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What Does Citronella Really Do to a Dog?

A citronella spray collar interferes with a dog’s sense of smell and does not address the emotional state behind a dog’s barking behavior

My ‘Paws for Thoughts’ blogs are just what they say – thoughts. I don’t profess to be an expert on my subject matter or feel that we should believe everything we read, but it should always make one think.

This train of thought started with an email I received the other morning from a man with a cocker spaniel, Bertie. The four-year-old dog was now on his third home.

A couple of months previously this client had canceled his appointment with me because my simple telephone advice had worked instantly. Obviously I was thrilled.

At that time the man had told me about poor Bertie’s “strange compulsion of growling quietly and digging the carpet.” In addition, his barking was so bad that his new owner had continued to use the citronella anti-bark collar used by his previous home.

I immediately explained that, apart from dulling Bertie’s sense of smell, this collar was merely suppressing the emotional state(s) causing the barking rather than addressing them, and suggested he stopped using it immediately.

My goal was to discover Bertie’s motivation(s) for barking. These would appear to be outside noise and unfamiliar people or dogs passing by. My initial plan was to teach Bertie and his owner effective positive alternatives at our consultation which had been arranged for a few days later. These would include distracting with food reinforcement as soon he heard a noise that made him bark, pre-empting the bark when possible and rewarding an alternative behavior (e.g. sitting quietly), and managing the situation by removing as many triggers as possible, such as blocking his view of passing people or dogs and keeping him indoors at certain busy times of day. I would be able to better assess the environment and Bertie’s specific triggers when I was in his home environment.

After our first telephone conversation, the gentleman had immediately abandoned the citronella collar. Straight away Bertie’s carpet digging stopped.

This email the other morning, several weeks later, was from Bertie’s owner telling me he had paid money into my account because he was so grateful for my advice. “Bertie no longer grumbles and growls to himself or digs the carpet any more, and though he barks this is purely as a warning that someone is approaching the house and his barking is what you would expect from any dog. He is now not a stressed dog any more with the result that we are both much happier.”

For anyone who may not know, citronella can be found in sprays and anti-bark collars. The collar is placed on the dog’s neck. Each time the dog barks, a canister squirts citronella spray in front of the dog’s nose which is highly unpleasant for the dog so he will usually stop barking – momentarily at least.  Some dogs will learn at what volume they can still bark to avoid setting off the spray, and others can tell from the weight of the canister when it is empty so will immediately resume their barking, even though still wearing the collar.

This then got me thinking about what shooting citronella spray up a dog’s sensitive nose must do to him – and how long the after-effect must last for, killing his sense of smell. It seems to me that as smell is one of the dog’s major senses, it must be something like a human being blinded with a bright light. It’s not over and done with immediately it is dispensed, so even as a punishment it’s inefficient because the effect continues so long after the barking has stopped; surely the dog is then being punished for being quiet also.

The dog isn’t learning to stop barking – the emotion that makes him want to bark is simply being suppressed. It is bound to erupt elsewhere – as so graphically exhibited by Bertie’s frantic digging and grumbling.

Then I got to thinking about the physical effects of citronella spray

Now this IS scary – I found it on Awesomedogs: “Citronella Collars – May contain: Pesticides, Booze and Refrigeration Coolant”.

To quote dog trainer Yvette Van Veen: ‘Natural does not mean safe or free from side effects. Natural can kill you.’ Along with much more information and some useful links, here are some of the points she raises:

  • Citronella is an insect repellent – a pesticide.
  • Natural citronella oil may contain methyleugenol, which has been shown to be carcinogenic in animal studies.
  • Citronella can cause lung cancer if ingested.
  • It’s important to know that most products on store shelves contain multiple ingredients. A canister of citronella spray is not necessarily 100% citronella.The safety page for the canister of 1% citronella spray also contains approximately 10% ethanol and up to 90% Tetrafluoroethane.
  • Warnings include: Eye: may cause irritation. Skin: may cause irritation. Inhalation: may cause dizziness and loss of concentration
  • Ethanol is alcohol. It makes you drunk.
  • Tetrafluoroethane is a refrigeration coolant – it makes car air conditioning units cold and it is also used in various spray canisters. This chemical is also a street drug, giving abusers an easily obtained rush.

If we want our dog to control his barking and for him to remain healthy both physically and mentally, then we should put in a bit of time and trouble to see why he is barking – what emotion is driving him to bark, and to work on that.

Barking, after all, is a dog’s main way of audible communication. It’s simply cruel to stifle it altogether.

Here is the story of a dog I helped whose troubles could well have started by the use of some sort of anti-bark collar.

You can read more stories like this on my Paws for Thought blogs. For more information on force-free training, check out the Pet Professional Guild’s Force-Free Educational Summit in Tampa, Florida on November 11-13, 2015.




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