All You Could Ever Want to Know About “Zap Collars”

are zap collars bad for dogs

Early into my dog training career, it was just myself and my trusty little genetic disaster, Grimm. Grimm was my first dog as an adult, and he opened the door for me into the world of balanced dog training. I go over the story of Grimm and how I ended up on the career path I’m on right now in my article, The Dog That Turned Me Into A Trainer.

To sum that story up, however, Grimm was wildly aggressive to the point I was unable to bring him places with me (and was even causing friction at home). He’d fly into fits of barking and lunging and thrashing to try to get out of his harness, he’d try to attack any dog and most humans he’d see, and I was rightfully fearful that Grimm would either need to be euthanized, or he’d do something that would get him taken from me to the same inevitable end.

In short, I was able to turn things around, in no small part due to incorporating a new tool into this training: remote collars. Because of the type of training a quality e-collar allowed me to do, Grimm is now an old man who has a ton of freedom in the world.

But I do remember in those early days, when e-collars were perhaps even less-understood than they are today, getting plenty of judgmental comments from friends and family at the sight of Grimm wearing one.

One of them frustrated me to no end at the time, but I laugh about a lot today. It came from some distant uncle of mine that I don’t think I’d ever met before in my life, as he sank deeper into a recliner at my grandparents’ house.

“Those zap collars are so cruel, just shooting dogs up with electricity!”

Really, I couldn’t help but smirk a little just now while typing it out. I think “zap collar” is going to be the theme of this article.

What is a Zap Collar?

Had I not known better than to engage with an old man who’d already made up his mind, I’d have informed my uncle that there is no such thing as a “zap collar.”

What he was thinking about was “remote collars,” which encompasses a wide range of training tools that share a similar technology. This technology is essentially the same electrical stimulation used in TENS units for muscle stimulation therapy: electricity stimulates the muscle, causing an odd sensation on the skin and a contraction of the underlying muscle.

The degree of quality is a significant factor in how “zap collars” are defined. I talk about this in a lot of detail in my article, What is the Difference Between Shock Collars and eCollars? This article goes over the differences between various types of remote collars, but the abridged version is this:

If you order a remote collar off of amazon or pick one up from your local pet shop, chances are it is going to be a sub-par tool that we would typically call a “shock collar.” The levels on generic shock collars are usually fewer, with larger jumps, and less consistent outputs and connectivity. This makes usage of them really only “good” for aversive consequence, or corrections/punishers. And oftentimes, even the lowest level on these collars is much more than you would need to stop an unwanted behaviors, which can result in over-correcting.

For this reason we do NOT recommend generic shock collars. You can read more about our philosophy around corrections in dog training in my article, The Ten Commandments of Dog Training Corrections.

E-collars, however, are a totally different story. High-quality remote collars, like the ones from E-Collar Technologies that we use at Lugaru K9 Training, are made with better materials and have levels from zero to sometimes over 100, and those levels are very subtle changes in-between. This means that we can find a dog’s working level and work in a “whisper,” not just create aversive consequences.

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It was a remote collar that helped me take this little monster from wildly aggressive to being able to take off-leash walks at a beach with tons of people and dogs around.

Do Zap Collars Shoot Dogs Up With Electricity?

Not even the worst remote collars or “zap collars” will ever “shoot a dog up with electricity” like my uncle insisted. Even generic shock collars, which we would never recommend at Lugaru K9 Training, simply do not have the ability to electrocute a dog or “shoot them up with electricity.”

The stim on a remote collar, even the bad quality ones, is still for stimulating the muscle. Poor-quality remote collars will tend to give much higher-level stims and end up being uncomfortable at best for the dog, but in no way can a dog be physically injured by the electrical stimulation.

If a remote collar ever becomes warm to the touch, it should be discarded immediately. I have heard of generic-quality shock collars overheating (because, ehem, poor quality), but have not once seen this occur on an E-Collar Tech remote collar, ever. Quality makes a huge difference.

Dogs also can, however, develop hot spots or friction “burns” from leaving any collar on for a prolonged period of time, including “zap” collars. To avoid friction issues with any gear (not just remote collars) take your dog’s gear off overnight, in the crate, and take a moment a couple times a day to reposition and give their skin a quick check-in.

Are Zap collars bad for dogs?

This is, again, an issue of product quality and handler application.

A poor-quality generic shock collar? Bad.

A high-quality e-collar? Good.

A trainer that doesn’t know how to apply the tool? Bad.

An experienced trainer? Good.

A poor-quality shock collar is going to be potentially harmful in the hands of an inexperienced trainer, and will simply not be used by an experienced one.

A high-quality e-collar can also be harmful in the hands of an inexperienced trainer, or at least not utilized to its full potential. On the other hand, it can be the greatest tool you could ever invest in when put in the hands of someone who knows what they’re doing.

The remedy? Do your homework! We have a whole collection of articles here on the Lugaru blog detailing proper remote collar selection and use.

Do Dog “Zap” Collars Work?

With proper timing, even bad quality “shock collars” serve their purpose of applying a correction to an unwanted behavior.

The scientific name for this is “positive punishment,” and it refers to adding/applying something to reduce a behavior. When we apply a correction with a remote collar to a specific behavior, the behavior is reduced. Therefore, the tool “works.”

However, there is more nuance to it than that, and a bigger picture to look at. Understanding the dog’s mindset, advocating for them, rewarding what we want to see, and counter-conditioning to help with fear and discomfort are all pieces of the puzzle.

It’s no good to grab a cheap shock collar off of amazon and just start applying corrections left and right. Correcting unwanted behaviors should be one piece of a larger-scale approach to training any dog.

a brown short coated dog sitting on brown rock near body of water

Are zap collars illegal?

All remote collars (of any quality) are currently legal throughout all of the United States and most of Canada. Only the province of Quebec has any legislation around the use of remote collars for dogs.

There are some parts of Europe and Australia that have banned remote collars, such as Denmark, Sweden, and parts of the UK. Whether or not this is enforced I do not know. However, if it is, punishment varies from a chunky fine (most often) up to some jail time (usually no more than one year).

There are plenty of fringe groups that petition to ban all remote collars in the US and Canada based on the ignorance around them, but they tend to fail to gain traction because, at the end of the day, the tool itself is not a problem.

The same goes for a certain multi-billion dollar big box pet store seeking to ban all e-collars, regardless of quality; how delightful it would be for them and their dog training program sales if dog owners had fewer options, eh?

The thing is, these movements tend to be small, noisy, and quick to fade out. In my opinion, there is really no chance of all remote collars getting banned in the U.S. when some of our best dog trainers employ them in incredibly humane ways in their training programs, and have tons of resources on how pet dog owners can do so, as well.

Additionally, when the military, law enforcement, and federal agencies all utilize e-collars for their working dogs in some capacity, banning the tool is simply not ever going to be realistic.

There is unfortunately a lot of misinformation about remote collars out there, and I hope that I’ll be able to contribute in some way to showing what helpful and humane tools the quality e-collars can be. Though, of course, I understand the upset when it comes to poor-quality shock collars, which I would never recommend to anyone for the reasons mentioned earlier.

At the end of the day, though, lumping them together is an over-simplification that does dogs a disservice in the end.

When I remember what my uncle said that day seeing my well-behaved and happy little dog wearing his Dogtra remote collar, I realize how little information is out there to help dog owners bring out the best in their dogs.

And I really don’t judge my family member for his ignorance. Though I do hope he eventually figured out how to get his BYB Labrador to stop eating his drywall.

Author: Kimberlee Tolentino

Kimee has worked hands-on with dogs for over ten years, and today serves the role of head trainer and owner at Lugaru K9 Training in Port Orchard, Washington. Kimee has been a shelter volunteer, a dog walker, dog behavior intern, a dog trainer, and now specializes in behavior modification for pet dogs.