Electronic Collars for Dogs: Are You Being Led Astray?

My husband is being led astray by a smooth-talking stranger. Loud and bossy, she interrupts our conversations with her insistent demands. And Roman! Roman just jumps at her every command... he can't seem to make a decision without her. Mounted on our dashboard, my husband's new love -- his Garmin GPS -- plans his route, finds his lunch, and helps him buy gas. Once he could do these things quite capably without her, but she has stolen his inner compass and made him electronically dependent. "Oh, Roman," I think to myself. "She's no good for you! She'll hurt you in the end!" I watched sadly as he ignored the passing scenery on our recent vacation, unable to take his eyes off her flirtatiously glowing touchscreen.

Dogs, too, can be victims of electronic mind control. I recently spoke to a trainer who is a proponent of using e-collars -- better known as the shock collar -- with his clients and suggests them for dogs and puppies as young as three months. Marketed as a quick fix for almost any canine behavior problem, a push button promise to control all interactions, shock/vibration collars have won their following with people whose mindset, at least initially, is that their dog is more of an object to be manipulated than a separate being.

All you have to do is strap a collar on your dog -- sure, it has prongs that dig into your dog's neck...and yeah, those prongs issue a shock -- no, sorry -- a correction when your dog misbehaves...but think of the time savings! No tedious, repetitive praising, rewarding, encouraging -- just a good, firm push of the button and, zap! Fast, fear-based control.

I do understand. One might be tempted to garner one for their husband or kids. Think how effective it would be in eliminating snacks before mealtime, towels on the bathroom floor, and bikes in the driveway. No one acknowledging you? Here, zap! Take that! Instant gratification can be very alluring.

For years I've maintained that dogs are like pre-verbal children, and recent research backs up this long-held belief. Dogs want to communicate and fit into the pack, but do not come pre-programmed with human-approved skills. Good behavior must be taught -- patiently, consistently, and kindly.

Choice training, developed by Jennifer Arnold, the director at Canine Assistants® where they train dogs to help disabled people, should be a guiding light as it leads to happy, well conditioned pets. If you show your dog what you want her to do and reward her when she does it right, she will respond with enthusiasm and adoration. Personally speaking, I respond quicker and more reliably--as do my kids, when offered rewards of treats or money, than when threatened with harsh criticism or physical discomfort. How about you?

On the other hand, inflicting a short burst of pain or vibration every time a given dog or puppy misunderstands a situation will results in a dog who responds with fear or confusion. Though she may stop repeating a given behavior, she'll stop out of fear, not understanding. And whereas good behavior lasts a lifetime, a fear based reaction only holds if the collar is affixed and the person issuing the shock is present.

I will admit to using an e-collar a few times in my career, but only to eliminate dangerous behaviors like car chasing. Hand-held devices should never be confused with the kind of mindful dog training that helps a dog become a reliable, loving member of the family. Before we parted, my dog training colleague proudly showed me a clip of a Senior K-9 handler and unit trainer who uses e-collars to train his protection dogs. Uno, a young German Shepherd, trotted alongside his handler. The handler pointed at a target and Uno responded instantly--and ferociously. It was impressive indeed...but would you want Uno on the couch with you? Or romping with your kids?

There is a dark side to instantly gratifying domination-based training and in the end, each of us has to decide: do we want our dogs to act more like happy kids or mindless robots?