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If It Didn’t Hurt, It Wouldn’t Work:
The Truth About Choke, Prong, and Shock Collars

Ren Volpe, March 2023

Aversive training tools, such as e-collars, choke, or prong collars, may work at first, but the undesirable behaviors are likely to return, along with your dog’s growing fear and distrust of you.

An increasing majority of dog guardians view their canine companions as family members and, if given the choice, will opt for training that is force- and pain-free. Unfortunately, dog training is an entirely unregulated field, meaning anyone can claim they are a “professional trainer,” even if they have no education or experience. And with the rise of social media influencers, a simple search for answers to common behavior problems can quickly lead you down a rabbit hole of misinformation and often dangerous quick fixes.

Our understanding of animal behavior has evolved significantly in the last few decades (thanks, science). Yet outdated ideas about the best way to train dogs persist. Many YouTube and TikTok “trainers” are well-versed in social media algorithms but have no formal education or understanding of animal behavior. Dog guardians looking for help online may believe someone with hundreds of thousands of followers must be an expert, right? Wrong.

Dog trainers who use force and pain know that dog owners prefer not to hurt their dogs as part of training or behavior modification. That’s why many so-called balanced trainers may resort to euphemisms and sometimes flat-out lying to bring in business.

Sadly, it doesn't take much to attach a shock or prong collar to a dog, label oneself a professional trainer, and quickly generate income. And although the dog may initially appear "rehabilitated", the unwanted behaviors are often just temporarily suppressed. The dog is returned to its owner with the suppression device, perpetuating a cycle of punishment and suffering for the dog, which may exacerbate the very behavior the owner was trying to address. Yet trainers employing these methods can often accumulate training clients rapidly, primarily driven by financial incentives.

The Science of Punishment

Such trainers often claim that for corrections to have any effect, they must be somewhat painful. Yet at the same time, they may also claim that punishment-based tools and methods are “safe”, “humane”, or “painless.” You’re likely to hear some variation on the following statements:

“I tried it on myself; it’s not really painful.”

“When used properly, it doesn’t hurt.”

“Modern e-collars are not shock collars.”

“It’s only communication, not punishment.”

“It feels like a TENS unit (a device to stimulate nerves); it’s just a tingle.”

“It just gets their attention.”

These assertions reveal either a thorough misunderstanding of the basic tenets of learning theory or they are bald-faced lies. Dog owners paying for such training often face severe cognitive dissonance: if it doesn’t hurt, why does my dog look so unhappy? Why is their tail tucked and their head hanging low? Pay attention to your dog’s body language and that bad feeling in your gut when someone yanks on your dog’s prong collar or presses the button on an e-collar.

Pain or discomfort is not a bug but a feature of shock, prong, and choke collars. Of course, a regular collar or leash can be misused to cause pain, but they are not explicitly crafted for that purpose. Aversive tools like shock and prong collars are intentionally engineered to work by inducing physical or emotional discomfort, from minor to extreme.

According to B.F. Skinner’s learning theory, also known as operant conditioning, there are three types of stimuli: pleasant, neutral, and aversive. This theory holds that a neutral stimulus does not affect behavior. Only a pleasant stimulus will increase behavior, and only an aversive stimulus will decrease behavior.

If a shock collar, vibrating or beeping collar, or prong collar were not aversive, it would not have the desired effect. These devices decrease or stop behavior by administering an unpleasant stimulus that startles, scares, or hurts your dog at varying levels, creating behavioral change to avoid that stimulus. It does not work by any other means.

In short, these devices work because they hurt. They are not pain-free, humane, or safe.

Unintended Consequences of Force Training

All animals, including dogs, learn by making associations. Imagine a dog is wearing a shock collar, and the owner calls the dog, but the dog doesn't come. The owner then delivers a shock (or a vibration or beep) to make the dog stop moving away. But when the shock is administered, the dog happens to be looking at a child. Accidentally, a negative association is made. It’s not what the handler intended, but now the dog is anxious about, or even aggressive, toward children.

All animals, including humans, are meant to remember fear. That’s why once you’ve burned your hand on a hot stove, you never touch those coils again. It is fairly easy to instill fear, yet extremely difficult to remove the memory of fear.

Here’s another real-world example of learning fear by association. When my dog was eight months old, he was attacked by an off-leash Husky. He was not seriously hurt, but he immediately became noticeably anxious whenever he saw a large, white, fluffy dog. If the fluffy, white dog came within 15 feet of him, he growled and sometimes barked, telling that dog to back off.

Let’s say I decided to give my dog a painful shock or an uncomfortable yank on a prong collar each time he communicated his stress by freezing, staring, growling, barking, or lunging at a fluffy, white dog. Now he is certain that fluffy, white dogs predict something bad. Whenever he sees one, he feels worried because of his past experience, plus he’s now in pain or discomfort from the remote shock correction or the yank on his prong collar.

If you're terrified of spiders and freak out whenever you see one, would your arachnophobia be cured if your spouse or parent slapped you each time you reacted to a spider? You might learn to be quiet when seeing a spider and likely stop trusting your spouse or parent.

We know how to help a dog that has fear or reactivity around other dogs, strangers, skateboards, or children, and we can teach them to feel okay about these stimuli without using corrections or pain. This technique is called counterconditioning and desensitization, and it is highly effective, even for dogs with aggression.

Long-term Welfare Concerns and Side Effects

Study after scientific study has shown that when we use punishment and aversive training on aggressive dogs, the first side effect is increased aggression. This puts families, children, and the public at risk. Using a shock or prong collar on an already aggressive or reactive dog constitutes a serious public safety concern.

It’s true that shock collars can work to change behavior and that trainers often do get results with their dogs, at least temporarily. But there are well-documented side effects. Many dogs subjected to harsh training may experience some or all of the reactions below:

  • Increased aggression or reactivity
  • Increased arousal
  • Increased fear and anxiety
  • Learned helplessness
  • Generalized anxiety (anticipation of pain or distress out of context)
  • Negative association with training or with the handler/owner
  • Physical injuries like burns
  • Unintended associations that lead to fears and phobias (the shock associated with something else the dog is looking at, unrelated to the training context)
  • Redirected aggression (when flight or avoidance of the aversive device is not possible, the handler or anyone nearby runs the risk of being on the receiving end of defensive or redirected aggression)
  • Becoming habituated to the punishment, resulting in an ever-increasing amount needing to be applied (this is especially the case with frequent or prolonged use of punishment or when the intensity is gradually increased)

There is no way to predict whether your dog will experience these side effects. You won’t know until days, weeks, or even months later. The potential fallout from using shock, prong, and choke collars may not be immediately apparent, but do you really want to play Russian Roulette with your dog’s future well-being?

While painful corrections and punishments may suppress behavior momentarily, they fall short of providing lasting behavioral change. Trainers advocating for corrections argue that it's faster, yet studies indicate that dogs trained with aversive methods may develop worse behavioral problems in the long run. The bottom line remains: if you can achieve the same results without causing harm, why choose otherwise?

Science Tells Us Aversive Tools Are Unnecessary

We live in strange times when personal opinions may carry more weight than facts. Too many people believe misinformation if it is repeated enough (thanks, social media), a response cognitive psychologists call the “illusory truth effect.” That’s why it’s increasingly important to champion evidence-based approaches and prioritize scientific truths in our understanding of behavioral psychology.

There is near unanimous agreement in scientific literature and among those holding degrees in learning theory and animal behavior that aversive tools are unnecessary, including in cases involving aggression. This is not just a matter of differing opinions. A large body of research from scientific, peer-reviewed journals demonstrates how punishment affects behavior and the adverse effects of using punishment. This has been studied in humans and animals and applies across species.

But it shouldn't require an advanced degree in animal science for us to recognize that inflicting discomfort and pain on our pets is morally and ethically unacceptable. Deluding oneself into believing that these tools are not harmful to justify their use is, at best, an act of ignorance and, at worst, disingenuous.

Learning from Other Disciplines

Over the past quarter-century, our understanding of how dogs learn has grown exponentially, paralleling advancements in pedagogical and parenting approaches. Nobody claims that dogs and children are the same, but learning theory applies to all animals, whether they are humans, tigers, birds, or dogs.

In 2019, the American Psychological Association released a resolution urging parents to reconsider the use of punishment for children:

“Research indicates that physical discipline is not effective in achieving parents’ long-term goals of decreasing aggressive and defiant behavior in children or of promoting regulated and socially competent behavior in children…the research on the adverse outcomes associated with physical discipline indicates that any perceived short-term benefits of physical discipline do not outweigh the detriments of this form of discipline.”

You may know people who were spanked, hit, or beaten as children and turned out okay. You may also have met adults who are permanently scarred as a result of how they were punished as children. Like humans, some dogs are resilient and will be fine no matter how they are trained. However, research shows that, in aggregate, punishment has adverse long-term effects on both humans and other species. Remember, the plural of personal anecdote is not data.

We are experiencing a societal shift away from punishment-based philosophies as a culture. Hitting your wife to make her obey is no longer acceptable. Corporal punishment in public schools is now illegal in the majority of U.S. states. Recent research also suggests that increased rates of incarceration show no clear correlation with a reduction in violent crime.

Punishment may feel like the right thing to do when a child misbehaves, an adult commits a crime, or a dog misbehaves or acts aggressively. But if the goal is to create long-lasting behavioral change, pain and punishment serve mainly to help the punisher feel like they are in control.

Our approach to dog training needs to evolve. If you still believe that using prong, shock, or choke collars is an acceptable way to make your dog obey, then be honest about the fact that this equipment is intentionally designed to cause pain or discomfort. The truthful position for trainers and individuals who use these tools is to admit that, yes, the scientific evidence shows that shock, prong, and choke collars are unnecessary and may cause harmful side effects, and yes, they cause pain. But we want to use them anyway.

In September 2022, SF Shock Free was started with the explicit goal of passing a citywide ordinance to ban the sale and use of shock collars in San Francisco. In a very short period of time, we’ve garnered enthusiastic support from the SF Animal Welfare Commission, the SF SPCA, members of the Board of Supervisors, and numerous pet stores, dog trainers, dog walkers, and dog owners.

Our dogs deserve better than shock collars, and SF Shock Free is prepared to fight on their behalf. We welcome you to join us!
About the author:
Ren Volpe is a Professional Dog Trainer and a Certified Behavior Consultant. She is also the crazy dog lady behind GoDogPro, a new online service that matches dog owners with force-free dog professionals godogpro.com