Recently, I heard a woman speak about training dogs with e-collars. She does call herself a trainer and runs a dog training school, though – in a sorely unregulated industry** – her background is as a vet tech.
Before I get into her talk, I will say this: I love PetSafe. I hate that they sell these products. They are an incredible company dedicated to doing good – heck, they have a remarkable guy whose sole job is to give away money. But I just want to be clear up front that I was on an expenses-paid trip out there, which was wonderful with the exception of the session with this woman.
In the opening bit of her talk, the trainer was mentioning other types of training and started to go into positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, positive punishment, and negative punishment… and then she said, “But I don’t really care about the science.”
That right there.
See, the thing is, I do care about the science. I care passionately and (somewhat) obsessively about the science.
And the science – all the studies, data, and results that have been peer reviewed and published in scholarly journals – discounts every single thing she said.
For example, she said that e-collar training does not cause distress but rather stress. And, she continued, stress is good for a learning environment. Unfortunately, a recent study showed that electronic collars do cause distress. Ah, but the trainer argued, the study showed “yawning” as a sign of distress, and perhaps the dogs were tired or bored? Except her dismissal flies in the face of countless anxiety studies that show yawning is, in fact, a sign of stress in dogs (and, actually, in people, too).
Her talk continued along that thread, essentially saying, “Here’s the science, but since I don’t believe it, I’ll continue to promote these collars.” Her schtick was to have e-collars on set to level 1 on her neck and 3 on her ankles, and if you wanted to ask her a question, you had to shock her. (I wanted to ask her to set the neck one to a 3, but I refrained…)
She then did a demonstration using the collar on her dog, asking her to do a whole series of tricks. The dog did the tricks almost perfectly. Did it look like she was being abused? Not in the slightest. Did it look like she was having fun? Well, not so much. Not to me, anyway. She kept trying to return to her bed – she was yawning and, according to this woman, that probably indicated she was tired.
When I started writing this post, my goal was to pull every study under the sun* about how positive reinforcement is more effective than using aversive stimuli (shocks.), but then I realized that, when it comes down to it, the bottom line for me isn’t the science. While I love studying the data, my bottom line is that my dogs have fun when we’re working together.
I want them to enjoy training with me. I want to use training to develop and strengthen our bond. And if you see the boys doggy dancing with John – done entirely with a clicker and treats – or you see them out with me playing our variation of “follow the leader” – you know they’re having fun. They’re not yawning or licking their lips or averting their eyes or trying to avoid us. They’re wagging with open mouths. They’re looking us in the eye, waiting to see what fun thing happens next.
In the abstract of the e-collar paper, the authors conclude, “These findings suggest that there is no consistent benefit to be gained from e-collar training but greater welfare concerns compared with positive reward based training.”
The importance of that point can’t be discounted. According to the trainer, students who come through her school aren’t interesting in high-level zapping but, rather, attention-getting “sensations.” I hope that’s true (but… on a side note… why are the collars even manufactured with those high levels built in? If, as this woman says, dogs pay attention at a 1-3 level, why even make a level 10 and risk that possibility? But, I digress…..)
E-collars and their kin do not serve to build your bond with your dog.
I do not want to “master” my dogs.
I want to partner with them. I want to work with them.
I want them to trust me – not fear me and my little button.
Luckily, when I started pulling all those peer-reviewed papers, it’s clear that the science is pushing us in that direction. And, in truth, PetSafe manufactures a ton of positive reinforcement products, too. (Check out the Train ‘n Praise. I am in love. I’ll have a post and giveaway soon.)
Thankfully, unlike this woman, many trainers do care about the science of behavior. And that science is demonstrating that humane methods of training surpass antiquated, aversive methods.
**I write about this stuff all the time, though I’m not a trainer. Yet. I’ve decided to enroll in the Karen Pryor Academy next year so I can back this stuff up with credentials.
*If you want to read a summary of one study I found interesting, check it out here.