Treating fear with pain – Why does it appear to work and what really happens under the skin?

Over the years I have been working in Animal Behaviour I am always amazed at how many people disregard science and research. The world of dog training has really moved forward as science has discredited some of the more outdated methods such as Dominance and pack leadership style methods.

There has been a huge amount of research on the devices used in animal training and their effects on the physical and emotional state of the animal involved.  It amazes me how people insist on treating fear with pain but unfortunately they do. Devices of any description are a quick fix method. They are effective at interrupting the emotion the animal experiences but they won’t remove that emotion and this is where the problem lies.

Lets’ imagine the scenario of a dog that is scared of traffic and is struggling to walk down a road and lets’ use the shock collar as an example. As soon as the owner puts the lead on and takes him out he will be anticipating the traffic that is making him frightened. His body will be flooded with the hormones Cortisol and Adrenaline. Cortisol is the stress hormone and consistently high levels can be very damaging to the system. It is known to interfere with learning and memory.  Adrenaline is a powerful hormone forming part of the body’s acute stress system. It prepares the body ready for a fight or flight response.

So consider that even before starting work with this dog he will struggle to learn anything due to the escalated levels of Cortisol and his body is on high alert. His heart rate will be pounding and his muscles ready to respond. Is this really the optimum point to start trying to work with fear? Of course not.

Any good behaviourist will give this dog a break, they would have given time and space to lower Cortisol levels and put in the ground work and coping strategies before even considering letting him near a road.  Then when the ground work is in place we would start working with low level traffic in a quiet place and at a quiet time.

So what happens if we use a shock collar in this scenario as some people do?

There may have been an argument that the shock collar is on low vibration. It makes no difference, remember we still have fear, we still have associations and we still have the hormones. To the dog the vibration will just be another noise/sensation amongst all the others. Remember when cortisol levels are raised learning is impaired and the body and mind are in a state of readiness to protect itself.

So why then does the dog proceed to walk down the road with the collar on?  It’s an interesting question and I’m going to relay it back with a human parallel. I am really scared of big spiders especially tarantulas. You would not get me in a room with one and I doubt I would enter the house. So imagine I am forced to enter a room full of them and move around. If I freeze in fear someone comes and gives me an electric shock to make me walk. Bearing in mind I don’t know what to expect from the collar my first reaction is to try and move away from the source of the pain. The shock has interrupted my initial fear response of freezing, and triggered my response to get away. So my first reaction might be to freeze but this will be a prelude to trying to get away. The next time it comes I know what to expect and now I am beginning to anticipate and fear it, I’ll do whatever I can to get away from it and may well by this point have forgotten about the spiders.  

There is a massive difference between fear of what you see and what happens to you physically.

So let’s go back to our imaginary dog who is scared of traffic. He receives the first shock and tries to get away. His survival instinct of fight or flight is more highly activated. The next time the shock comes he has realised that if he walks it will go away.  This has not reduced his instinct to freeze when he sees traffic, it has simply replaced one fear response with another based on which source of fear the dog is able to control.

Now let’s add trust to the equation. We’ll assume that unless the dog is being abused there is some semblance of trust between the dog and the owner. However, the use of the shock collar by an owner will most certainly damage that level of trust and therefore the relationship between the dog and the owner.

People who use these devices say that you don’t have to shock them often. The reason is that the dog has chosen the flight response and learned that if he keeps walking the pain or vibration will go away. He keeps moving in anticipation of the shock, driven by the new fear that was added by the trainer/owner!

With this in mind I often ask myself how is it ok to treat a living creature like this?  It’s cruel, really cruel and doesn’t resolve anything. Only a bully would treat another like this and cause untold damage on the mental well -being of another.  Now the owner may be really happy that their dog is now walking down the street apparently happily. In reality he is just trying to escape the cause of the pain.

Often these trainers will gleefully declare that positive trainers have been unable to help in this situation. The reason for this is that positive trainers work gently and slowly on modifying mind-sets and perceptions whilst balancing emotions just as a counsellor would do with a human being. Owners often get impatient waiting for results. They want to see results quickly and decide to try looking elsewhere and unfortunately they find themselves in the hands of these trainers.

It’s a very sad state of affairs when we are reduced to using bullish tactics to deal with fear and a sad reflection on human nature.

©Sam Redmond Dog Training and Animal Behaviour 2017


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