Shocking news: treats work better

We never doubted it, but nonetheless we were pleased to find that there is definitive scientific research proving that if you want to train a dog, a tasty treat is more likely to succeed than an electric shock.

‘We advocate the use of reward-based training in modifying dog behaviour, as our work indicates it is more effective than training which involves aversive stimuli, and it carries fewer risks to dog welfare,’ says Jonathan Cooper at the University of Lincoln, UK, who carried out the study.

Cooper and his colleagues compared the two training methods using 63 dogs split into three groups. All the animals required training for recall and (oh, dear) for repeatedly chasing livestock.

The team asked professional handlers nominated by the Electronic Collar Manufacturers Association (ECMA), a trade group based in Brussels, Belgium, to train one group. They used e-collars that can deliver a shock along with additional methods, including pulling on the dog’s leash or offering food and praise. They also trained a second group using the same training methods, but without the use of e-collars, as a control.

In the third group, professional members of the UK-based Association of Pet Dog Trainers used their reward-based training method, which incorporates praise, play and food as rewards. All of the dogs were trained in the presence of penned livestock and wore 10-metre leashes and e-collars during the study, but the collars were deactivated in the latter two groups.

Analysing videos of up to 150 minutes of training over a five-day period for each dog, Cooper and his colleagues found that those in the reward group responded to commands faster and with fewer reminders, he says.

There are many other reasons not to use electric shock collars, of course, including:

  • Using aversive training methods based on fear and pain may result in your dog avoiding you, or even becoming aggressive with you. Using humane training based on rewards instead of punishment addresses unwanted behaviours is just as effective and won’t jeopardise your relationship.
  • The electrostatic shock can cause psychological distress for your pet, including phobias and high levels of stress, and can result in unhealthy increases in heart rate and painful burns to your dog’s skin. Use of shock collars can also habituate your pet to pain and cause increases in aggression and fear-based behaviours.
  • Veterinary associations and humane organizations have long recognized that punishment-based training can be detrimental to animals. The Canadian Veterinary Medical Association’s position statement on training strongly discourage aversive training methods.

Electronic collars are a form of punishment, and not a gentle one. Approved training collars can malfunction, and any claims that such collars will not harm the dog are unreliable. There have been plenty of cases of dogs receiving electrical burns through their fur. Scarier yet, you won’t be aware of these electrical burns until the injury finally appears – the fur does a good job of masking it!

Electronic collars are often set to ‘mildly uncomfortable’ levels and are often said to deliver ‘static shock’ but in reality, these collars deliver alternating current upon contact with skin. Humidity and coat density affects how seriously the dog feels the shock. This means that the sensation felt by an individual dog cannot be accurately reflected in studies or product analyses. Dogs have different skin, coat types, and pain tolerances, and live in different climates.

The original E-collar, by the way, was invented in the late 1950’s by bird-dog hunters. The collars began to be used more widely in the mid to late 1960’s. These archaic models were indeed ‘shock-collars’ and they had three levels of shock that were all incredibly aversive.

Put it this way: if you were a dog would you be more motivated by a nasty shock to your neck or a delicious treat? Every dog lover knows the correct answer.

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