By: Evelyn Albine Konopik, RVT
Veterinary medicine has evolved over the years in many ways, but one of the most important changes is that pain management has become a staple in veterinary medicine. It is important to pet parents and veterinary staff alike that our furry friends experience as little pain as possible during medical procedures and in their day-to-day lives. When it comes to dog training and behavior modification, however, this effort often goes out the window. Aversive methods causing discomfort and pain to our pets, such as choke chains, pinch collars, and shock collars, are still commonly used for behavior management and/or confinement, even though positive training methods have been used and promoted over the past three to four decades, and are proven to lead to better results.
The use of aversive tools has disadvantages on more than just the physical level, although physical injuries are the most obvious: Choke chains tighten around the dog’s neck with little or no control by the handler over the degree of tightening, potentially strangling the dog to death. Less drastic and more common, choke chains can lead to fainting, cause tracheal and esophageal injuries, damage ocular blood vessels, and cause nerve damage and transient paralysis as well as neck sprains. Prong or pinch collars can pinch the dog’s trachea. Improperly fitted or inappropriately sized choke and pinch collars can become embedded in the dog’s skin. Both choke chains and prong collars can damage the thyroid gland, salivary glands, or salivary lymph nodes. The contact points of electric shock collars can irritate the skin and cause hot spots, but they also have the potential to burn holes in the skin.
Worse than many of the physical injuries, and a lot slower to heal, are the mental scars and behavioral implications of aversive training methods. In the technical terms of operant conditioning, choke, prong, and shock collars work with the principles of negative reinforcement (removing an unpleasant/painful stimulus as soon as the requested behavior is performed) and positive punishment (presenting an unpleasant stimulus as consequence for an undesired behavior). For the ease of reading, I will refer to both as punishment in this article, although this is technically not correct (I hope the readers familiar with the four quadrants of operant conditioning forgive me).
Any form of punishment, whether it is using a prong collar, sticking your dog’s nose in his urine puddle on the living room carpet, or popping your puppy’s nose for play biting, has consequences dog owners are all too often unaware of. Under certain circumstances (but far less often than we think), it may teach a dog that whatever he did was wrong. However, punishment never teaches your dog how to do it right. With lack of proper guidance for the dog, excessive use of aversive stimuli in dog training can easily become abuse and put a dog into the state of “learned helplessness.” This is a state of mind in which the animal considers any behavior ineffective, including desirable behaviors, hence making any training a lot more difficult.
Dogs do not only learn by experiencing consequences for their behavior. Just like humans, they also learn by association (classical conditioning). Classical conditioning involves bodily functions that are not under voluntary control, such as reflexes and emotions. If you ever found yourself remembering the good old times in Grandma’s kitchen after lighting an apple-pie-scented candle or got caught off-guard by a song that used to be “in” when you dated your high school sweetheart, you know how powerful associative learning can be. One of the major downfalls of using punishment in dog training is the association your dog makes between punishment and the punisher (you). These negative associations undermine trust and can induce fear and anxiety issues in your pet.
When both types of conditioning are put together, these forms of learning can lead to downward spiraling behavior problems, especially when choke chains and prong collars are used on already fearful or fear-aggressive dogs. Let’s take for example a dog who barks at and runs towards other dogs, whether out of excitement, fear, or leash frustration. When he reaches the end of the leash, the choke chain or pinch collar inflicts pain and distress, possibly exacerbated by the handler jerking the leash. More often than not, the dog will not learn that good behavior (stopping the barking and lunging) will make the pain go away. Instead, the pain and distress will be associated with the other dog, making the barking and lunging even worse the next time another dog shows up. It would be more effective to teach the dog how to behave right and reward the correct behavior. Rewards make for positive associations and therefore a positive mindset, making future dog encounters more likely to be peaceful.
Since shock collars are either automatic or remote controlled, there may not be an association with the “punisher,” but if the shock is triggered when the pet parent is out of sight, there is no telling which behavior is punished: Maybe the dog was in the process of defecating in a nice grassy spot when it got shocked. This dog may never want to defecate on grass again! Also, be aware that shock collars can malfunction and randomly shock the dog, possibly even while he is lying peacefully on his own bed. Even if shock collars work properly, we can never know exactly which associations the dog makes, leading to inexplicable behavior quirks at best and deep-seated fear and/or aggression at worst.
So what to do if you have an exuberant, out-of-control puppy or a dog with aggressive tendencies (realizing that most “aggressive” behaviors are actually fear-related)?
First, use the right equipment. The pet market is flooded with tools that humanely help to control your dog. Try a head collar, such as the NewTrix head halter, Gentle Leader®, or Snoot Loop. Invest the time to get your dog accustomed to a head halter BEFORE you have to use it (most products come with detailed instructions on how to use them), since your dog may not readily accept it during times of stress. If you don’t want to use a head collar, use a good no-pull harness, like the Freedom Harness, which includes a double-ended leash, or the Easy Walk® Harness. You may have to try out a couple of different products, as not every product works for every dog or for every handler. Other helpful devices are hands-free leashes, for example the Buddy System®, which leaves your hands free to give treats, and basket muzzles. Unfortunately, many people shy away from muzzles, but I can tell you from my own experience that a good muzzle gives you peace of mind if your furry child is reactive. As with head collars, you need to take the time to get your dog accustomed to the muzzle before you have to use it. If your dog needs to wear a muzzle for longer periods of time, use a basket muzzle like the Italian Basket Muzzle or Baskerville Ultra muzzle. These muzzles allow the dog to pant and drink, and you can still give treats fairly easily.
Second, choose the right trainer. If your dog is fearful or reactive, consider working with a dog trainer to help guide you through the many different behavior modification techniques in existence today. Please be aware that the field of dog training is highly unregulated and anybody can call themselves a dog trainer, whether they have a graduate degree in animal behavior or draw their knowledge out of popular TV shows. There are also many different dog training certifications available (indicated by letters behind the name). Some certifications require a graduate degree, while some can be acquired online. For more information about certifications, please Click Here. We recommend working with a trainer that is at least certified through the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers, which will be indicated with the letters CPDT-KA or CPDT-KSA behind the trainer’s name. This national certification requires a certain amount of experience and a solid knowledge of learning theory and behavioral science. Regardless of the letters behind a name, the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior has published guidelines to help you choose a dog trainer: Click Here.
Third, learn more about canine behavior and how to train with positive reinforcement of good behavior. Living with and training your furry companion will be a lot more fun this way. It would be beyond the scope of this article to discuss all of the books available on positive reinforcement training and positive behavior modification. To mention only a few of the most published authors, good starting points are books by Dr. Sophia Yin (How To Behave So Your Dog Behaves, Perfect Puppy in 7 Days), Dr. Ian Dunbar (Before/After You Get Your Puppy), Dr. Patricia McConnell (The Other End Of The Leash, For The Love Of A Dog), Pat Miller (The Power Of Positive Dog Training, Do Over Dogs), Jean Donaldson (The Culture Clash), and Karen Pryor (Don’t Shoot The Dog, Getting Started: Clicker Training For Dogs). For reactivity problems, check out Emma Parson’s Click To Calm or Grisha Stewart’s Behavior Adjustment Training. For fearful dogs, refer to Nicole Wilde’s Help For Your Fearful Dog or Ali Brown’s Scaredy Dog! Many of these authors also have training DVDs on the market.
Last but not least, talk to your veterinarian at Animal Hospital of North Asheville. If you have concerns about your dog’s behavior, you should first make sure the cause of the behavior is not a physical problem, such as sudden relapses in housetraining due to a urinary tract infection. If your dog is healthy, your veterinarian can refer you to a qualified behavior professional, who can help you with your problem and cooperate with your veterinarian if pharmaceutical drugs are indicated during the behavior modification process.
We at AHNA feel strongly about relieving our patients from pain and distress, physical or otherwise, so please understand that we may ask you to remove a choke chain or prong collar during your visit at our hospital, especially during procedures that involve handling the sensitive areas of throat and neck, such as jugular venipuncture. We respect your decision on how to train your dog, but if you are currently using choke chains, prong collars or shock collars, we hope we gave you the inspiration to try out something new.