Can an e-collar be used for positive reinforcement training?
It is possible but only under these conditions:
- the dog is conditioned to have a positive emotional response to the collar (including the sight of the collar and the wearing of the collar even if it’s not activated)
- the collar is never used as a “correction” (giving the dog a “stim” as a consequence to doing an undesirable behaviour or stopping the “stim” as a consequence of doing the desired behaviour)
- the collar never causes any level of discomfort to the dog. Ever.
Let’s unpack that.
Conditioning a dog to have a positive emotional response to the e-collar requires several components. Firstly, the collar must be set to deliver a sound, vibration, or extremely minimal level of “stim” so the dog does not experience any physical or emotional discomfort. The dog is the one who decides if the sound, vibration, or “stim” causes discomfort or anxiety. It doesn’t matter if the human doesn’t think the experience is uncomfortable or worrisome; what matters is the dog’s perspective. (Even the clicker in clicker training can be an aversive to a dog if they don’t like the sound.)
Determining if a dog is experiencing physical or emotional distress can be very difficult, and even very experienced trainers often miss the signs, even with their own dogs.* The human MUST be extremely good at reading the very subtle changes in the dog’s body language (e.g. nose licks, yawning, look aways, tightness around the mouth, dilated pupils, slowing down of movement). Dogs have been known to hide their pain, and dogs can show pain or emotional distress in ways that humans misinterpret as “obedience” or “good manners.” For example, dogs that are stressed can shut down emotionally and even “freeze” (Fight/Freeze/Flight response), and dogs in pain can appear more quiet, calm, or still, and some may appear more alert. Some trainers even purposefully use aversive tools and techniques to “rev up” or “activate” their dogs, perhaps not realizing this might be due to discomfort and stress.
If the dog’s experience of the stimulus of the e-collar (the sound, vibration, or extremely mild “stim”) is not negative in any way, then pairing it with a reinforcer like food (or a conditioned reinforcer) can condition the dog to have a positive emotional response to it. The sound/vibration/extremely mild “stim” can then be used as a marker for a desired behaviour, and with correct timing of the human with the remote, will communicate to the dog that the behaviour “correct.”
BUT, if the e-collar’s sound/vibration/’stim” is later used at an intensity that causes the dog any physical or emotional discomfort, the dog’s positive emotional response will quickly degrade. Even after one experience. Instead, the dog will develop a negative emotional response to the sound/vibration/”stim” (and possibly to the collar itself, as well as any other associations the dog may have connected to the experience, including the location, the trainer, the activity).
Cognitive Dissonance Can Make Us Blind
I just finished listening to a podcast where the hosts discuss how e-collars work. They clearly point out that the device causes enough discomfort to cause the dog to stop a behaviour (or to avoid doing a behaviour) because that’s how aversive tools work, but they insist that they are not causing their dogs physical pain when they use it. Their defence is that they don’t register it as painful when they give themselves a “stim,” and they don’t see any evidence in their dog’s behaviour to indicate it’s painful. (Emotional distress is not acknowledged as a consideration.) Yet they spend a fair amount of time pointing out that one person’s experience of the “stim” of an e-collar can be very different from another person’s experience of the same level of intensity. They acknowledge that the anticipation that the device will cause pain: “An e-collar has the value you give it. If you go into it thinking that the e-collar is a pain tool, it’s gonna deliver you pain no matter what comes out of it. Even if it’s nothing.” Now read that substituting the word “dog” for the word “you.” They recognize from the human end that the anticipation of pain/discomfort can result in actually feeling it, but they do not acknowledge that this can happen from the dog’s viewpoint, as well. (Note: the anticipation of pain/discomfort is also called “fear“.)
As studies on dogs advance, especially with advances in neuroimaging and functional MRIs, perhaps we’ll have more science-based information on how dogs experience emotional and physical “pressure” when aversive training methods and tools are used, rather than relying on the opinions of dog trainers who insist the dogs are not feeling any physical or emotional distress.
*I remember seeing a video a trainer posted online trying to demonstrate how gentle a prong collar was to a dog. (The video isn’t up anymore.) It was obvious to me the dog was showing signs of stress (head hanging low, appeasement behaviours). This same trainer attended a dog class with me — her dog was in a flat collar for the class — and I noticed her dog never really looked happy in the class. Except when the owner asked me to hold onto her dog’s leash while she left the area to use the washroom. That’s when the dog visibly relaxed. My heart broke for this dog and I wondered if the owner even realized how her aversive methods affected her dog, even when the dog was not wearing an aversive collar. I’m sure she loves her dog and would find it very distressing to know that her aversive methods could be causing her dog distress and ruining their bond and relationship.
So, can e-collars be used for positive reinforcement training? It is highly unlikely, even with the most skilled trainers on this planet. This should make one consider why a trainer would continue to use an e-collar, which leads to another related topic: how using punishment can be reinforcing to the punisher.