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Is the Electric Collar Cruel?

The electric or electronic collar can't be cruel, it is an inanimate object. By "wait!" you say, "surely it is cruel to use the device on a dog. You are an awful and mean person for even thinking the e-collar might be OK."

Well, I'm not here to promote the e-collar. I don't use one, and I think that most people shouldn't go near one much less use one. Nevertheless I'm going to discuss it because I think examining the e-collar and your reaction to it is important. We make a lot of presumptions and assumptions in our lives. Mostly these are pretty harmless. Sometimes, however, they get in the way of truly thinking and when that happens we can fail to act in the least harmfulway.

When discussing dogs the e-collar can be compared to chocolate. "Chocolate like an e-collar?" Yes. "Chocolate like an e-collar" The person using it never thinks they are doing any harm and the person opposed to it is always loudly opposed, and likely to toss around hot words like "cruel, thoughtless, stupid etc"

In tiny doses both are harmless, and both are appreciated by the dog. In larger doses both can be quite harmful. More important, however, is the process by which we decide that one is OK and the other is awful. I often hear "but my dog loves chocolate. I don't want to deprive him, and he has never gotten sick from it." You are, at that moment deciding what is appropriate for your dog based upon your experience and observations. So what are you thinking when the next person says "Well, I know a dog that died from eating chocolate." Most likely the first thing you are likely to do is start asking questions: "What kind of chocolate? How much? How large a dog? Was the dog particularly sensitve to chocolate?" You do this because your personal experience is at odds with what you are being told. In sharp contrast when someone says shocking a dog is OK you react in revulsion. You do not ask what the dog's reaction was, nor whether there are any indications at all that the dog has experienced the same distress as you would feel. You are content to rely on your feelings, entirely.

The reason the process of deciding is important is because what is OK for your dog should be evaluated based first upon the dog being a dog. Dogs view things from a dog's perspective. They don't pay attention to politics or rumour. They love things we hate and hate things we love. So pay attention to the dog, not to what you think the dog wants, thinks or feels. I have seen the collars used horribly. I've also seen them used to truly improve communication between dog and human. You might ask what can be done with such a collar that can't be done by other training methods. It is a good question. The answer is that the average pet owner simply does not need an electronic collar. There are two primary uses for the electronic collar. (a) aversion training and (b) high level distance work.

The picture most of us have in our mind when we think about the electronic collar is that nasty jolt of electricity we get if we stick our finger into an electrical socket. It frightens us. And that is exactly what happens when the collar is used for aversion. The collar level is set to scare the dog. Why would you want to scare the dog? Well it depends upon what risks your dog faces and what steps you believe least adversely affect quality of life to reduce those risks. For example: the collar is used to cause dogs to be afraid of rattlesnakes and to avoid them. The purpose is to prevent the dog from getting killed or injured by a rattlesnake. If you are going to allow the dog into areas where rattlesnakes might be then you will have to consider whether the stress of the aversion is worth possibly saving your dog's life. Of course you could just keep the dog out of areas with rattlesnakes. And that's what you should do, unless doing so adversely affects the dog's quality of life, or the dog's ability to keep its home. If the dog must encounter rattlesnakes then aversion should certainly be considered as less cruel than injurt or death by rattlesnake.

What most people unfamiliar with electronic collars don't know is exactly how refined those collars have become. They can be very subtle. Although I've not used such a training collar on any of my dogs I have felt them. To my astonishement there are some settings I could barely feel. The trainer using the collar for distance work is going to look for the lowest level that gets the dog's attention. Used this way the dog is not frightened or distressed.One reason is that the dog feels what it feels, it does not have the view that electricity itself is scary.

They certainly can be used badly. The electronic collar is easy to abuse and the average dog owner shouldn't go near one. But I've learned enough about the collars, and watched enough dogs, to decide that they can be used without distressing the dogs. So when someone uses one I no longer simply judge them to be cruel. Instead I have to ask the questions (a) how is the dog reacting? (b) what is the purpose? (c) what are the alternatives?



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Copyright © 1998-2003, Diane Blackman     Created: May 11, 1998     Updated: January 10, 2006    

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