How a Shock Collar Changed My Relationship with My Dog
Cruel? With careful, compassionate application, a shock collar can be the kindest thing you do for your pet.
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I’m not going to sugarcoat any of this. You should consider using a shock collar to train your dog only if you’ve reached the limits of positive reinforcement, and even then only after enlisting the help and expertise of a professional trainer or veterinarian. But if your dog has a persistent behavior that is limiting its ability to lead a happy, full life, then you may find that a shock collar can help.
My wife and I adopted Teddy a year and a half ago from a little rescue organization in northeast Montana. She was five months old and had lived a hard life. The rescuer thought she was a Great Pyrenees–German shepherd mix. It took us a solid year of consistency, patience, and unconditional love to get her to feel comfortable in our family. Watching all that hard work pay off as Teddy blossomed into the sweetest dog we’ve ever owned was totally worth it.
But it turns out that Teddy is not a Great Pyrenees mix. She’s a purebred Anatolian shepherd. Anatolians are a livestock guardian breed that originated in Turkey and are known for their athleticism and fiercely protective, loving nature. There’s a famous photo—well, famous among Anatolian enthusiasts—of a sheep licking the wounds of one that’s covered in blood after defending its herd from a pack of wolves. Teddy’s not the worst dog to end up owning in a part of the world known for its large predators. But there’s probably one thing you’d want to know about an Anatolian before adopting one: they are to barking what an Arabian Stallion is to running.
I think it was about the time that the mayor of our little town threatened to call the cops on us that we realized we had a problem. That was about a year ago, and we’ve since invested a lot of time in trying to redirect Teddy’s attention to other, more positive things when she starts barking. And that worked; there’s a noticeable difference in how often and how persistent Teddy will bark now. Compared to last year, it’s dropped probably 20 percent.
But while reducing an Anatolian shepherd’s barking by 20 percent may be a huge accomplishment from an owner’s perspective, the result is still a lot of barking. And that threatened to derail our ability to include Teddy in our life. For our wedding, we went to great lengths to find a dog-friendly location and then planned a 5,000-mile drive there and back, staying in dog-friendly hotels and camping along the way so we could bring all three dogs along. At hotels, we’re obviously careful to never leave the dogs unattended in the room, but we still feared we’d be bad guests if Teddy made too much noise. To bring her along, we had to find a way to not just reduce but totally stop her barking, at least for a night or two at a time.
While we were trying to figure that out, our friend Ty flew in to visit for the weekend. It was winter, so a lot of the far-flung hiking trails weren’t accessible, but I still wanted to show Ty a part of Montana he’d never seen. We ended up taking the dogs to a trail I’d never hiked before. It was overcrowded, and it did not go well.
Teddy used to ignore other dogs on hikes, but as she’s grown in confidence, she’s also started to realize that she can make friends outside of our immediate family. That happened slowly, first with human houseguests, and then with dogs we’d meet at the dog park. But even as she’s learned about the possibility of friends, Teddy hasn’t necessarily learned about dog politics. Not every dog is friendly, not every dog wants to play, and not every dog or dog owner understands that a fierce-looking, intently focused, 115-pound Anatolian shepherd bounding up to them at full speed is really just excited to lick them on the face.
Ty watched at least five different people scream at me on that hike and then told me to get a shock collar. He had to invest in one a few years ago after wildlife officers almost shot his Karelian bear dog when Sansho chased a baby bighorn sheep up a cliff and was closing in for a kill. I told Ty I was afraid of ruining Teddy’s sweet demeanor with harsh correction techniques, but he was insistent that the outright need to use the collar was very infrequent, because it delivered training results almost immediately. He bent my ear about it the entire way home, so I bought a $250 Garmin Sport Pro training system.
The Sport Pro includes a collar-mounted training device with automatic bark-correction capability and a handheld controller with a 3/4-mile range. In automatic mode, the collar detects barking and will initially warn the dog with a vibration before starting at the lowest shock level, then progressing upward if the barking continues or intensifies. The handheld controller allows you to apply that correction manually, giving you both vibration and beep cues, as well as ten selectable levels of shock to choose from. It can control up to three collars, and the batteries in both the collar and handheld last up to 60 hours.
Does shocking your dog cause pain? I tried it on myself first: in the lower settings, it starts as an unpleasant tingle before ramping up into something that causes a muscle spasm in the highest setting. I was holding the shock collar in my hand, and at that highest level, the shock spasmed my entire forearm and hand, causing me to drop the device involuntarily. It’s certainly not a pleasant feeling, but it’s momentary and not so much painful as it is intense.
Still, it’s not an experience I want to give to my dogs more often than necessary. Fortunately, it does appear that Ty was right: you don’t need to use it much at all.
After a couple days of trial and error figuring out where the device’s prongs needed to be located on Teddy’s throat to detect barks and how tight the collar needed to be for those prongs to penetrate her thick coat, I got to watch the automatic bark correction in action. During an evening walk, Teddy barked loudly at a passing dog on the other side of the street, then immediately let out a short whimper. She barked again, whimpered again, then made it through the rest of the walk with no further sound. It didn’t otherwise alter her behavior at all; she displayed no fear, wasn’t any less curious about smells or sounds, and acted like the same vibrant, happy dog we love. She’d just stopped barking.
Importantly, the collar does not seem to have discouraged Teddy from barking in circumstances that genuinely merit it. We don’t want to deny her nature, nor do we want to stop her from being a good guard dog. Even though it has curbed her overall instinct to bark—even when she’s not wearing the collar—she will still enthusiastically roar at anything she perceives as a threat. We’ve never been safer from the cottontail that lives under our deck.
I also wanted to use the device to stop her from focusing on other dogs so much while hiking. If I called her off, I needed her to listen. So, on hikes where other people were present, I started by keeping her on the leash. If we passed another dog and Teddy focused on it too much, I’d call her to try to refocus her attention on me. If she didn’t comply, I’d shock her at level four (of ten), which is her threshold for responding to the stimulus. On a leashed hike where I called her, she didn’t respond, and I shocked her; she listened the rest of the time, with otherwise unaltered behavior.
Garmin instructs users of the Sport Pro to determine their dog’s sensitivity to the shock with an initial trial. Fit the collar correctly and begin applying brief shocks starting at level one, then work your way up until it elicits a response from the dog. Teddy’s response is to whimper; there’s no flinching or cowering. Once you find that level, there’s never any need to apply a stronger shock; you’ve found your dog’s training threshold. The point at which your dog responds to the stimulus is all it needs to learn from it. Testing level four on myself feels like only a moderate tingle.
After those first on-leash hikes with the training device, I’ve begun to allow Teddy off-leash again while wearing the collar. If she spots another dog and runs toward it without listening to me call her off, I’ll shock her. She never fails to respond to that but hasn’t yet progressed to the point where the issue is totally cured off-leash in absence of the shocks. It’s a big improvement regardless and something I have no doubt will prove effective with more time and consistency.
Is this cruel? I’d instead call it effective. Training with the shock collar, even for a very brief time, ensured that we were able to successfully bring Teddy along on that monthlong trip to southern Baja and back. She didn’t bark in a hotel room once, and all the rest of our positive-reinforcement training meant that she was reliable in all her other behaviors. Even off-leash around other guests at a fancy hotel.
We didn’t get to that remarkable level of reliability through shock training alone, of course, but rather trough a never-ending program of positive reinforcement and deliberate, scaled socialization. I employ the shock collar only for the two behaviors described here and ultimately have to apply remarkably few shocks. Right now, as we continue to work on Teddy’s focus toward other dogs, I’d say I’m shocking her maybe once every two weeks. And simply wearing the collar is enough to entirely prevent her from barking. Teddy has learned that she shouldn’t bark when it’s on, so she isn’t receiving corrections in that circumstance, either.
Even if Teddy experiences pain from the shocks in a way that testing the collar on myself did not reveal—an unlikely but worst-case scenario that is worth considering—then the return on those very few momentary instances of pain has still been enormous. She’s living a happier, more fulfilled life where she’s included and trusted throughout our travel and experiences. Heck, she got to live at that fancy hotel for ten days, off-leash, being fed and pampered by her new best friends: the hotel staff. And who knows? Maybe our mayor will even stop threatening to call the cops on her.
Is a shock collar right for your dog? That’s a decision I’d encourage you to make carefully with the help of a professional trainer. And if you do decide to use one, make sure you identify the express circumstances in which its use can fit into your overall training program. That program should still be built around positive reinforcement, even if a shock collar may help you resolve a specific, particularly challenging and important problem.