Have you ever considered using an electronic collar (aka e-collar or shock collar) to train your dog? Perhaps you advocate against their use or feel they can be helpful in certain situations. The use of e-collars (one form of positive punishment) in dog training has been hotly debated for the last several decades. One school of trainers uses little or no (positive) punishment in training and focuses on positive reinforcement to teach the dog the desired behaviors. Another school of trainers argues that positive reinforcement techniques are not as effective as techniques that include punishment and advocate the use of both punishment and reinforcement in training (see last week’s post for more on positive/negative punishment/reinforcement).
We can argue until we’re blue in the face, but we’ll never really settle this argument without good, impartial data from experimental studies that examine the impact and efficacy of both techniques. A recent study at the University of Lincoln (Cooper et al., 2014) in England did this by comparing the results of training using e-collars with training using only positive reinforcement. Let’s see what they found.
The published paper included results from two studies. The first, smaller study was a preliminary study, followed up by the second, larger study. The first study used nine dogs, trained with the use of an e-collar by one of four different trainers. Of those four, only one of the trainers used the industry standard for training with an electronic collar. This involves starting at the lowest setting and gradually increasing the intensity until a mild response is triggered in the dog. It also requires using pre-warning cues that signal a potential stimulation if the dog continues a behavior. The other three trainers started at the highest level of stimulation (or, for one dog, in the high end of the range) and did not use warning cues. Dogs in both studies were presented by their owners for training due to chasing livestock or wildlife and/or failure to come when called from a distance.
In the second study, there were three groups:
- dogs trained with e-collars by industry approved trainers
- dogs trained by those same trainers, but without e-collars
- dogs trained by members of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers UK (APDT UK) without e-collars. The APDT UK opposes the use of e-collars.
It’s important to note that the trainers in group 1 used e-collars according to the industry approved methods mentioned above (using lowest effective setting and pre-warning cues).
The study assessed the impact of the different training methods by using three different measures:
- Observations of the dogs’ behavior (preliminary and main studies)
- Measurements of stress using salivary cortisol (preliminary and main studies)
- Owner reports post training (main only)
The findings of the study can (and should) be used to guide our choices regarding training methods.
Dogs in the preliminary study showed clear evidence of distress. Overall, dogs displayed the following in the period of time following a stimulation:
- Abrupt changes in movement – such as running to walking or stopping. The one dog being trained on lower setting with warning, showed a subtler reaction – a change in orientation and posture.
- Increase in vocalizations, including yelps and whines
- Increase in percentage of time tail was tucked (2% of time before à 20% of time after)
- Increase in percentage of time “tense” (10% before à 50% after)
- Decrease in amount of time investigating (20% before à 5% after)
- Increase in interaction with owners (14% before à 56% after)
- Elevated cortisol levels (the “stress” hormone) after stimulation
The researchers conclude that the “results are consistent with exposure to a significant short term stressor in the form of an aversive and probably painful stimulus during training.”
Differences between dogs trained with properly used e-collar or without the use of e-collars are still present, but more subtle. Compared to dogs trained without the use of e-collars, those trained with e-collars:
- were more tense
- spent less time sniffing and exploring their environment
- were no different in terms of lip licking and yawning (common signs of stress)
- were no different in salivary cortisol levels
Training with and without e-collars was equally effective at addressing the problem. That is, e-collars did not provide an advantage over positive-reinforcement training. There was no significant difference between groups in the owners’ reports of efficacy. Overall, 88% of owners reported improvement in the dog’s overall behavior and 92% reported improvement in the specific problem for which their dog had been referred. However, owners in the e-collar group were slightly less confident in applying the methods used on their own.
A number of important conclusions can be drawn from this study:
- The specific method of training with the electronic collar matters. Poor use of the e-collar produces far more distress in dogs than proper use of the e-collar.
- Even proper training with the e-collar does not provide an advantage over training with positive reinforcement. In addition, dogs trained using positive reinforcement showed less distress than those trained using e-collars.
- Owners of dogs trained using e-collars were less confident about carrying through on training at home. This indicates that these dogs are probably at higher risk for experiencing improper use of the e-collar once the owner takes over training which, as mentioned above, can be very upsetting.
My opinion. The primary argument in favor of using e-collars is that they result in faster, more reliable learning than positive reinforcement alone. If electronic collars can cause pain and distress to dogs, do not result in faster or more reliable training and are at risk of being misused, then trainers and owners should turn to positive reinforcement instead. Perhaps you already had come to this conclusion on your own. If that’s the case, I encourage you to use the facts from this study to inform other people of the risks of e-collar use and that better and more humane options exist.
Are there other studies on dog behavior you’d like to see done? What kind of questions would you like to see addressed?
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