By Toni Drugmand
The Veterinarian on “shock collars”
In an article in PET WORLD Magazine entitled “Vets on Behavior Proclaim, Never use shock collar: How to choose a dog trainer,” author Steve Dale quotes veterinary behaviorist Dr. Karen Overall.“”You wouldn’t send your children off to a school where they use shock, so why would you send your dog there?”
As a professional dog trainer for 20 years, I am one of three people certified in Arizona as a Remote Collar training specialist with the “No Limitations” School for Dog Trainers. At our school, DOG-ON-IT Training! we have success story after success story with our training method, which uses remote electronic training collars. In the past five years I have personally schooled hundreds of clients with their dogs in the use of this training tool. The purpose of this article isn’t to create a deeper wound into the emotional reactions this topic can bring out, but to give some balance and other insight into this heartfelt subject.
Having first-hand experience with the “No Limitations” remote collar training system that our school uses, Dr. Kathryn Allen, a small animal veterinarian in Phoenix who graduated from Cornell Veterinary School in 1988, states that the overall emphasis of the article is that “shock” collars are punishment devices and not only painful but cause damage both emotionally and physically.
Dr. Allen explains that prior to her introduction to remote collars last year, in all her years of practicing veterinary medicine, she had no first hand experience of witnessing any ill effects of shock collars. She never once saw a dog come in wearing a “shock collar” and she never saw any evidence of a collar causing damage to a dog. She has one personal friend, an MD, who uses a remote training collar and is pleased with his results.
I met Dr. Allen in an interesting way. She phoned me one day at my office, told me who she was and that she wanted to meet me. Dr. Allen said that she heard controversial things about me, although clients had told her good things about me as well. She told me she wanted to meet me for herself. I remember being impressed that this veterinarian was at least interested in giving me a chance to demonstrate my training to her.
Dr. Allen states that in the 12-14 months since she has known me, she has now personally seen approximately 100 dogs training in remote electronic collars. She wants to make it clear that although the training collar could be used as a punishment device, she has not witnessed this in the training she has seen. She has attended two remote collar seminars, several classes and visited to observe Fred Hassen and Alfredo Rivera of “Sit Means Sit” Dog Training in Las Vegas, Nevada. Their school is the largest and most successful remote training company in the world. Their emphasis is on ‘successful’, and not ‘unsuccessful’ remote collar training. Dr. Allen states that the use she has witnessed has been motivational and instructional rather than corrective.
“When you first use the collar, you start at the level of 0, no stimulation at all, and work your way up until you get some kind of reaction, but not a yelp and definitely not a punishment level.” Dr. Allen says you use it to teach with, not as a punishment. She also states that the training she has witnessed might include some correction applications for behaviors like excessive barking or aggressive behaviors. She feels these are not a problem because it alleviates the potential of someone otherwise needing to get rid of his or her dog. Dr. Allen says, “It doesn’t change the dog’s overall demeanor when used this way, and within seconds the dog is back to normal.”
On the day that I met with Dr. Allen, I walked in at lunchtime. I went into the back room where Dr. Allen and her staff were completing a surgical procedure. Dr. Allen was polite but busy and I sat down and waited for her to finish. Without looking up from her patient Dr. Allen asked me if I wanted to know what she had heard about me. I replied “yes ,” she went on to say that she had heard I used shock collars, killed a dog and broke a dog’s hip.
Laughing at these remarks, I responded gently that the allegations were indeed false. Dogs are an emotionally charged subject when it comes to the topic of anything that might harm them. It never completely surprises me when I hear someone speak out against me especially without any first-hand experience with my training. I believed the remarks had come out of a local rescue organization that used to refer to me, but quit when they learned of the training I was doing using the electronic collar.
After giving Dr. Allen and her staff some general information on the training that I do, she reluctantly agreed to work with me. Having a fear aggressive problem in her own dog, a puppy she had been given as a gift, she felt she had explored other techniques which had not proven successful and that it was worth trying in a final effort before placing the dog. She told me that she really wouldn’t understand it unless she saw it and tried it herself. This was the only way she would feel comfortable referring clients to me for training.
Dr. Allen, in about a 12-month time frame, went from almost no exposure of remote electronic collar training, to a rather high volume of first-hand experiences with this method of training. She witnessed training in all kinds of environments and under all sorts of distractions. Dr. Allen readily admits that initially she was not as open as she might have seemed. Honestly, she says, she was looking for problems. “When you are a veterinarian, and the primary understanding of these collars is that they are cruel, it can be risky to come out in public in support of them.”
Dr. Allen’s description of her training with this method is that it focuses the dog, helps get their attention and is extremely motivational. The first thing the dog learns is to come to you which is not something he would want to do if he were being punished. Dr. Allen has no problem with treats and lots of praise. She used both with the remote collar training of her dog.
Dr. Allen also states that she knows of no documented evidence showing remote collars or any electronic training aid to be harmful. She thinks the concept of cruelty is propaganda and that it is politically correct to hate “shock collars” if you are an animal lover. Dr Allen goes on to state, that rather than take the time to educate themselves and make an independent decision, it is easier to go with popular opinion. In general most people are afraid to go against the grain. If there are experts currently publishing on the problems with remote collars, she would like access to that information. In fact, Dr. Allen wonders why this “expert” information is not widely available.
The one circumstance where remote collars can be problematic, according to Dr. Allen, is when they are used without proper training. Many pet retailers sell collars allowing consumers to use them without proper training. This can lead to confusion and poor results. Because of this, Dr. Allen always recommends using the collar in conjunction with professional training.
Dr. Alfred Austin, a University of Davis graduate from Carefree Arizona, and his dog trainer wife Ann Austin of Animal Actors, received a copy of this same article written by Steve Dale on “shock collars.” Following are some remarks from both Dr. Austin and Ann Austin referencing this article:
Practicing Veterinary medicine since 1968, Dr. Austin and his wife Ann were both disappointed at the emotional argument the article supports without giving any documented proof of its allegations.
The article presents its argument, according to both Austins, by stating that the idea of a dog wearing a shock collar could be likened to keeping our pets away from sharp knives and other objects, including poison. It states that in some countries these collars are considered illegal because they are so bad. Allegations are made that these collars are used solely for punishment; they cause fear, aggression and nervousness in dogs and are harmful overall.
Since Ann Austin has been a training dogs and instructing dog-training classes for more than 40 years, she has seen training techniques come and go. Trends and fads peak and fade she says. Four summers ago, when attending a “No Limitations” seminar on remote collar training with Fred Hassen in Los Angeles, Ann found a better approach to her conventional methods and restructured all her classes to include a remote electronic training collar.
When asked why the switch, Ann says that the new training method is easier. Easier on the dogs, easier on the people. She also says that she is able to teach her students more in less time and they come out with a higher level of training than with prior methods. She also states that the dogs are indeed happy!
Dr. Austin states that Ann’s clients are learning faster and getting more done in less time.
When asked if Dr. Austin in his nearly 40 years of practicing veterinary medicine had seen dogs that had been “damaged by shock” as Dr. Overall is quoted in Dale’s article, Dr. Austin claimed that he had never seen one. Dr. Austin went on to state, however, that he has seen lots of dogs ruined because they had not been trained.
Dr. Austin did concur that he could understand where a dog could be confused or become nervous if training with electric stimulation was not done with someone with education and skill on the application. He went on to say that the same confusion, nervousness and other negative responses could be said not only of someone who used a training collar incorrectly, but with any other training tool as well. He feels that it isn’t the tool, but the training that goes with the tool. He then again states, that although it is possible, he has honestly never seen a dog ruined, mistreated, injured or hurt by what is being called shock in all the years he has been practicing.
Dr. Austin states that when training a dog with all positive methods like the ones being expressed in Dale’s article, that he simply doesn’t know how a dog is supposed to learn when you have no way of telling the dog that certain behaviors are wrong. We have lots of ways of telling a dog he is right with positive methods, Dr. Austin states, but nothing to show him something is wrong. Dr. Austin also continues to state that wrong and right aren’t concepts dogs know anything about. It is not a natural part of their understanding and he believes it is our job as the dog’s caregiver to educate and help them learn so that we can keep our canine companions safe and offer them the most freedom possible.
Fred Hassen, originator of the “No Limitations” remote collar training system, when asked his opinion on this topic, in a short phone interview stated; “Obviously, what Dr. Allen and Dr. Austin are saying is common sense. We have many vets throughout the country who feel the same way, because they have seen the results of many of our trainer’s clients. The comments in Steve Dale’s article referencing Dr. Overall’s opinion certainly did not surprise me, and would be expected from someone not versed in the success of a tool, any tool. I’m sure if I wrote an article on the effects of people not versed in using a veterinarian’s scalpel correctly it would read similarly. My only comment to Steve Dale’s article quoting Dr. Overall on shock collars would be that my first assumption is that Dr. Overall probably does not have much experience in “successful” remote collar training. On the other hand, you won’t see me commenting on veterinarian medicine either; I’m not a vet. I say leave the specialties to the specialists.”
“Our organization does not sell collars to anyone without training, and I am very aware that many, many people are uneducated on this topic. Our top priority at ‘Sit Means Sit’ Dog Training and in our ‘No Limitations’ School for Dog Trainers is making it very clear how to help the dog through every teaching phase so both the dog and the client are successful with the training. My solution is that professional dog trainers, behaviorists, veterinarians and anyone else should become more educated on how to achieve successful training, no matter what the tool is. Makes for interesting debate though, doesn’t it?,” said Hanssen.
Phoenix Zoo Veterinarian Kathy Orr is a new client to remote collar training with two large Mastiff puppies at close to 100 lbs. Having trained dogs with conventional leash training in the past, Dr. Orr is no stranger to dog training, earning both a champion and obedience CD title on her last Mastiff dog. Having a very busy veterinary schedule with her work at the Phoenix Zoo, Dr. Orr was concerned that she had allowed her puppies to get too big before starting their training. She remarked to me that she could hardly get down the street with them on walks. When I asked Dr. Orr via e-mail how training was going after her second or third lesson she responded, “The main endorsement I can give so far are the rapid results, and my puppies still like me and are having a good time! I think it is important to have guidance from an experienced trainer like you, because I can see how the collars could be misused by someone who doesn’t understand how and when to use the impulses. But that is true of any training method. There are schools where children have been psychologically damaged by verbal abuse”
In another article titled “A Buzz about E-Collars. Do Electronic Collars, Shock or Stimulate Dogs? Are they Cruel and Unnecessary or Valuable Training Tools? WDJ Airs the Debate.” Editor and Chief of this publication, Nancy Kearns, makes some interesting points.
Although Nancy Kearns makes the point clear that the Journal’s position is opposed to the use of electronic training collars, she offers information that gives the reader the opportunity to think and make open minded decisions on the topic.
Says Kearns, “the enduring popularity of these collars makes it clear that many people see nothing wrong with the collars. Lots of people swear by them—including some professional trainers, veterinarians and experienced competitors in canine sports. Dr. Phyllis Giroux has all three of the above-described credentials. She graduated from Michigan State University as Doctor of Veterinary Medicine and has a Masters degree in Animal Behavior. She later became a certified Canine Animal Chiropractor and has been active in purebred dog events since 1974, earning many obedience titles and working certificates.
The article goes on to state “Dr. Giroux wholeheartedly advocates the use of electronic training collars. Recently, she and (Jack) Jagoda completed the first in what they anticipate to be series of instructional videotapes on the subject of training dogs with the help of electronic training collars. Produced in association with Pet Safe, maker of remote training systems, the videotapes will demonstrate and explain the trainers’ methods and philosophies. Dr. Giroux was kind enough to forward a copy of the first tape prior to its official release so that we could review it.”
“We found the tape to be very professionally produced, concise and informative. The training advice offered demonstrated by Giroux and Jagoda was sound and reasonable if you’re not opposed to the use of electronic training collars, which we still are.”
Another article, “The Facts About Modern Electronic Training Devices: Today’s Technology Is Surprisingly Subtle, More Effective”, released by Radio systems at the 2004 North American Veterinary Conference, gives some of the following information. In a survey of veterinarians and technicians from the 2003 North American Veterinary conference, the article states these professionals (veterinarians and technicians) “…found a generally positive attitude about the use of electronic training devices, with 80 percent of professionals stating that they would recommend them in many cases.”
In the same article the Tuskegee University Study finds no lingering adverse effects of bark collars. In 2003 a four-week study of shelter dogs conducted by Janet Steiss, D.V.M. Ph.D. “At the conclusion of the study, Dr. Steiss and her team concluded that electronic bark collars were not only effective in controlling excessive barking, but that they also did not cause any lingering adverse physiological effects.”
Quoted in the same article is Randall Lockwood, Ph.D. Vice President for Research and Educational Outreach, Humane Society of the United States.“We recognize that older products were often unreliable and difficult to use humanely. But we feel that new technology employed by responsible manufactures has led to products that can be and are being used safely and effectively to preserve the safety and well-being of many dogs and strengthen the bond with their human companions.”
In conclusion, by sharing professional opinions, other writings and the thoughts of several experienced veterinarians who have active practices and see dogs all day every day, it is difficult to come to the same conclusions that Steve Dale shares with his reader on the detriment of electronic collars. Many veterinarians along with other professional trainers view these as positive training tools. Although the remote training collar might not be within your comfort zone for personal use, my hope is that the information included would give readers the prompt to investigate and make an educated decision on their own.