E-Collars vs. Shock Collars:
What’s In A Name?
Electronic shock collars are banned in Germany, Austria, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Portugal, Slovenia, Switzerland, Wales, the province of Quebec in Canada, and some states in Australia. Yet here in the United States, the sale and use of shock collars on dogs is legal, despite numerous studies showing they are harmful to dogs.
In 2020, Petco, the largest pet retailer in the country, ceased the sale of all shock collars. In 2021, the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior issued a position strongly condemning their use, stating that "there is no role for aversive training in behavior modification plans…even for dogs with aggressive behaviors".
Many pet owners treat their dogs as family members, and science-based, positive reinforcement training is increasingly becoming more popular. So after electronic collar manufacturers and dog trainers who rely on these collars noticed that shocking dogs into obedience was not as acceptable as it once was, they changed the terminology to keep their business models profitable. A 2020 study found that "70% of dog parents feel shock collars have a negative impact on their pet's emotional or mental well-being." And yet the e-collar business is still booming.
Until fairly recently, any dog collar that delivered an electric current to the dog's neck was called a "shock collar." For many years, the term "e-collar" referred to an Elizabethan Collar, also known as the "cone," which dogs wear after surgery to prevent them from licking or removing sutures. But now that term has been co-opted to soften the language and convince the public that these devices are humane and harmless. The new nomenclature attempts to obscure what these collars do: deliver a painful or uncomfortable sensation to a dog's neck to stop behavior. Renaming these devices is an intentional and Orwellian PR scheme that hides the reality of using pain on our beloved animal companions.
If you want to get picky about it, any collar powered by a battery is technically an electronic collar. But for this discussion, we’ll omit GPS collars and attachments such as Whistle, Fi, or Apple AirTags, which are used for tracking, not training.
The first shock collars for dogs were used in the late 1960s. They were bulky and had only one high-level painful setting. These early models were expensive and used primarily by hunters. The technology has evolved significantly, and modern e-collars now come fully equipped with multiple settings ranging from excruciating pain to irritating vibration, as well as beeps and tones designed to get the dog's attention or warn that an electrical correction is imminent. In the United States, there are currently no laws, regulations, or guidelines for companies that manufacture and sell e-collars.
While the technology has evolved over the past 50 years, the way dogs learn and our understanding of operant conditioning have not. Both animals and humans behave to gain rewards and avoid punishments. We repeat behaviors that have desired consequences and avoid behaviors that lead to undesirable consequences. E-collars work to decrease unwanted behaviors because the dog wants to avoid the pain, discomfort, vibration, or tone.
Companies and trainers that sell and use e-collars insist that they use only powerful vibrations (low stimulation level e-collars) to cause discomfort, not actual pain. Essentially, they argue it's okay because they are hurting the dog only a little bit. You’ll often hear "it's just like a TENS unit, like at the chiropractor," or "it feels like a tap or a tingle." E-collar proponents have also switched to phrases like "electronic stimulation" that "stimulates nerves and sensory receptors through vibrations." Manufacturers of these products are jumping through linguistic hoops to convince the public that their products do not harm dogs. But once again, if it feels nice to the dog, it will not decrease behavior. An e-collar only works if the dog actively dislikes the sensation.
Another common argument is that e-collars are painless and safe "when used correctly." Dogs can become desensitized to the collar or, when aroused, distracted, or anxious, will not respond to the tone or the lowest level of electrical current. The handler must then dial up the level or hold the button down for a longer duration. Even with the best intentions of not hurting your dog, starting with "low stim" to get the dog's attention can quickly turn into outright pain. In addition, what is uncomfortable for one individual can be torture for another. The dog decides what is aversive. The beep or tone does not by itself change behavior; the sound works to decrease a behavior because it predicts a painful or uncomfortable correction. The collar is working as intended if a dog wearing an e-collar changes their behavior when they hear a tone, receive a vibration, or get a jolt. Pain or the avoidance of pain is not a flaw - it is an inherent and intentional feature of all e-collars.
Anti-bark collars are no different. They use punishment or the fear of punishment to stop a dog from vocalizing. Bark collars deliver a low-level shock or emit a noxious spray (usually citronella, which dogs hate) when they detect vibration from the dog's vocal cords. Some bark collars will first make a high-pitched noise or a vibration followed by a shock if the dog continues to bark. These collars can also be accidentally set off by other dogs barking.
Like all other e-collars, bark collars do not address the reason for the behavior. If your dog is barking because they are afraid or alarmed, a correction or punishment is just plain cruel. Humans have intentionally and selectively bred some breeds to bark, but now we unfairly punish them for barking. Every company that sells anti-bark collars pitches them as "humane," which has become a meaningless marketing ploy, much like the “natural” you see on every other product in the grocery store.
Some e-collar trainers have also co-opted the term “positive training.” Adding food, toys, or play to a training plan and then also correcting a dog with an electric current does not qualify as positive reinforcement training. It just means you get to feel better about the fact that you are hurting the dog. Is it okay to slap your children if you hug them and give them candy after hitting them? “Balanced training” is another deceptive term. Who doesn’t want to be balanced? But this so-called balance uses both aversive corrections and rewards.
Teaching another species how to coexist peacefully in our busy human society is not something that can be done with the push of a button. The companies that make remote collars and the trainers who use them promise quick and easy results. The truth is that punishment and pain do work to change behavior. But at what cost? The fallout from the use of aversives in dog training is well-documented.
Whether you are a parent, a kindergarten teacher, a dog trainer, or a dog owner - at some point, you will need to decide if punishment is an acceptable way to teach another being how to behave. Unfortunately, plenty of people have no problem using pain, or the fear of pain, to change a child's or dog's behavior. Some engage in mental or linguistic gymnastics to assuage their guilt and justify their use of aversive techniques, but deep down, they know that no animal wants to be hurt.
So let's stop the disingenuous semantics and call it what it is. Whether it’s an e-collar, shock collar, or stim collar, they all use discomfort or pain to punish dogs into behaving the way we want them to. By any name, that’s a shame.