Training Devices

I have long held the opinion that any training device, including a simple flat collar, can become an instrument of torture for a dog if it is used in an incorrect manner by someone who either has bad intentions or simply does not know what they are doing. What boggles my mind is the fact that many people claim some devices are cruel and other devices are humane and simply refuse to see that any device is only as cruel as the person using it, especially if they are using it incorrectly.

This is a big subject for debate particularly in dog training where we have many options for training devices, and especially for devices that help control a pulling dog. Some people swear by choke collars (or check collars, as some call them). Some people swear by head halters. Some by prong collars. Other by front-clip harnesses. The fact of the matter is that all of these devices, including head collars, can be potentially frightening and dangerous to a dog.

Suzanne Clothier, the author of “Bones would Rain from the Sky” and owner of the “Flying Dog Press” has a fantastic article on humane head halters and how inhumane they can be when used incorrectly, which is located here. (Bookmark her site. She has some great articles.)

Which brings me to the reason for this blog entry. I was looking for dog articles to post to our Facebook page, when I came across a Letters-to-the-Vet sort of segment on St. Luis Today, where a reader wrote the following -

Dear Dr. Fox — I think bark collars and so-called training collars that shock are abusive and inhumane.

My dog weighs 70 pounds. When between puppy and adult stage (about 6 months), she would jump up on us, and her rough, playful nips hurt. Unwittingly, I purchased an obedience collar that emitted a shock from an activated handheld device.

I saw an immediate downfall in her spirits. She cowered and stayed away from my husband and me. She had traumatic reactions to us even touching her normal collar. I discontinued the use of that horrible device and method.

How awful was it? She is now 11 years old, and she still remembers that shock collar. She’s leery of anything that has to do with a collar, even her normal one. She shows fear and jerks away when we remove her collar for bathing. Eleven years later, she still remembers. — D.F., Fenton, Mo.

It was titled, “training devices can be torturous”, but I have to wonder whether the device is really to blame or whether the owners should look somewhere else altogether when it comes to placing blame.

From the letter, it sounds to me as if this family was going through a pretty normal puppy stage with their large-breed dog when she was six month old. She was jumping on people and she nipped in play. Which is pretty normal behavior for any puppy, even a large breed puppy, if that puppy is not being redirected or taught that this sort of behavior is not okay. And let’s face it, most dogs jump because they’re happy and excited and because it gets them attention. Positive (petting and play) or negative (pushing her off or yelling at her), it’s all attention to the dog.

Instead of attempting to train the dog to get attention and play in appropriate, positive ways, the family opted to simply correct the behavior with punishment to get it to stop. There were a lot of things they could have done to show the puppy behaviors that were appropriate and wanted instead of seeking to correct or punish her for behaviors that were “inappropriate”. Which, to me, is the difference between setting your puppy up for success (teaching them the right thing to do), rather than setting them up for failure (waiting for them to do the wrong thing and then punishing them).

Jumping is such a common behavior that I’ve probably talked about it with everyone I have ever trained with, and there are many methods to address it. Some people will step on the jumping dog’s rear paw or hold their front paws to make it unpleasant for them to jump. Some people will knee them in the chest. Personally, I do not like either method. The first one, stepping on the rear paw, I dislike because I prefer not to hurt my dogs in training. The other two, because … well, I’ve got a Malinois and all those methods would do would be to make this a really exciting game for her and hype her up even more. As a matter of fact, she loves for me to push her away with my foot when we play – she will run at me, I will push her with my foot, and she will bounce right back at me.

What has worked best for me when it comes to dealing with jumping is to teach the dog that jumping gets them absolutely no attention at all. Instead, it turns them into the invisible dog. I don’t see them. They’ve just simply disappeared as far as I’m concerned. The way to do this is to cross your arms, turn away, and make no eye contact. It doesn’t take a dog very long to figure out that jumping is no longer a fun game and no longer gets them any attention at all when you do this consistently – and they usually start looking for things to do that get them attention instead. (At that point, teaching them to sit and giving lots of attention when they’re sitting usually works really well.)

And when it comes to nipping hard in play, you also have options. Most young dogs – definitely a six-month-old – can and do nip in play because, well, that is how dogs play with each other. They mouth, they nip, they grab a mouth full of fur and tug. Sometimes they can get pretty serious about that with one another, but their skin isn’t nearly as sensitive as ours in most places, particularly in that area ’round the neck they like to grab on each other when they wrestle and play. So for dog-dog play, this is pretty acceptable and normal behavior – but for dog-human play it isn’t. Except our dogs don’t know this unless we teach them.

There are a lot of different methods one could use to teach a dog not to nip and mouth. One would be to stop the game as soon as any nipping and mouthing starts, since behaviors that cause the dog to be ignored tend to be behaviors that go away pretty quickly. Another would be to offer something appropriate to bite and play with, such as a tug toy – which is a really fun, interactive game between a dog and his/her human, while at the same time allowing the dog to bite and nip and pull in a perfectly appropriate way. You’ll notice that neither of those methods require a dog to be punished for doing something “wrong”.

But the owners of this dog did not choose any of these methods.

It has generally been my experience that many pet owners get a dog and simply never teach the dog anything at all. Some don’t even teach something as simple as “sit” or “come” and some dogs don’t even know their name because nobody has ever taught them. A lot of pet owners assume that dogs “know what to do” automatically. And a lot of people think that “training” a dog means waiting until the dog does something wrong – like peeing on the floor or eating a pair of shoes – and then punishing the dog because “he should have known better”. It doesn’t occur to most people that a dog doesn’t actually know better unless he is shown what to do (and what not to do) by his owners.

At any rate, I don’t know whether the owners in question fall into that category, but I think it would be a good guess to assume that they probably do if their response to dealing with jumping up and nipping in a six-month-old puppy was to head to the pet store and buy an electronic collar to “correct” the behavior.

Now, I will be the last person to say that you need an electronic collar to train your dog, but I will be the first person to admit that it can be a very useful training tool if you know how to use it correctly. If you do know how to use it correctly – which is something that you learn from another person (someone who has experience using the device correctly) and not something you learn from reading the manual, watching the instructional DVD that comes with some devices, or asking a pet store employee – an e-collar can be an excellent training tool, either for “proofing” already learned behaviors off-leash, or for training new behaviors.

Some trainers, such as Lou Castle, use an e-collar almost exclusively. They will also be the first to tell you that using the e-collar incorrectly can set back your training, stress your dog, and create problems that will need a professional to fix. Which, in my opinion, is exactly what happened in the case of DF and her 6-month-old puppy. Looking for an easy fix to the two issues she had with her dog, she bought an e-collar, put it on the dog, and used it to correct the dog when the behavior occurred. Which, clearly, has absolutely terrified her dog. I wonder how strong of a stimulation it would take on an e-collar to cause a dog to cower and stay away from its owners immediately after the device was used for the first time, and to leave such a lasting impression?

Also, try to see the situation from the dog’s point of view.

The owners come home and the dog comes bounding up, happy to see them, tail wagging, jumping up on her humans. So they proceed to zap her with the e-collar to keep her from jumping. From her point of view, she was happily greeting them and she was getting punished for it. So the message that sends to a dog is … what, exactly? To stay away from her humans? That greeting them happily will result not in attention from her people but in getting punished? Yes, I would keep away from them, too, if I was getting zapped every time I came to say hello.

The responding veterinarian did address the fact that there were other methods they could have tried, such as a clicker or rattling change in a can to correct the behavior, but I think he missed a couple of good opportunities to talk about good training and about appropriate corrections. Of course, he pretty much ruined everything of value he offered by starting his response with the words, “Shock collars for dogs are indeed an abomination.”

Sorry, but I disagree.

E-collars, like any other device, are as good as the hands that hold the controller. In this case, the way in which the e-collar was used was indeed an abomination. However, that does not make “training devices torturous”. It makes the owners torturous, and any lasting effects (or even any short-term effects) this training device had on this particular dog was a direct result of the torturous and abominable way it was used by the dog’s owners.

Remember – the fact that you can buy something in a store does not mean it is safe for anyone to use. (I bet a lot of people buy pepper spray for self-defense and don’t know how to use it correctly. Or guns, for that matter.) And just because you’ve read the instructions doesn’t mean you know everything there is about using the device. (Computers are a prime example for this, for example.) If you need help training, the first stop should be a trainer. If you need a device, you should be working with an experienced person who knows how to use it. Alternatively, you can buy a device, use it wrongly, screw up your dog, and then complain that the device is evil.

Posted in posts. 2 Comments »

2 Responses to “Training Devices”

  1. Mike Says:

    I agree with this 100%.

    It also *hugely* depends on the personality of your dog. If you have an outgoing, strong-willed dog, a properly used collar won’t bother them, but some soft dogs will freak out over even gentle use.

    I have used a choke or prong collar to train every one of my dogs to heel, and every one of them wagged their tails and could barely contain their excitement when they saw me get it out, because it meant we were going on a walk! Head halters and the different no pull harnesses definitely have their place as an intermediate “I just need this new rescue dog to stop pulling me around the adoption event” sort of thing, but every dog I’ve met seems to strongly dislike them, even after they’ve been used to them for a long time.

    I think that a lot of the mindset comes from potential for misuse. If you misuse a choke collar, you can either injure the dog or make them reactive and fearful. If you misuse positive training methods, the worst thing you end up with is a spoiled, fat dog, which is what most people were starting with anyway.

  2. Amy Says:

    I have to agree with you 100% on this. Any device can be inhumane if used incorrectly. All training devises can be effective if used correctly. The story you share saddens me, it sounds as though they used to collar very incorrectly. It sounds as though they turned it all the way up, a big no no, and shocked the poor dog. Certainly the wrong way to go about it! Remote collars can be very effective in training, but they are not to hurt the dog, you are supposed to find the dogs working level which would simply be where the dog can feel it, like someone tapping on your shoulder, not an all out shock.

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