THE E-COLLAR EFFECT
Once in the habit of using equipment to train or contain animals, it paves the way for continuing its use. We also vary the way it’s used, or incorporate other equipment into our practice. Not all equipment is bad and some is necessary. Our dogs should be wearing equipment that includes visible identification should they go walkabout. We use leashes to keep our dogs, and those around us, safe. Muzzles are useful for obvious reasons.
As a dog trainer specializing in fearful, shy, anxious, reactive or aggressive dogs and a Registered Behavior Technician I have more than a passing interest in why we do the things we do. The simplest explanation is that our behaviors are being reinforced. As behaviors are repeated it often becomes easier to perform them. We get better at them. After I’ve taken a walk in the woods my husband asks me, “Which way did you go?” And my response is typically, “The way I usually go.” I’m not unique in doing things the way I usually do them. You have routines you stick to, knowingly or not.
When we use equipment to convey to a dog that they are doing something we’d like them to stop, we are reinforced when they do. This might include anything from slight pressure on the leash, leash pops, choking, pronging or shocking. However anything that becomes a reliable predictor of the unpleasantness to come, takes on that unpleasantness as well. This is true even if before this association it wasn’t scary or painful, e.g., collar tones or beeps. If a trainer has no hesitancy using this type of training, and doesn’t understand the potential fall out from it, they signal to owners that using equipment that is uncomfortable, scary or painful, is ok. There is no shortage of products and equipment on the market targeting dog owners, that are aversive to dogs. They work on the dog because they are aversive.
Don’t Just End It
It’s common to address problem behaviors by simply coming up with ways to stop them. This is done using anything that the dog doesn’t like and wants to avoid or get away from. It can be as benign as telling a dog NO who is heading for cheese on the coffee table. The problem is that depending on the dog, the use of aversive methods to manage them, can have negative side effects. The dog can learn to associate the unpleasant, startling or painful thing, with something they perceive in the environment or the location where they experience it, even the time of day they’ve experienced it. This is not uncommon with invisible or electronic fences.
If a dog is already experiencing stress and anxiety due to pain, fear, or phobias, and these contribute to unwanted behavior, using aversive methods to address that behavior can make matters worse. Minimizing or eliminating the use of aversive interventions is recommended. Instead of thinking in terms of simply ending unwanted behaviors we focus on teaching new behaviors and skills (being alone happily and quietly is a skill, seeing other dogs and being able to walk past them calmly is a skill). A qualified trainer can help you identify appropriate behaviors and give you plans for training them. Even if we decide to put safety equipment on an animal we can train as though they’re naked.