The Side Effects of Shock Collars: Facts and Fiction

shock collar myths

A lot of dog owners are, understandably, cautious about e-collars and their less-favorable cousins, shock collars. There is a lot of nuance to using e-collars well. There’s also a lot of rumors about e-collar training, mostly by trainers that have never touched one or assume that all electronic collars (and all training done with them) are exactly the same.

This lack of nuance, context, and understanding often leads to unfortunate outcomes such as owners picking a shock collar when they should invest in an e-collar, using the tool inappropriately, and not knowing what to do with a training collar when they actually have one. It can also lead to owners foregoing a training tool that could genuinely help their dog in a number of ways from eliminating unwanted or dangerous behaviors to improving overall quality of life.

For a little more understanding on how we define a “shock collar” and an “e-collar,” check out my article, What is the Difference Between Shock Collars and eCollars?

The truth is that both shock collars and e-collars have side effects, based on how they are used and the quality of the equipment itself. These side effects can be negative, positive, or both, depending on the context. And some of the perpetuated misconceptions really are just that: myths.

In this article, I’ll address common rumors, myths, and truths about e-collars and shock collars, with all the nuance intact. As someone who uses the former and condemns the latter, context matters!

What are the side effects of using a shock collar on a dog?

There certainly are side effects of using electronic collars on a dog, though often they lack context and are highly inflated.

Many of the perpetuated misconceptions surrounding side effects of shock collars (and even e-collars, as they are often lumped together) are not rooted in any sort of truth. I’ve heard a wild range of myths about e-collars, including the idea that they can cause:

  • Heart problems
  • Physical pain
  • Stress
  • Aggression
  • Burns
  • Psychological damage
  • Hotspots
  • Abrasion or wounds

Some of these are entirely off the mark. Others are misleading partial-truths that engage with a worst-case scenario following neglect or severe misuse.

Meaning, technically an e-collar can cause some of these effects, but should not under proper use. When people talk about e-collars, they often do not extend the tool the same grace they give other tools of assuming the tool will be used properly.

Comparatively, for example, you could say that dog harnesses can cause hotspots, abrasions, postural problems, wounds and sores, lower trachea damage, and long-term pain. Under proper use, we would hope this would not be the case; but by assuming a harness will be misused or that the harness in question is of abhorrent quality, all of these are real side effects of dog harnesses.

You see how these claims can be misleading?

photo of black and tan dog

When using a quality e-collar under guidance of an experienced trainer, you will receive instruction on how to use the tool in a way that minimizes or eliminates the risk of side effects. There are even many online guides, such as those on our website, and video tutorials to demonstrate proper use; never in the history of dog training has there been so much knowledge available, entirely free to consume.

For example, an experienced trainer will remind you to rotate your e-collar receiver on your dog’s neck if they are going to wear it for more than a few hours; this reduces or eliminates the occurrence of hotspots or irritation.

A trainer will also make sure you are removing your dog’s e-collar at night, which eliminates the risk of irritation, abrasion, or wounds developing at the site of the contact points. These only develop under neglectful circumstances or with dogs with extremely sensitive skin; your trainer can help you pivot if your dog has an adverse skin reaction, which is rare. In dogs with extreme skin sensitivity, skin problems can occur with not only shock collars or e-collars, but with regular flat collars, harnesses, head haltis, and any other tool that sits on the skin.

And all professional trainers who employ the use of any electronic collar will advise you to invest in a high-quality unit such as the ones we use from E-Collar Technologies. These contrast from potentially sketchy generic shock collars for their durability, sensitivity, and consistent levels.

In this article, I will address the most common rumored side effects of shock collars and e-collars, and provide a guide to each with context intact. To jump to a specific side effect, see the following contents:

Do shock collars hurt the dog?

“Shock collars” are designed to create an uncomfortable sensation which, with proper timing, deters and reduces an associated unwanted behavior. At low levels, this sensation is not a painful feeling, but can very quickly become painful if levels are bumped up very high.

This is why we recommend a quality e-collar with a proper conditioning phase; we want to use levels that do not cause any hurt, as much as possible.

In the higher-quality e-collar, the tool is designed to be soft, and does not specifically have to be used in an aversive manner. In e-collar training, the dog is most frequently worked at the lowest level they feel, also called the “working level.” At the working level, the e-collar is used for communication, not correction.

You can read more about the working level in our how-to guide: How to Find Your Dog’s E-Collar Working Level

Even on a high-quality e-collar, however, i’s true that the collar can be used to create uncomfortable, unpleasant, or possibly even painful sensations. This is at very high levels, and is not typical use for the tool, but technically speaking it is possible.

These higher levels are applied in order to reduce unwanted behaviors. At Lugaru K9 Training, our method is to scale the level with the severity or urgency of the behavior. For behaviors like aggression, where the behavior is a danger to the dogs and those around the dog, we sometimes use higher levels like this, but for most other e-collar training, everything is light and ideally fun for the dog.

Do shock collars burn?

Under normal conditions, an e-collar should never burn a dog. A properly-functioning electronic collar, even generic lower-quality ones, are not going to burn the dog with the stim or “shock.” The technology in the e-collar is an electric muscle stimulation, which does not produce heat and does not burn the skin.

There are, however, instances of very low-quality generic shock collars malfunctioning or becoming hot during use. Think of this similarly to a laptop becoming warm when working too hard. In these situations, the dog could be burned or experience undue discomfort from prolonged contact with the heat of the unit, though this is rare even with “shock collars” of poor quality.

This is why we, and essentially all other e-collar trainers, do not support the use of the “cheap” versions of e-collar technology. We always advise dog owners considering a shock collar to spend just a little more for the gold-standard of E-Collar Technologies, Dogtra, or the like. A high-quality e-collar unit will have a number of advantages over their potentially-harmful counterparts, one of which is the eliminated risk of malfunctioning and running too hot for your dog.

Do shock collars cause hotspots?

Like any other tool that your dog wears on their body, remote collars do have the ability to cause hotspots. This is because the collar is meant to sit snug on the dog, and prolonged contact could irritate dogs with sensitive skin.

This, however, is not true only of e-collars. Harnesses, flat collars, slip leads, and even clothing and bedding can create hotspots on a dog. Some dogs simply have sensitive skin and can develop hotspots from skin-to-skin contact of their own body, such as in wrinkles or the groin area.

This is why a good trainer will always advise the dog owner to regularly rotate their dog’s remote collar to a new spot on the neck every few hours, and monitor your dog’s skin in case there are any signs of irritation.

If there is any irritation, it’s always advised to take measures to fix the issue. This might look like letting your dog rest by taking a break from wearing the collar, using a soothing balm on the sensitive spot, or in extreme cases discontinuing use.

My own personal dog, Milo, tends to have sensitive skin. Since before I adopted him, he’s been prone to rashes and hair loss. Every once in a while his skin will act up from wearing his e-collar too long. It also sometimes acts up for regular flat collars — go figure. I check him regularly, give him breaks as needed, and have skin balm around that I can use if necessary.

Extremes outside this type of scenario are just that: extreme. It’s very rare for a dog to have severe issues with wearing an e-collar, and it’s almost never exclusive to e-collars for the dogs that do.

close up photo of a black doberman

Do shock collars affect a dog’s heart?

There’s this really strange rumor going around that use of a shock collar can cause cardiac fibrillation or other heart issues. Unlike some other myths that are at least partially rooted in truths, this one really is simply a full miss.

There is just no possible way that a remote collar could affect a healthy dog’s heart in any way; it simply doesn’t have the technology to. Remote collars — even low-quality shock collars — use a muscle stimulation, which in no way could reach the heart, much less cause heart problems.

Remember that e-collars are very similar technology to TENS therapy, and muscle stimulation certainly isn’t causing heart problems for people going through therapy. The only situation in which the electric muscle stimulation used in TENS units and e-collars could cause problems for the heart of the user is if the heart has an electric device that aids in its function, such as a pacemaker or an infusion pump. So unless your dog is on a puppy pacemaker, their heart should not be negatively affected in any way. See this article on TENS therapy for more.

I do think, genuinely, if electronic collars could affect the hearts of healthy dogs, they wouldn’t be used by the many reputable trainers who employ them. And certainly, we’d be hearing of specific instances of this happening by now rather than vague claims by sketchy organizations, wouldn’t we?

Rest assured, your e-collar is not hurting your dog’s heart.

Do shock collars cause aggression?

This is one of those rumors that really isn’t true, but I suppose could be under some really unfortunate circumstances. Remember what I said about context, and nuance?

Take this example: A person is trying to teach a dog to sit, using only a poor-quality shock collar. Every time the dog doesn’t sit, they yell and stim the dog at an uncomfortable level. This causes confusion; the dog doesn’t know what you’re asking of them, they only know this whole thing sucks. They start to associate you with the shock because that’s all you give them, and for no apparent reason — after all, you say some random sound they don’t know and then they get a shock. That’s confusing, and after it happens enough times, it’s scary. You’re scary.

This dog could become aggressive.

Here’s another example: someone has a reactive dog; perhaps they are insecure, and are fight-happy with other dogs because of it. That person brings home an e-collar, and does the conditioning process we detail in our article, How to Condition an E-collar or Remote Collar. Now, the dog knows that the collar means they are doing fun stuff, they are getting rewarded for the right things, and they understand how the collar pressure works. The owner takes that dog for a walk, and across the street sees that their neighbor is walking their dog. Your dog suddenly bristles at the sight of them, and right at that moment the person hits the stim at a level that’s slightly uncomfortable — enough to interrupt the dog, but not enough to cause a big reaction. The dog breaks focus on the other dog for a second, and the dog owner chimes in: YES! GOOD! They give your dog a big reward. Your dog has made the first step in their journey to eliminating this pattern of dog aggression.

You can see how these two approaches are drastically different, and have drastically different results? Confusing and blasting a dog on an e-collar is not proper training, and can absolutely create aggression in those circumstances. But that’s not normal use, and certainly not how any reputable trainer would instruct their clients on how to use the collar, even for correction.

We talk about proper use of corrections — not just those from e-collars — in the article, The Ten Commandments of Dog Training Corrections. Not correcting a confused dog is critically important.

So, technically speaking, shock collars can cause aggression if used abhorrently poorly. Under proper use, however, they can have the opposite effect, and we have used them countless times to rehabilitate dogs with aggression and reactivity issues.

Do shock collars affect a dog’s brain?

Shock collars do affect a dog’s brain; and they can affect a dog’s brain in different ways depending on the type of training done with them. This is because a dog’s brain changes with behavioral training — something that, at least in humans, we call neuroplasticity.

When we use operant conditioning (the application of reinforcers and punishers in response to choices) with remote collars, we definitely are altering a dog’s brain; in the case of a quality balanced trainer, this change is usually for the better. For example, a dog’s brain changes when they gain confidence, learn consequences for dangerous behaviors, get rewards for the desired alternative, and start to make new choices based on that training.

However, like the examples in the case of potentially causing aggression, how the tool is applied is important to the outcome. Going in and over-correcting, correcting without use of reward, or correcting a confused dog, can certainly impact a dog negatively, as well.

This just means to do your research when setting out to e-collar train your dog, as you want to make sure you are bettering life for you and your dog, not causing them undue stress or harm.

siberian husky with its tongue out

Do shock collars change dogs personality?

Personality is a somewhat subjective idea, so I’ll share my perspective as a professional dog trainer: shock collars do not change a dog’s personality, nor does training in general.

Many dog owners think their dogs will come back from training — especially highly effective behavioral training from balanced methods — and act like robots. Sit, down, place, roll over, beep brrp.

This isn’t the case. Your dog might be responsive, obedient, effective, have better impulse control, and have more practice self-regulating their own excitement or fear. But they will still have the same nuances that give them what we call personality, the things that make them them.

Too often we attribute undesirable and dangerous behaviors as “personality.” Excessive barking, aggression, poor leash manners, and more are often attributed to spunk or character when they are actually a side effect of a dog’s distress or neuroticism.

When we address these behaviors and fix the underlying issues, these “quirks” diminish or sometimes disappear; in that way, training can take away bits of what dog owners have anxiously attached to the concept of their dog’s personality.

But e-collar training does not take away the pieces of a dog’s personality that you want to stick around. A well-trained dog will still be goofy when it’s appropriate to be goofy, enjoy the same games, and remain just as affectionate towards humans and animals they’ve bonded with.

Do shock collars traumatize dogs?

I think, so far, we’ve established that proper e-collar training looks different compared to severe misuse of a shock collar. In many of these myths and half-truths, the worst-case scenario is treated as the norm, which is not true of any training tool.

Shock collars do not traumatize dogs, because a shock collar on its own does nothing; it is the application and methods used with the tool that makes a difference.

Quality e-collars can be properly conditioned and used at levels appropriate for the situation. They can, like any other training tool, also be horribly misused.

In extreme examples, poor training using shock collars can be traumatic to dogs. On the other hand, proper e-collar training has helped countless dogs overcome serious behavior problems and the underlying issues causing them.

So, when it comes to pursuing training with the use of an electronic collar, understanding the difference and knowing how to use the tool properly makes all the difference for both you and your dog.

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.