Behavior Gadgets that Backfire
If you look through any pet catalog, you will see plenty of ultrasonic/electronic devices that are designed to stop unwanted behaviors. All of these devices are positive (you have added something) punishers (decrease a behavior). Now some of these devices are harsh, painful and can be inhumane when used excessively. Examples are the electronic shock collars and ultrasonic devices. Others are not pain inducing, but are definitely a deterrent - something strongly unpleasant happening whenever the pet performs the behavior. Examples are the scat mats or citronella spray collars. Many behaviorists will advise against these devices because they cause other problem behaviors when used. The manufactures of these devices rarely warn about the resulting problem behaviors. I am not sure why - maybe there is not any requirement for warnings; maybe there have not been any formal studies that prove the increased aggression and anxiety due to the use of these devices. I just want to help you understand why these devices often backfire, and what to advise when this happens.
A punisher needs to deliver the punishment at a level that will stop the specific behavior right at the time they perform the behavior. So, a shock comes right at the bark. Now the whole scene when this shock happens is also associated with the shocking feeling. The barking will stop because the dog has learned that barks now cause pain, but the dog may be avoiding the front door, or acting anxious because the shock was happening in this setting. This dog may now growl at the front door, or no longer happily greeting people because the door means shocks. Great - the dog was happy to greet you as you came home through the door, but now won't come to you or worse yet, urinates in front of the door due to anxiety.
Redirected aggression is common with anxiety. These electronic products often increase anxiety, so you may be presented with dogs that are fighting for no apparent reason. The client may not be using the ultrasonic/citronella or shocking collar now. It was the past use that created this problem. I had a case similar to this recently. A client purchased a citronella collar for the one dog that barked a lot in the fenced in yard. So the collar went on and barking decreased but then fighting relapsed between the 2 dogs that had diminished through the behavior modification plan. After a bit of questioning I found out the triggers were completely different for these 2 dogs. What was going on???? It turns out the other dog had the collar on and started growling to avoid barking which would have tripped the collar. So the companion dog would then growl back and bingo - a fight. As soon as I got this story I urged that the collar be removed and out of sight. The collar was causing confusing signals between the two dogs and increased anxiety resulting in fighting. Within 1 day of the collar off and out of sight, these two were calm, and back to playing well. Drugs did not need to be altered, these dogs could coexist, life is better.
Fortunately this client had told me that she had purchased the collar so I had some clue as to what could be setting the dogs off. I doubt I would have thought to have asked if she had anything like this in use. Now I am asking upfront about current use of any kind of remote device. Citronella itself is not painful but for these dogs it was too much. Occasionally you may have dogs that become more generally anxious just from having these items laying around the home. Think of it this way - if every time you laughed too loud you were sprayed, you would not only stop laughing loud, you would likely be worried that something else may set off a startling spray. You learn that the laughing set off the collar but are not sure what else did, so you become anxious. Can you see how these products are creating more problems with anxiety and aggression? It may not be an obvious effect but the effect is there.
I cannot fault these clients for reaching for these products. They promise results - and one will see the undesirable behavior stop quickly. These products are every where - Sam's Club, Walmart, PetSmart - you name it. They don't cost a whole lot either - maybe $20 or so. A hand held ultrasonic anti bark device is about $10 at Walgreens. Who would not want to try the quick fix? The backfiring of the products is the dirty little secret that is not known well. This backfiring problem is what needs to be know and explained to the client. There be clients who will swear by these devices as the best thing to use, and maybe in this home with this pet there is not a problematic increase in aggression or anxiety. I am sure there is an increase in but it may not be a problem to the client yet.
Better understanding of how these remote products are really working and failing, will help people make wise choices about behavior products. Providing pet owners with appropriate alternatives that address problems early maybe the way that this plethora of electronic punishers will decrease. I hope so. Rewarding and positive reinforcement based training is the safest and most effective method for training. It is not spoiling and will not cause problem alternative behaviors that punishers do.
- written by Dr. Sally J. Foote