Choke Chains and Shock Collars: Why We Don’t Recommend Them

Have you or do you use shock collars or choke chains on your dog?  Perhaps you have had a bad experience and it has changed your mind about using them in the future?  

They may get results but at what cost?

Being realistic, we do recognise that there can be times when experienced dog owners use these products and their dogs do not show any serious negative side effects as a result. But whilst they may seem like a great quick fix for certain issues you may be having with your dog, the science behind their use shows that they commonly increase fearful behaviour, can cause serious injury and can cause dogs to become more aggressive.

When these products are a success it is only because the dog has experienced something very painful at the moment they are doing something that the owner does not want, whether that be pulling, barking, chasing.

The biggest problems rear their head when dog owners that do not have a good understanding of animal behaviour and training use these products.  Their inability to understand the importance of timing, dog body language and fearful behaviour means that they are often used incorrectly and their use then results in more problems than there were before their introduction.

Surely we don’t want to encourage training a dog using such extreme pain-based methods anyway?  Is it not much better for your dog and for your relationship with them to put the time in and teach them using fun and positive training method?  In doing this you get them to do what you want because they want to do it, not because they are too frightened to do anything else.

We would always advocate using positive training techniques to create a strong and happy bond with your dog 

Whilst this is an emotive and divisive topic in the dog world, we, like most science-based and qualified dog behaviourists and trainers, would never advocate the use of these products and we hope that this article will help convince you to feel the same.

How do shock collars work?

There are two main different types of shock collars.  There are those that are used to keep a dog within a particular space when the dog reaches a marked periphery the collar will then kick in and administer a shock and those that the handler has control of through a remote control.

The handler has to ensure that they administer the shock at exactly the right moment and there usually needs to be a number of repetitions so that the dog understands what they are receiving the shock for.

Remote shock collars

These are the most commonly used collars.  The shock can be administered by a remote control.   If the behaviour that the owner is trying to stop does not change, the intensity of the shock can be increased through the remote.

Just some of the problems that can arise from the use of remote shock collars are as follows:

  • If they are being used to stop your dog from barking at other dogs, for example, they get a shock every time they do this but this then teaches them to associate seeing another dog with getting a shock.  It teaches them to become fearful, or more fearful, of other dogs. The same could be applied to people. If your dog gets excited and barks every time they see a child and you decide to use a shock collar, you could inadvertently be teaching them to become frightened of children, not nice in itself but it could also then increase the chance of them having an aggressive reaction as a result of this fear.

Sometimes shock collars are used to control barking.  Often this can result in the dog becoming frightened of the thing they were barking at 

  • You are trying to train your dog to stop pulling, just at the moment they are making their way to what looks like a great patch of grass to poop on you give them a shock as they are pulling on the lead to get there.  They now associate trying to go potty outside with a shock. They will now hold it in as long as possible and then probably have an accident in the house.
  • Sometimes dogs can gradually become desensitised to the pain and the owners turn the settings higher and higher to get a response.  At their highest settings, these collars have been known to cause horrendous scorch marks on the dog’s neck, so they can be physically damaging as well as mentally.   No, it is not just a “tickling sensation” as some of the shock collar manufacturers and proponents claim.
  • The dog can learn that the shock only happens when the collar is on so the behaviour still continues when it is not on.
  • You are trying to teach your dog to come back when they are called but they get such a fright when you shock them that it makes them run away rather than towards you, this can result in them getting injured.  Check out our article for better methods for teaching a recall

There are much kinder and more effective ways to teach your dog to come back when called 

  • Shock collars often cause the dog to suppress the behaviour as a result of the stress and fear they are feeling when they get shocked.  The ‘shut down’ and become so stressed that they are too afraid to do anything. The dog basically just gives up and the trainer then thinks they have success.  This can mean you have an extremely stressed and anxious dog but it can also mean that the dog will then suddenly lash out at some point when least expected.

Electric “fence” shock collar

These are usually cables that are buried around the perimeter or a garden or area that you want to keep the dog secured within. When the dog comes within a certain vicinity of the cable the collar usually emits a beeping noise (this is a warning that they are close to receiving an electric shock).  If they continue moving forward they will receive a shock. With time they should understand where the perimeter is and not go past this. If the dog has a high drive to move outside the perimeter the handler has the option to turn the severity of the shock up.

Whilst there is no arguing that some people have had success with this product, there are many cases reported where other problems, often serious, have been created as a result. Some of these with tragic consequences. These include:

  • The dog no longer wants to leave the house or leave the garden space (presumably terrified they will receive a further shock)
  • Dogs resorting to urinating or defecating in the house (again because they do not want to leave the house to go potty)
  • Becoming fearful of things that happen at the same time as they get the shock.  So, if they are trying to move towards a passerby or cyclist as they go by and they get a shock as they do this they may start to associate them with getting a shock and, as result, start to see them as something they should be frightened of.  This can then develop into serious fear aggression.

If a dog is shocked every time a cyclist goes past their house, they can then become frightened of them

  • Some dogs can become desensitised to the shock, especially if they are highly aroused at the time, and this means it has to be turned higher to have a result and this can cause physical as well as mental damage.
  • If the dog is so over aroused that they escape the garden area despite receiving a shock they may then not want to come back in and could get lost or injured whilst outside.
  • These fences can also be a problem as you can’t predict what can come in from outside, they don’t offer the safety a proper fence will.  If another aggressive dog decides to come over the boundary the only way your dog can escape is to suffer the shock. There is no protection for your dog from being stolen by an opportunist.
  • Some dogs can develop a severe noise phobia.  If they start associating similar noises to the sound of the warning beep this can be traumatic for them too.  Perhaps they hear a noise on the tv, the beep of an alarm or something similar and anticipate a shock. They will always be in a heightened state of nervous anticipation.
  • The collars are not infallible.  If they get wet or roughly treated they could break and will not stop your dog from escaping.  They have been known to malfunction and give the dog a shock even when they are not near the fence.

How do Choke Chains and Prong Collars work?

Choke chains work by applying pressure to your dog’s neck in the hope that this pressure will stop your dog from pulling/lunging.  Prong collars work in a similar fashion but as well as tightening on the dog’s neck they also have a set of prongs that dig into the dog’s neck as they pull too.

Choke chains put pressure on your dogs neck and can cause serious trachea injuries 

The potential for serious injury

Whilst they can be effective if used with the correct timing and techniques, the trouble is that a lot of the time the dog will still continue to pull against these collars and this can cause serious damage to the dog’s trachea overtime.  

If the dog is jerked too harshly it can actually be potentially fatal.  There have been reports of dog’s that have died as a result of asphyxiation (particularly at risk are the brachycephalic, flat-faced breeds like pugs and french bulldogs), dogs that have had their trachea crushed and dogs that have got this type of collar caught on something and been strangled.  

Dogs can sometimes end up with problems with swollen eyes due to the severe pressure being put on their necks too.  There have also been reported issues with trapped nerves resulting in spine or front leg problems too.

Prong collars are a harsh and outdated tool to use for loose lead walking 

There are plenty alternatives of to these aversive: What action to take instead

Use positive, science-based training techniques

If you choose to use clicker training it may take a bit longer to get there but you will get good results if you are patient and consistent.  If your timing goes wrong with clicker training, you haven’t caused any harm. You just need to start the session again.  If you get the timing wrong with a shock collar, the damage can be irreparable.

Reward the behaviour that you want

Make sure that you are routinely rewarding the behaviour that you want.  So, if you were using a shock collar to stop your dog from jumping up, instead offer your dog a reward every time they put four feet on the floor.

Distraction and redirection techniques work too

Rather than using a shock collar to stop your dog from barking at other dogs, redirect their attention onto their favourite ball or their favourite treat instead.  When they are quiet let them play.

Use your dog’s favourite ball to redirect their attention back to you 

Make sure your dog is not just bored

Some behaviours can occur as a result of boredom or a lack of stimulation.  Maybe your dog is barking a lot at home or perhaps they get over excited when you meet new people on your walk.  Rather than resorting to shocking them for barking or over-excitement, why not make sure that they are properly stimulated.  Good long walks with plenty of opportunities to sniff and explore, plenty treat dispensing toys to keep them busy at home and lots of little training sessions.  Maybe you could consider taking them along to a dog sport like agility or cani-cross (running with your dog).

Dog sports like agility can be a great way to burn off excess energy

If you have a good bond with your dog they are going to want to please you

Using positive training techniques will help you to build a strong bond with your dog.  They will want to please you and will be doing it because they trust you rather than because they are afraid.

Use counter conditioning and desensitisation to work on fearful behaviour

If your dog is frightened of other dogs and barks aggressively at them every time he sees them, using a shock collar to stop him barking is not going to teach him to like the other dog.  In fact, it may actually teach him to become even more afraid as everytime he sees one he gets a shock.

By using counter conditioning and desensitisation you teach your dog that seeing a dog only means good things.  Everytime they see another dog they get a yummy treat. With time, gradual introductions and patience your dog will start to have a different reaction.  For more information on how to work on this with your dog see our fearful dog article.

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