Long used as a training device for unwanted behaviors in dogs, shock collars or electric collars are becoming illegal in more places. Here's a look at these "e-collars" and why some people question whether they're humane.

How they work

Shock collars typically have two pointed contacts that touch a pet's neck. Varying levels of electric current are passed through the prongs. Depending on the collar, devices can allow low levels of vibration all the way to full-on electric shocks.

Often the collars are used to stop unwanted behavior such as barking or jumping. In those instances, the owner uses a remote to administer a shock when the unwanted action happens. The collars are also often used in conjunction with invisible fences, so dogs automatically receive a shock when they travel too close to a property boundary. There are also electronic no-bark collars that automatically apply a shock, responding to the vibration in a dog's vocal cords, according to Canine Journal.

Do they hurt dogs?

closeup of dog shock collar The prongs on a shock collar send electric impulses into a dog's neck. (Photo: Petrovskii Ian/Shutterstock)

Proponents of e-collars point out that shocks delivered by approved, properly functioning devices are safe and won't do any lasting physical harm to a dog.

However, many veterinarian and owner accounts, as well as independent research, show that the devices can cause severe burns and sores. They can also be accidentally set off by ambient noise like car horns and slamming doors.

In addition to affecting a dog's physical health, electronic collars can have an impact on a pet's emotional state. In a 2014 U.K. poll, 79 percent of people said positive reinforcement training methods can address dog behavioral issues without the need for negative training methods, such as shock collars. Positive reinforcement focuses on praise and treats to reward a dog for doing the behavior you want him to do.

Shock collars, on the other hand, punish a negative behavior. Trainers say they can cause stress and anxiety, which can lead to more negative behaviors such as aggression. If you punish a dog for barking at the neighbor, for example, your dog associates the neighbor with the shock and can become aggressive when he sees the neighbor.

A small 2014 study took a group of 63 dogs that didn't come when called or had issues bothering livestock. They were split into three groups; one group was trained with shock collars and the others were not. All three groups were led by industry-approved trainers.

The dogs trained with shock collars were found to show behavioral changes that were "consistent with a negative response." They showed signs of tension and engaged in stress behaviors like excessive yawning, lip licking and full body shakes.

The study's author's concluded that training with an electronic collar, "did not result in a substantially superior response to training in comparison to similarly experienced trainers who do not use e-collars to improve recall and control chasing behavior. Accordingly, it seems that the routine use of e-collars even in accordance with best practice (as suggested by collar manufacturers) presents a risk to the well-being of pet dogs. The scale of this risk would be expected to be increased when practice falls outside of this ideal."

Well-known dog trainer Victoria Stilwell suggests, "Rather than resort to using equipment that causes your dog fear and pain, why not try humane, force-free alternatives that are more effective long-term and that will help change the way your dog thinks and learns?"

Where they're illegal

dog sitting for treats With positive reinforcement training, dogs are rewarded with treats or praise. (Photo: InBetweentheBlinks/Shutterstock)

Shock collars are already banned in Wales and will soon be outlawed in Scotland and England.

The most recent proposal to ban the devices in England, announced in mid-March 2018, came after a long campaign by animal rights groups, reports the Guardian.

"Training a dog with an electric shock collar causes physical and psychological harm and is never acceptable, especially given the vast array of positive training methods available. We are delighted that the government has listened to the Kennel Club’s long standing campaign to ban electric shock collars and hope that a ban on their use is imposed swiftly," Caroline Kisko, secretary of The Kennel Club, which runs the Crufts dog show.

"Shock collars are often marketed as a harmless quick-fix solution. The truth is that far from providing a solution, they can easily cause more problems than they seek to fix."

Shock collars also have been banned in Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Austria, Switzerland, Slovenia, Germany, Quebec and parts of Australia.

Dog trainer Mary Angilly of Boulder, Colorado, is working to get a proposal on the ballot in 2018 to ban shock collars in her city. If it passes, it will be the first city in the U.S. to ban the controversial devices, reports the Daily Camera.

"A lot of people will say, 'Oh, you don't like a lot of that equipment, you're a Boulder hippie who runs in a field of daisies,'" she said. "It's not like that at all. My argument, and most trainers who are against the use of this equipment, is not that it doesn't work. Punishment and using force and fear to train dogs can totally work. The main issue is the many potential fallouts."

Mary Jo DiLonardo writes about everything from health to parenting — and anything that helps explain why her dog does what he does.