Is It Really Just a Tap? Shock Collar Training Explained

Holding down the button on a shock collar remote

Shock collar trainers have several names for the shocks that they administer through the collar. A tap. A stim. A nick. A page. Static. Application of pressure.  It sounds like something short and relatively benign.

Even the word “shock,” although it has much more negative connotations (which is why shock collar trainers usually don’t use the word), sounds like something brief. If you get a shock from scuffing your feet on the carpet then touching metal, it is unpleasant but over in milliseconds.

What many people don’t realize is that in many types of shock collar training, the electric shock is on for much longer periods. In the initial training sessions it is turned on and left on until the dog figures out, sometimes with very little effective information from the trainer, what she is supposed to do to get it to turn off.

Here is what that training can look like. (This video uses a stuffed dog as a demo.) Since with many actual shock training videos you can’t tell when the shock is applied and how long it lasts, I have shown that pictorially in the video.

This method uses what is called negative reinforcement. Negative reinforcement is in play whenever you are trying to get an animal to do something by using something painful or uncomfortable. (This is in contrast to positive punishment, which is used to get the dog to stop doing something. Shock training is used for that, too.) When a shock collar is used in negative reinforcement training, the shock is turned on, and left on, until the dog does the desired behavior. Some common applications are for recalls, crate training, platform training, and taking and holding a retrieve item. Negative reinforcement is also called “escape and avoidance” training. In this case the animal is working to escape or avoid the shock.

Science tells us there are two ways to get repeated behavior. One is to add something the dog likes after she does it. (Dog sits, and gets a treat.) The other is to take away something the dog doesn’t like after she does it. The handler pinches a dog’s ear until she grabs and holds the dumbbell in her mouth, then the handler releases the ear. There is no “neutral” way to get behavior to repeat. Behavior is driven by consequences. If you don’t see something either pleasant or aversive influencing the dog’s behavior in a training session, you haven’t looked hard enough. (Hint: it’s usually not praise.)

So when the shock collar trainers say that the shock doesn’t hurt–that’s not true.  During the initial training period, it must be painful, uncomfortable, or frightening, or it wouldn’t work. It has to have some unpleasant feeling that is robust enough to get the dog to work to make it stop. An example of a dog exhibiting absolute misery during his first session with a shock trainer is on my page Shock Training Session Video Analysis.

It’s true that after the initial stages of training, the shocks can be shorter and at a lower level. Sometimes just having the dog wear the collar, or using the vibration function only is enough to get compliance. Being trained with shock leaves a history of pain and discomfort behind it.  And the possibility of it never goes away as long as the dog is wearing the collar. The dog understands this from experience, because she has already learned the consequence of not responding immediately. The consequence is pain. As Kelly Blackwell, a well known shock trainer, describes the dog’s understanding of shock collar training: “If I don’t do it, they can and will make me do it.” You can see her videos on my Shock Collar Training vs Force Free Video Examples page.

It is even possible to manipulate collars so the dog doesn’t know which collar delivers a shock. A trainer can thus get compliance from a dog who is not even wearing a shock collar. Also if the dog associates the shock with the trainer, the dog may comply without wearing the collar. In both of these cases, the threat of shock is still there to the dog.

That is how you train behaviors with a shock collar. Leave the shock on until the dog complies, then release it when she does. If that level of shock does not work, raise to a more painful level.  Once the dog understands how the system works, most dogs will comply at lower levels of pain or just the threat in order to avoid the escalation.

Video Comparison

One of the advantages claimed by shock trainers is that their dogs can be off leash.   Which of these dogs in the following videos appears to be enjoying his freedom more: the one who just learned to come when called because otherwise he will be shocked, or the one trained force free, doing a long distance recall, and who was called away from sniffing, to boot? Watch the body language.

“Dog training using remote training collar by BigLeash”

(This is not a stuffed dog but a real beagle being trained, in case you would rather not watch. The actual training starts at about 1:40. )

“Stanley, come!”

(Beagle/rat terrier mix trained without force, doing two quick, responsive, happy recalls)

More Comparison and Analysis

Two new resources:

Shock Collar Training vs Force Free Video Examples. This is a resource page that contrasts videos of dogs being trained with shock and videos of training the same or similar behaviors force free.

Shock Training Session Video Analysis. Some very generous trainers from the Observation Skills for Dog Training FaceBook group helped me do a second by second observational listing of the body language of a dog undergoing his first shock training session. There is also analysis and commentary on the training techniques used.

Thanks for reading. Please pass this along to anyone who may be considering using shock or hiring a shock trainer because they have heard that the shock is “just like a tap on the shoulder.”

Upcoming topics:

34 thoughts on “Is It Really Just a Tap? Shock Collar Training Explained

    1. Sharon, thanks for the thumbs up on the demo and I’m sorry it affected you that way. In a way it is supposed to, but the target audience is not the folks like you (and all the people who have commented so far) who are already sensitized to the reality of dogs as living creatures and understand their body language. Making the demo I kept worrying about the stop motion stuff being cartoonish. I’m glad it didn’t appear so.

  1. I had no idea of the range of shocks that could be delivered to elicit such a variety of behaviors. Horrifying and leaves me sick in the stomach. That said, you did a fine job of explaining the procedures, body language etc. Makes me so happy I discovered clicker training.

    1. Carolyn, again, sorry for the hard effects of the blog and movies. It’s a strange thing to write something with this sort of effect. I too am glad I discovered clicker training! Thanks for reading and your kind comments.

  2. i couldn’t watch the beagle’s training after watching the body language of the bc and the boxer.
    and the stuffed dog training was….interesting (?). i just kept thinking ‘shaping’ is so much easier (and obviously much more humane).
    thank you, eileen, for your blog and for all you do for dogs 🙂

  3. Once again an fantastic blog on training and the fallout of using painful methods. I too am so glad I discovered force-free training. My relationship with all of my dogs and my kitten are so much better for it!

    1. I’m glad too. I was looking for force free training as soon as I wanted to train a dog, and unfortunately I couldn’t find locally what I kept reading about on the Internet. I finally have found it, although our community here is tiny. Just the act of training (humanely) can get us so much close to our animals. It is the highlight of my dogs’ day.

  4. This is such a disturbing subject. Unfortunately, I see more and more shock collars being used at the dog parks. I think this thing really appeals to the “gadget ” users and I hesitate to even call it training. There are those who want a remote control dog and who are either too to lazy or not smart enough to actually train their dog. I can’t tell you how much abuse I have seen. The one that really gets me are those yacking on their cell phone and not paying attention to their dog at the dog park and the moment he puts a foot out of place they’re zapping fido.

    I have one question Eileen, I’m always concerned about dogs who are delivered a shock when looking at or approaching my dogs (we have someone in our neighbourhood who does this on a regular basis) and my concern is that at some point could this actually cause this dog to have a negative association to my dogs which could lead to aggressive behaviour towards my dogs? How does the dog know where/who the shock is actually coming from? (I don’t think most shock users have great timing) I see many use the shock collar to try and control their dogs prey drive. Whenever I am in the vicinity of someone using a shock collar I leave the area, for one, I find it upsetting and I also I don’t want to put my dogs at risk. I have also heard from a reliable source that many dogs who have been shocked end up with psychological/anxiety issues down the road. I know of several dogs where this was the case.

    1. Hi Marjorie. Yes, you have put your finger on one of many known problems with shock collars. The dog can easily associate the shock with something in the environment instead of its own behavior, especially if it is regularly shocked in the same situation, say, when it sees and barks at another dog. Since I’m not a credentialed trainer, here is a link from the Pet Professional Guild that explain more about that. “Position Statement on the Use of Shock in Animal Training”. I am sorry you have to be around that, for so many reasons, and you are doing well to heed your dogs’ safety.

  5. Ouch, that beagle video was painful to watch.

    I do have a question about the second video. The R+ dog did a lovely, happy recall, but that was in his own backyard. Is he as reliable in say, the park or someplace similar? I love seeing happy positive trained working dogs, but I see so many videos that are just taken in a barkyard or training center, and you really don’t get an idea of really how well the dog is actually trained.

    1. Hi Bethany,
      Thanks for commenting. I asked Stanley’s person to respond to your question about his reliability away from home and here is what she wrote:

      “That video was filmed in a field he is familiar with. He was in a movie called Home for the Holidays with Dave Coullier where he was off leash downtown in 14 degree weather at 8AM on a sidewalk next to rush hour traffic and on a busy sidewalk weaving in and out of pedestrians on Main Street and Riverfront Park.

      The movie trailer has lots of Stanley appearances, including one of the street scenes.

      1. Hi Leonard, thanks for the videos. I’m very interested in how you taught your whistle recall. This is something I have been looking into teaching my own dogs.

      2. Bethany – We actually didn’t start it. Our breeder did, as she would like all her pups doing some kind of field trials work and a double-whistle blast is commonly used as a recall. so she simply started with the pup when it was feeding time. While she’s a geologist, I doubt seriously she had respondent conditioning in mind when she was doing this, but that’s what she started. As opposed to most of the other clients of hers, we kept it up. That doesn’t mean that when the dog is grown, that it’s too late, the the contrary.

        You will want to build it up like a clicker: double-whistle=highest value food reward. Do this FIRST, just like a clicker. Then….

        …in your kitchen or dining room or where every it’s a rather small size, just put your dog into a “wait”, then give your doubel-whistle. Give the dog 4-5 tiniest treats of highest value, one after the next. Do this is in this order for 8-10 times. Gradually increase distance until you’re out of sight, like in another room. Make this a hide-seek game. Sit-stay -> you leave -> double-whistle release. Do it out in the garden. Then in an open area with few natural distractions. When you do actually take it on the road, do NOT EVER give the double whistle release unless you’re sure your dog will comply. In other words, if she’s sniffing about after “something”, do not give the double whistle cue. Wait until she’s stopped sniffing – then give the cue.

        Some will also use an intermediary bridge – a kind of “keep going” signal as the dog is coming in. Good luck. It takes some time, but you know you’re on the right path, when with few distractions, your dogs stops what she’s doing on a dime and charges towards you.

  6. To augment this impressive article might I suggest taking a look at the two experiments I did using human subjects who can explain how they experienced shock and where we can see on human body language the effects of +R (praise), +P (single shocks to stop unwanted behaviors) and -R (repeated and continued shocks to decrease latency and increase speed of performance). The subjects were trained in a language the did not understand – Turkish – much the same as dogs who are trained in a language THEY don’t understand. and

    1. Thanks for your comments and for posting your experiments, Buzz. I hope everybody takes a look at all your resources. Here for the rest of you is the front page of “Proof Positive,” Buzz’ collection of video documentation of well mannered dogs who were trained force free.

  7. I always thought anyone wanting to “train” their dog with a shock collar should first have to learn something basic themselves, with only shocks as clues as to what was required – kind of the opposite of one of the techniques used to teach clicker training. Excellent experiments Leonard, should be required viewing for shock collar owners and aspiring trainers!

  8. I always thought anyone wanting to use a shock collar to “train” a dog should submit to being taught something simple using the same method – kind of the opposite of the technique used to teach clicker training… And Leonard’s experiments should be required viewing for wanna-be shock collar owners too…

    1. Yes, Leonard’s project is unique and such a valuable resource. Also, it is so different to put on a collar and hand the remote to someone else, rather than having control over it oneself. Many shock trainers will demo their collars to prove that they are “not so bad,” but they are usually holding the remotes themselves….Thanks for commenting.

  9. Thank you to everyone who has read and commented so far .I really appreciate your attending to such a difficult topic. I will reply individually to comments later today.

  10. I have known some dog behaviourist advocate having a dog put to sleep if it did not respond to all other positive types of dog training. I consider killing dogs a real act of violence. Many dogs for whom e-collars are bought are literally saved from death row as the next stop is the dog shelter or putting them up for sale free to good home to be used as bait for fighting dogs.

    Keep it real guys. Nobody who pays hundred of pounds for a dog collar is using it to torture their dog. There was a case in the news last month where a Staffie had its legs broken with a piece of scrap iron then it was set on fire. All that was done at a fraction of the cost of an electric collar.

    1. Thanks for the comment. I’d like to point out to my other readers that Dogtra is the name of a well known shock collar manufacturer and this comment appears to be from someone affiliated with that company and with a financial interest in the use of these collars. Thanks for not hiding that, Ian. However, your comment does not address the actual content of my post, which explained the method of negative reinforcement and duration shocks in shock collar training. Also, your comment exemplifies at least four types of logical fallacies (arguing from anecdote, hasty generalization, false dichotomy, and straw man). I’ll soon be writing about good argument and the types of discussion I’d like to see more of in the blog and in general.

  11. I found this video that shows a perfect recall of a police dog that is trained using 100% positive methods AND is recalled from an activity that he highly enjoys AND has already experienced AND will be able to experience in the future. Very impressive ! What I love in this one is that the behaviour he is recalled from is ALSO a highly rewarding behaviour that is encouraged at other times.

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