I was recently walking my dogs at the beach when I came across a woman with a puppy wearing a shock collar. Appalled, I asked why she was resorting to such harsh measures with this seemingly normal, sweet-tempered puppy. As it turned out, a "trainer" had told her to punish the puppy for "bad" behavior with shock because he was part pit bull. I spent the next 20 minutes trying to undo the harm caused by that so-called "trainer."
In July, a man in Wales was fined for putting a shock collar on his collie; they've banned shock collars there, and for good reason. I look forward to the day when shock collars are banned in the U.S. too.
Shock collars are uncomfortable to begin with because of the prongs that protrude into the dog's neck. Add an electric current to that, and dogs can suffer from pain and psychological stress, which can lead to severe anxiety, displaced aggression and changes in heart and respiration rates.
Shock collars can also malfunction, inflicting burns or nonstop shocks. This is especially true of the shock collars associated with "invisible fences" because dogs are often left unattended in a yard surrounded by such a "fence" and any malfunction could go unnoticed by the dog's guardian for a long period of time. These "invisible fences" also leave dogs vulnerable to other dogs or even people with bad intentions, since there is no physical barrier to separate them. Dogs who are extra motivated to leave the yard by, say, the desire to chase a squirrel or play with another dog, might actually decide to accept the shock in order to escape the yard but then not be able to get back in afterward.
Another problem with both types of shock collars is that to the dog, the shocks are coming from out of the blue, so they could end up being associated with anything that is in the dog's immediate environment at that particular moment--be it a child, another dog, a car or a skateboarder--thus creating a psychological problem that didn't exist before the use of the shock collar.
Positive training methods, in which dogs are rewarded for what they do "right"--rather than being punished for what they do "wrong"--are gentle and much more effective, and they don't cause psychological damage. It's so easy to train puppies and most dogs with treats and praise. Simply reward the behavior that you like, and ignore or channel unwanted behavior into a different activity--that's the bottom line. There is plenty of information about humane dog training online. Practice, patience and good timing are paramount. If you don't feel that you're up to the task, then find a humane dog trainer (one who avoids the use of pain) to help you.
Dogs are just doing what comes naturally to dogs, and they don't deserve to be punished for not understanding what kind of behavior our human culture wants from them. It's our job to show them what we want in a clear and compassionate manner.
Karen Porreca is a director with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, 501 Front St., Norfolk, VA 23510; www.PETA.org.