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Are Remote Collars Punishment, Negative Reinforcement, or Motivators?

by Robin MacFarlane

Shock Collar? E-collar? Remote Collar? Which one is it?

There is so much information available about remote collars and electronic training these days that the average person might have a hard time deciding what to believe or adhere to.

The idea that remote collars are cruel and can only be used to punish a dog is usually supported by those who want to ban and remove them from the market. On the flip side, some individuals speak of the tool as if it were the golden scepter, key to solving all dog problems.

Among trainers there is the operant conditioning argument about whether electronic collars are tools of negative reinforcement or positive punishment. Add in the idea that some of us believe e-collars can be used as "positive motivators" and some real confusion starts to set in about how to use these tools and what to call them.

Who do you listen to? Who is right about what these tools are?

I'd say they all are, to an extent anyway. That really is the fascinating aspect of learning about remote collars. It is also what can make it a daunting process to the new person trying to train their dog with one. The reality is: how the dog will perceive the sensation of stimulation is entirely dependent on the operator and how he chooses to use the tool.

Everything depends on the level of stimulation, the amount of collar conditioning that has or has not been done, and the situation in which the stimulation is being applied.

Let's walk through a few scenarios to see what I mean:

Example 1: Dog eats feces and owner wants it stopped. Owner purchases a shock collar, puts it on the dog and waits for the dog to demonstrate the behavior. At the time the dog begins to eat the poo, owner holds on the button set to a high level. Dog startles, yelps and hustles away from that part of yard.

This is a straightforward use of punishment. Will it work? Perhaps, but maybe not. The dog may associate attempting to eat poop with discomfort and give up the behavior or she may associate that location in the yard with discomfort and avoid going back to that spot. With repeated applications of this approach it is also possible the dog may become hesitant to be in the yard at all.

Example 2: Owner collar conditions the dog using a just right level of stimulation. The dog now understands she can control the sensation by performing some behavior.

Dog goes toward the poo, owner uses the e-collar to apply moderate level of stimulation just as the dog leans to investigate feces. Owner remains silent and does not alert the dog to his presence or observation. Dog withdraws from feces and then continues to wander about the yard. Owner repeats each time dog attempts to sniff/eat feces. Collar is interrupting the attempt to eat the poo through negative reinforcement. As soon as dog moves away from the feces the sensation turns off.

Will it work? Yes, probably. Owner likely will have to continue to monitor and repeat numerous times in order for the dog to generalize the behavior. It is also possible it will re-occur in the future and owner may need to revisit the training from time to time.

Example 3: Owner e-collar conditions the dog using a just right level of stimulation. The dog now understands she can control the sensation by performing some behavior. Owner teaches a recall to the dog using the e-collar.

Dog finishes toileting, owner calls dog to Come using low e-collar stim simultaneous with the command. Dog immediately turns and moves to owner, owner gives dog a treat for coming back in the house door. Owner repeats this several times until dog begins to return to house immediately after eliminating.

This is what many of us might term positive motivation. The e-collar tap has no negative effect on the dog, it is tactile sensation that gains attention (and distracts from potential movement toward the poo) and is followed with reward for an alternative behavior.

Will it work? Yes, probably. It is also possible it will re-occur in the future and owner may need to revisit the training from time to time.

You can see how there are multiple training approaches to a behavior problem using the same tool. How do you know what is the "right" way? Any of the three can potentially solve the problem and each may have some limitations.

My personal belief is that Examples 2 and 3 are more fair to the dog. I've never been a proponent of using an e-collar to problem-solve without first doing some e-collar conditioning. The results are hit and miss and can create stress for the dog. Unfortunately, the type of use outlined in example 1 is likely the leading reason why these tools still carry the label "Shock Collar" and all the negative images that go along with it.

The tool itself is neutral. It is how we use it that determines the outcome for the dog.

And for what it's worth, if you're dog is eating it's own poop, she probably has an underlying dietary deficiency. Look into the food you're feeding, evaluate the quality of the protein, and consider adding more B complex vitamins to your dog's diet.
-- Robin

Robin MacFarlane is a professional dog trainer and owner of Thatís My Dog in Dubuque, Iowa. Her best-selling dog training DVDs, JUST RIGHT and JUST RIGHT 2 have helped thousands of dog owners teach their dogs basic obedience and fix problem behaviors through a system of training that you can easily work into your daily routine.
  • Robin writes for Gun Dog Supply on our E-collars Dog Training blog
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  • Pull-Quote= The tool is neutral, it is how we use it that determines the outcome for the dog.

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