Shock collars are frequently used in dog training, but may cause serious physical and behavioral harm to dogs. Risks include serious burns and an increased likelihood of aggressive behavior. An alternative training method is usually safer and more effective than the use of a shock collar. In some cases, the use of a shock collar is justified. In these rare circumstances, the owner should always work with a professional to ensure the collar is used safely.
Shock collars are made by many companies, with numerous styles to choose from. All these products can be divided into one of four categories: Remote training collars, invisible fence collars, boundary collars and bark collars. Remote training collars are operated by the owner or trainer with a remote. Most offer adjustable intensity. Some offer a tone-only or vibration-only option. Invisible fence collars are shock collars made to shock a dog for crossing an invisible fence. Most give a warning tone to tell the dog he is getting too close to the fence and will soon be shocked. Boundary collars are similar to invisible fence collars, but instead of keeping a dog inside a boundary, they keep him out of a forbidden area. Most styles have a small transmitter that will shock a dog that comes within a certain radius, such as the area near a trash can. Bark collars shock dogs when they bark. Most increase in intensity until the dog stops barking. Some have adjustable levels of sensitivity.
All types of shock collars create serious risks for the dog, both physically and behaviorally. Malfunctioning shock collars can severely burn a dog's neck. They may also start shocking the dog and not stop until they are removed and the batteries are taken out. Some will even start shocking the dog at random intervals. Behavioral hazards are similar to those created by any type of painful punishment. There are potential behavioral side effects any time a dog is punished with pain. These include fear, aggression, withdrawal, reactivity and more. Some dogs even "shut down" when punished. These dogs will stop responding to any cue or stimulus for a period of time.
Some trainers believe that shock collars are safe and necessary for all dog training or for training certain behaviors such as snake avoidance. In reality, there are almost always other options that are more safe and humane than the use of a shock collar. Trainers who use shock collars will refer to the painful shock as a "stimulation" and will claim that the dog is not experiencing pain. This misconception can be cleared up by simply putting the shock collar around one's own neck and activating it. Remember that you're likely bigger than your dog, so dial up the intensity accordingly. Then imagine your boss holding the remote and shocking you every time you make a mistake in your work.
Many alternatives to shock collars exist. In fact, punishment is almost always unnecessary when training dogs. A small device called a clicker can be used in combination with treats, praise or play to motivate most dogs. If a "stimulation" from the dog's collar is desired, collars that merely vibrate are available. These collars, designed primarily for deaf dogs, are a safe and humane alternative to shock collars. They can be used in the same way to give a command from a distance at which the owner's voice would be ineffective. Unlike shock collars, vibrating collars are not used for punishment. They are designed only to attract a dog's attention or to give a silent, long-distance cue.
In some rare cases, the use of a shock collar is justified despite its numerous risks. A few dogs have behavioral problems that do not respond to positive training methods or to less harsh aversives such as a loud noise. Some of these problems can be addressed with the use of a shock collar. Shock collars should only be used as a last resort after positive reinforcement training has been attempted. They should also be used only at the direction of a professional, preferably a certified Applied Animal Behaviorist. If the dog does not improve significantly and rapidly with the use of a shock collar, the owner should discontinue its use. Long-term use of a shock collar when it is not helping the dog is inhumane. If harsh, painful punishment is going to change a behavior, it will happen rapidly. Punitive methods should not be continued if improvement is not observed.