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Unveiling the Deeper Issue Beyond the Shock Collar Ban

A Call for Education and Transformation

The UK recently banned the use of shock collars in dog training, joining a majority of other European countries after a long campaign by animal lovers.  The ban takes effect in February of 2024.  Proponents consider this a great victory, and it’s easy to see why:  they think that taking away this aversive training tool will result in its users changing the way they train to gentler, kinder, more humane training techniques.  But what if they don’t know how?  The problem runs deeper than a single tool.

A man and woman with their pet dog.

Outlawing shock collars is a lot like putting a muzzle on a dog without helping him work through the emotions driving his biting.  The muzzle prevents him from making contact with his teeth, but it’s likely all the behaviors that lead to a bite, up to and including mouth opening and snapping closed, are still happening under the muzzle.

Learning is the key.  Knowledge opens up possibilities for developing new skills.  People who love dogs need an understanding of how dogs operate.  When they understand dogs and behavior, they can use the best training to build fulfilling lives for the dogs and themselves as they navigate life together.

A man and woman with their two pet dogs.

Parallels with Raising Children

It is no longer as acceptable as it once was to spank children, either in school or at home; but everyone knows outlawing corporal punishment would create chaos because people want the freedom to raise their children the way they want to.  So society works in separate sectors to demonstrate ways to give parents tools to manage their frustration and anger with misbehaving children.  Parents seek out books, counseling, parenting support groups, and more to help them pursue excellent parenting.  Experts in education, psychology, and neuroscience create systems to aid parents in setting their children up for success.  Parents and teachers alike learn to teach children so that they learn quickly and effectively without too much pressure causing them to feel frustrated and act out.  Corporal punishment has been used to deal with these problems and others in the past.  These days, you see and hear much more encouragement for children to understand and express their feelings in appropriate ways than before, when they might have been commanded to “straighten up”.  Parents have learned to take a break, walk away, and start fresh in dealing with a demanding child or one acting out inappropriately.  All these approaches work together to present similar information and skills in different ways, and it appears to be working to increase understanding and decrease physical punishment for children.  This is basic behavior science – adjusting the environmental stimuli results in different behavior.

A man and woman with their two children and their dog.

People Do What They Know How to Do

Contrary to the beliefs of some, people who use shock collars to train dogs don’t hate dogs; they love dogs.  They like their dogs well-trained.  They spend money, time, and their own energy to develop the behaviors they want from their dogs, just as those who train with primarily positive reinforcement do.  Whatever you want to call it – negative reinforcement, force training, traditional training, e-collar training, punishment-based training – it gets the results these dog owners and trainers want.  It’s likely they don’t know how to train any other way and the outcomes they get are all they can envision.  

Ignorance

Many young positive reinforcement trainers are now growing into the training world without any knowledge of how to use punishment or aversives to train a dog, because there is such a divide between the two training concepts.  Many even believe that a dog can’t be effectively trained using shock collars, because they don’t have the knowledge or skills to do so.  People who are training with shock collars likewise probably don’t have a clue of how to train with positive reinforcement and are not likely to know about poisoned cues and other side effects of using punishment in teaching new behaviors.  Older trainers are more likely to have started out with punishment-based training and therefore understand ita pitfalls and possibilities.  It’s common to hear negative comments about dogs trained with primarily positive reinforcement.  It’s just as common to hear trash talk about dogs trained with shock collars.  Just watch a few videos on Instagram or Facebook and listen to the disparaging comments about the training methods not used by the video maker.

Disrespect is Not Received Well

Trainers tend to follow mentor trainers.  The trainers affected by the shock collar ban have surely been following a long line of mentor trainers who have publicized and marketed the benefits of the use of shock collars for training dogs.  People who train this way may be following in the footsteps of their own parents, grandparents, and relatives further back into their ancestry, who not only trained dogs with a heavy hand, but raised children in the same way.  These folks may have been raised with a rod not spared, spankings, and lots of other punishment-based techniques intertwined in their memories of childhood.  They may not take it well when told that the parents they love and respect were wrong, because that brings into question their own value in society.  When someone says your family was wrong, it’s a hard pill to swallow.

Forgiveness, Commitment, and Effort

Maya Angelou said, “We do what we know to do, and when we know better, we do better,” as a statement about always working to improve ourselves as human beings.  In this statement, there is the responsibility to always try to do better, but there’s also a big dose of forgiveness for what we may have done in the past that hurt someone.  We all hurt the ones we love.  We don’t mean to, or perhaps sometimes we do, but later we wish we hadn’t said or done the thing.  Apologies or different actions toward those loved ones in the future, or both, can result from learning a better way.  Forgiving oneself for past actions brings recognition of imperfections and also allows progress in pursuit of a better way.  Most people hope and try not to get stuck in the rut of repeating the same behaviors over and over again, and it may take all of the above to prevent that – apologies, making amends, taking new actions, and forgiveness of ourselves as well as others.  Seeking something better requires commitment and effort.  Can we commit to an overall better way when we address people who train animals differently than we do?  If it’s really about a better world for humans and the animals we love, we must commit to a behavioral approach to make the behaviors that work for the greater good the same ones that are most easily accessed and most reinforcing.

Outlawing a tool doesn’t eliminate the behavior: People who want to use an aversive will find one 

I remember when Citronella collars came out as an alternative to shock collars – still aversive, maybe they hurt the dog less, but maybe they didn’t – I don’t know how citronella in the eye feels, and I know that different organisms perceive pain differently.  Maybe some dogs would rather have felt a shock on their neck than get a noxious substance squirted in their eye.  I don’t know.

People who train with shock collars have been known to apply one to a dog’s neck along with another to his groin.  They have found ways to increase the power of the aversive, so don’t think that they can’t find something different to inflict pain if they want to.  What do we think people used before shock collars were marketed as a pet training device?

“When we learn better, we do better” – Maya Angelou  The best way to teach is by providing opportunities for the student to explore and answer questions on their own.  Doing so helps the new information make sense and thus “stick” in the brain.   This is how we want people to train their dogs, and many studies have demonstrated that the best training happens through arranging the environment to support the desired behavior and using positive reinforcement to build and strengthen the behavior.  Teaching people why and how to train using documented behavior science is the best way to give them tools to replace shock collars.  These tools are knowledge, understanding, motivation, intention, and practice that build the skills to produce indelible memories of seeing results in their learners as they progress.

A man and woman with their two dogs.

Abolition Doesn’t Tend to Work

People don’t change their behavior as a result of having the things they use taken away from them.  Plato originated the concept of necessity being the mother of invention, and people have shown that they will use a different tool if they need to replace one they no longer have access to. 

Prohibition in the 1920s did not stop people from drinking or even from becoming alcoholics in the United States.  If you take away something a child really wants, it doesn’t make the child stop wanting it.  The pace of climate change would slow dramatically if we outlawed all fossil-fueled vehicles, but the economy and life as we know it would fall into chaos because of differing opinions and desires for these machines that our society is largely built around.  

What is the Goal?

Just as punishment does not help dogs learn an alternate behavior, outlawing shock collars will not provide trainers with tools to manage their dogs.  If they only know how to manage their dogs with punishment and aversives, how do we want them to manage their dogs when they can’t use what they know how to use?  Are they to simply not take their Pointers and Spaniels hunting?  Do we expect them to not spend time training their dogs?  How do we want them to spend their time with their dogs?  We can’t imagine how these dog owners’ lives, nor the lives of the dogs they love, will be affected by this change.  Are we sending them into their home workshops to invent new ways to shock their dogs, ways that are less safe and more subtle, so we don’t recognize them as quickly? 

Making Problems Harder to Find

Some years ago, decorative covers for pinch collars began to be marketed, so it was harder to tell that a dog was wearing one.  I remember having to take a second look at a dog’s collar at a dog show (where pinch collars were not supposed to be allowed) before I could tell it was a pinch collar, with its brightly colored fabric woven through.  Now I spot them right off – but I am hyper-aware of dogs, collars, and other equipment; other people may still not notice.  What will be invented to hide a shock device on a dog?

In the United States, racism was once blatant and out front.  In the 1960s, the civil rights movements seemed to drive it away.  Today, we’ve learned that racism did not go away, but was driven deeper into the folds of our society where we couldn’t see it as easily; it permeated the foundations of our culture and we didn’t realize it.  Now we’re working again to eliminate it, but it’s in so many places, embedded so deeply, that it’s harder to find and change.  This could easily happen in the dog world.  We may be driving training with aversive tools so deep it will be hidden and hard to dig out and revise, and that’s surely not what those who worked to outlaw shock collars in Europe meant to do.

Division Can Create More Problems

Yet another incidence of division between groups of people is also a problem – separating the “shock collar trainers” from the “positive reinforcement trainers.”  These groups are already having a hard time talking together about the dogs they both love, and criminalizing one group will not make interactions better or more likely.  In so many areas today, people who believe differently from others are not making the effort to understand but carving out groups from the larger whole of society; this is just one more area where that is happening.  The Cancel Culture is a term created recently to describe that phenomenon.  Our culture tends to cancel out those we don’t agree with, and it’s creating divisions that may be very difficult, maybe impossible, to bring back together, even among people who all have a strong love for animals as a foundation.

A family, including grandfather, dad, and teenage son, with their pet dog.

Transformation is Needed

Education and transformation – helping people to be comfortable asking the questions and giving them the intellectual tools to solve their problems through their own behavior – is always the best approach.  It’s best to look at the big picture while changing behavior one small slice at a time, in regard to human culture as well as animal training.  Open doors to understanding and conversation are the first steps.     

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