As Easy as ABC

Two young children sitting at a wall-mounted easel, drawing on white paper with markers.
Wall-mounted easel (made by Kustom Kitties Canada)

This image illustrates a principle that is true for good teaching: provide the learner with an opportunity to perform a natural behaviour in a context that is preferred.

Young children like to draw on walls. Instead of punishing a child for doing a self-reinforcing behaviour that is very natural, why not create the conditions to help redirect that behaviour to a desirable location? Provide a wall mounted easel, a place to hold art supplies, and a couple of chairs.

This image illustrates the power of using antecedent arrangements to influence behaviour. (Antecedents are the factors that influence a behaviour before it occurs.) To change an undesirable behaviour, good teaching involves understanding what factors are causing the undesirable behaviour and then setting up the environment to encourage a preferred behaviour — a behaviour that can then be reinforced with attention and praise. The new behaviour is more likely to be repeated again, and the old behaviour is less likely to be repeated because it has become less reinforcing.

It’s as easy as ABC (Antecedent — Behaviour — Consequence).

Good Dog Trainers are Good Teachers

Good teaching — whether it’s teaching children, adults, or dogs — starts with A) an understanding of the learner and B) a desire to be kind. Good teaching (and dog training) requires clear communication, creating conditions so the learner can succeed, and being able to support the learner in the learning process. Gone are the days when students were strapped, swatted with rulers, or forced to stand in the corner or wear a dunce cap. Society no longer accepts this type of treatment of students, and years of good science proves how detrimental this is to the learner.

The dog training industry is changing to reflect this as dog training and behaviour professionals are catching up to advancements in teaching excellence. Dogs deserve the best in dog training.

An experiment

I understand that dogs are not children and that there may be some major differences in what people believe is appropriate, ethical, moral, and legal when raising and teaching children as opposed to raising and training dogs. However, it is interesting that if one looks at history, it wasn’t so long ago when there were very few laws protecting children; and if I recall what I read many years ago from a book about the history of animal welfare laws (its title escapes me because it was so long ago), I believe that the first animal welfare law in the USA (to protect horses) was enacted before child welfare laws. And one of the arguments to create child protection laws was the fact that surely there should be at least the similar protections for children as there were for horses.

It’s common to see posts by professional dog trainers who are very vocal about using shock collars, prong collars, etc. and often these trainers are very vocal in their opinions against force-free training/trainers. As an experiment in understanding the mindset of trainers who think differently from me, read a long post by an established and I’m sure very talented trainer. As I read the long post and the comments I couldn’t help but think about how the trainer’s words and the comments by the supportive dog owners might sound if they were used to describe children instead of dogs. Might those who expressed those beliefs about dogs, dog training, and dog trainers change their minds? Would the change reveal underlying biases, leaps in logic, contradictions, and cognitive dissonance of the writers and the readers?

Here is an example of a paragraph I revised. The original was from a trainer who promotes the use of shock/prong/choke collars. The trainer was outraged by the “stories and propaganda” that was being spread about these training collars.

“Leather straps and rattan canes have been the most common recipients of this bad press. And sure, you could definitely mess up a child with either of these tools – if that was your intent – just like you could with any object. But I see far more messed up kids who show up in my school who have parents who refuse to let their child be strapped or spanked.

I acknowledge that the people who expressed these opinions might not hold the same thoughts today — people are allowed to change their minds. We are all doing our best based on the information we have at the time.

I find it interesting to look back at the struggle to get corporal punishment removed from public schools — the resistance and the time it took — and compare it to what is happening in the dog training industry. I suspect that the momentum is building in North America, as it did in Europe years ago.

Can E-collars Be Used for Positive Reinforcement Training?

Is it possible?

Can an e-collar be used for positive reinforcement training?

It is possible but only under these conditions:

  1. 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)
  2. 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)
  3. 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 to Logic

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 “balanced” trainer posted online trying to demonstrate how gentle a prong collar was to a dog. (This trainer also promoted the use of shock collars, but not in this particular video. 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. 

Can E-collars be used to reinforce a desired behaviour?

So, can e-collars be used for positive reinforcement training? It is highly unlikely, even with the most skilled trainers on this planet. And certainly not for the average dog owner who is bound to make a lot of training mistakes, even under the guidance of the best dog trainer in the world; this is a big reason why e-collars should not be sold without a licence, but that is a topic for another day. 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.

Heat Stroke in Dogs

Dachshund wearing sunglasses panting in the heat outside in summer
photo credit Mel Elias

This is general information only gathered from various resources and is not intended as veterinary advice.  Please consult a veterinarian if you have concerns about the health of your dog. 

Dogs at the most risk

Dogs that are at higher risk for heat exhaustion and heatstroke include breeds with shorter snouts (e.g. Shih Tzus, Pugs, Boston Terriers, Boxers, Bulldogs) and those with weaker bodies like older dogs, young puppies, and ill dogs.

Dogs cool themselves by panting to maintain their normal body temperature (101 to 102.5 F ; 38 to 39 C). Dogs can sweat through their noses and pads but this doesn’t do much to cool them. Overheating can cause severe tissue damage in minutes, affecting important organs like the brain, kidneys, liver, and the digestive system.

Heatstroke occurs when the dog’s temperature reaches 109 F (42.8 C) or above.


Symptoms can include:

  • Heavy panting (often accompanied by a refusal to drink)
  • spoon-shaped tongue can be an early sign of dog overheating
  • Excessive thirst
  • Glazed eyes
  • Vomiting and bloody diarrhea
  • Bright or dark red tongue, gums
  • Staggering
  • Elevated body temperature (104ºF and up)
  • Weakness, collapse
  • Increased pulse and heartbeat
  • Seizures
  • Excessive drooling
  • Unconsciousness

What to do

Move dog out of heat and to the shade or air conditioning. Keep offering water. Sometimes dogs are panting too heavily to want to pause for a drink, but keep it available for when the dog wants it.

If the dog can stand and is conscious

  • give small drinks of water (too much too fast can cause vomiting)
  • Take temperature. If the dog is 104 F (40 C) or lower, continue to monitor temperature
  • contact vet for further instructions even if dog seems recovered

If dog cannot stand, is unresponsive, or is having seizures

  • confirm the dog is breathing it has a heartbeat
  • stay with dog (don’t try to immobilize a dog having seizures, just supervise to keep the area around the dog clear to avoid injury to the dog and anyone nearby; time the seizure and observe details that your vet may ask you about)
  • notify vet that you are bringing in the dog
  • begin to cool the dog gradually with COOL water (NOT COLD water) by placing wet towels or gently pouring COOL (NOT COLD) water on belly area, back of head and the underside of neck. Do not pour water into dog’s mouth.
  • Take dog’s temperature. If it is at 104 F (40 C) or lower, STOP THE COOLING PROCESS (to avoid risk of blood clotting or temperature dropping too low)
  • Take dog to vet ASAP even if the dog seems to be getting better