The Problems with Remote Collars

There are many different training methods out there, and each has its pros and cons. Today, I want to talk specifically about the use of remote collars (also known as shock collars or e-collars).

Photo by Tate Viehmann

Photo by Tate Viehmann

Today’s remote collars are a far cry from early versions. Many brands now have a very wide range of shocks (called “stimulations” by collar users), which can range from virtually unnoticeable to intensely painful. “Good” remote collar trainers use the collars primarily as negative reinforcement. What that means is that the dog learns to comply immediately in order to turn off a painful, uncomfortable, or annoying sensation. While this is a far cry from the early days of remote collar use, when dogs were hurt at high levels for noncompliance (a training technique called positive punishment, for you geeks out there), it’s still not a pleasant way to learn.

So, how would someone use a remote collar? Let’s use a recall (come when called) as an example. The trainer would start by asking the dog which level of stimulation was the right one. This is done by putting the collar on the dog and, starting at one, increasing the level until the dog displays a change in behavior. This level is then the one used for initial training, although the trainer may adjust the level up or down depending on a variety of factors. The dog should not be displaying significant signs of pain or distress at this level (no yelping, head shaking, or fight/flight reactions).

Once the “appropriate” level of shock is determined, the trainer will teach the dog to turn off the shock. This can be done in a variety of ways, but usually involves repeated stimulations (tapping the remote over and over rapidly) until the dog moves towards the handler, at which point the shocks stop. The dog learns that his or her behavior can make the sensation stop.

While remote collar training can certainly be effective (if it wasn’t, it wouldn’t still be around), it is not a technique that I recommend. So, what are the common problems with remote collar use?

My biggest concern with the use of these collars is that, used according to modern training directions, there is no way for the dog to avoid shock entirely. The first “tap” of the collar is given simultaneously with the command. While the dog can quickly turn off the sensation by complying, there is no time or way for the dog to entirely avoid all shocks. The dog is only able to avoid future shocks, not the initial one. This necessarily sets up a stressful learning experience.

But what if the collar isn’t used simultaneously with the command? What if, instead, the trainer only begins tapping the remote after the dog has had a few seconds to respond? While this training method would avoid the above issue, it creates other problems. Don’t forget, Pavlov is always on your shoulder! If the recall command is repeatedly followed by an uncomfortable or unpleasant stimulus, you will quickly condition your dog to feel dread when you call. This process is called classical conditioning, and it’s powerful stuff. We call cues that are associated with icky things like this “poisoned” cues, and research shows that changing the association with a poisoned cue is a very long-term, difficult process. Once your dog has associated a word with something unpleasant, they will always have that memory in the back of their mind when they heard the poisoned cue in the future, even if future repetitions of the cue have only been associated with nice things. By the way, this same process happens if you use a warning tone or vibration before (and eventually even in place of) the stimulation.

Speaking of emotions, my second concern has to do with the quadrant of learning theory that remote collar users employ: negative reinforcement. In negative reinforcement, the dog learns to do something in order to stop an unpleasant thing. The primary emotion associated with negative reinforcement is that of relief. People feel this too! Consider doing your taxes, shoveling the driveway after a big snowstorm, or loading the dishwasher. The biggest reward for completing these tasks is the sensation of relief when you’re done. The tasks are not enjoyable in and of themselves, but you feel better when they’re completed because you’ve removed the pressure of the need to act that’s been looming over you.

Compare this to the emotion that positive reinforcement causes: joy! Which would you rather have your dog feel when you call him? When trained with positive reinforcement, the recall cue becomes a tiny reward in and of itself. Dogs feel a little jolt of happiness when you call, because they’ve associated the recall over and over with very pleasant things happening. Dogs who are trained with negative reinforcement, such as remote collars, feel a strong compulsion to move towards you when you call them, followed by a feeling of relief once they are in motion towards you. That’s not the same, and it’s not what I want our relationship to be based on. That’s not to say that dogs trained with remote collars can’t have lovely relationships with their owners – they can! In fact, training of any sort will begin to build a relationship, regardless of methods used. But my opinion is that positive reinforcement works the very fastest and best to build strong, lasting relationships based on mutual respect and understanding.

Finally, remote collars can cause fear or aggression issues. This comes back to that classical conditioning we talked about before. If you repeatedly use the collar to call your dog away from people or other dogs, for example, your dog may come to associate the uncomfortable sensation with what he sees when the collar is activated (dogs or people) rather than with his behavior. If he’s looking at another dog every time he hears the warning beep or gets “tapped,” he’s going to come to associate other dogs with this, and his behavior towards other dogs is likely to change. In fact, this is such a common situation that the AVSAB has released a position statement warning about these risks, and advising that e-collars are never used in dogs who have any history of fearful or aggressive behavior.

But, aren’t remote collars necessary in some situations? What about if your dog lives near a busy road or has a history of chasing livestock? Aren’t e-collars more reliable than positive reinforcement alone? This is one of the most common excuses I hear for using remote collars. Luckily, this question has been studied, and the results were quite conclusive. Positive reinforcement training works every bit as well as remote collar methods in teaching a reliable recall, even for dogs who have a history of chasing livestock. Furthermore, dogs trained with positive reinforcement methods showed fewer signs of stress, such as yawning and tense muscles, and had lower salivary cortisol levels three months later upon visiting the training center. If you feel that you need to use a remote collar to achieve a reliable recall, you likely need a better trainer and better management tools, not a remote collar.

Ultimately, I believe that remote collars are a step up from previous compulsive methods of training dogs, such as using a long leash attached to a slip or pinch collar. But that doesn’t mean that they’re the best method out there, or even a good method, and before using one I would strongly advise you to do your research. Reward-based methods work, even with strong, hard-headed, and highly predatory dogs. In fact, they work really well for all animals, with fewer potential side effects. They can work for you, too.

37 responses to “The Problems with Remote Collars

  1. I’ll never condone the use of any collar like this. There are so many other ways to work with a dog than using pain based training methods.

  2. Reblogged this on DogSentials and commented:
    Brilliant and succinct explanation of how using remote collars is a a slipper slope.

  3. Thank you for sharing your views on this controversy. It confirms my numerous observations at the local dog park, and I couldn’t agree more.

  4. On “poisoned” cues, you’re assuming too much. Of course it can happen, but if a dog fails to respond to your first command, calling him again but with a very terse voice he finds very unpleasant fits your same criteria. In the other direction, a warning tone used alone can cause a “poisoned” cue by itself. The point here is that any analysis must be based on both the exact details of what you do, and also how the particular dog responds. While some cases are fairly clear, others cannot be determined from an armchair.

    You also said: “Once your dog has associated a word with something unpleasant, they will always have that memory in the back of their mind when they heard the poisoned cue in the future, even if future repetitions of the cue have only been associated with nice things.”

    Yet there are so very many examples in a typical lifestyle that deny this, where you seem to imply one mild negative is more persistent than many contradicting positives. If that were the case, one could never teach a dog any game, where the dog might initially fail several times. So, yes, the “memory” may still be there, but it’s often of little consequence (unless adaptive traumatic memory, but that’s a different story).

    However, it is generally true in a practical sense that mistakes made while using shock collars are more consequential than mistakes during positive reinforcement (and generally true for all punishment against reinforcement). Also, one might actually say that it is generally easier for a dog owner to learn and use a shock collar incorrectly, then them learning and using positive reinforcement correctly. Certainly not better, but easier, and that’s part of the draw.

    As for fear or aggression issues, of course it can cause them (or not), but so can so many other things. I’ve seen many scared dogs simply tell another dog they are scared, and get hit or otherwise corrected by the owner, so they stay quiet until ready to attack. Far more common than from e-collars.

    However, what about boundary e-collars, where the people are either unwilling or unable to train the dogs to remain in the area confinement? There, it’s nonsense to speak of what “should” be done, as it simply won’t happen. Instead, the dog were first taught “positively” to stay in the yard, then after they understood the desired behavior, an electronic fence for just a few weeks caught their mistakes and applied enough inhibition, that they remained fine three years later.

    Or the case of a habituated activity which is so intense that implementing positive reinforcement is not practically possible. While not common, it does happen, and every positive-only trainer will fail. Where the key is to first condition the desired behavior without the activity stimulus present, then apply a sufficient startle to invoke an attending response only. Once the bad activity is momentarily stopped and you have the dog’s attention, positive reinforcement then becomes possible. In some cases, only the e-collar has provided enough of a startle (although a dozen others were first tried).

    So, while I generally agree with you, some situations aren’t as clear as you related, there are practical limitations which enter into this, and cases where positive reinforcement alone is not possible. There do exist good arguments against most uses of e-collars, but many that have been presented appear to contain factual errors.

  5. Pat Beyersdorf

    I have always believed dogs are smarter than people… and in my next life, if i should come back as a dog, I would choose an owner who wouldn’t electrocute me for convenience sake :)


  7. ““Good” remote collar trainers use the collars primarily as negative reinforcement. What that means is that the dog learns to comply immediately in order to turn off a painful, uncomfortable, or annoying sensation. While this is a far cry from the early days of remote collar use, when dogs were hurt at high levels for noncompliance (a training technique called positive punishment, for you geeks out there), it’s still not a pleasant way to learn.”

    Why would they be considered “good”, or any better than those who use them for positive punishment (which most users will also use them for if given behaviors they seek to punish, which almost always will present given no dog is always perfect).

    Not only would they poison a cue, but they’ll poison rewards as well since they’re now linked to electric shocks. What may have once been reinforcement is now just a reprieve signal from shock, possibly even considered as yet one more behavior (taking of the reward) that MUST be complied with.

  8. Reblogged this on Tail Waggin' Times and commented:
    You may be surprised to know that I once used these. You won’t be surprised to hear that I am really, really sorry.

  9. While I have a remote collar, using it to train a dog to come in the manner described wouldn’t cross my mind. Using it to stop something undesirable is the only way I see it working. (In the described case the “undesirable” is the dog sitting there).

    So not to teach a dog to come, but one that is wantonly disobeying “come” which they know and can do, but won’t because they’d rather run off and find the neighbors cat – then they get zapped.

    Yeah, zapped. “Stimulation” my ass, the collar is there because my arm isn’t long enough nor my feet fast enough to catch and stop the dog from getting into worse trouble.

    I’ve only used mine for two things. On the older female (Heeler) to stop her from biting the back legs of the younger when she chases a ball (because she will rip the tendon and make her lame if not stopped). Other was to stop my Border Collie mix from intimidating/attacking a smaller one at the dog park who was trying to chase a frisbee. He wouldn’t listen to “No” but after the 3rd “No! Bzzzt” he got the message and l and left the other dog alone.

    The collar isn’t an enticement, and shouldn’t have to nor be used constantly. It should replace corporal punishment when it’s not practical or possible to do so timely enough to stop an unwanted serious (read: dangerous) behavior. I generally don’t have the time, inclination or opportunity to carry and offer something better to stop a dog from chasing a cat into traffic, and frankly there is nothing that will – save restraint or a smack down – they’d go thru glass to get that cat.

  10. These collars are illegal in NSW Australia. Thank goodness.

  11. The other important, and incredibly difficult- to-get-right-element with these types of collars is timing. Unless you are fluent in canine body language, the chance of your being able to time the correction correctly are slim. Thus, the negative reaction you were hoping to avoid is likely increased. (bad timing can actually create the aggression you were hoping to avoid by correcting your dog). I do agree with Saxxon in that I’ve never head of them being used for training a positive. I’ve only known them to be used to disagree with a behaviour – a long distance correction. But man, if you screw up the timing, you can really screw up your dog. Who wants that? I think it’s important Guardians know they have the right to disagree with their dog’s behaviour. I think it’s important to teach alternative behaviours before getting all kinds of drastic and expensive equipment to use incorrectly!

  12. I am one of your biggest fans, primarily because of entries like this. I missed this one, and I am sorry I did, but you never disappoint . I have a ” brittle” dog, who will always be brittle, but we love him, and are invested in him, an one day he will not be “as” brittle. I know if we had gotten a shock collar or e-collar, ultimately we would have had to have him put down. I did briefly , very briefly think about it, and my gut would not let me inflict any discomfort on him, especially not knowing his beginnings in life. but knowing that he had experienced enough unpleasantness in his 5+/- months of life. He didn’t need anymore. Everyday is a journey with Otto.

  13. I have never condone the usage of remote collars. The unpredictability of it makes it unreliable in providing the safety that usual collars could bring.

  14. Greg O' Sullivan

    I had heard of these but didn’t realise they were so bad ….surely there is a nicer way to train your dog …

  15. The article was great through the 4th paragraph. If an owner just has a pet and no higher expectations than loose leash walking, sit, and coming when called with minimal distractions… then the conclusions reached in the article are fine.

    However, for those of us who have higher expectations… I recently (3 months) started using an ecollar for field work (retrieving) and it has made a world of positive difference in my relationship with my dog. I should have done it years ago. I can give instant feedback. Expectations are clearer. We’re both happier. It’s helped make my dog and I into a real team with a shared goal… and there’s never been evidence of fear, aggression, or negative anticipation. It’s not about the tool, it’s about the trainer. Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater… there are dogs and owners who need items on both ends of the spectrum.

  16. Pingback: The Problems with Remote Collars – Tail Waggin’ Times

  17. E-Collars are a necessary tool for training high-quality obedient dogs. How else will they learn how to flush beautiful birds for me to shoot, kill, and eat :)

  18. As a trainer who uses Remote Collars and negative reinforcement obviously I would disagree. My background is in balenced training (we balance positive with negative reinforcement for those who don’t understand the terms.)

    I won’t get into a huge argument beyond the fact that yes in most cases you can build up the reward history for recalls without Remote Collars, BUT it’s only as effective as the reward you give. So that being said in extreme cases like a prey driven dog seeing a squirrel, if the dog wants the squirels more you won’t get your recall. Not to mention enviormental influences that effect the dog.

    The remote collar saves lives, and insures safety for the dog involved. As well any good trainer knows you do give positive reinforcement once the dog dedicates itself to recalls.

    If dogs are trained improper yes a dog will fear the stim. Yes, obviously a dog wants the relief of lifting the stim that’s the whole point.. A dog that has freedom of off leash because of proper remote collar training looks happy even when recalled (if done professionally / properly)

    This turned into a long rant, just please don’t go around continuing this trend of purely positive propaganda. These people would rather see a dog euthanized then given a training collar in certain extremes. Just because they project human emotion into a dog’s actions.

    • Oh also I forgot to mention in my rant the best part of Remote Collars….

      The reinforcement is non directional so it eliminates owners as the direct cause of issues. So unlike other forms of training if done right there dog will be more willing to provide any behavior (or stop one) even when not in your presence

  19. Oh, so let’s get this straight.

    You’re a “dog trainer” who works without physical presence around their dogs.


    Real disconnect going there. No thanks. The bottom line? Remote Collars are a lazy man’s easy way out. Yes, ask your grandfather, and his father before him. This is nothing more than a modern age easy “fix” being promoted by slothful people with no concept of humane or compassionate dog handling.

    I’m appalled at the number of newbie hobby farmers and homesteaders now condoning the use of these monstrosities on Livestock Guardian Dogs. Control, control, control. They are afraid of their dogs. So they shock them into submission. Sickening.s

    There’s a whole new world out there of lazy shepherds and lazy people who are so disconnected from their animals that inflicting pain on them is considered “normal” – a bumper crop of sadistic animal owners. People who advocate the use of these things have no business owning a dog, let alone “training” one or calling themselves “trainers.” Disgusting.

    Do they beat their wives and kids too? Want to take bets?

    Enough already.

    • Oh the easy way out you say? So is using a car to get to work the easy way out, too, since you can walk to work?

      A remote collar a monstrosity? So is a tense unit at the chiropractor a monstrosity as well, since it uses electrical impulses to make your muscles tense up? This is exactly what a remote collar does. It does not shock the dog. It’s a god damn MYTH. I’m willing to bet my livelyhood on the assumption that you have never used one on yourself. Try it. You’ll see how much of a “shock” this collar actually delivers. You’ll be surprised.

      How about we meet up and I’ll bring you a not so food driven ferral adult Husky that has never been trained. Show me how you can get a dog like this to come when called with positive reinforcement only. I want to see your face when you realize that you’re full of it.

    • Yeah. Your grandfather who probably beat his dog if it ran away, didn’t neuter his dog and caused several ‘accident’ litters, and most likely, like many people of his time, probably drowned one of those litters. Is neutering the ‘easy way out’ because you don’t have to deal with puppies, roaming, and aggression? No. Is it positive? No. But it works.

      E-Collars work because they are an extension of the handler. When you have a dog like mine, a rescue hound mix who was kept in a crate for the first year of his life, completely un-socialized and then labeled ‘untrainable’ by his old owners, yeah, the E-Collar works. Cooper went from a high-energy, high-drive dog with NO manners to a SERVICE DOG, all because of an E-Collar. He doesn’t work with the E-Collar all the time, but it is a backup plan. When he’s off leash, I can let him chase a herd of deer in the woods, and at the sound of his name, he is happy and panting at a perfect heel. When we go out, he will go and GRAB his E-Collar from the shelf and bring it to me (I did not train this behavior, and he does not like retrieving), because he loves the freedom it provides for him.

      In addition- E-Collars use TENS technology. This is blunt electronic stimulation. However, I have never had to stim Cooper. My Mini Educator has a vibrate option, which reminds his off-leash beagle-brain that I was just talking to him and he needs to listen to hear what command I just gave. He does not fear the collar, and when he does the desired behavior, he gets praise and treats. It is a balance. I can walk him off leash at a heel past packs of aggressive and reactive dogs, and he will stay at a heel. We can walk by rabbits and squirrels, and he will turn his face to me to show that he is staying with me. Of course he gets treats in these situations.

      The best way to train is through balanced training. R+ training only encourages positive reenforcement, completely ignoring bad behaviors. With balanced training, you get an engaged, happy dog with boundaries and manners; a dog that is able to go out and have another dog snap at him, and keep walking and tasking. A dog that can go from a wild, neglected mutt to a life saver.

      • Pat Beyersdorf

        Nah. The E-collar may be a tool sir… but the point is, what are u teaching with it? Ther is a reason it is banned in Europe. No disrespect, but… glad i’am not your dog :)

  20. Do you want to train your dogs? Are you looking for something that can train your dogs even when you are not around? Dog training equipment is one of the best equipment that educates your pet on appropriate behaviors and allowed places.

  21. Hi there thinking about a shock collar for my 10mth old dog. We have been through 2 sets of positive reinforcement obedience classes lasting about 2 mths with not great results. I have completed 6 weeks of correction based training with much better results. My issue is that I thought our recalls were perfect until she tried to play chase with my parents horses. They are amazing around dogs and the gave her 3 warnings with their hooves. Then one pushed her away with their head. The whole time I am running around the horses trying not be kicked to grab her. 1 mths ago she was fine around horses just ignored them. We off leash walk all the time and encounter deer every day and she never chases them. There has be other times during play she has heard the recall and decided to not come. We obedience train for approximately 1 hour each day in a secured area. But my dog is easily distracted and is extremely playful. I think a shock would be less painful then being trampled.

    • The E-Collar can be a wonderful tool to fix this behavior- there are many instructional videos online to help you learn to properly use the tool. My favorite collar is the Mini Educator, it is the most humane and best build collar on the market. Also, remember to ALWAYS follow up use of the E-Collar with praise- if you recall the dog, she doesn’t come, you vibrate/stim her, she comes, you treat and praise like its a huge party. The combined uncomfortable sensation and the huge praise will enforce her recall.

  22. Am really new to shock collars. I recently purchase an Educator collar.I am now at a crossroad? My big question is..Should I use the shock collar to train my dog recall command? what are the effects of using shock collars.?

  23. Jennifer Butcher

    I have an e-collar that I use, but it is only used to stop an extremely negative bahavior and I’ve only had to use it 3 times to get the message across. I didn’t even give a command and chose this as a last resort when other attemps failed. These were, staying out of the trash, inappropriate chewing (ie:electrical cords and shoes), and lunging at vehicles while on the leash. All 3 I considered dangerous habits and a one time shock to teach her doing that action causes pain so don’t do it again would benefit her more than if she were to eat something poisonus, be shocked by a cord, or get hit by a car.

  24. Pingback: Why I Don't Want Your Dog on a Prong/Pinch Collar -

  25. You cannot shock a dog with a remote collar This is an absolute myth! A remote collar is like a tense unit at your chiropractor’s. The dogs neck muscles tense up once the button is pressed and the dog gets caught off guard by the unknown sensation. That is pretty much it. There is no shocking. If a remote collar is torture than a tense unit at the chiropractor is as well. Furthemore, no you do not push the button contiously. You push it once when the dog shows the behavior you don’t want. For instace if you call your dog and he/she won’t come you push once. If he/she then comes you praise and reward. So the remot collar is your insurance that the dog follows through even when off leash. You could argue that the dog then only comes because it dreads the sensation. That could be true if the collar is used too often and at a too high intensity where the muscle tensing is emotionally distressing to the dog due to it not knowing what that sensation is or where it comes from. That is exactly how you should NOT use the collar. It is also why articles like yours are all over the internet.

    A remote collar is a useful tool and sometimes a necessity. It’s also a reminder for the dog to remember “oh yea I gotta do this now”. Somtimes we want to do things but we don’t follow through because we get carried away by other things going on around us. Imagine you had a chip on your shoulder that would poke you with an nice even pressure on your neck every time you space out. That’s exactly what a remote collar does. It keeps the dog focused on the task. Would it feel uncomfortable? Yes. Would you be in physical pain? No.

    Let’s say you have a non-food driven and extremely temparamentful Husky which are notoriously bad at recall due to their natural independence and prey drive as well as drive to run. I want you to show me how you can get a dog like this to come when called without a remote collar. There is NO WAY to achieve this. NO WAY. If you claim otherwise you’re being dishonest.

    Not every dog is the same. Some are very eager to please and food driven and very clingy.To get a dog like this to come when called with bribes is easy. Those are the kinds of dogs positive reinforcement only trainers work with. They never work with really difficult characters of dogs where food and other bribes such as playing or running or whatever won’t cut it. I have not seen one positive reinforcement only trainer rehabilitate a dog like this. They claim it’s so easy but they never show it. But when it comes to dismissing the effectiveness of tools for negative reinforcement they are very quick to open their mouths. It’s a mystery to me how these people can lie to themselves and millions of dog owners.

    • Agreed. My rescue hound mix has terrible recall with just positive reenforcement, and he’s a trained service dog! When he is working, he is incredibly well-behaved and attentive. When he is out of his vest and off leash, not so much. No matter how high-value the treat is, if he gets distracted its impossible to snap him out of his head without physical touch (a tap on his shoulder, rubbing his ear etc.). So when he’s off leash in the middle of the woods, I know that I can ‘touch’ him from far away. Maybe someone’s lab has good recall with just positive reenforcement. Great. You’ve got a purebred dog who has been worked with since puppy hood. My neglected, rescue hound mutt needs more than that. The Mini Educator is the best thing I have ever bought. And after I vibrate him, once he does the desired behavior, he gets lots of treats and praise!! It isn’t a torture device- it’s a training tool.

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  29. Pingback: Top 19 Are Vibrating Collars Safe For Dogs Lastest Updates - Dogs Hint

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