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  • Deb Bauer

Can I Use a Vibration Collar as a Clicker for My Deaf Dog?

On an orange background, a photo of two dog paws with a clicker training device laying on the paws.  Text says: "Should I use a vibration collar as a clicker for my deaf dog? If you know me, you may already know my answer.  But do you know the thoughts behind my answer? Read more below!"

I received some mixed reactions to my post about shock and vibration collars, which I expected since it can be a topic that people feel strongly about one way or another.

I had some people asking genuine questions wondering if a vibration collar could be used as an alternative to a clicker when working with deaf dogs. The idea being that the vibration would be conditioned to mean a treat was coming.

I wanted to share my response and thoughts about this.

Let me be clear that I have not ever said that a shock or vibration collar doesn't work to affect a dog's behavior. This is the whole intent behind the people who created these collars in the first place - to get dogs to stop behaviors that we don't like them doing and to cause the dogs to respond out of fear of a consequence. If we look at the way learning works, it makes sense that these collars can cause changes in behavior.

I know that some people have conditioned a vibration collar as a marker to mean something good is coming. Again, the laws of learning show us that this is indeed possible. A dog can be taught that a vibration means something he likes will follow.

This doesn't mean, however, that the dog finds the vibration pleasant. He can get used to the vibration and that it means a treat is coming, but does he truly learn to enjoy the vibration?

I can think of many things in life that I have gotten used to that I do not find pleasant. For example while we're talking about vibration:

My phone vibrating in my pocket is still startling and unpleasant for me even though I have become used to it. The significant difference for me is that I have the choice to put that phone in my pocket, turn it to the vibration setting, and remove the phone from my pocket when it vibrates (or turn it off), while my dog doesn't get to make any of those choices.

The vibration still comes at an unexpected moment, which is startling. I don’t know about you, but I don't find being startled a pleasant experience. The dog has not decided that he would like to wear the collar, or that he likes the vibration option, and he doesn't have the ability to take off the collar to get away from it when he's had enough. The dog hasn't been given the option to choose a different marker signal that he enjoys more.

I have worked with many clients who have tried a vibration collar and their dog's behavior has become worse or even more unpredictable. Their dogs are visibly stressed and confused by the vibration - sometimes even from the very first introduction to the collar without it being on the dog. I have seen enough to know that many dogs do find the vibration aversive even when their people had the very best intentions in mind for using it.

It's important to consider not just the final behavior we want from our dogs, but how we teach it and the dog's experience through that process. A dog's emotional state throughout the learning process will carry over to how he performs and feels about the final behavior. The way a dog feels about partnering with humans is also affected by how we choose to teach him.

Most dogs will learn what we want them to learn - even when we as humans choose to use methods that they don't understand or that frighten them or cause them pain. Dogs learn to do what works to get things they like and avoid things they don't like.

There are things in their lives with us that are necessary for their safety and health which they will not find pleasant. We can do our best to teach them that these things are going to be done as low-stress as possible, and we can pay them well with extra special treats so they learn to tolerate those things - vet visits, nail trims, being on a leash, etc.

But I don't try to fool myself into thinking that my dog actually likes these things. He can choose to participate with me in them because I've taught him gently to trust me and associate these necessary things with reinforcement and approval. But does he actually enjoy these things? That is something that can only be answered by the individual dog.

As for me, I choose not to use vibration or shock collars in my teaching. They have been shown to be aversive for many dogs. It has also been shown that they are not necessary to teach dogs to a very high level of communication and responsiveness (yes, even with deaf dogs). I choose not to put a dog into a position where something might be aversive to him that is not absolutely necessary.

I always welcome respectful comments and questions. By listening to perspectives that are different from our own, we can expand our own consciousness and our ability to make the best choices for the dogs in our care.

If you’d like more guidance about teaching your deaf or blind/deaf dog using positive reinforcement and without these unnecessary tools, please contact me today. I’m always happy to help!

You may also want to join my Facebook Group or my Members Group where we focus on teaching our deaf (and blind/deaf) dogs with positive reinforcement and without electronic gadgets.

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