The dangers of shake cans, “pet correctors” and other “distant” punishers
The supposed motivation was to teach the dog to back off from something when it heard the shake can which would then be used to dissuade the dog from lunging at other dogs when on the lead. No thought was given to the dog’s history or the underlying reason for the dog’s behaviour towards other dogs, The dog had in fact been bullied and traumatised repeatedly by other dogs and was using an aggressive display to try and ward them off.
Instead of taking this into account and drawing up a plan to desensitize and counter-condition the dog to the presence of other dogs (actually changing the underlying emotional response so that the dog felt better about other dogs and had no need to react with defensive behaviour) this “behaviourist” chose to simply try and suppress the behaviour through punishment. Because she did not hit or kick the dog, she furthermore claimed that what she was doing was not abusive.
The dog’s subsequent behaviour and the development of multiple phobias (all centred on sudden noises and objects landing near her) tells a very different story however. In fact this poor dog was so traumatised by what this “behaviourist” had done that when I offered her a treat, she took it, but then ran away and subsequently became terrified of me. The owner reminded me that this was the exact scenario in which the previous “behaviourist” had thrown the shake can at her and even though I was visiting 4 years later, the association was still just as strong.
In fact, the owner had a light-bulb moment, when she realised that while she had been trying to get people to feed her dog treats to build her trust in others, the offering of food had in this case made the poor dog feel terribly conflicted, because while she wanted to approach the person and take the food (which in a dog that had not been traumatised in this way would have created positive associations and improved her attitude towards people), she associated the situation with the shake can being thrown at her and so became fearful. This type of approach/avoidance conflict is incredibly stressful for dogs and can easily lead them into situations where they may bite to defend themselves.
This is just one case that clearly demonstrated the massive and permanent fallout from the use of shake cans and other distant punishers, but it is by no means the only one that I and my colleagues have dealt with and will continue to deal with on a regular basis while such “tools” are seen to be acceptable, by those who know no better, when it comes to modifying dog behaviour.
Sadly most vets now sell the “Pet Corrector” spray - compressed air in a can that makes a loud “ssht!” noise when activated. Manufacturers of these sorts of products encourage owners to spray their dogs with the device if they jump up at visitors or bark at other dogs. But one has to look at what the dog is actually learning from the use of such a device. The reality is that it is unlikely that the dog will associate his own behaviour with the unpleasant noise or the blast of air in his face. He will far more likely associate it with the visitors he is jumping at or the dogs he is barking at or the owner wielding the spray can. This means that he is associating something NEGATIVE and SCARY with people visiting the home or other dogs or his owner. When dogs are confronted with something they have negative associations with or are scared of, their fight/flight response is likely to be triggered. So this literally means that dogs may avoid (flight) or become aggressive towards (fight) people visiting the home, other dogs or the owner, in the examples that I have given.
And now there is a new device “Ssscat Animal repellent” - basically an automated pet corrector equipped with sensors which trigger the “sssht!” and squirt of air when the animal is within 1 metre of it. The idea is to set it up near the bin to stop your dog from scavenging in it or in the door of the baby’s room to stop the cat from going in there. Again, what are the practical implications? Well, it could easily happen that one of your dogs happens to go near the bin while another is passing by. The dog closest to the bin gets a huge fright (that is the purpose of the device, let’s be honest - otherwise it wouldn’t chase the dog away, which is the idea), but does it associate it with the bin or with the intention of scavenging in the bin (perhaps it just happened to be passing by quite innocently)? What about associating it with the presence of the other dog or your 2 year-old child that has just walked into the kitchen? How do you think that dog is going to feel about the other dog or your toddler after that? Who are you going to blame if your dog develops a fight/flight response when the other dog or toddler appears in the future? Let’s go back to the repellent set up in the baby’s room? What if you have a dog as well as a cat and he wanders near the baby’s room and gets a huge fright every-time he does so? How will he feel about the baby? I won’t even go into the likely reaction of the cat that is exposed to such a device (cats are flight animals and don’t stick around unpleasant things - the cat may simply leave home - permanently!).
Pet owners are often unfortunately impatient and want quick fixes. However, quick fixes are seldom lasting ones. They usually involve causing an aversive emotional state in an animal which can lead to far more severe and dangerous problem behaviours in the long run. A very good example of how dangerous it can be when negative associations are unintentionally created through punishment is the study that showed that 5 severe attacks on people by 5 different dogs (3 of them Golden Retrievers, a breed renowned for being “placid”) were a direct result of electronic boundaries used to prevent dogs from leaving the property in the absence of proper fencing (Polsky, R. 2000). These dogs had all triggered the shock collar by approaching the trip wire in an attempt to greet people walking past outside. They associated the shock they received with the presence of the people, their flight/fight system was triggered and they attacked.
While you might think that there is a huge difference between a shock and a spray of air or sudden noise, the fact is that they are all aversive stimuli designed to cause fear and avoidance. While the physical damage may be less in the case of the latter two, the psychological damage is the same. Please be aware of this before you reach for the latest “tool” on the market. Say NO to ALL aversive conditioning!
Polsky, R. 2000. Can aggression in dogs be elicited through the use of electronic pet containment systems? Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science 3, 345-358.
Distant punishers (aversive stimuli like shake cans, spray bottles, pet correctors and shock collars) that are intended to stop unwanted behaviour while being dissociated from the owner are often very popular with dog owners and unqualified trainers, because they are perceived as being more ethical and less damaging than having the owner directly punishing a dog by hitting, kicking or hanging him. However, this is a false and dangerous perception.
Recently I visited a client whose dog had developed various noise phobias which were starting to generalise to other things in the dog’s life, such as people or situations associated with the noises. It turned out that several years previously, the owner had (with the best intentions) consulted a self-proclaimed, but unqualified “behaviourist” who had thrown a shake can (tin with ball bearings in it) at the dog after offering the dog food.