Why You Should Never Train a Dog to Come When Called Using a Shock Collar

How to get a super reliable recall with positive reinforcement, and why you should avoid using shock collars for such an important behaviour.

How to get a super reliable recall with positive reinforcement


By Nickala Squire

Getting your dog to come when called may be a breeze in the home, but how do you get them to listen when out in the real world? Maybe you’ve heard that there are risks and fallout from using shock avoidance to train dogs, or maybe you’re simply put off by the price of shock collars. Here’s how you should begin your recall training journey!

1. Ensure your dog is not suffering from pain, fear or anxiety preventing them from listening- aka caring about anything else. The dog’s physical or emotional well-being needs to be addressed first, for the dog’s welfare as well as public safety. Does this mean painful or fearful dogs can’t be taught recall? Absolutely not. But intentionally challenging them by putting them in stressful or pain causing situations is cruel and unreasonable.

2. Never make coming when called unpleasant, such as scolding the dog for taking so long, ending their romp at the dog park or leading them to a scary bath. Even things such as attempting to reward a dog by patting them on the head (something most dogs dislike and merely tolerate for our sake) can be punishing. For especially sensitive dogs, even forced proximity or looming over them (burst personal space bubbles) can be scary or unpleasant enough for them to stay away!

3. Reward your dog lavishly every. single. time. they come. No matter how long it takes or how frustrated you are. This is not easy work (yes, work) for dogs. They deserve to get paid. If you don’t pay up, they’ll find a different job.

4. Use the very best reward you have access to. For play driven dogs this could be a fetch or tug toy. Critter lovers might also enjoy a flirt pole (you can be sneaky with visual barriers to up the ante and value of the game), but for most dogs this will be some form of food. You can try:
a. Processed goodies like salmon cream cheese, peanut butter packets or spray cheese (Check the ingredients of your PB to avoid Xylitol.)
b. Real home cooked meat or real cheese (Feta, string cheese, pecarino romano, different dogs like different cheeses, try it out!)
c. Canned cat food or canned fish (Salmon, tuna, anchovies, etc. Again, there is a difference.)
d. Jars of meat flavored baby food (The glass ones are resealable!)
e. Packets or canned tripe
f. Pig ears or dental chewies (Made, not just packaged, locally)
g. An entire boneless steak! Not kidding.
h. A freshly killed ground squirrel? Kidding, mostly… but you get the idea.

Photo: Katrin B/Pixabay; Top photo, Wolfgang Zimmel/Pixabay


5. Use an incremental training plan that you write down so you can’t forget. Start in the home, aka a low distraction environment. Call your dog when they’re not expecting it. Then move to the backyard. Then the parks they frequent (novel area = more difficult). Only call when you’re certain your dog will come. Build in some distractions like playing with a dog friend (using duration or intensity of play as a parameter for easier or more difficult recalls), food smells planted on the ground, thrown toys or fake squirrels dragged by fishing wire at a distance. Utilize the same distractions as rewards themselves. Use a long line for safety. Only increase difficulty when the dog has gotten it right 10 out of 10 tries on the previous level.
Yes this is all well and good for when I have food, but this training will then only work when my dog knows I have food, right? No. If you’re suffering from a dog who has a “seeing is believing” attitude, they do not have a consistent history of high enough value rewards and/or are used to being shown (or smelling) their rewards prior to being asked for a behaviour. This is an easy fix. Be reliable, and your dog will be. Keep them guessing, keep them optimistic.

The video shows Kovu coming when called in several locations. Link to video for email subscribers.



The majority of dogs will have a fabulous recall if the steps above are adhered to. If you haven’t tried all of the above, then there’s no ethical reason to be using a shock collar. I say ethical because shock is shown to increase stress and anxiety in animals [1,2,3,4] (including us, especially when our control over it is removed) creating a significant negative and potentially long term impact on welfare.[5] Due to the increased frequency and strength of physiological stress responses (which must happen to change behaviour), due to accidental classical conditioning or via animals’ natural reactions to things they perceive are hurting or are about to hurt them[6], shock can also increase the risk of aggression.[7,8]. It becomes not only a welfare issue for the dog, but for the owner or the dog’s family when they must deal with new or worse behaviour problems [9,10,11,12], a breakdown of trust, generalized anxiety or even behavioural euthanasisa [13], as well as a public safety issue since shock collars increase the risk of dog bites. In their position statement on puppy socialization, the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior states: “Behavioural issues, not infectious diseases, are the number one cause of death for dogs under three years of age.” The risk of life altering or life ending damage is so high that some other countries have banned the use of shock collars entirely.


"If you did make the mistake of using shock in dog training, don't beat yourself up. I've been there."


Here’s the kicker. If you have tried *all* of these steps AND gotten the all clear from your vet, AND are savvy with body language or have had a modern, evidence based professional assess for fear & anxiety, but are still not getting a reliable recall… this is the bad news. A shock collar won’t work either unless you profoundly hurt and terrify your dog. Think about it. The reason a happy dog runs away is because: A. they don’t know any better or B. they can access a better reinforcer elsewhere.

Usually the reinforcer we’re talking about is a critter. Dogs with the sort of prey drive we’re talking about here will gladly race through barbed wire as it cuts through their skin, or run across hot pavement getting burned bleeding pads, sometimes actually fight the critter of their focus in order to subdue it. They’ll tolerate physical damage to get what they want. Often they aren’t even phased! If we want to counter that kind of motivation, we have to use some serious pain. Pain that will cause damage, if not physically (physical damage via shock is entirely possible7) then emotionally. Remember, the more pain we’re inflicting on a dog, the higher the risk of fear and aggression. We are effectively, attempting to rewrite the brain chemistry we bred them for after all. “Fear this consequence more than you desire that critter.” Does this mean we give up? No, there are other factors at work that can help us, such as “behavioural momentum” which I won’t get into here, however the dogs with this sort of intense prey drive are not the average house pet. Additionally, a life of off leash opportunities in fenced areas or on long lines only, is still a fantastic one. So long as it’s fear, force and pain free.
If you did make the mistake of using shock in dog training and are now watching your dog suffer the consequences, don’t beat yourself up. I’ve been there, as have many other now force free dog trainers. We didn’t shock our dogs because it was fun. We did so because we thought, and/or were explicitly and persuasively told it was the responsible thing to do. Now that we know better, we can do better.

One final word. If it’s news to you that there’s no evidence aversive tools provide better recall training than rewards, as well as disturbing research to the contrary, you may also be surprised to hear the same is true for all general training and management, including serious behavior modification (aggression). Shock collars are always more trouble than they’re worth.

Resources

If your dog trainer uses shock collars (or prong collars, or choke chains, or slip leads), you need a new one. Check out the Companion Animal Psychology guide for choosing a dog trainer.

For a detailed introductory self study course on dog training, check out Dog Training 101 from The Great Courses. For a set of courses on various aspects of dog training such as house training, check out Doggy Geeks University.

For more information about dog body language visit iSpeakDog.org and remember to practice! You might also like Companion Animal Psychology's post, how can I tell if my dog is afraid? which includes photos to check your skills.


About Nickala Squire: Nickala Squire is an honours graduate of the prestigious Academy for Dog Trainers, where she earned her Certificate in Training and Counseling (CTC). She is the sole owner and trainer of Carefree Canine in Grand Forks, North Dakota in the USA. Nickala offers private and day training services for a wide variety of behavior goals, however is most commonly called upon to help with aggressive or fearful dogs. Nickala's own dogs are Kovu, a former Texas street mutt who kept his Southern spice and Sango, a sweet athletic fearful farm-born mix. You can contact her through email.

Check out her Facebook page for dog related articles and blog posts or Instagram for training tips with fun photos and videos.




Read more guest posts at Companion Animal Psychology or check out our guest post guidelines if you are interested in submitting a post.

References
1. Hutchinson RR. 1977. By-products of aversive control. In: Honig WK, Staddon JER, eds. Handbook of Operant Behavior. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall: 415-431.
2. Schalke, E., Stichnoth, J., Ott, S., & Jones-Baade, R. (2007). Clinical signs caused by the use of electric training collars on dogs in everyday life situations. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 105 (4), 369-380
3. Deldalle, St├ęphanie, and Florence Gaunet. “Effects of 2 training methods on stress-related behaviors of the dog (Canis familiaris) and on the dog–owner relationship.” Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research 9, no. 2 (2014): 58-65.
4. Ziv, Gal. “The effects of using aversive training methods in dogs—A review.” Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research 19 (2017): 50-60.
5. Cooper, Jonathan, Nina Cracknell, Jessica Hardiman, and Daniel Mills. “Studies to assess the effect of pet training aids, specifically remote static pulse systems, on the welfare of domestic dogs: field study of dogs in training.” (2013). Government report: DEFRA AW1402a.
6. Azrin NH, Rubin HB, Hutchinson RR. 1968. Biting attack by rats in response to aversive shock. J Exp Anal Behav 11: 633-639.
7. Herron, Meghan E., Frances S. Shofer, and Ilana R. Reisner. “Survey of the use and outcome of confrontational and non-confrontational training methods in client-owned dogs showing undesired behaviors.” Applied Animal Behaviour Science 117, no. 1-2 (2009): 47-54.
8. Casey et al.Casey, Rachel A., Bethany Loftus, Christine Bolster, Gemma J. Richards, and Emily J. Blackwell. “Human directed aggression in domestic dogs (Canis familiaris): Occurrence in different contexts and risk factors.” Applied Animal Behaviour Science 152 (2014): 52-63.
9. Hiby, E. F., N. J. Rooney, and J. W. S. Bradshaw. “Dog training methods: their use, effectiveness and interaction with behaviour and welfare.” Animal Welfare 13, no. 1 (2004): 63-70.
10. Blackwell, Emily J., Caroline Twells, Anne Seawright, and Rachel A. Casey. “The relationship between training methods and the occurrence of behavior problems, as reported by owners, in a population of domestic dogs.” Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research 3, no. 5 (2008): 207-217.
11. Schilder, M., & Van der Borg, J. (2004). “Training dogs with help of the shock collar: short and long term behavioural effects.” Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 85, no. 3-4, (2004): 319-334
12. Azrin, N.H, Holz, W.C., “Punishment” from Honig, W. (1966) Operant Behavior: Areas of Research and Application, 380-447.
13. Rooney, Nicola Jane, and Sarah Cowan. “Training methods and owner–dog interactions: Links with dog behaviour and learning ability.” Applied Animal Behaviour Science 132, no. 3-4 (2011): 169-177.


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Comments

  1. Thank you for this excellent article. As a professional dog trainer I use only force-free methods and have found that teaching a reliable recall is as straightforward as this article describes it. I invite anyone who wants to learn more about shock devices (and how to help eliminate them) to visit the Shock-Free Coalition at www.shockfree.org. While you are there, please consider signing the shock-free pledge!

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