Updated: May 4
When your dog keeps barking when left alone so much that the neighbors are complaining, the landlord is threatening eviction, and/or the police are visiting and warning there will be a citation issued on the next visit, it’s an emergency situation. When an owner needs their dog to stop barking immediately, understandably they may resort to using either an electronic or citronella bark collar. After all, the manufacturers of these products advertise that they work well and they work fast, and it would seem to be an easy fix.
Do dog bark collars really work?
Advocates of these types of collars often defend their use saying they aren’t physically painful for the dog. And that may well be true, but the fact of the matter is that they present an unpleasantness for the dog that causes the dog to stop vocalizations in order to avoid activating the collar.
And just because something isn’t physically painful doesn’t mean it’s humane. If every time I started to talk someone sprayed me in the face with water, it would stop me from talking because I wanted to avoid the unpleasantness. It would still be aversive to me, even if it wasn’t physically painful. It would also be frustrating, annoying and stressful. It would cause me to be afraid to make any noise at all and shut down.
But there are bigger problems with these types of collars. For some dogs they don’t work. Some dogs get enough reinforcement from barking that they’re willing to bark any way and take the punishment. And if you have more than one dog, your collar, depending on the design, may trigger with any barking in the environment – unjustly punishing the dog who wasn’t barking.
Are electric collars good for dogs?
A huge concern is that bark collars address the symptom, but not the cause. Dogs bark for a variety of reasons: excitement, to deter trespassers to their territory (including the Amazon delivery person), reacting to stimulation from noise or something they see out the window, because of stress, or fear and anxiety. If you remove the barking but the underlying trigger still exists, you may see your dog develop a new, just as undesirable behavior as an outlet for the frustration, fear or stress causing the vocalizations. Some dogs might get destructive, scratch at molding around windows and doors, eliminate in the house, or excessively groom to the point of self-harm.
Another problem with using a bark collar is that it can create other issues that didn't exist prior to use. Remember that the reason bark collars work is that it causes some kind of unpleasantness that the dog wants to avoid. While the hope is that the dog may associate barking with the unpleasantness, the dog could also associate something else in the environment with the discomfort.
So if the dog barks every day out in the yard when neighbor kids are coming home from school, and therefore activates the bark collar, the dog could associate the neighbor kids with feeling discomfort. Over time the dog starts to dislike the neighbor kids and doesn't want them coming near him.
Now you might not be close to your neighbors and don't really care whether your dog likes their kids or not. But what happens if one day the kids stick through hands through the fence to pet your dog, or your dog gets loose and wanders over into their yard? And what if your dog doesn't just make the association with those particular kids, but with all kids?
And I'm just using kids as an example. We really don't know what association could occur when the dog barks and gets the consequence produced by their bark collar. A negative association could develop with just about anything, including their environment. I know several people with dogs who refused to go into the yard to eliminate after they installed an electronic pet fence.
Using punishment with a dog who is anxious may work in the short term to eliminate barking and howling, but it does nothing to teach the dog that being alone is safe, and most likely will make the dog’s anxiety worse. Additionally, as I mentioned above, a dog who is anxious is very likely to escalate other behaviors as an outlet for that anxiety.
Although we think of barking as being a single behavior, in reality how trainers work with it will depend on context. Is the dog barking out of excitement – such as when their family returns home? Is the dog barking at strangers outside? Barking out the window at the neighbor’s walking their dog past the house? Because a driver from Amazon is on your property to make a delivery? Or are they barking because they are afraid of something?
No matter why your dog is barking, it’s a good idea to engage a professional dog trainer to assess your dog, determine why the barking is happening, and develop a training plan to help your dog stop barking excessively. In the meantime you can use management to reduce the barking by making changes to your dog's environment.
Since my clients are primarily those whose dogs suffer from separation anxiety, I’m particularly concerned about the use of bark collars. A neighbor complaining about a dog barking all day is certainly something that would be considered an emergency that needs to be taken care of. But we also know that non stop barking and howling when the owner is absent is one of the symptoms of separation anxiety.
If you think your dog is barking because of separation anxiety, suspend your absences and hire a certified separation anxiety dog trainer to help you with your dog. I take clients from anywhere in the USA via remote consultations, and I would love to work with you!