Cryptozoology 101: The Hunt for the Elusive Prong-Collar Loving Dog

WHY DO PEOPLE USE THESE TOOLS?

In my own practice, I don't condone the use of coercive training tools like prong collars, choke collars, and shock collars.   My experience and education has led me to the conclusion that such tools are not necessary and that at best, they are a band-aid and at worst, they are fraught with side effects, often worsening the problems they were supposed to correct. 

Sometimes, a client seeks my help and they are currently using one or more of these tools with their dog.  It's important that we as trainers don't judge these clients.  The more time a client feels they have to spend defending themselves, the less brainpower they can dedicate to learning a better way.  It's not a good feeling to have a professional tell you, "You're doing everything wrong."  Also, it makes you look like a jerk, which really isn't good PR for any training business.  You want your clients to leave a session feeling hopeful and optimistic, not shameful and guilty and embarrassed.  You want to set the learner up for ultimate training success, which means she must be comfortable confiding in you about training mistakes she's made/making and difficulties or setbacks she is experiencing. This information is critical to your ability to continually reevaluate, improve upon, and maximize efficiency for your training plan.

It is my honest belief that anyone who seeks professional assistance for a canine behavior problem really does love their dog and is doing the best they can with the information they have available to them.  If they didn't care, Fido would end up as so many other uncared for, unwanted dogs - discarded and disposed of in one of the nation's many overcrowded shelters or rescue, too often awaiting a euthanasia needle.  If you start the consulting relationship truly believing your client has been doing the best they could, it really helps pave the way to a nice, open line of communication between you and your client, an element vital to the rehabilitation process. 

I am a crossover trainer, which means there was a time when my own dogs wore prong collars and received "leash pops."  When I first "crossed over" I felt horribly guilty for having used prongs on my dogs when I learned about the side effects and wisened up to canine body language.  Why did I use these tools?  Because it was the best I knew how to do with the information, resources, and skills available to me.  I honestly didn't have a single clue that there was another way to modify Monte's aggressive behavior.  I am not a stupid person, nor would I ever dream of being cruel to an animal.  I was guilty of ignorance, but not cruelty, not stupidity, not animal abuse. 

People that choose to use these tools with their own dogs are, by and large, not stupid, cruel, animal abusers (although obviously there are some exceptions!) but are for the most part dog lovers who know no alternative, better, effective way of training.  Maybe a friend suggested the collar after having great success with his own dog.  Maybe a trainer recommended it to them.  Maybe they had trained previous dogs successfully using the collar and finally met a dog whose behavior did actually worsen, rather than improve.  Maybe they watch too many dog training shows on television.

In retrospect, I am somewhat glad I had the experience of using traditional training techniques, not for my dogs' sake (sorry guys!) but for my clients' sake - it is easy to be empathetic with clients who are making the same mistakes I made. 

When working with a client who is new to positive training and just beginning to crossover, it is wise to anticipate and plan for the likelihood of some extinction bursts.  I certainly had my fair share of extinction bursts when I first traded in my prong collars for a clicker.   When I came to realize all of the things I had done were incorrect, and worsened the problem at hand, I felt guilty, frustrated, and embarrassed.  I made excuses to make myself feel better, one of which has reverberated throughout my work with other pet dog trainers who are exploring a whole new world of dog training..."But my dog LOVES her prong collar!  Every time I get it out, her tail starts wagging with excitement!"

DO DOGS REALLY LOVE PRONG COLLARS?

I have, in fact, seen many dogs respond to the presentation of a prong collar or shock collar with happy, loose body language.  Despite this, I don't believe I've yet met a dog who loves these tools. 

Virtually every dog loves going for a walk.  Dogs that respond with joy at the presentation of a shock, choke, or prong collar are probably not excited about the collar itself but what the collar has come to predict - walkies, time out of the house, opportunities to engage with the environment.  In other words, the reinforcement value of the walk is more salient to the dog than the punishment value of the aversive collar. 

Classical conditioning has taken place here and as we all know is very powerful in changing emotions and associations.  We use classical conditioning all the time to teach fearful dogs, for instance, that the things they are afraid of are instead predictors of wonderful things.  In the case of a prong, choke, or shock collar, the dog has been classically conditioned - each time the stimulus (collar) is presented, it is immediately followed by a potent reinforcer (walkies!), generally on a one-to-one ratio.  Collar predicts walks, every time.  Often, the appearance of the collar is the most salient predictor of what is for most dogs the most powerful reinforcer - getting out into fresh air with their handler.  There is an element of Premack to the scenario...if you do this less probable/favored thing (get your prong collar on), you will then have the opportunity to do this more probable/favored thing (walkies).  Powerful learning is at play here!

As a human example, I'll tell you that there are few things I hate more than being out in the cold in below zero windchills for extended periods of time - the kind of cold that makes your bones numb and your fingers, nose, and toes ache when they are finally brought into warmth/allowed to thaw.  I hate it.  It's an awful, uncomfortable feeling, and I would much rather be curled up with a dog or cat and a good book in front of a roaring fire.

Two of my favorite things in the world are being out in the woods and spending time with Jim (husband and super IT guy), Mokie and Monte.  Since my husband and I often work opposing schedules (he works days, I teach at night), I don't get to spend as much time with this wonderful man as I'd like.  The deprivation of quality time together that Jim and I often face leads me to find the opportunity to spend time together incredibly reinforcing to me. 

Yesterday was one of those yuck days.  It was cold and nasty outside, and I didn't want to go out and end up a Caseycicle.  I had to run an errand for a colleague, so I knew I was going to have to go out in the cold and was dreading it.  Then Jim decided to join me, and bring the dogs along for a hike through the woods.  Suddenly, the thing I'd been dreading (going out in the cold) became an exciting prospect (hiking through the woods with the family)! 

Does this now mean I love the cold?  Absolutely not.  I still hate it just as much as I did yesterday, and I'll probably still hate it and dream of warmer climates tomorrow.

I will venture to speculate that this is how a prong, choke, or shock collar wearing dog perceives the appearance of the collar.  They probably feel about the collar similarly to how I feel about the cold, they don't like it.  Come on, who really does like having their airway restricted?  Who likes an electric shock?  Who likes being choked?  Who likes frostbite?  Things like not being able to breathe and having your phalanges fall off from the cold are, for the most part, probably safely considered as universal aversives which means that pretty much nobody likes them. 

I'd also venture to guess that dogs enjoy sniffing, running around, walking, watching squirrels run, following bunny trails through the snow, rolling around in poop or dead things, checking "pee-mail," stretching their legs, interacting with other dogs if appropriate, seeing new sights, smelling new smells, as much as I enjoy my all-too-infrequent adventures into the woods with my family.  If wearing the collar, or being out in the cold, is the only possible way the dog and I can obtain those potent, feel-good reinforcers for ourselves, then that's what it takes. 

All that said, I still feel like the "Prong Collar Loving Dog" is an issue of concern not for dog trainers, but cryptozoologists, kind of like a "Cold-Loving Casey."  Such creatures do not, in all probability, actually exist unless they inhabit a world of unicorns, Loch Ness monsters, sasquatches, and other fantasy creatures.