On Shocking Our Dogs

Just because we can….doesn’t mean we should

I want to eat.  Actually, I need to eat in order to survive.  However, eating has become a battleground between my need for sustenance and my desire to avoid pain.  At each mouthful, I could taste food, or an electric shock could hit the side of my face like a hot, burning, lightning bolt, causing me to gasp and pull back.  But, often it doesn’t, in which case, I can take the next bite.   But do I want to take the next bite?  Need and pain fight each other.  The end result is that I eat very carefully, one bite of soft food gently following another.   I don’t snack and, while I can’t say I don’t enjoy my food (it still tastes good!) it comes at a price that is difficult to pay.   This, by the way, is what happens when you have Trigeminal Neuralgia, a fairly rare condition that was once called “the suicide disease.”

What does this have to do with dogs and dog training?  A lot, as it turns out.   Over the last decade or so, the use of shock collars (also called e-collars) has been on the rise.  No longer the purview of hunters and professionals, their price has come down and the general public has been buying them…and using them.  You see them on dogs being walked on sidewalks, on trails, and in dog parks.  You see them on aggressive dogs and unruly dogs.  They come with a page or a booklet of instructions (which a good many people probably don’t read), and that’s about it. 

After my latest bout with TN, I am more even firmly against them than before. 

Imagine you are a dog with a desire to sniff – you need to sniff, it’s in your nature.   Sometimes, you can sniff, but other times, when you are on your way to an attractive bush, you are hit by a painful electrical jolt on your neck.  You immediately stop in your tracks, and turn back to look at your trusted boss, who tells you that you are a “good dog” for coming back.  You trot back to him, and go on your way.   The next time you’d like a good sniff, you may think twice.  Or not.   It may take many repetitions for you to associate the shock with the sniff.  Even so, you still have this need to sniff!  Multiply this association by any number of behaviors, all natural, all not desired by humans, and all of which can be punished by unexpected, hot pain.  Puling on leash, not coming when called, eating stuff on the ground, jumping on counters, you name it.  

But what about the observation that when e-collars are used on dogs, the dogs still seem to be happy?  They still want to be with their owner, their tails still wag, and they still like to run around and play.  Doesn’t that prove that the collars are benign?  Well, there are studies that show that cortisol levels rise with their use, but I have another observation as well.   When you are hit by an electrical shock, it is finite.  When it ends, it ends.    You cannot remember the pain – you just remember that it was very painful – and you go about living your life as though you were pain-free. Which you are!   This is very different from having chronic pain, during which you are always reminded that it hurts.  I think chronic pain can make one more irritable, even aggressive.  Electric shock pain, on the other hand,  is acute, horrible, and then gone. 

However, after a shock, many of your behaviors are tentative, as you explore the possibility that they will cause pain.   In just the way that I am careful about talking, because I don’t know which movement of my mouth will cause pain (if you know how much I like to talk, you can imagine how punishing this is for me), a dog being taught to heel using a shock collar is afraid to go anywhere except where safety is proven – right beside the owner.  When he is there, he is praised, and his tail wags.

There are a few videos on You Tube in which men put shock collars on themselves and then roll around laughing when the shock hits, and they fall sidewise.   Maybe this is funny during the videoing, in a perverse sort of way, but what would happen if the shock collars were always on, and they could not predict when the pain would hit – when they took a swig of beer, or lit a cigarette, drove a car, or took a bite of food?  Eventually, they would be afraid to do anything.    They would be under control.   But we don’t do that to people – we do it to dogs, our pets, because we can and they love us anyway.