April 17, 2018

As the UK prepares for DEFRA to finalise its ban on electric shock collars, 11 vets have joined forces to oppose the ban saying that “it is humane” to use them and it keeps pets safe from worse injuries they could get by running away.

Here in Malta we are also waiting for a ban on shock collars, choke chains and tethering. Wait is all we can do but I’ve decided to make the time pass faster by educating so here is my rant about shock collars, choke chains, and any form of punishment involving the introduction of a nasty stimulus to discourage an animal from repeating a behaviour.

We always use rewards to train our animals, whether it’s food, a toy, cuddles or a game, we have seen first-hand the mountain of good it does to animals. It helps them overcome fears, learn new skills, learn new tricks and the bonus is that in doing it we are also building a better bond with the animal though punishment has its use too. You reward good behaviour, but you don’t reward “bad” behaviour so by withdrawing rewards you are punishing.


That is about as much punishment as an animal, or a human, needs to learn they’re off track. Although positive punishment is also well researched and found to work, because it is well researched we also know every little way in which it often goes wrong so we are staunch against it. We don’t expect you to start researching the downfalls of punishments so here is a breakdown of the dark side of operant conditioning.

  1. Positive Punishment only discourages one behaviour, it doesn’t teach appropriate behaviour. If you want a simple sit, why punish the other gazillion behaviours possible when you could just lure and reward that one you want? Who has that much free time? Besides, do you really want to let the dog choose the alternative behaviour after you punish them?

  2. Positive Punishment does not remove the animals’ motivation behind their behaviour. If they’re reacting out pf fear, or raiding the dustbin because they are hungry, they are not going to be less afraid or less hungry after you punish them. In fact, we know you will make them more afraid, therefore…

  3. Positive Punishment can make fear (and frustration) motivated behaviours worse by escalating the animal’s emotional unrest or introducing new fears.

  4. Positive Punishment needs to be delivered fast, quick and dirty to work. For punishment to work it needs to be immediately after the behaviour (less than 2 seconds), be short (so as not be considered confusingly torturous) and at the right intensity. I highlighted that because though the argument of those 11 vets is that it works, for it to work it needs to be as strong or stronger than the dog’s motivation to chase that squirrel. That means we are no longer in the region of a mild buzz at level 2. We are in the region of neck, shoulders and leg muscles twitching uncontrollably and painfully at level 12. How do I know? Because I tried it. On myself.

  5. Positive Punishment in applied animal behaviour modification often tells the dog something very different than you think. Even if you get the timing, duration and intensity perfect, applied behaviour modification on animals is different than theory. You don’t have English or Maltese to explain to the dog why he got shocked. He could think that children approaching are bad because that’s where his eyes were gazing. See point 3 again. This means that more often than not an animal has to be shocked way too many time to finally get the point you are trying to deliver and along the way he has developed some 3 or 4 other problems.

  6. Positive Punishment ruins your relationship with your pet. I don’t know about you, but I like my dog. I love spending time with her and when she cuddles up to me or brings me a toy to play, I know I have a friend for life. I couldn’t have that if I kept punishing her whenever she makes a mistake.

So, for a better way to train animals here’s my two cents. Pick one alternative behaviour that wouldn’t allow your dog to do whatever it is that you dislike. Set them up to succeed and reward them for it doing it. Ignore mistakes but change the environment to make further mistakes impossible.


Oh, and swap that invisible electric fence for a real one which will also protect your pet and your children from intruders in your garden.


But if humans want to do it to themselves, so be it.

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