SHORT-CIRCUIT I recall sitting with an “Overseas” judge, possibly 5 or 6 years ago, talking about different trainers & training methods when another competitor commented to the judge: “Candy is one of the trainers that doesn’t believe in using shock collars”. My astounded return comment – “there are trainers that do?”

Times are changing and I’m of the opinion not for the better. I have been seeing more and more ads and articles about the use of the shock collar for Border Collies and I am truly beginning to worry. Eventually it became apparent a few trainers were using them but it appeared they were always careful to keep it “under wraps”. Presently it seems to be the “in thing” and people are uttering in magazine articles about how well this “tool” works on Border Collies! I will try not to get into what I feel is a moral issue of is it “right or wrong” to use them because I think that is up to an individual’s values.

Also I prefer not to get into the controversy of “training styles” because I don’t believe that’s a legitimate issue in this debate since shock collars deal with so much more than just a difference in “training techniques”. Accordingly I will not hesitate to take a stand against collars because of what I see as the long term repercussions of using shock collars and what it will mean to the Border Collie breed.

Part, and I want to add only part, of the reasoning behind my strong stance against the shock collar is I work at a training facility for hunting dogs where 99% of the dogs are trained with shock collars. The first thing these “trainers” do, after taking the dog out of the truck, and without a thought, is put on a shock collar. It’s second nature to them. I have seen and heard things related to shock collars in the name of “so called” training that have made me literally leave a training area because it was impossible to stay without making a comment to the handler. I truly wonder … do they really think the dog is learning anything when he’s screaming like that? I can hear the “pro”-collar people now saying, “Oh but not everyone is that hard-handed” which is true but what is also true is there is greater potential for misuse! I assume a dog screams if it is beaten however it appears trainers using this method try to keep it “under wraps” instead of promoting “beatings as a new training tool”. I personally think that if you have to run 300 yards in order to correct a dog you will have used up a lot of anger “on the run”. If you have a button in your hand and you get mad – notice I said mad then you are not correcting, you are getting even. I have listened to a dog scream (and I am not exaggerating!) for 5 minutes while a “so-called” trainer tries to get a point across. I won’t accept the premise a dog is learning anything – that is except fear – when that sort of training is going on. My perception of the difference between fear training and respect training is the difference between a dog that is “willing” and a dog that is “forced”. Consider a dog that obeys only because he fears the handler – this fear works only as long as he feels the handler can control him. He will cheat you the minute he thinks you aren’t in a position to MAKE HIM. On the other hand, a dog that minds out of respect will turn and ask for help when in a situation where he can’t figure out what to do. This is the essence of teamwork. You help each other out in tight spots.

Pro-collar people will say, “Oh those are the type that don’t know what they are doing.” The problem is, I know for a fact, some of these people using this “hard” approach are doing quite well in the field trials (I’m referring to hunting dogs) and that seems all that matters to a number of potential upcoming people whether they are looking for a trainer to take their dog to or as a future place to purchase a puppy from. The key question asked seems to be – is this dog winning – not is this dog winning and does he look happy and is he enjoying what it is doing … or is he just going through the motions?

Another interesting fact that I have noticed is the people in the Border Collie world that are using the shock collar are taking advice from hunting dog trainers … usually Labrador retrievers. I wonder if the people taking this advice consider “one minor detail”, that being all a hunting dog has to do is go in a straight line and retrieve a “dead bird”. I am not putting down hunting dogs but herding deals with something totally dissimilar and, to put it mildly, a heck of a lot more formidable. Herding consists of 5 sheep with “minds” of their own that can change directions at the drop of a hat. On the other hand, the hunting dog’s “object” will not take off and run if the dog comes in a little tight. I repeat again a Border Collie has been bred for 200 years to “use his mind not just mind!” I think the collar is used just to make a dog mind – period.

I would like to give an example of what I am trying to say using something totally unrelated to dogs. I can remember when California’s legislators decided to put people’s thumbprints on the back of their driver’s licenses. In the beginning stages it was optional and the choice was up to the applicant. However…once the premise was in place it wasn’t long before the “so called” option had become mandatory! The point I am trying to make is once you have accepted the premise it is OK to use the shock collar your tolerance has moved up one notch. I’m sure most of the people using the shock collar started off on the lowest setting and it “worked” but this will be generation # “1”. The next step will occur when you have bred that # “1” dog to another shock collar trained dog and the repercussions of this breeding is you will have to use stronger corrections to get through to the offspring of # “1” because now you will be training generation # “2”. Carry this one to its logical conclusion!

Another major factor to consider when dealing with the shock collar is timing. I see so many people’s timing that is totally amiss when they are just trying to push a dog out. Can you imagine your timing being off even “a tenth of a second” with a shock collar? For a correction to be “correct” you have to give it when the dog is thinking about doing something wrong, not after the act is over. If you correct a dog after the fact you will never communicate to a dog what you think he is doing wrong. As I say this I do understand people using the collar are not trying to communicate to their dogs but force their dogs to do what they’re told.

I will give an example – gripping – time and time again I see handlers supposedly trying to teach their dogs not to grip, only to end up teaching the dog to grip and run. The reason is TIMING … and theirs is just a fraction of a second off. They don’t know the dog is going to grip until after the act and then they yell or run at the dog. The correction (and I might add not necessarily yelling) should have come when the dog was thinking about gripping. A verbal correction and pressure in the appropriate spot would have deterred the grip and a proper correction would have been accomplished. This would have been achieved because you communicated to the dog what you DID NOT want while he was thinking about doing it. If your correction is late and the dog is in the middle of his sheep, yes…he will be backed off, but not while he was thinking about griping but instead while he is in the middle of sheep. The message, because of your timing, was grip but then run like hell! So the gripping will continue but now he will bite and run. Which is the exact opposite of what you wanted as obviously this is not conductive to good sheep work. Now what would have happened if instead of a verbal correction you used the shock collar for this correction? If the dog is on the soft side perhaps put him off sheep forever – if he’s truly hard more than likely he will just cheat you someplace else. Pushing a button in place of a more personal correction will not improve a trainer’s timing.

So you say “my timing is impeccable” (which I don’t consider anybody’s to be all the time – no matter how good they are) … now I will try and explain my predominant reason for being so strongly anti – shock collar. Let’s say you have a cheating hard headed dog and you’ve implemented every known training method trying to get him to work with you and they have all failed consequently you decide he needs the “big gun” and purchase a shock collar. You follow the instructions carefully and your timing is dead on and eventually you finish him out and he becomes a National Champion. I don’t care what titles he attains he will never be anything but a hard headed cheating dog. You may have broke him and you may be doing well in the trial circuit but you can never change his basic nature. He will remain a “cheater” that wins trials but the only thing he will pass on to his offspring is his cheating … the trophies will not be carried on in your breeding program. Since you were so successful with him you would be inclined to continue upon this same course. So let’s say you purchase a female and achieve the same titles. People start asking for puppies out of these well known dogs. Your breeding program is on a one way track … and as I said earlier if you think you had a difficult task training these first two just think of how difficult it will be to train the offspring. It won’t be many generations of “hardheaded” to “hardheaded” until the word biddable will not be a word used in assessing a Border Collie. You will have to use more and more drastic training methods because you have long since bred out the “partnership” and since cooperation isn’t in this “new” breeds vocabulary asking isn’t going to cut it – the only thing they will understand is force. You have not done what is best for the breed you only did what you needed to do so you could win a prize. Is winning a few trials really worth the price of sacrificing the very thing that makes our breed remarkable?

I have spent time trying to understand what type of person would be inclined to use the collar and I think this brings another issue to my mind and that is control … I think people train dogs the way they are comfortable with. If they are the type that deal with life by controlling everything and everyone they will lean toward a collar. People that like to interact with life will not be as inclined to want to control a dog as much as collaborate with one. I don’t argue that some dogs have no desire to work with a trainer and have to be forced. In an ideal world all the dogs would listen on a trial field but they don’t and there will be dogs that you have to almost break to get any sort of training on them. ( I do argue that a dog capable of accepting such severe training methods should be bred from.) Think what would happen if you were working in the hills where you couldn’t see him?

I have seen dogs that people have trained by force in place of teamwork and the end result is the minute the dog thinks the person isn’t in control the dog runs amuck. I think training dogs is somewhat like rasing kids – you can make a kid do something or you can teach a kid “why” something needs to be done a certain way. Guess which one of these methods works long after you have left the scene? You need to teach “inter discipline” not “outer force”. I don’t think using a shock collar is useful for anything except forcing a dog to do something that you want done. It is not in my opinion a so called “tool” to teach a dog how to think! I believe a good trainer allows a dog to develop and thereby turns out a dog that thinks and feels – not a robot that does what it’s told when it’s told. I don’t want to sound like “Pollyanna” and imply all you have to do is ask a dog and they will cooperate … most of the good ones need a strong hand to convince them – the handler is “top dog”. However these strong dogs do have a sense of “fair play” and will respond to and work with someone stronger than themselves. Consider the difference between and decide which you would prefer … a dog who accepts the premise that someone stronger than themselves is in charge and thereby gives to the handler or a dog trained by the collar who obeys … not because he has accepted the handler but because pain comes if he doesn’t. The type of dog that makes it all the way through “collar training” still wanting to work (notice I said work – not work with – the word “please” is not in his vocabulary) is a hard, hard, dishonest dog with no sense of fair play. He has never accepted you as “top dog” and will cheat you the minute he thinks he can get away with it.

I started this article a number of months ago but had trouble finishing it as I was really disturbed by what I discerned as an overwhelming acceptance for using the collar. However I would like to end with a little brighter note as I have talked to other handlers and have received positive feedback they also are against the collar and will write to that effect. I know that a couple of years ago Pat Shannahan wrote a good article about not using shock collars and I truly believe if we have trainers standing up against the collar then perhaps new people getting into this sport will be influenced not to rely on gimmicks. I think we need to promote the “tried and true” training methods – namely good breeding – a lot of time and training energy – and most of all a complete understanding of how complicated, special and unique these dogs are and how we all benefit from that “special Border Collie talent”. Let’s not deprive ourselves of this ability to interact by using short-cut training methods just to win a trial.


Candy Kennedy