreading this type of news people are looking for a real answer and not your Garabage opinions, it is right for some applications but must be used correctly, it is crazy to say it’s all bad.
I stand by what I wrote. I agree that I was not educated in the use of these devices but educated cruelty and ignorant cruelty result in the same harm. All of the relevant research shows that the use of e-collars, whether by experts or amateurs, results in heightened stress in dogs. I also believe that training through punishment, which the use of this device qualifies as, is a lazy way of training. It works, I don’t dispute that, but it works by suppressing behavior rather than changing the underlying cause of behavior like positive training does.
Hi! It sounds like you fundamentally misunderstand the purpose of e-collars in the same way many people misunderstand the purpose of a leash. In fact, the purpose and consequence of both is the same.
It is not appropriate to lean on a leash or e-collar in place of proper training. The goal is to not NEED those tools, but to have them in place to fall back on as safeguards. A well-trained dog should heel without any special tools. However, if you have a high-drive breed and a covey of quail rushes across your path on the other side of a busy road, you’ll be glad you have that leash attached. The dog will not like the pressure on their neck. It might even be uncomfortable. But because you trained them well, they will yield to the pressure and a crisis will be averted.
For modern hunting dogs, an e-collar is the best safeguard we can ask for. How else can we get our dog’s attention when they’re on a scent 400 yards out and oblivious to a threat that we become aware of? Do you think a whistle or vocal command from that distance has the same affect as a beep right next to their ear or a physical stimulus that they’ve been conditioned to? Have you seen a bird dog when it sees its owner with the e-collar in hand? Most of them will shove their head in as fast as they can. Because they’ve been conditioned to it correctly. It means fun things are about to happen.
Hunters have an incentive to train their dogs correctly; the dogs perform very important roles. However, an e-collar in the hands of a beginner (which it sounds like you were) or someone who just wants to use a pain stimulus as a punishment for bad behavior is no good. Just like those who allow their dogs to constantly pull on the leash while on walks. I would argue that the solution is to educate on proper use, not to crusade against a tool that, when used correctly, provides an extra layer of safety – like a collar and leash.
Hi Caitie, I was a novice back in the day with using an e-collar but that isn’t where my distaste for them comes from. I do understand their use and purpose but as you say, when a dog is properly trained you don’t need to use such tools. I do believe that a call or whistle works just as well to recall a dog if they have been trained. What I don’t believe in is punishment so a shock or yank on a leash or shouting or anything that is meant to punish bad behavior doesn’t work for me for training dogs. Punishment creates a fear based relationship to training rather than actually teaching the dog what is wanted and allowing it to experience the positive feelings that come when he/she succeeds at a task. Even when used correctly, electronic collars have long-term negative effects on a dog’s anxiety levels when compared with dogs not trained with aversive tools. For me, the solution is to eliminate the use of e-collars all together and focus on positively training dogs to come when called from longer distances.
Ruth, Thank you for all this info on e collars. We recently were givin one from our trainer and after approximately 8 weeks in I started noticing my 9 month old rescue pup reverting back to some aggressive behaviors when we thought there was improvements. After reading this I’m sick to my stomach,it brought me to tears. I immediately got rid of it! Sooo Grateful, Samantha
I’m so glad you found the article and that it helped you make that decision. I know that sick feeling as I put an e-collar on my dog in the past and felt the same. If you want to work with a trainer, find one who is a positive reinforcement trainer (not “traditional” or “balanced”) as they will never advocate for an aversive method. Don’t feel bad, when we learn better, we do better and that’s what you have done! I’m happy for you and your pup.
Thank you for your article and for keeping your comments public. This is a great example of how people can disagree and not have to get offensive, mostly. I have had dogs for many, many years, and have recently come to understand training from a positive reinforcement only approach through a professional dog training course. I have not ever used the e-collars or anything more aversive than a slip/choke collar, relying on leash correction and positive reinforcement for desired behavior. Now, I have even given up the slip collar.
I continue to try to educate myself about prong collars, and any type of training device that uses a remote control (whatever they are called). I continue to be faced with the questions from clients that use or have used them, usually based on what a dog trainer told them. I want to understand better so I help educate dog owners. They may still choose that equipment but at least I can give more information.
Lastly, I have trained my current dog with only positive reinforcement. She probably did receive detectable aversive until over a year old. Old habits are sometimes difficult to completely replace and I admit I fall back when I am a lazy trainer or run short on time. I don’t think I have had a better dog companion, sport dog – we are doing agility, friendly temperment, and overall fun and well-adjusted dog at 2 years old. Positive reinforcement may take a ton of patience for some behaviors, on the other hand, my girl gets the clicker and brings it to me so we can ‘play’. And, it is so self-reinforcing to help families and their pets through coaching and training with positive reinforcement. 😉
Thank you so much for your positive comment. It truly stands out among all the folks who think I am just using e-collars wrong. I agree it’s an important conversation to have and the only way to do that, as you point out, is by being cordial together. I truly believe that no matter which side of the conversation someone is on, we all really do care about dogs and their well-being. I don’t believe traditional trainers are trying to be cruel, I think they are (as they believe I am) misinformed. I’ve used slip collars as well in the past and came to believe, as you have, that even they are aversive. Much better to motivate our dogs by providing rewards than punish with pain/neck jerks.
I use the same approach with clients who’ve tried aversive methods. I explain that there are several schools of thought in dog training (traditional, balanced & positive) and why we differ. I won’t work with aversive tools but will work with people who have used or are using them so that I can show them a better way. I recently convinced a client to give up a prong collar by showing them that a front hooking harness could give them the same control.
I’ve used many aversive methods on my dog before discovering positive training and none since then. He is the best dog and has responded to positive training so well. Positive training may take longer up front as you point out but it lasts a lifetime because it is changing the underlying causes of the behavior rather than suppressing an unwanted behavior through pain and intimidation.
Thank you so much for taking the time to respond. I really appreciate it! I also checked out your website and love the fun happy feel of it. The world needs all the positive trainers we can get!
What is your feeling in a prong and/or choke collars for use when walking and training ?-
I see prong and choke collars as aversive similar to e-collars. Any time you use pain, fear or punishment to change a dog’s behavior, it’s abusive. The better way to teach a dog is through positive reinforcement so that the dog actually learns to behave differently instead of behaving differently out of fear of punishment. If you have a large dog that pulls, a harness that hooks to the leash at the chest is an effective management tool to reduce pulling while you teach your dog not to pull. For reactivity which is another popular reason people use aversive tools, pain/punishment can actually make the reactivity worse as I experienced with my own dog. Some trainers like these tools because they can create a “quick fix” but they are doing more harm than good in the long run where positive training may take a little longer to see results but the changes are foundational and therefore real and long term.