There are many dog trainers who use “training collars.” This term refers to several types of collars that “correct” a dog’s behavior. A training collar could be a prong collar, choke chain, shock/e-collar, or even a slip lead. Trainers who use these tools insist that they are harmless, do not hurt the dog, and are highly effective in meeting training objectives. Trainers will often have a client test the collar on their arm, showing them that the prongs don’t hurt or that a shock collar at the lowest voltage setting is just a little prickle. On speaking with trainers who used to use shock collars, they tell me it’s a common practice to demonstrate the collar on a low setting and then increase the voltage significantly when the collar is on the dog. The allure of these collars is that they work … sort of.
Before I discuss what makes these collars effective, I have to explain punishment. Without getting too technical, there are two types of punishment: positive punishment and negative punishment. For the purposes of this post, it’s not important to explain the intricacies of these two terms, and we’re going to focus on positive punishment. It probably seems obvious what punishment is, but to get everyone on the same page, it is something that makes you not want to do a behavior again.
The key to successful punishment (stopping the unwanted behavior) is to make it so aversive, the person doesn’t want to do the behavior again. Different people require different intensities of punishment before it works. Let me give you a personal example. Years and years ago, I had a friend who liked to play punch buggy. We were driving somewhere together, and she kept punching me. I asked her to stop hitting me, but she wouldn’t. I asked her again with a more intense voice. She didn’t stop. Finally, I said to her, “If you don’t stop hitting me, I’m going to hit you back.” She didn’t take me seriously and punched me again. True to my word, I hit her really hard, hurting her enough for her to stop playing the game. As you can see from this example, in order for punishment to work, it has to be harsh or painful enough make the other person not want to do the behavior again.
Not everyone responds to punishment the same way. For very sensitive people, it can make them shut down which makes them appear calm and accepting. More resilient people can habituate to a certain severity of punishment, requiring harsher and harsher punishment to get them to stop the unwanted behavior. Some people will actually get very angry and may become aggressive. Another thing that can happen is that the unwanted behavior ceases in the presence of the punisher. When the punisher is absent, the behavior is practiced again. I’m sure you can think of examples from your own childhood or people you know. Dogs also respond in these various ways.
Now I want to talk about how training collars work…and don’t. Training collars are used to stop behaviors. By now, you should recognize that stopping a behavior requires punishment—punishment that is intense enough for the recipient to choose to stop the behavior. Trainers who use prong collars and shock collars insist that they don’t hurt the dog. But as we know from our discussion, in order to work, they have to hurt the dog. And they have to hurt enough to discourage the dog’s behavior.
I’ve spent all this time talking about punishment and what it does. But what punishment doesn’t do is teach new behaviors. Let’s say your dog is in the backyard. They want to come in because it’s hot and they’re tired, so they scratch at the door. You don’t like this because it damages the paint, so you punish your dog to stop the scratching. The dog does, indeed, stop scratching, but now needs a new way to let you know they want to be let inside. So they start barking instead. This is also unacceptable, so you punish that away as well. Now maybe the dog starts howling. You get the point. Punishing away a behavior without providing an alternative to meet the need underlying it leaves it up to the dog to come up with a different behavior, which you also may not like.
Trainers who use training collars often offer guarantees to fix your dog’s bad behaviors within a week or two. And they can stop unwanted behaviors, but at the cost of hurting or scaring your dog and leaving them without options to get their needs met.
So the answer to, “What’s the best training collar?” is none. Find a trainer who has pledged not to use these harmful tools. https://www.petprofessionalguild.com/ is a good starting point.