The Claims about Leash Pressure and Shock

A commenter on the blog who is a proponent of training with a shock collar has argued strenuously that what he does with shock is no different from what any trainer does who puts a leash on their dog. Since it is a commonly heard argument from shock trainers, and I want to address that misconception.

I am a humane hierarchy trainer, which is in the same family of training as those who call themselves “clicker trainers,” or “R+ trainers,” or “force free trainers.” I will abbreviate my type of training as “HH” for brevity.

The commenter’s claims are heard frequently from shock collar trainers. They are:

  1. Positive trainers are hypocrites for using leashes since they are inherently unpleasant for the dog.
  2. What a shock collar trainer does is analogous to what anyone who has a leash on a dog does with leash pressure, and is no less humane.

Jean Donaldson demolished both of these claims quite handily in her blog post The Continuum Generator. An excerpt:

Another rhetorical device you might have seen is the contention that everybody is using coercion because, look, you’ve got a leash on that dog when you take him for a walk!  The equivalent argument would be that a parent who holds a child’s hand while crossing the street is a hypocrite for lobbying against child battery.  I don’t know whether the coercion crowd are just throwing shit at the wall, arguments-wise, or whether they actually can’t tease out the difference between managing the behavior of a member of society who, with absolute physical liberty, could easily run out into the street, and the hitting, strangling or shocking of that same member of society.

Since this argument arrived at my blog, I’m going to respond as well.

I’ll respond in moderate detail to each of these points, but in case you are tired of reading about shock stuff, here is the summary:

The goal of the Humane Hierarchy trainer is to diminish and eliminate the unpleasantness of tools that might be that way to start off with, and such a trainer takes all sorts of action to avoid coercion, pressure, and pain. The goal of the shock collar trainer is to use that unpleasantness to train with. Take away the unpleasantness and pain administered by shock trainer, and they’ve got nothing left. Meanwhile the HH trainer is working to counter-condition or ameliorate the potential unpleasantness, pain, or stress of any necessary tools. Removing unpleasantness and working out ways to train behaviors without coercion are primary goals.

1. Using potentially unpleasant equipment including leashes

If you put a leash on an untrained dog, it will likely be a tool of  coercion. The point of a leash for most people is to keep the dog close and/or under control and so used, it comprises force.  That’s why most HH trainers who are serious about making leash walking fun for their dog train their dog to walk consistently by their side long and thoroughly before ever putting the leash on. For the trainers who trained their dogs offleash with positive reinforcement to begin with, leashes are merely a decoration or a means of complying with a law. Their dog has already been taught that staying close to his handler is the best thing ever and brings with it all sorts of fun and pleasant activities.

There are a lot of things that are initially unpleasant to dogs because of unfamiliarity or because they cause restraint. These include collars, harnesses, crates, muzzles, physical restraint (physical holding or being behind a barrier), tethering, having their mouths handled, getting shots, etc. Most of these things are a necessary part of modern life for most dogs.

It’s not hard to anticipate what things are going to be initially unpleasant or startling to a puppy or dog. That’s why I, and other trainers who strive to avoid force, take the time to introduce them in a way that associates them with good things like treats, play, and outings. This employs a powerful technique called classical conditioning, which I have written about on this blog. I conditioned my puppy Clara to have a happy response to another dog barking, rather than getting aroused and joining in. If I can override, through training, a dog’s natural, probably instinctual social urge to join in barking, teaching her to like or at least accept a collar should be easy. And it was.

Part of introducing a puppy to such gear is these associations. For leash walking, the other important part is teaching the pup to stay close without the leash at all. That means teaching the correct behavior long and thoroughly before the leash is introduced. For some skilled trainers this may mean that the dog almost never feels the pressure of a leash. For someone at my level, it means that I work towards that goal.

The commenter challenged me and/or other force free trainers, saying,

Have you as a “expert” ever put a leash on a small puppy and had them vocalize? My guess would be yes. Were you hurting the dog, no. It would be very easy for me to find a video of you training a “small, innocent, harmless puppy” who was vocalizing because of the unfamiliarity of a leash, and scrutinize the video with some other trainers.”

The context of this remark was a video of a dog being trained with shock that I and several other observers analyzed and criticized. The dog was in extreme distress, showing cowering body language as the session progressed, getting more and more fearful of the trainer and the props he was being forced to interact with. The dog was shocked 74 times in 8 1/2 minutes, and was vocalizing: whining and crying during the session. The commenter disapproved of our critique and implicitly defended the trainer, and wrote the above challenge and question.

My answer to the commenter’s question is no, I have not had a puppy or young dog vocalize because of the unfamiliarity of the leash. But more important, if I had, just like any other HH trainer, I would have stopped. It would not have gone on for 10 seconds, much less 8+ minutes.

So yes, leashes are potentially unpleasant agents of force. But HH trainers use their skills and problem solving capabilities to ameliorate that.

2. Leash Pressure vs Shock

There is indeed a commonality between leash pressure (specifically the pressure part, which is not a given or necessity for leash training) and shock training.

Leash pressure exercises and shock training both involve the same procedure of operant learning, negative reinforcement. Teaching the dog to respond to pressure is a component of leash training that some trainers use. If it is used, it is generally commenced in the lightest of ways, as Sharon W. described in the comments of the original post, and often after teaching the dog heel position through positive reinforcement without the leash on.

However, the pressure exercise is not performed by all trainers, and dogs can learn to walk on a loose leash without that particular method. There are some methods that rely on it heavily, some that use it as a brief component, and some that do not use it at all.

But for all these trainers, even those who do use leash pressure, the difference between what they are doing and what the shock trainer does (even using the hypothetical “low level shock”) become abundantly clear as the training progresses.

If the dog pulls on the leash, what happens next?

If I take my dog for a walk and she tightens the leash and doesn’t return to my side, I know that I haven’t trained her sufficiently and we go back to a less challenging situation and practice. I take her back to a situation where she can succeed and be positively reinforced for staying at my side. Pressure on the leash indicated an error on my part and it drops out of the picture as soon as I can get us to a more appropriate situation.  This is one of the bases of good training.

But if a dog who is wearing a shock collar moves out of position and her trainer shocks her, that IS the training.

And if the dog is not responding to the “low level” shock, what does the trainer do? The trainer raises the shock to a more painful level.

This is not true of leash pressure, either accidentally or deliberately applied. Because again, the HH trainer knows that if the dog caused pressure on the leash, it indicates an error in her teaching, not on the dog’s part. Leash pressure applied accidentally by the dog or deliberately by the trainer does not warn of harsher methods to come as a low level shock does. It does not signal more pressure or other aversives to come if there is no “compliance.”

Shock trainers like to promote a scenario comparing a trainer using the lightest whisper of shock with a person using pressure on the leash. Since both methods employ negative reinforcement, they claim a shock could actually be less aversive to the dog. You may be surprised that I say that this could be true. But only in the world of thought experiments.

For starters, the only reason a dog would respond to a whisper soft level of shock is if he had already been shocked at a higher level and knew that would follow if he didn’t respond to the low level. So the shock trainers have lost the “humane” contest before it ever started. There is a reason for the shock trainers’ constant return to these rhetorical levels of shock that are so low that they are practically pleasant. They don’t seem to want to talk about what we can see in many shock videos, and what the directions that come with the collars say to do. The real work of the collar is done when the dog doesn’t respond to the low level shock, and the trainer adjusts it higher. There is no corollary to that action in HH training.

Finally, the way shock collars are designed, we never know exactly the level of the shock on the dog, and dogs vary widely on their sensitivity to it. Add to that the fact the shock on these collars rises non-linearly, and that they can fail, and we perceive that there is no safe way this experiment could ever be performed, nor any way to tell what exactly the dog feels.

Conclusion

If you are tempted to think that HH training is all about “rainbows and butterflies,” or liken it to extremely permissive child rearing techniques, as my commenter did, then I think you do not really understand the science of how animals learn.

Some readers who arrive here through the shock materials may not be familiar with the focus of my blog or anything about me. My main focus is that of a student, a non-expert trying to do right by her dogs. I don’t claim to be an expert or perfect. I haven’t successfully trained my dogs to walk on a loose leash without some pressure. But the difference is that I am learning how. I have used overtly coercive techniques in the past, and my journey as a student is unlearning those methods and embracing methods that are fun for both me and my dogs, and give us a happy, low stress life together.

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4 Responses to The Claims about Leash Pressure and Shock

  1. If there are going to be rainbows and butterflies, I would also like some unicorns, please, because they are cool, too. (Though, much like the perfect trainer who never makes a mistake, elusive.)

    I like the term “humane hierarchy.” That’s a new one for me. I may add that to my vocabulary.

    What immediately came to mind when I read this:

    “The goal of the Humane Hierarchy trainer is to diminish and eliminate the unpleasantness of tools that might be that way to start off with”

    Is how much work I did with desensitization and counter conditioning with Barnum around the clippers. Since frequent haircuts are a fact of life for a Bouvier in my household, and his initial response to the merest touch of the clipper (I think it was the sound and vibration) was total freak out, I spent a few weeks using a lot of cottage cheese (his favorite food) to teach him that just the presence of the clippers predicted delights. I had not anticipated this because neither of my previous Bouvs were bothered by the clippers..

    For a while I despaired of Barnum ever getting used to them and just put the clippers on as background noise for every meal for a couple of weeks. I still remember the moment I was able to shave some of him for the first time with him staying relaxed and happy. I gave him a HUGE handful of cottage cheese, I was so excited! It is very rewarding now to gather all the stuff for a haircut and have him wagging his tail in anticipation.

    • That’s so cool! You got the “Yahoo” reaction! That takes a while sometimes. A lot of patience and love.

      The Humane Hierarchy is very cool. To me it’s the solution to “what the heck do we call ourselves?” I’m writing a post on that someday. I wonder sometimes if there is an existential message in the fact that there is no simple catchy phrase in English that perfectly describes “our kind of training.” And now I sound cliquish, smile. Clicker trainer doesn’t work for me, because a clicker to me is a tool, not a method (you could use it to mark bad stuff just as easily as good). Besides which I don’t use one anymore. And on from there. The Humane Hierarchy is much more than a handy name, though. That’s a whole ‘nother post.

      But careful about the unicorns. You didn’t know that Unicorns are jerks?

  2. Ooh, I definitely want a post on the Humane Hierarchy. (That triangle thing is not clear to me till about halfway down.)
    OMG, that coloring book is hilarious. I totally want that now.

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