Cool Hand Luke and the Shock Collar

The captain of the road prison from Cool Hand Luke

Now what we have here is…

I don’t know if there has ever been an entire college psychology course devoted to the movie Cool Hand Luke, but there should be. Besides being one of my all time favorite movies, it has a lot to teach about life. “Now what we have here is… failure to communicate.” is a famous quote from that movie and is delivered when the Captain of the road prison is addressing the chain gang after another attempt to beat Luke into submission.

That quote sprang to mind last night while participating in DogTalk, a Twitter discussion group that takes place on Monday nights via the hash tag #dogtalk. Last night’s topic was “Ouch – Never Shock A Puppy” and dealt with a campaign being run by to help raise awareness and funds to educate dog owners about alternatives to using shock and other potentially harmful collars.

We were discussing some of the reasons that people use shock collars and one of the themes that popping up was another oft used quotation (which is an amalgamation of quotes from Proverbs and not a true quote), “Spare the rod and spoil the child.” It is a quote that I have run into often when discussing training with users of shock collars and other punishment based methods. Whether or not punishment should be a part of child rearing is a debate for another time and place, but as it relates to training an animal there is one huge difference in the application of this method; humans have the capacity to understand why they are being punished, animals do not.

A major drawback to using shock collars (besides the fact that they can be more than slightly unpleasant to the dog) is the possibility of incorrect associations. For example, suppose that you are trying to teach your dog not to dig in your flowerbed. Your dog is in the back yard and you are there with radio control in hand, just as you are about to administer a correction for digging a toddler wanders into your dogs line of sight and you correct him just as he starts to dig. What does the dog associate with the shock, the digging or the child? How can you explain to him that the child was just a coincidence?

I know that some of you will say that subsequent corrections without the child being present will lead to the correct association, but consider this. I once got very sick after eating some canned green beans. I like green beans but to this day I experience a tiny bit of nausea when I smell them. My mind has forever created an association with green beans and the punishment of being sick. I am able to rationalize that I will not be sick every time I eat green beans, but anytime I smell them the association is triggered subconsciously.

Recall in your mind all the times that you may have been punished in your life. Now imagine that you were never given any explanation as to why you were being punished and ask yourself this question: What would I have learned from each experience if I were never told why what I did was wrong?

Using shock collars amounts to a failure of both communication and imagination on our part. As Luke said to one of the bosses, “Calling it your job don’t make it right.” No matter what we are trying to teach our dogs, there are many ways that are more communicative and imaginative, and less destructive to our relationship with our dogs than using shock collars.

This post was written in collaboration with the Never Shock A Puppy Campaign. Inspired by Be The Change the campaign is raising money for an approved shelter. You can make a donation and know that your money is going to an actual shelter doing actual rescue work.