“Let ‘em do it. They’ll only do it once.”

This is what my grandfather (a very matter-of-fact WWII veteran sort of man) would announce when my cousins and I would attempt to do something stupid, such as stick a butter knife in a light socket, and our parents would attempt to intervene.

Harsh? Maybe. But also true. Sure, referring directly to the light socket situation, “once” would be the case due to the death that most likely follows. But consider something a bit lighter (Ha! … pun), such as pulling a heavy item off a high shelf. The result, a knock in the head or a deafening crash, would probably cause a child to avoid the situation in the future. Lesson learned.

Now imagine a child going for that same heavy item on the shelf but this time a parent interrupts. “No, no, Honey.” And when the child turns to said parent and is given a little piece of candy. “Good baby.”

Will the child try to pull the item down again in the future?

This is an issue I’ve been struggling with ever since Nala leapt into my life on four excited paws. How far can positive reinforcement go? At what point does a dog need to understand consequences? Does a dog need to understand consequences? If so, how severe should those consequences be?

We went to classes at Petsmart (See “Click”) and they were great. The trainer was beyond awesome, Nala learned a great deal, and it was a great bonding experience (a much needed bonus for us). It was well worth the money and time. While at these classes, I learned that Nala is somewhat treat-motivated… she is a dog after all. But I have also learned that things such as squirrels and deer are much more important.  This is not true for every dog, of course. Each dog comes with its own personality, energy level, and priorities.

Nala’s priorities are as follows:

  1. Other dogs
  2. Critters and animals of any kind (this includes birds)
  3. People (this does not include me – I’m old news)
  4. Running / playing outside
  5. Food

There are more after these. I’m on there somewhere down the list. But these are the five most important things in her life as I have observed thus far.

Most dog books will tell you that the treat thing is not a forever solution. It’s a good way to show a dog initially what it needs to do when a specific command is given. Beyond this, the treat should gradually be replaced with praise. This makes great sense for Nala, who is much more excited about someone offering energized sounds, belly rubs, and play than a lousy treat. And this is what I have been doing. She responds well. She knows come and is good at it. The other day, she even stopped and returned to me when she was on her way to greet a distant biker (they are very tempting to chase since they move so fast).


Over Christmas when a rather large herd of whitetail deer ran through an open field where we also happened to be walking, Nala was a gonner. No amount of “come” or “stay” was going to work when there were leaping deer in the distance, begging for company.

Twenty minutes later she sailed out of the woods a little scraped up, wild-eyed, open-mouthed and happy as hell.

So what do you do when your dog has a priority list like Nala’s? Keep it on a leash always? Pray? Or is there another possibility? A more dramatic approach?

What about shock collars?

Innotek is one of the most highly respected brands of collars, including invisible fence. This image is from their website

There is a website, a personal one, but still, it exists and is managed / written by a professional dog trainer, titled “The Truth About Shock Collars.” It is in support of the devices, if used properly. Shock collars are also sold by Petsmart and Petco, which one might consider a statement of support, or at least the lack of statement in opposition.

It is a scary thought for most pet parents, that is for anyone who loves his/her dog, to shock the little buddy in the neck for making a wrong move. The same is true for bark collars and invisible fences. In addition, some people cannot fathom spanking a child, even a little bit. But then some of those same people change their mind when they catch their child using a purple Sharpie on the living room wall. And that same pet parent so worried about his/her dog’s pain receptors being overloaded, might change his/her mind when the dog dashes through traffic. Now the issue is beyond convenience. The dog could get hurt, or worse, when not obeying a command.

One of the few statements found on-line against shock collars (including invisible fences) is by PETA (surprise). (Note: I do not dislike PETA, it’s just easy to make fun of them.) But even this statement by this well-known organization is a warning of the most extreme situations, issues with malfunctioning collars and generally people who shouldn’t be using them in the first place, and in some cases shouldn’t own a dog. Perhaps they aren’t as controversial as this dog owner previously thought.

I have seen shock collars used a great deal and I have used them myself. And this experience has made clear how easily these “training collars” can be misused. My father always said that if you are angry, you shouldn’t be holding the remote. And anyone who has owned a high-energy dog knows how easy it is to become enraged. This is where the line of cruelty can be crossed. In addition, someone who knows too little about dogs and how reinforcement works could do more damage than good with a sensitive dog and an zap collar.

Nala, if corrected too strongly at the wrong time can shut down. She is a high-energy dog, but she is also more sensitive than some other dogs. As mentioned before, dogs are individuals regarding the level of correction needed, not unlike children. For example, when I accidently shut Nala’s tail in the car door a month ago (yes, I still feel like a jerk), it took her days to trust me again. She knew I had hurt her, and she didn’t know why, therefore, she wasn’t sure when it would happen again. It was not correction, it was pain without purpose. She still won’t sit in the passenger seat when I close the door. Dogs are smart and have good memories. Timing is everything.

For example: For Nala to know that chasing deer is a bad idea, I need to be with her (wearing a shock collar) in a field where there is a deer waiting to be chased. She needs to start chasing that deer. I need to say, “come.” She needs to ignore that command, and THEN she needs to feel a zap. Ideally this will stop her, get her attention, get her to obey the command, return to me, and receive praise for that return. Situations like this usually require some type of invention and planning. It takes time, patience, and a willingness to be trained yourself. The very definition of what it takes to train a dog.

But what if I don’t do this? What if Nala takes off after the next deer and get hung in a fence, and can’t find her, and, well, you know. Or what if she chases a squirrel into a busy street? A bird onto a frozen pond? Maybe a little hurt is needed to avoid something much worse.

Should everyone own a shock collar? GOD no! In fact, most dog owners shouldn’t have shock collars (an many dogs don’t need them). In addition, stupid people shouldn’t use shock collars. But then, most stupid people don’t know they’re stupid. That’s an issue. But is that any reason to throw out the puppy with the bath water?


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