What a Dog Learns From An E-Collar
Updated: Jun 2
He learns he is not safe in his environment.
He learns associations to things in his environment.
***He does not learn what he should have done instead***
The science of how animals learn is ever-evolving. Much of what we now understand about how to effectively train dogs is drawn from studies about how children learn. Children and puppies are surprisingly similar in how they learn – I should have raised puppies first! I have actually apologized to my two boys for some of the mistakes I made with them as a parent.
It used to be broadly accepted, with both children and dogs, to train using aversives. An aversive is something an animal will work to avoid. With children, the threat of a spanking loomed. For dogs, it was often the threat of the pop of a choke chain collar, or sometimes the use of an e-collar. Science has shown us that teaching/training through the use of aversives leads to other problems, rather than producing positive results.
If you’ve spent time on my website you’ve probably seen me write about Karen Pryor, and clicker training. Ms. Pryor is a behavioral biologist with an international reputation in behavioral psychology. She is also an accomplished trainer, so she is my go-to when I have science-based questions about training my dogs.
Karen had this to say about training with aversives:
“What an unpleasant event will do, predictably, is to shift the dog’s emotional state from one of enthusiastic interest to a condition of avoidance and caution.
That state of anxiety vastly slows down the acquisition of new information; the animal is now only interested in getting away from the situation. That is not a suitable emotional state for continuing training.”
The following is a page from the Karen Pryor Academy Dog Trainer Foundations course:
People own dogs for a variety of reasons, and have differing training goals based on what they feel their needs are with their dogs. Some owners are looking for control; others seek a deeper relationship with their dogs. Whatever the training motivation is of the owner, the science of learning rules, so what the dog’s take-away from the training choices the owner makes is what will dictate his behavior going forward. Very often, what we think we are teaching a dog isn’t what he actually learned.
People use aversives in training because they work, in the short term. I have never used an e-collar on a dog, however, I feel certain that through the use of an e-collar you could stop a dog in his tracks – end of the unwanted behavior, at that moment. But what was the take-away of the dog? What did he learn? It is also true that trainers use aversives in their training because this is reinforcing to the trainer.
Think about that one for a minute. I still find myself, sometimes, using an aversive with my dog. For me, it is usually in response to an event that feels out of control to me, and often when I reach for an aversive I am tired, frustrated, or otherwise just pushed. I have a little border collie, Jessie, who loves to heel the front left tire of my Kubota. Why is this a surprise to me!? She does it often, given the chance, and I KNOW this, and yet I have been known to sternly shout “Jessie, STOP!” I have vented some of my frustration at life at my innocent friend. Now, I do know how to teach her not to heel my tire, and I know what I have and have not accomplished in shouting at my beloved girl, but sometimes in the stress of a busy day at the ranch I have done this. It isn’t a tragedy, and I use it in this blog as a practical example of a common way aversives show up in training. For Jessie, I have not hurt her physically, or even damaged our training relationship all that much because we have such an established trust bank account with each other, but it will NEVER be a way to teach her not to heel my tire and I know this. And yet, I still sometimes fall back to old, ineffective habits.
Below is a link to a blog that shows what would actually work with Jessie.
Training is About Creating Behavior – Not Stopping It: https://www.bensonmaremmas.com/post/training-is-about-creating-behavior-not-stopping-it
I try not to think of my training choices as right or wrong, good or bad, so with no value judgements I ask you this: At what age is it appropriate to use an e-collar on a child? Under what circumstance? Why? I think part of the answer to these questions is that you wouldn’t, because you are trying to teach the child, rather than just stop his behavior. With children, after the spanking comes the lecture. For the dog, what follows the shock?
The first thing that happens when an e-collar is used on a dog is that he becomes frightened. What just happened??? Where did it come from??? For an LGD, his environment is his whole world, his whole focus. He patrols the perimeters, stands watchfully near his livestock, and is prepared to put his life on the line to protect them. A dog who no longer feels safe in his environment may demonstrate stress in a variety of ways. He may bark more (go on the offense) or become generally a more reactive dog. He may become aggressive; with his partner, with humans, or with his livestock. An animal who is frightened is unpredictable.
The event is not over, it is not gone, after it happens. The memory of it is still there; children have nightmares, adults develop PTSD.
Remember Karen’s statement?
“The dog goes from enthusiastic interest to a condition of avoidance and caution.” Animals don’t learn well when they are frightened.
The dog in the photo is showing us she feels insecure. Her body is lowered slightly. Her head and neck are turned away from her handler. She is panting; she is not hot. Panting, as she is, is called a displacement behavior because it shows her emotional state. Her eyes are slightly closed. This provides her with a little sense of safety because she can partially hide this way, or just distance herself by limiting her vision.
There is wonderful 79 page book that I have read many times. In it, the author describes the body language dogs use to communicate their feelings.
I think every human who owns a dog should read this book:
The dog will try to make sense of what just happened (the shock) in order to keep himself safe in the future. You may feel that this was the point of your choice to use the collar in the first place, to stop a dog from doing an unwanted behavior. What you don’t have control over is what the dog thinks happened. He will form an association, if he can, with something in his environment that he thinks may have hurt him so that he can protect himself in the future. A dog that is shocked while chasing sheep may believe it was the sheep that hurt him. He may then become aggressive with sheep, in general, because this is a lasting memory/association.
If he works with a partner, he may form the association that the partner dog hurt him. I have seen this happen many times, because in my early days of living with LGDs they were surrounded by electric fencing. The electric wire was there to keep the livestock from stretching our woven wire fences. When the dogs touched it by accident, they would almost always attack their partner, or chase whatever livestock were close to them. The yelp of the hurt dog, and then the energy and noise of the following repercussion, set off nearby pairs of LGDs as well.
In 2020, I placed an adolescent dog in an idyllic new home. He had been there almost a day when he got hurt by something in the field. He became badly frightened. At the moment he was hurt he looked up and made eye contact with his new owner. He made the association that she had hurt him, never mind that she was 30’ away and innocent. He bolted, crashed through the fencing, and disappeared, working the surrounding 100 acres of forest for the next four days. This was very stressful for the humans. We were worried about him and tried to find him to bring him back home to safety. In his mind he had removed himself from an unsafe environment. He boldly worked that large forest, all on his own, as shown to us due to sightings from the various game cameras set up in the area, rather than taking the chance of being hurt by this human again. She was new to the dog so they had not formed much of a trust relationship with each other at this point. We did eventually get the dog back to safety. He lives here on the ranch now and here he will stay.
What happens if the dog is shocked by someone he does trust? If a dog is told “no!” and then shocked, the person who gave the command just became connected to the event. The dog learns to fear this person, because sometimes the person is friendly and fun, and sometimes he isn’t. Why that is true cannot be understood by the dog because dogs do not have the capacity to reason.
Further, “fear” and “respect” are not the same thing: fear will produce avoidance, respect is part of a working partnership based in trust.
The final piece of this is that using an e-collar, to shock the dog or set to only vibrate, does nothing to instruct the dog as to what he did “wrong” or what you would like him to do instead. To physically hurt a dog, or cause him emotional distress, constitutes abuse. To interrupt a behavior the dog is doing that you don’t like, redirecting him to a behavior you do like, and then reinforcing him for that desired behavior, is training.
The use of an e-collar is often viewed as a short-cut to training, or so it may seem. I recently learned of a statistic that, while it isn’t a surprise, is upsetting. In this particular LGD study project, conducted by a university, their “cull” rate is 30%. Could they have that big a problem in the genetic base of their breeding dogs? Maybe, but I doubt it. I suspect the problem for the dogs is in the training methods being used by their humans. I also suspect that “cull” is a euphemism for “kill” since most LGDs do not make suitable pets, particularly if the dogs have had minimal socialization.
I have produced just over one hundred Maremma puppies here. Two of those pups had temperament issues that I felt would prevent them from becoming safe and productive working dogs; that is over a 98% success rate. I have never trained a dog here that didn’t become a successful, trustworthy guardian. In my opinion, a 30% failure rate is both unacceptable and preventable. Dogs should not have to die because their humans make mistakes, and yet this happens routinely. I think this statistic can be changed through better education of the dogs’ owner.
As you make training choices with your dogs, please consider what I have presented to you here, and what the risks are to your dogs in those choices.
***A note about comparison of the use of an e-collar vs electric fencing:
I avoid the use of electric fencing as much as possible because I prefer not to train using aversives - and I prefer to train. That being said, one of the considerations about an e-collar, in comparison to an electric physical something, is that the shock/vibration/tone comes from the universe, and it makes no sense to the dog. That is very scary because it cannot be understood. Touching an electric fence, or electric netting, can be understood. It isn't pleasant, but it can eventually make sense to most dogs. You might touch a hot burner on a stove once, but probably not twice. You might also become broadly afraid of stoves, anything that looks vaguely like the stove, the area where the stove sits, anything that vaguely looks like where the stove sits. Animals make associations on their own.
Online Dog Training Course & LGD Training Manual: https://www.bensonmaremmas.com/post/online-training-course-lgd-training-manual