Almost always a Failure; Uncover & Treat the Cause Instead

Last week, on this very page, I advised the owner of a barking dog to conduct a trial of daily exercise. She had considered an electric shock collar because she was desperate.

Canine verbal communication is actually normal. Dogs are a highly social species, after all. But some are truly verbose. Canine windbags, like their human counterparts, can be tiresome.

Context is important. An active dog, confined to a yard with little in the way of species-typical behavioral opportunities, is stuck in a barren environment. Not just bored, he is yelling his lungs out because he’s incarcerated and frustrated. Electric shocks create worse problems.

Punishment has a science-based place in learning theory but to be effective it must be applied consistently, with the same aversive strength, immediately following every single undesirable event. With enough repetition a shock collar can teach a dog to bark less but, in many cases, instills “learned helplessness”. Unable to escape the pain the shocked dog gives up and accepts it. This is a serious animal welfare issue.

Not all punished dogs develop learned helplessness. Still motivated to bark they can redirect their energy to different, even worse mischief. Escaping the yard, fear-related behaviors, compulsive disorders, and self-mutilation are common consequences. Punishment almost always fails because it doesn’t teach the creature what to do instead of the bad behavior.

Whatever the problem, whether barking, biting, destruction, house soiling, or cussing it’s the motivation behind it that needs to be addressed. Punishment can lead to confusion, inhibition of learning, and fear-related human-directed aggression. Electric shocks, jerks on a leash, reprimands, and hitting are not legitimate components of behavior modification. These methods have disastrous consequences.

Inflicting physical or emotional pain also hurts the heart of the person who metes it out while it damages the bond with the pet. Uncovering the cause of the inappropriate behavior is harder but it’s the only way of replacing it with a healthier alternative.

That barking dog can become a better citizen if his unmet canine needs are recognized and addressed. Off-leash, off-territory play with other dogs, herding work, agility, foraging for food, needle point, and shuffle board are all worth considering. Everybody should have a full life, not to mention peace and quiet.