This blog post was written by Jason Purgason, President of Highland Canine, LLC. Jason is a recognized subject matter expert in training dogs and people. This post explores the debate of whether training tools, such as prong and remote collars, should be used by owners and professional dog trainers.
A Balanced Trainer's Outlook on Training Tools in a Purely Positive World
Growing up, I was pretty fortunate. I didn’t have the money to pay a mechanic to work on my cars, but I did have a father who taught me how to repair my own car. This is something that I have always found rewarding, and even now I will work on my own cars when they begin having issues. Through the years, I have consequently amassed quite a few tools to get the work done.
If you’ve worked on a car within the last 30 years, you will know the usefulness of metric sockets – particularly the 10mm socket. The 10mm is the most common size fastener used among auto manufacturers. If you’ve ever allowed someone to borrow your tools (as I have made the mistake of doing), you will quickly find that the 10mm socket is often times the one tool that ends up “missing”. Without the 10mm socket, it is pretty difficult to get anything done.
Repairing cars is very similar to working with dogs and their owners. The issues experienced from client to client are all different, and consequently require different approaches to “fixing” them. Just like with cars, dog trainers need many different tools at their disposal to get the job done.
In the dog training industry, there is a growing group of people who are working incredibly hard, lobbying and protesting, to take these tools away from dog trainers and dog owners. These “Purely Positive” or “Force Free” trainers continue to spread propaganda and misinformation about the effects of using training tools. If they are successful, our life with dogs will change forever.
Why these training tools are so important
Training tools are a critical part of optimizing balance and developing effective communication between humans and dogs. This balance and clarity in communication is, in fact, so important that we are often able to save the life of an “unfixable” dog through the use of training tools. For more than a decade, we have been able to utilize these tools in a way that improves the lives of dogs and owners alike.
Through the use of tools such as clickers, e-collars, and prong collars, we have been able to completely resolve aggression, shyness, fighting and a myriad of other behaviors that have typically resulted in the extremely large number of dogs left at high-kill shelters.
There is a growing movement of dog training activists working persistently to ban the use of training tools. They employ rhetoric about physical injury, damaged relationships and other fictitious fabrications aimed at convincing dog trainers and owners to abandon training tools entirely. The common mantra of this group is “Death before Discomfort”. The premise of this statement is that death is a better option for dogs than being subjected to any type of discomfort.
This group also loves to use “science-based training” in much of their dialog. This commonly refers to the use of operant conditioning in training dogs. If you have ever taken a psychology class, you will know that operant conditioning is accomplished through both reinforcement and punishment as methods for learning. Operant conditioning is a natural process for learning in virtually every living animal, including humans. If a behavior yields pleasant outcomes, it is likely to be repeated; if a behavior yields undesirable outcomes, it is less likely to continue occurring.
Why do training tools work?
Training tools have, unfortunately, become a highly controversial topic within the dog training industry. You have probably heard of the two most controversial training tools at some point: The prong (or pinch) collar, and the e-collar or remote training collar. Much of the controversy surrounding these tools is based on misconceptions and false information being relayed to the public as fact. Many people who oppose these tools believe that they are harsh methods of medieval style punishment that cause intense pain, and even injury, to their wearer.
When abused, anything can be harmful – training collars and flat collars alike. The issue arises when people utilize these tools incorrectly. Training collars should always be utilized during training sessions in conjunction with positive reinforcement to communicate a message – after which they should be removed. They should never be used to correct a dog for failing to perform a behavior which they do not fully understand. New behaviors should be taught with positive reinforcement in a variety of environments and contexts. Appropriate corrections, when used strategically after a dog understands their cues and can perform them regularly without assistance, can help teach consistency in different environments and help redirect behaviors in behavioral modification.
Why are Prong Collars effective?
Prong collars, also known as pinch collars, are used as a temporary tool to communicate to a dog when a dangerous or offensive behavior is unacceptable. Humans and dogs naturally experience a language barrier, as humans are extremely verbal communicators and dogs are very nonverbal communicators. When used correctly, prong collars mimic the correction that a dog naturally gives to other dogs and puppies. Dogs understand this sensation which makes it much easier for us to communicate that behaviors are unacceptable to them.
Prong collars are often referred to as pinch collars because of the way that they work. These collars, if fitted properly, have links that move back and forth in a pinching motion on the dog’s neck. They do not drive into the dog’s skin as some would have you believe. For years, a photo has been circulating the internet and social media sites showing a dog with small holes in its shaved neck that are in the pattern of a prong collar. Advocates of training tool bans use this photo as a staple in their prong collar argument. What they don’t explain, however, is that these holes are caused by necrosis (the deterioration of tissue caused by prolonged pressure) after the collar had been left on consistently for weeks. Prong collars were made to be removed after training and should never be left on for an extended period of time. Necrosis can be caused by nearly any type of prolonged pressure. It occurs when tissue begins to die due to a lack of blood supply and has been known to occur frequently with flat nylon or leather collars left on too tightly. Even bed sores are a common form of necrosis – beds produce significantly higher rates of necrosis than prong collars and you don’t see activists working to ban them!
How do dogs learn with e-collars?
A common misconception about remote collars is that they are used as a form of intense punishment, or a deterrent. The truth is that remote collars make an incredible form of communication between humans and dogs. E-collars are not meant to abuse dogs by turning them up to extremely high levels and punishing them. They also utilize a static form of stimulation opposed to the active form of stimulation used in electric fences or tasers. E-collars are not “shock” collars and do not cause harm to dogs. By using a very low level of static stimulation, they work well to get a dog’s attention in loud environments or environments saturated with distractions. They help develop focus – something which is paramount to attaining results in dog training.
Think of the last time your dog ran from you and wouldn’t come back at the dog park, in your neighborhood or in some other distracting environment. Was it because they didn’t understand the command to come? Or was it because you didn’t have their attention and focus? A focused dog is far more likely to respond to commands, making them significantly safer to bring around other people and animals. This safety measure can be very effective in preventing tragic accidents, both on and off leash.
One major benefit of the remote training collar over the prong collar and many other tools is that we are not required to have a leash attached to the device in order for us to benefit from it. As such, the e-collar gives us the ability to effectively communicate with the dog, off-leash and at great distances. Remote collars are frequently used by hunters, wilderness search and rescue crews, police K9 units and hiking enthusiasts.
Over the years, we have also seen incredible benefits when using remote collars in the training of deaf dogs. Remote collar brands such as Dogtra offer a pager only function on many of their models. This pager can be used to gain the attention of and teach deaf or hearing impaired dogs to look at their handler upon signaling, providing handlers the opportunity to cue their dog with a hand movement even when off leash. This same function is frequently used with disaster search dogs to get their attention on rubble piles while ensuring that the other dogs working are not distracted. This provides a much safer alternative to traditional methods such as audible whistles. In addition, this function is also used to direct police dogs in high-risk environments where noise discipline is paramount and verbal commands would be detrimental.
Think about it: would you rather experience the terrifying moment that so many owners do when your reactive dog attacks another dog or person, when your excitable pup runs out into the street and gets hit by a car, or doesn’t listen when you desperately call them back during a hiking trip -only to find yourself frantically administering first aid on your companion after they have been torn up by another animal or bitten by a venomous snake. What hurts more, costs more, and has longer lasting repercussions: experiences like those mentioned above or a mild, non-harmful yet effective stimulation from a prong or remote collar?
Can’t training tools be misused?
If you ever find yourself in a debate regarding the ethics of training tools, you will likely hear some version of this question. The answer is simply, yes; however, it is important to remember that many inherently good things are misused. Tools like prong collars and e-collars can be abused by trainers, dog handlers and owners alike if they don’t possess the proper education.
It is important to recognize that other training tools are more frequently misused by dog trainers and – many times unknowingly – dog owners. Consider the human hand for a moment… Our hands are probably the tool most commonly used when working with our dogs. Frequently, we see owners who hit or slap their dogs for inappropriate behavior. This is likely the fastest way to ruin any opportunity available for having a positive relationship with our dog. Our hands are also commonly used for delivering food, treats and physical praise. When coupled with hitting and slapping a dog, this can create a very conflicting association for them.
Leashes are another commonly misused tool. Over the years, I’ve seen K9 handlers and dog owners “crack” a dog over the head or muzzle with a leather leash as punishment for pulling or jumping. The leash is a tool that we use all the time (even purely positive trainers use them!), but for some reason are rarely suspected of being misused.
Can’t dogs be trained without them?
Opponents of training tools often claim that ALL dogs can be trained without the use of training tools, and that trainers who depend on them or utilize them frequently lack knowledge and skill. This statement couldn’t be further from the truth! Can ALL dogs be trained without training tools? I don’t believe they can. Can some dogs be optimally trained without the use of training tools? Perhaps the answer is yes, but only in very particular situations. I believe that developing a well-trained dog without the use of training tools would require a number of factors in order to be successful.
First, we would have to start with the “perfect” puppy. It is important to concede to the fact that older dogs often develop a repertoire of bad behaviors through passive learning – much of which unfortunately results their abandonment, and the high populations in rescues and shelters. Correcting undesirable or dangerous behaviors in older dogs which have been rewarded throughout time – without the use of effective reinforcement and punishment – is rarely effective. This implies that we would need to begin with a young pup who possesses no previous learning history and no disposition or tendencies towards “bad” behavior.
Secondly, we would require the “perfect” environment. Much of what young and older dogs learn happens as a result of interactions with their environment. For example, if a dog has its tail slammed in a door, it will likely learn that walking through doors is painful, resulting in a problem behavior. In addition, if a dog is attacked by another dog, it may expect that other dogs will attack them and will likely lash out in a preemptively offensive maneuver. Because of this, it is critical that our “perfect” pup be raised in an environment where they are able to create positive associations with everything and never learn any potentially problematic behaviors. For even the most dedicated of dog owners, this is likely an impossible proposition.
Finally, we will require the “perfect” trainer or owner. It is necessary that our pup be exposed to “error free” learning. This type of learning is one where every desirable behavior is rewarded at precisely the right time with the utmost consistency – without any mistakes. Even mistimed reinforcement is subject to promoting the wrong behavior, which could be an undesirable one. A majority of pet owners simply do not possess the skill and knowledge necessary to create “error free” learning with their dogs.
What it will be like without training tools
So, what will life be like for owners, K9 handlers and trainers if these tools are banned? In my opinion, frustration between dogs and their owners will increase significantly. As a result, shelter population rates will increase leading to an exponential surge in euthanasia rates. Banning dog training tools will simply create a situation where many dogs and their owners will experience significant difficulty in coexisting, especially in the same house. Handlers and law enforcement trainers would be greatly limited in the training techniques utilized to use to develop well-trained K9 partners.
When subjecting dogs to a purely positive training philosophy, especially regarding behavioral modification, potential for learning is limited. Many world-renowned purely positive trainers have advised owners to euthanize their “incurable” dogs because they could not be fixed with purely positive, or “force-free,” training techniques exclusively. (These are the “best” internationally known purely positive trainers in the industry!)
Owners of adolescent dogs and puppies exhibiting typical hierarchy testing / normal puppy behaviors have even been advised to “cull” these “extremely aggressive” dogs by purely positive trainers. Imagine how many dog owners would find themselves devastated by this tragic advice from a professional who is supposed to help them? If we succumb to purely positive methods exclusively, we will all be just as incapable of resolving the problems that purely positive trainers cannot.
How do we keep these tools?
Through propaganda, fallacies and fabrications, the movement to regulate or ban dog training tools is gaining considerable momentum in the United States. We have the power to change this, however, by promoting a better understanding of these tools, their advantages, and how they have the power to truly help dogs and their owners. Knowledge is power, and education is the key to maintaining harmony in human-dog relationships. Please don’t take my 10mm socket, because the one issue I need it for could mean the difference between life and death.