This question is answered below in this article written by Eileen Anderson. Thank you to Eileen for kindly allowing us to use her wonderfully written articles as part of our Shock Free Coalition.
Shock collar trainers have several names for the shocks that they administer through the collar. A tap. A stim. A nick. A page. Static. Application of pressure. It sounds like something short and relatively benign.
Even the word “shock,” although it has much more negative connotations (which is why shock collar trainers usually don’t use the word), sounds like something brief. If you get a shock from scuffing your feet on the carpet then touching metal, it is unpleasant but over in milliseconds.
What many people don’t realize is that in many types of shock collar training, the electric shock is on for much longer periods. In the initial training sessions it is turned on and left on until the dog figures out, sometimes with very little effective information from the trainer, what she is supposed to do to get it to turn off.
Here is what that training can look like. (This video uses a stuffed dog as a demo.) Since with many actual shock training videos you can’t tell when the shock is applied and how long it lasts, I have shown that pictorially in the video.
This method uses what is called negative reinforcement. Negative reinforcement is in play whenever you are trying to get an animal to do something by using something painful or uncomfortable. (This is in contrast to positive punishment, which is used to get the dog to stop doing something. Shock training is used for that, too.) When a shock collar is used in negative reinforcement training, the shock is turned on, and left on, until the dog does the desired behavior. Some common applications are for recalls, crate training, platform training, and taking and holding a retrieve item. Negative reinforcement is also called “escape and avoidance” training. In this case the animal is working to escape or avoid the shock.
Science tells us there are two ways to get repeated behavior. One is to add something the dog likes after she does it. (Dog sits, and gets a treat.) The other is to take away something the dog doesn’t like after she does it. The handler pinches a dog’s ear until she grabs and holds the dumbbell in her mouth, then the handler releases the ear. There is no “neutral” way to get behavior to repeat. Behavior is driven by consequences. If you don’t see something either pleasant or aversive influencing the dog’s behavior in a training session, you haven’t looked hard enough. (Hint: it’s usually not praise.)
So when the shock collar trainers say that the shock doesn’t hurt–that’s not true. During the initial training period, it must be painful, uncomfortable, or frightening, or it wouldn’t work. It has to have some unpleasant feeling that is robust enough to get the dog to work to make it stop. An example of a dog exhibiting absolute misery during his first session with a shock trainer is on my page Shock Training Session Video Analysis.
It’s true that after the initial stages of training, the shocks can be shorter and at a lower level. Sometimes just having the dog wear the collar, or using the vibration function only is enough to get compliance. Being trained with shock leaves a history of pain and discomfort behind it. And the possibility of it never goes away as long as the dog is wearing the collar. The dog understands this from experience, because she has already learned the consequence of not responding immediately. The consequence is pain. As Kelly Blackwell, a well known shock trainer, describes the dog’s understanding of shock collar training: “If I don’t do it, they can and will make me do it.” You can see her videos on my Shock Collar Training vs Force Free Video Examples page.
It is even possible to manipulate collars so the dog doesn’t know which collar delivers a shock. A trainer can thus get compliance from a dog who is not even wearing a shock collar. Also if the dog associates the shock with the trainer, the dog may comply without wearing the collar. In both of these cases, the threat of shock is still there to the dog.
That is how you train behaviors with a shock collar. Leave the shock on until the dog complies, then release it when she does. If that level of shock does not work, raise to a more painful level. Once the dog understands how the system works, most dogs will comply at lower levels of pain or just the threat in order to avoid the escalation.
One of the advantages claimed by shock trainers is that their dogs can be off leash. Which of these dogs in the following videos appears to be enjoying his freedom more: the one who just learned to come when called because otherwise he will be shocked, or the one trained force free, doing a long distance recall, and who was called away from sniffing, to boot? Watch the body language.
More Comparison and Analysis
Three new resources:
Shock Collar Training vs Force Free Video Examples. This is a resource page that contrasts videos of dogs being trained with shock and videos of training the same or similar behaviors force free.
Shock Training Session Video Analysis. Some very generous trainers from the Observation Skills for Dog Training FaceBook group helped me do a second by second observational listing of the body language of a dog undergoing his first shock training session. There is also analysis and commentary on the training techniques used.
Training Your Dog with a Shock Collar: How Will You Decide? An article written for a lay audience in plain language on the risks and damage caused by shock collar use. There are links to scholarly resources and statements by credentialed experts to back up the statements made.
Thanks for reading. Please pass this along to anyone who may be considering using shock or hiring a shock trainer because they have heard that the shock is “just like a tap on the shoulder.”
"Dog training using remote training collar by BigLeash"
(This is not a stuffed dog but a real beagle being trained, in case you would rather not watch. The actual training starts at about 1:40)
(Beagle/rat terrier mix trained without force, doing two quick, responsive, happy recalls)