In January, Russell Upol, 36, was walking his lhasa apso, Anapol, in a tree-lined Tulsa neighborhood when they came upon an unleashed German shepherd. When the big dog approached, “the owner said, ‘Don’t worry, he has an electronic collar,’ ” Upol, a musician, recalled. “Then she started pushing a button to shock the dog, over and over, and the dog was rolling on the ground making a crying noise.”
Upset by the experience, Upol got online and discovered that some places — including Wales, Quebec and parts of Australia — have banned shock collars. Canada, Scotland and Britain have also considered bans. But the devices, he learned, are unregulated in the United States — so he circulated a petition to ban them in Oklahoma.
Upol is among a growing chorus of voices trying to prohibit — or at least regulate — the collars in the United States. No one has yet succeeded, but an ordinance adopted recently in Alexandria, Va., which limits their use on public property, is a step in the right direction, opponents of the collars say. They cite research indicating that the devices hurt and stress dogs, can cause behavioral problems, and are less effective than other training methods.
Shock collar supporters say that the collars are effective and humane when used correctly and can even save dogs’ lives when, for instance, they run after wildlife.
Anyone in the United States can buy shock collars online or in pet stores, and their prices range from about $25 to $400. Some deliver shocks automatically when a dog barks or wanders; others are activated by remote control. Originally designed in the 1960s to grab the attention of wayward hunting dogs, modern collars generally have adjustable voltages and emit a warning tone or vibrate to signal to dogs that they will soon be shocked if they don’t change their behavior.
Even with these advances, training with shock collars can have unintended consequences, said Jean Donaldson, a California-based dog trainer. Dogs wearing bark-triggered collars may become fearful of the front door or other places where they bark. Sensitive dogs may develop generalized anxiety and related behavioral problems, including self-mutilation and even aggression, she said.
“You end up trading a nuisance behavior — barking — for fear and anxiety, which is much harder to deal with,” said Donaldson, who opposes the collars’ use.
“An issue with punishment as a training method, which includes shock collars, pinch collars, choke collars and even verbal reprimands, is that you aren’t really telling the dogs what to do,” said John Ciribassi, AVSAB president.
Ciribassi said research studies back up his argument. One, published in PlosOne in 2014, compared dog training with remote-controlled shock collars and training using treats and praise. The dogs with the collars were clearly more distressed, said lead author Jonathan Cooper, an animal behavior and welfare professor at the University of Lincoln in Lincoln, Britain.
“They would do things like pant and yawn and hold their tails lower, which we know is a sign of stress in dogs,” he said.
Cooper said he and his colleagues are now reviewing videos from the study and finding that the dogs trained with treats and praise learned commands more quickly than the dogs with the shock collars.
Lou Castle, a former dog trainer for the Culver City Police Department, in California, said that that does not jibe with his experience. Castle used e-collars with his police dogs and also taught classes for pet owners on how to train dogs using only treats and praise. Those dogs made slow progress, he said, and his clients rarely bothered practicing new commands around the house and on walks.
Then he began showing pet owners how to use e-collars.
“Almost everyone did their homework. The results came so quickly,” he said.
Castle said that is partly because he uses a level of shock — a “tapping or tingling,” in his words — that’s barely noticeable to the dog.
But he also credits a special method he’s developed for e-collar training. First, he teaches dogs that if they stray too far from their owners, they receive a mild shock. Soon, you have a “velcro dog,” who won’t leave your side, Castle said. Then you can move on to more advanced training, including the “sit” and “stay” commands.
E-collar training also lasts, he said. Shock collar-trained dogs stay put even if a cat runs by, while treat-trained dogs tend to give chase, Castle said.
Wildlife biologist Jason Hawley is another advocate of the collars. Hawley used to live in Arizona with his yellow lab, Loca, who had a habit of chasing deer, elk, or even more dangerous animals.
“One time, she took off after a wolf pup that was crossing the road, and I thought she was dead for sure,” Hawley said. “A friend of mine found her a couple hours later, running for her life. He picked her up, and two alphas came barreling out of the woods behind her. He got her just in time.”
After that, Hawley fitted Loca with an e-collar. It only took a couple of shocks before she learned to obey the warning tone, he said.
That gave Hawley an idea: Why not put e-collars on wolves, to keep them from preying on sheep? He conducted a study for which he captured and collared wild wolves, then erected invisible fences around road-killed deer. Almost all of the collared wolves quickly learned to avoid the areas where they got shocked, and their uncollared pack members followed suit.
The results aren’t just theoretical. Wildlife managers have used shock collars to keep wolves from eating livestock, foxes from eating endangered birds, bears from eating food left out by campers, and, of course, dogs from chasing wildlife.
When used correctly, shock collars can help people live harmoniously among wild animals as well as train our pets, Hawley said.
“They are an extremely valuable tool,” Hawley said. “Like anything, it can be abused. But if someone’s going to abuse an animal — which is despicable — they have plenty of other tools at their disposal, including their bare hands.”
Arguments like Hawley’s have caused Upol to soften his position. Instead of a ban, Upol said he now wants Oklahoma to require training for people who want to buy shock collars.
Upol’s petition has more than 700 signatures — far short of the more than 50,000 he’d need to create a ballot initiative. For now, he said, he’s satisfied with having brought attention to the collars.
“I ran into the owner of the German shepherd the other day, and she told me that she had stopped using the shock collar,” Upol said. “Whatever else happens, at least I helped out one dog.”