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The Impact of Using Shock to Train Recall

This series of blog posts recounts topics drawn from a recent guest segment by Linda Michaels on the Pet Professional Guild Radio Show.

Question: Can you tell us if you think training an emergency recall with P+ (positive punishment such as a shock collar) could, in any way, be preferable to using R+ (positive reinforcement, such as a treat or affection)?

Answer: This is such an important topic because both shock collar trainers and so-called “balanced trainers often use recall/come in demonstrations to the public or online, as a way to impress their audience and as means to tout the supposed superiority of their training method with “off-leash” training. Buyer beware!

Let’s be clear from the start – No, it would not be preferable under any circumstances in my opinion. Watch Smokey, the wolfdog “come” demonstrating the +R technique. If Smokey can do it, so can your dog — there’s no benefit to using shock regardless of the size, breed, strength or temperament of your dog!


Using positive punishment to teach recall is antithetical to an approach behavior by your dog — as well as a serious public safety issue. Bite “redirection” onto the pet parent is not uncommon in the face of shock and aversive training.

There isn’t any scientific evidence that I’ve been able to uncover that shows that using a shock collar for emergency recall in domestic dogs is effective and/or without significant risk of fallout. Using shock often has known injurious side-effects, almost certainly, psychologically, and in some cases causing physical injury.

Nor, can any type of shock “training” in good conscience be termed “dog-friendly.” Don’t believe what a trainer tells you because they say they’re an “expert.” Anyone can throw up a beautiful website and crown themselves a “master trainer” in an entirely unregulated profession. I say…don’t hurt your dog…ever.

So why do pet parents and trainers believe that shock will work? Given – theoretically by definition positive punishment and aversive control decreases the frequency of behavior — however, there are two considerations that come to mind that require that we think outside of the box – the Skinner quadrant box, that is.

1. With emergency recall we are working in an applied setting, not a Skinner box. In the environment there are a variety of interacting extraneous and confounding variables in addition to the electric shock.

2. Additionally, we need to look at the impact of shock collar training on the pet parent/dog relationship.

Of utmost importance is preserving and hopefully enhancing the relationship between the pet parent and the dog, or the trainer and the dog during training.

Most companion animal lovers have a dog because they want to have a happy relationship with their dog. Positive punishment and negative reinforcement (aversive generated avoidance) generally hurts, either physically or psychologically, and therein has the grave potential to destroy relationship because it erodes trust. Trust, once damaged, is extremely difficult, and often impossible to re-establish – distrust is grounded in fear.

Photo Courtesy of Rebecca Kronenberg
Photo Courtesy of Rebecca Kronenberg

We can’t go back and forth between rewards and aversive treatment. If a pet parent is nice MOST of the time, but on occasion is mean to their dog, the dog may become chronically stressed, fearful and perpetually on-guard, not being sure when or why the next punishment may come. This understanding debunks the myth of the benefits of so-called “balanced trainer” who may use both rewards and punishment. Can you imagine living with and being completely dependent in every way upon someone you can’t trust?

Let’s return to reason 1. Associative Learning. We all learn in this way. Dogs also learn through association and may associate: the pet parent, other dogs, the dog park, objects, or just about anything in the environment with the electric shock/pain.

If shock is used in a city environment, for example, fear may generalize (unintended but unavoidable) to all people, strangers, motorized vehicles, or all moving vehicles, such as bicycles – or any single or group of things in the city environment where the dog was shocked — or the dog may even become fearful of the pavement itself. I have just worked with a client whose dog had a severe fear of cars and where being near a paved street appeared to be the trigger that would set off a reactive episode.

I believe in management and reward training… and not putting a dog into a situation where an emergency recall is needed. Would you put a child in jeopardy of making a childlike decision about running into the street? No, we would not: we hold the child’s hand, and we should hold our dog’s leash when there is possible danger afoot.

Good management, teaching a reliable recall, and teaching a great remote/wait/stay are the best insurance to keep your dog physically safe and psychologically sound. Using pain or fear is always “off the table” and counter-productive. Have fun training the dog you love… and the dog who loves and trusts you and your training. If you need help, please don’t hesitate to contact The Dog Psychologist On Call.

Smokey learned how to come fast as lightening using one “Smokey Come” signal with +R.

Further reading:

— Tips on Teaching “Come”
— Good Trainers: How to identify one. Dr. Karen Overall, Ph,D., DVM
— Pet Parenting Positively Part 1
— Pet Parenting Positively Part 2

This article cites dialogue from the Pet Professional Guild Radio Show, June 7, 2015. Click here for the full podcast.

To learn more about force-free training, dog behavior and emotions, join us at the Pet Professional Guild’s inaugural educational Summit in Tampa, FL on Nov 11-13, 2015.

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