As she often does, Kim Brophey wants to get a conversation started.
A well-respected dog trainer in Asheville and the author of the new book, “Meet Your Dog,” Brophey bent my ear about a subject I hadn’t really thought much about, and I’m glad she did. We’re talking about those electronic shock collars you see on dogs, the ones that give them a buzz or anÂ zap if the dog misbehaves or wanders past a certain point in your yard.
Often the owner controls the zapping with a remote control, although the devices also can be set to go off at a certain point in a yard.
I know some people who’ve used them on their dogs, and they seemed to be effective and not particularly cruel. So they weren’t on my radar asÂ troublesome.
But Brophey is a mission to educate people about the problems associated with these collars, and they are indeed problematic. She also notes that several high-profile organizations have come out in formal opposition to the devices â€” and some countries have banned them.
“Suffice it to say there’s been sufficient consideration and evidence for more than a decade of the consequences, risks, dangers and behavioral repercussions and welfare concerns related to the punishment-based use of electric collars,” said Brophey, who operates the Dog Door Behavior Center & Outfitters in downtown Asheville.
In a progressive town like Asheville, Brophey says “it’s ridiculous” that we’re not having a serious discussion about the use of the devices.
She does not blame well-intended pet owners frustrated by bad pet behavior. Rather, she’s frustrated with trainers who recommend the devices as an easy solution.
A lot of times, Brophey says, dog owners are “abusing the animals without realizing they’re doing that.
“I’ll have really well-intentioned people come in andÂ say, ‘Why hasÂ he started biting us?'” Brophey said. “It hasn’t dawned on them them that itâ€™s the $2,000 they spent on an electric collarÂ and border â€” that they’ve created a chronic atmosphere of fear and anxiety.”
For the record, many of these collars run from $25-$200, but the more elaborate systems, and training, can go higher.
Some collars can be set to emit a beeping sound, or a buzzing sensation, as well as an electric shock that can range significantly in power. Often, owners are controlling the beeping, buzzing or shocks, though, and dogs sometimes will associate the discomfort with them.
That’s a bad situation, one that creates growing resentment and frustration in the dog.
Buncombe CountyÂ resident Nancy Rice is one of Brophey’s clients and has come to the conclusion that shock collars are not the way to go. She works as a personal assistant and was heavily involved in training her boss’s German shepherd, a 5-year-old named Buddy.
As Brophey stresses, the shock collars take an emotional toll on the dogs by inflicting pain or discomfort, and Rice agrees that’s troubling. But Rice also raised some practical concerns about the devices, issues I’d never thought about.
“They know if it’s on or not, and their behavior changes,” Price said. “If the collar is not put on snug enoughÂ it won’t work, and if it’s too snug it can cause skin problems. If it’s not charged overnight and you put it on in the morning, then you don’t have the tool available to you. And If you don’t have the controller in your hand or pocket at all times, it’s no use.”
The devices get results, and that’s why so many pet owners opt for them. But that comes with a price on the animal.
“Then there’s always the challenge of where to set itÂ because it can be from one extreme to the other,” Price said of the electric shock. “And someone different handling a dog may do it differently from someone else.”
Buddy had shown some signs of aggression in recent months, “grazing” with his mouth two people who got too close. Price said she can’t know if the collar contributed to the problem, but overall she says, “I just happen to think the old conventional ways of training your dog are the best.”
By that she means what Brophey advocates: positive reinforcement and rewards for the desired behaviors, and spending a lot of time with your dog to train him or her to follow basic commands.
Of course, there’s still plenty of debate about all this in the dog world. Some dog owners swear by the devices, saying it gives them control over otherwise uncontrollable pets, and it keeps them from roaming out of yards and into harm’s way on heavily trafficked streets. Honestly, if the only way someone can control their pit bull is with one of these, I’m not going to argue with them.
In a brief search online, I found several articles that addressed the issue.
One, in Canine Journal, outlined pros and cons of the devices, noting they have adjustable intensity, get fast results, are relatively affordableÂ and, with the fence-line devices or anti-barking collars, you don’t have to be present.Â
On the negative side, the article acknowledges that you’ll be using “aversive behavior modification” on your animal instead of positive reinforcement, and you can instill fear in the pet. “With shock training, some dogs may learn to fear people, objects, or situations they associate with the collar,” the article noted. Also, it notes that “automatic bark collars and electric fences may deliver shocks unintentionally or too often,” and that can confuse the dog.
“So while a shock collar may effectively deter negative behaviors like jumping on visitors or running after the mail carrier, it doesnâ€™t reward positive behavior such as sitting patiently or obeying a command to ‘Stay!'” Canine Journal stated. “As with any training, you should always reinforce positive behavior with a reward of affection, playtime or a small treat.”
Of course, a lot of companies and trainers sell these devices, and they’re going to cite quick results, especially for harried dog owners who feel they don’t have enough time for training, and the convenience.
I talked with a co-worker who used one on her adopted pit bull mix, and she said it has helped keep him alive by ending his penchant for running into the street. She actually tested the collar’s shock on herself before putting it on the dog to make sure it wasn’t too severe.
“Within three weeks, the road was like lava to him,” she said. “He would not go up on the road, even when other dogs were out there walking.”
So, I get that the collars can work.
Fletcher resident Lexie Autrey used one on her Newfoundland, Ellie, an 18-month-old bear of a dog that had started testing boundaries around six or seven months.Â
“I needed to be able to control her,” Autrey said, noting that when people see a dog the size of a small black bear coming at them, they can get startled.
“It works, but I never felt completely comfortable with it,” Autrey said. “For one thing, the setting on the handheld part of it goes from zero to 100. I’d set it at 6 or 7, so I didn’t need very much vibration or shock for it to work.”
Newfoundlands tend to be slow deciders, and they like to think they’re making their own decisions, Autrey said. So ultimately she ditched the collar and opted for positive reinforcement.
Brophey stresses that knowing your breed is critical in getting the best results.
She also emphasizes that the real heavy hitters in the dog world have lined up against the shock devices, including the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior, which released a position paper.
“AVSABâ€™s position is that punishmentÂ (e.g. choke chains, pinch collars, and electronic collars) should not be used as a first-line or early-use treatment for behavior problems,” it reads in part. “This is due to the potential adverse effects which include but are not limited to: inhibition of Â learning, increased fear-related and aggressive behaviors, and injury to animals and people interacting with animals.”
I also checked in with Tracey Elliott, executive director ofÂ Asheville Humane Society.
“We are against the use of shock collars as well as pinch collars,” Elliott said. “We feel they are unnecessarily harsh, they are not needed to train an animal and they may result in worse behavior than trying to train the unwanted behavior out of them.”
In short, you don’t need to harm your dog or cause pain to get the result you want. Positive reinforcement, whether it’s tantalizing freeze-dried chicken strips or affection and encouragement, will get the job done, with enough patience.
“You’re causing a negative association with the trainer, with the owner or anybody else who’s (administering the shock), as opposed to a positive association,” Elliott said. “Dogs are intelligent enough to be trained in the right behavior with positive reinforcements.”
He hasn’t met my basset hound, Cooper, who will bark incessantly at the same neighbor’s cat every day, to the point where I have to put him on a leash and drag him in the house, but I digress. Hey, Cooper will come running for a bone, so I get Elliott’s point.
At the end of the day, Brophey says this isn’t about making owners feel bad or putting people out of business.
“It’s more about saying, ‘There’s all this information out there and all this science out there,’ so let’s talk about it,” she said. “At the very least, if you’re going to use one of these tools, make an informed decision.”
This is the opinion of John Boyle. Contact him at 828-232-5847 or firstname.lastname@example.org