Shock Collars are so NOT like T.E.N.S.

I had a more practical blog lined up.  Humor me, as we look at one more expression.  This one keeps coming across my news feed and it’s interesting.  Some trainers claim that, “Shock collars are like T.E.N.S. machines.”

I have used a T.E.N.S. machine many times under the guidance of various therapists.  For those unfamiliar with this treatment, mild electric current flows to pads secured to the patient’s skin.  It causes muscles to contract.  Dr. Ho’s Pain Therapy System seen on infomercials is a T.E.N.S. machine.

Here is one of the machines that I use on a regular basis.  At the bottom are two dials for “intensity.”  There are two intensity dials because the machine regulates the left and right pads separately.


Comfort levels change between individuals.  They also change from moment to moment for the same person.  Intensity levels vary from one area of the body to another, hence the two dials.  There is no “consistent” setting.

If you asked a patient using a T.E.N.S. “Are you okay?” the answer should be “Yes.”  Discomfort results in a reduction in intensity.  If asked, “Do you want me to turn it off?” the answer should be, “No.”  Stimulation should be neutral or pleasant.

With shock collars, it is this underlying premise that is fundamentally different.  Bark collars shock dogs to suppress barking.  Barking reduces because the dog does not like the shock.  If the shock were neutral, nothing would change.  If it were pleasurable like a T.E.N.S. machine, barking would increase.  Barking would increase because the dog would be learning that barking leads to massages.

The same goes for electronic training collars used as negative reinforcement.  Negative reinforcement is like the game “Uncle.”  Children pinch one another.  They keep pinching until the other child says, “Uncle.”  The behaviour of saying uncle leads to cessation of pinching or relief.  Similarly, dogs turn the shock off by obeying a command.  Reinforcement is the cessation of the electronic stimulation – relief.  Dogs that respond quickly can “beat the buzzer”, avoiding shock altogether.

“Pleasant” shock, under the level of aversiveness wouldn’t be effective here either.  Ask a dog, “Do you want the electrical current to stop?”  The answer needs to be, “yes” or the collar will not work as designed.

Both may involve electrical current but the intensity is on a gradient.  Many things are on gradients.  Music is nice, unless it is too loud.  Massage feels good, unless Olga the Horrible is hurting you.  (My apologies to anyone named Olga.  Olga was the name of the massage therapist who hurt me.)  Light helps us see unless it is glaring.  Flowers smell pretty unless it is an overdose of noxious perfume.  Cool water makes a refreshing swim.  Cold water is icy and painful.  Food is usually fabulous, unless you have eaten excessively and feel nauseated.

No one thing fits neatly into a naughty or nice category.  Dogs decide what they find pleasant, neutral and aversive.  We infer how the dog feels by observing their change in behaviour.

I would have gladly paid Olga the Horrible to stop the massage.  Massage therapist Mike was different.  He had magic hands.  I would pay money for longer massages.  Olga’s massages were aversive.  Brad’s were appetitive.  I was not screaming and thrashing in pain with Olga.  I just wanted it to stop and it changed my behaviour.  Contrary to popular belief, it’s not the dog’s attitude that will tell you if the training is aversive.  It is the dog’s responses.

There is a second key difference between these two devices.  Shock collars are training.  With T.E.N.S., the goal is long-term if not permanent pain elimination.  It is not a teaching tool.

Olga may have been brutal, but her intent was to offer long-term relief.  Magic Hands Mike offered the same goal under threshold.  Suzy who does scalp massages at the hair salon….she just gives nice feeling massages.  Training cannot be compared to these scenarios.

In training, the trainer creates the plan with the goal of creating a change in behaviour.  We determine which behaviour we want to teach.  Therapies for pain relief have no skills development.  Olga never taught me to dance a jig in return for pain relief.  She did not use my discomfort as a tool.

I never went back to Olga.  I had the choice to leave.  More importantly, I had a choice to never return.  I could refuse to participate.  Our dogs do not have that choice during training because repetition is part of the gig.  Once the aversive ceases, the aversive is back in play for more training.  We can’t see all the differences unless we look at the specifics of how each of these work.

Olga vs Mike

If you are ready to jump in and say, “You don’t need batteries to use aversives,” then you won’t get any argument from me.  There are many forms of aversives in dog training.  Some are easier to swallow than others.  You do not need batteries to use aversives.

But, let me broaden the statement.  Using aversives in dog training is not the same as using a T.E.N.S. machine.  It’s not even close.  It does not matter if the aversive is added to the dog, the dog is added to an aversive scenario or whether we use a dog’s discomfort for our training purposes.  Using the aversive is trainer’s choice.  If the dog is put into a position where they want to leave, they have been put between a rock and a hard place.  It’s not free will.  The trainer has free will.

Training paradigms are not the same as T.E.N.S. machines.  In dog training, the choices to use an aversive are ours and ours alone.

Do shock collars hurt? It’s the amps not the volts.

I have read a lot of social media posts lately on the topic of shock collars.  Specifically, proponents claim that:

Modern shock collars do not cause pain.  It is a mild tingle, a tickle.  It is very much like a tens machine used by physiotherapists to heal people.  Like the wee little pop of carpet static, the reaction is startle and not pain.  This idea is substantiated with statistics.  Bark collars, at 0.0003 joules are far gentler than an abdominal energizer – coming in at 0.914 joules of energy.

Here’s the problem with joules and volts.  You can’t say, “This amount of shock will kill you.”  It’s complicated.

For example, consider the follow three people who were shocked:

A  Construction worker wearing insulated boots touches household wire feels a mild tingle.
B  Homeowner standing barefoot on a wet bathroom floor touches household wire dies.
C  Child is shocked with 20,000 volts and giggles.  (Carpet static…it can kill you.)

Thankfully, carpet static doesn’t kill people because the duration is too short and most of the charge dissipates through the air before it reaches you.  Make no mistake, it is powerful.  Much lower voltage can be more dangerous.  There are some generally accepted levels, in amps, from Georgia University, and it includes information on the physiological effects at different levels – such as can’t let go effect, and serious health concerns.

The construction worker had protection in the form of insulating boots.  Unlike the homeowner with wet bare feet, who was a serious accident waiting to happen.  And yet the volts on those two were the same.

That’s what makes this whole shock collar debate interesting and complex.  Knowing whether shock hurts is a challenging question. How is shock pain measured?

Researchers involved in pain studies use amps.  So I went back to lessons from high school to try to sort through the confusion.  I can remember the teacher saying:

 “It’s the AMPS that kill.  It’s the AMPS that hurt.”

Amps are calculated using Ohm’s Law.  Amps = Volts / Resistance

Think of electricity like a water hose.  Volts are your water pressure.  Resistance is the dirt that’s gotten clogged in the hose.  It will slow down pressure. So will holes in the hose that let water escape.  Amps is the “oomph” you have at the end of the hose when all is said and done. There is a profound difference between the dribble of a clogged garden hose and the gush of a fire hose putting out a fire.  The blast from a pressure washer has got to sting, but I’m not about to volunteer to try that out.  Really, it doesn’t matter how much water is going in the hose.  It’s about how much oomph is coming out.

That’s what Ohm’s law is about. You have power going into a wire.  Maybe some dissipates into the air.  Maybe there is some resistance, something getting in the way of the current like skin or hair.  Maybe the wire is high quality and really lets that current flow strong.  These impact the amount of amperage.

If you have all the information, the voltage, the way the product is made and the resistance, then you could do math calculations.  That’s a bit tricky and presumes that the information is readily available.

Or, you can look it up.

How many amps hurt?  Amperage, at this level is usually written in milliamps, or one thousandth of an amp.  Researchers involved in pain research, often use shock to cause pain.  For example, they shock subjects and measure how much pain the individual can handle.  Then, they might give pain medications, re-shocking the individual to see if the drugs were effective.  The following is a list of pain thresholds taken from a sampling of pain studies.

Painful would mean, “It hurts.”  Threshold means, “The subject absolutely cannot take anymore.”

Sensation Level in Milliamps (mA)
Painful 0.15 – 2.0
Threshold (can’t take anymore) Study 1 0.5
Threshold (can’t take anymore) Study 2 0.90 – 7.35
Animal tail twitch studies 0.2 – 0.8

Why do we have pain thresholds for animals?  Pain medications are tested on animals.  So researchers need to know how much pain an animal will tolerate.  These are tail twitch studies.

How many amps do shock collars deliver?  It’s a tough number to find, but a few retailers and pro-shock education sites do offer numbers..

Source Level in Miliamps (mA)
Christiansen Study 400
Shalke Study 800 – 1250
Website sales site 20
Shock collar education site 7 to 40-80

Shock collar proponents state that modern electronic training systems are gentler than older versions.  Christiansen and Shalke are older studies. I’ll concede that point and remove them.  How do shock collars stack up against the pain research numbers in a graph, using milliamps?

shock collar chart

Do shock collars hurt?  It’s a complex question.

Where amps are concerned, all I can do is work with the numbers that are publicly available.  I can chart the numbers from pain studies.  “This many amps hurt.”  I can look up the number of amps in shock collars and chart them.  Then I can look up other devices that are often compared to shock collars.

Let the numbers do the talking.  Of course, I’m always open to more data.  Heck, I’ll even wear one.  But for now, these are the numbers.  If 2 milliamps can pain during a study, then how can 7, 20, 40 or 80 feel like a tickle?  What do the numbers say to you?

Update:  June 11, 2013
Radio systems references the amps on “modern” training collars.  It directs people to a study that claims that the collars run from 30 to 80 mA.  These numbers are from a report, direct from the manufacturer.  (Page 3)  Another section of the same report, references 100 mA.  As with all the other shock collar data, taken from a pro-shock reference.

Update:  July 3, 2013
I welcome additional statistics, and have openly stated I would like to see data from the shock collar trainers and sales reps that have commented.  Some said they were contacting the company directly.  See below in the comments.  Nothing yet and not surprised.  Still open to getting the full range of amps on collars under a variety of conditions. Dry, wet, salt water.