Ask the Dogfather: to shock, or not to shock?

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Tom Shelby, who has trained dogs and their owners on Martha’s Vineyard and in New York City, answers readers’ questions about their problematic pooches. This week, the Dogfather counsels the owners of a poop-eater.

Dear Dogfather…

What do you think about using shock collars to adjust your dog’s behavior?

Dear questioner,

Great question because its use is controversial. According to the American Pet Dog Trainers Association and the All Rewards Trainers my position is politically incorrect. As my wife often says to that, “So what’s new?”

It’s so politically incorrect that the collar is not referred to as a shock collar, but rather an E collar (electronic collar), and many people would be shocked by the use of the word “shock” collar. It doesn’t shock, it gives stim (stimulation) and is often referred to as a stim collar. So much for semantics.

Do I use a stim collar? You betcha! Have I ever said to someone, “Get a stim collar and use it.” Never. I’ve told clients to get the collar, read the instructions and don’t even let the dog see it till I get there.

Then, depending on the age, sensitivity, and behavior we want to change or eliminate, I decide how and when the collar is to be used. Most modern shock collars have three different types of stim – a tone, a vibration, and the stim. The stim on my collar can go from 1 to 100. At 1 or 2 I feel nothing when testing it on my hand. At 100… well, I wouldn’t test it on myself at 100.

That’s right, I always test a collar on myself (on my hand) before I put it on a dog. I need to know exactly what the dog is experiencing. You can buy two identical E collars and find that a stim setting of 2 is about the same as a 3 or 4 on the other collar. It is, after all, just a mechanical device.

If it’s to be used on a very sensitive dog, the tone or vibration mode may more than suffice. If it’s a dog with a history of seriously attacking other dogs, the stim may be needed.

Then it’s a matter of Pavlovian conditioning. The dog’s on the porch barking at everyone walking by with the owner screaming “Shut up!” It’s reached a point where neighbors are complaining as the dog completely ignores the screeching owner. Enter the E collar. The dog barks and as the bark is exiting the dogs mouth, I say “Quiet,” immediately followed by the tone, then immediately followed by the stim, if necessary. The stim is always set to startle, not hurt. If done correctly,the dog will stop barking to avoid the stim when it hears the tone. With a few repetitions the dog will quiet when it hears the word “quiet” to avoid the tone which precedes the stim.

Two examples where I recently used the shock collar: A well-trained Lab worked like a metal detector finding and eating every turd it could at the dog park. The lady hired a trainer who chased the dog around the park on a leash and yelled “Leave it” when it grabbed a turd. The trainer did this till he slipped and fell in it himself.

I explained to the dog owner that at best, the dog will leave it when closely watched while on a leash, and that what we really want is the dog to relate discomfort to picking up the turd even if we’re nowhere near. Perfect for the E collar. And the dog’s reaction was funny. He went to grab a turd within seconds after I unhooked the leash. Nothing said here by me. No “Leave it.” I wanted this to be strictly between dog and turd. Tone and stim just as he picked up the turd and it flew out of his mouth, with him now circling the turd and growling at it. Two more tone and stims and he had lost his appetite for the smelly hot dogs.

The second example involved a 76-year-old lady who found a puppy in a garbage can and rescued it. At six months of age the puppy weighed 65 pounds while the woman weighed about 95 pounds. Every time she took it for a walk the dog was jumping on her and grabbing the leash and being quite obnoxious. When I took the leash the dog behaved beautifully, but I was unable to accomplish what I call the leash transfer, getting the dog to behave for her if I wasn’t assisting.

Enter the E collar. She left the house at precisely noon with the dog wearing the collar and me holding the remote, across the street. As far as the dog was concerned I wasn’t even in the country. When the dog acted up the lady yelled “foo,” something the dog had never heard, and I shocked the dog from across the street. Within 20 minutes and after several “foo’s” the dog gave the lady the respect she demanded whenever he heard the word “foo.” I was able to empower the elderly dog owner with the use of the E collar. I then spent a fair amount of time teaching the lady how and when to use the collar.

So what do I think about the E collar? I think it’s a very useful tool when used correctly. Not for amateurs. Let the hate mail begin.

The Dogfather