E-collar, electronic collar, shock collar, electric collar, bark collar and remote collar are all synonyms for collars that work by emitting electrical current to the dog’s body (typically the neck area). Citronella collar, spray collar, bark collar and remote collar are all names for collars that spray a loud, harmless stream of air near the dog’s face (ideally without making any actual contact).
The collar’s name depends on the manufacturer. Sometimes the compressed air is infused with citronella, which adds the unpleasantness of a strongly scented chemical near the dog’s nose and vomeronasal organ, the latter being an auxiliary olfactory organ.
In the same genre of collars, there are also vibration remote training collars. These are meant to be used for dogs with either visual and/or auditive impairment as a means of communicating, (for instance, recalling a deaf dog when he isn’t looking at your or blind dog when he may have gotten out of ear-shot). They are not meant to be used as a means of correction, although some rather sensitive dogs may be bothered by the feeling of a vibration.
Most of these collars are controlled by the handler, thanks to a radio remote, but some bark and spray collars are sensitive to the vibrations felt on the throat area that are made by barking, and will emit the stream of air or an electric impulse (shock) upon being triggered by any vocalization strong enough to be sensed by the collar.
The different types of collars that emit spray are typically not considered cruel, inhumane or harmful, although I imagine that the citronella ones must linger much longer than we think around the dog’s very sensitive nose, which I liken to those unfortunate, headache-inducing instances where I’ve had the pleasure of sitting next to someone whom apparently bathed in perfume or cologne. With the exception of the scented ones, the point of these collars isn’t to spray compressed air near the dog as a correction, but to create a noise that startles him out of what he’s doing long enough to give the trainer a chance to reward the desired behaviour (for instance, ceasing to bark) and to redirect to a more productive activity. If used unscrupulously, most dogs will eventually stop caring about the sharp pssst sound, rendering the collar useless.
Compressed air as a deterrent has more than one application, another popular one being a bottle with a motion sensor on the top; this device is placed near an area that is off-limits to the animal (ex: on the kitchen counter), but that he still sneaks to when you’re not around. As soon as the sensor detects a presence, it sprays a short but strong stream of air, startling the dog. The hope is that the dog will become wary of that area. Unfortunately, the truth is that the technology hasn’t been perfected and it will sometimes not activate. When it comes to punishment (anything that decreases the likelihood of a behaviour repeating itself), intermittence is not beneficial. Intermittent punishment will yield very scarce results. An animal that gets sprayed nine times out of ten will still take his chances if the reward is great enough (and typically anything found on a kitchen counter is considered great enough)! On a similar note, many dogs will habituate themselves to the noise and stop caring. There is also a smaller, handheld version of these bottles, with no sensor, meant to be used on walks or around the house.
All that being said, they have been used successfully on soft-ish dogs, individuals who are deterred but not terrified by the noise. You don’t want to use spray as an aversive stimulus on a dog that frightens very easily, as fear causes more problems than it solves. I’ve seen owners having to carry dogs across the kitchen to the front door after they implemented this training technique and it backfired to the point where the dog refused to cross the kitchen to go outside. On this note, I’d like to mention that sometimes it’s just easier to manage an issue rather than train to correct it. If your dog goes through the garbage, just get a locking one; if he jumps on the counter, stop leaving things out for him to grab; if he drinks out of the toilet, just keep the lid down or close the bathroom door. All these behaviours can be eliminated, but as a trainer, you learn to pick your battles.
One of my dogs used to be an avid counter-surfer (a term that refers to dogs that grab things off the kitchen counter or table), toilet water degustation expert and garbage destroyer. Rather than lock him out of half the house, I bought a garbage bin that twists closed, stopped leaving food out (a good practice whether you have a dog or not) and started insisting that everyone keep the toilet seat down (I’ll let you guess which gender had more trouble with that one). Not only did these very simple changes work wonders, but now I can leave the house with a dozen pies (his favourite!) on the counter and I know they’ll still be there when I get back!
If you implement changes long enough, the dog will stop trying, successfully ridding himself of the unwanted behaviours. And, best of all, if the dog is rather persistent, maintaining these changes for the duration of his life is no hassle at all!
Using electricity to train and control animals is nothing new, and its applications are not limited to dogs. Some other tools used are electric mats to deter animals from going on certain surfaces (couch, counter, scratching at the door) and invisible fencing (current line is buried to delimit a perimeter, which is marked aboveground by flags, and the dog is fitted with a collar that zaps him when he crosses the flags).
Obviously there is much controversy surrounding the use of shock collars; in many countries, their use is illegal.
Those who oppose the use of these collars will claim they cause anything from cardiac arrhythmias to death. While anything quite that drastic has yet to be documented, numerous studies have shown that these collars, even when used properly (a highly theoretical condition, everyone makes mistakes), raise the individual’s cortisol levels an astounding amount. Cortisol is a steroid hormone that is released in response to stress.* Most dogs that are shocked with these collars will show many signs of fear and stress, such as lip-licking, quick, shallow panting, pulled lips, tail-tucking, crouching, cowering, full-body shaking, tremors, yelping, barking and biting.**
Promoters of these collars will also assert that they don’t cause any actual pain, the more common words I’ve heard to describe what a correction feels like are: stimulation, tap and sensation. Ehm, Newspeak, anyone?
Advocates for the use of these collars claim that they have such a bad connotation because more primitive versions featured actual electrical current, whereas newer versions now feature static electricity. Inexplicably, this seems to be a rather convincing argument! I’ve heard people use the ‘static argument’ more times than I can count, and I think this rumour (because that’s all it is) was born out of some trainer out there likening the feeling of a shock collar to that of the shock you receive by dragging your feet across a carpet and then touching someone.
Semantics aside, I’d like to point out that static electricity is the accumulation of charge (of positive or negative polarity) on a surface. The term static implies that there is no movement, it just refers to the imbalance of charge. When this surface comes into contact with another of the opposite polarity (like polarities repel each other), the electrons flow through the two and balance out the surfaces. Current is a measurement of the movement of electricity, typically through a conductor. So, you see, without any electrical discharge or current, the collar couldn’t possibly work.
More modern electronic collars have several levels of intensity, from a very mild shock to an incredibly painful one. Some collars also feature a beeping noise, which may be used as a sort of warning of an imminent zapping (the same way a clicker is used to announce the arrival of a reward) or as a recall for visually impaired dogs, or those out of sight and ear-shot.
Care must be taken to ensure that the setting you choose is neither too high (unnecessarily painful, may cause redirected aggression) nor too low (may exacerbate the problem by creating tolerance). Even though stress is a universal response, it goes without saying that different dogs will react differently. Dogs with high drive that are delivered a well-timed correction in response to ignoring a known command are likely to suffer less distress. A sensitive dog in the same situation may develop learned helplessness (lying down on the floor and refusing to move, sometimes accompanied by urination and/or defecation).
I believe that they can be used effectively on certain dogs without being mentally or physically detrimental, but let’s call a spade a spade: the inalienable truth is that they are used to cause discomfort (up to very intense levels of pain). Also, dog owners seem to take it rather personally when their dog “disobeys” them, and are therefore likely to zap their dog more out of frustration than earnest training. The fact that all you have to do is press a button makes it all too easy to develop an overly cavalier attitude towards the implementation of wireless training devices. Some trainers will actually require such handlers to wear an extra collar on their own leg, so as to make them more aware of what the dog is feeling. Now that’s effective training!
As a trainer, if I have to choose between helping keep an animal safe or sparing him punishment, safety is going to win every time. Most dogs pertain to working breeds and may become deaf to you once their senses perceive a task to fulfill (following a scent, herding livestock, attacking prey…). As much as I’d love for people who want a trustworthy off-lead dog to carefully select an individual from any breed with low drive (and to accept that teaching the recall is a very difficult and lengthy process), such is not the case, and people wind up expecting their hounds and terriers (among other breeds) to perform stellar recalls when a rabbit just caught their eye. Sometimes, even if selection was carefully done, some dogs simply haven’t read their breed standards, and you’ll occasionally see the odd hyperactive Pug or driven Saint Bernard. In such cases, implementation of an electric collar may be quite helpful to the handler.
If you are considering this type of training device, make sure you consult a qualified dog trainer, as the tiny booklet that comes with these collars is in no way a substitute for proper instruction.
Good luck, and happy training!
* Schalke, E., Stichnoth, J., Ott, S., Jones-Baade, R., 2007, Clinical signs caused by the use of electric training collars on dogs in everyday life situations. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 105, 369-380
** Schilder, M., Van der Borg, J., 2004. Training dogs with the help of the shock collar: short and long term behavioural effects. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 85, 319-344