Get Outta My Face!

The following is a guest post by German dog trainer Clarissa v. Reinhardt of animal learn, translated from the German by Nadja Kutscher.
Many dog trainers now recommend citronella collars, which have become popular in numerous different styles. The collars, which allegedly send out a totally harmless little spritz of fragrance, have become even more popular ever since our TV dog nanny, Katja Geb-Mann, started to present them on German television every week, showing that no matter what the problem with a dog is, the simple use of the remote can solve it.

However, common sense tells us that something must be wrong when producers and users of the product claim that it’s „nothing.“ Really, it’s a bit strange that something the dog doesn’t care about at all is supposed to change instinctive, genetically programmed behaviors, like hunting. People are asked to try putting the collar on themselves while the trainer triggers the device … wow, it really isn’t bad at all! A little shhhh of damp, cold air—“Seriously,“ confirms the convinced dog owner, „it didn’t hurt a bit.“ But producers and trainers don’t tell people (either because they don’t know or because they fear losing profits) that sudden sounds that seem to come out of nowhere are scary to dogs.

Have you noticed how dogs turn around and around before finally lying down to go to sleep? This is an inherited behavior from earlier times when dogs always used to live outside. Before lying down in the grass, they turned around to see if it was safe, and if they heard a noise (like the shhhh of a snake), they could just jump aside to safety. Biologically, this makes sense—and we are now taking this noise that causes so much fear in them and producing it right under their chins! Plus, we even press the button a couple of times, which causes them not only fear but real panic—with no way to escape!

This fact alone is reason enough never to use this device on our beloved animal companions. However, there are even more problems with it.

Dogs never know when and why this is happening to them so they are always waiting for it to happen. If you want to know how that feels, just conduct the following experiment on yourself: Ask a member of your family or a friend to scare you to death—they could shout loudly or turn the stereo up suddenly when you’re not expecting it, like, for example, when you’re relaxing in your favorite armchair or playing cards with your friends—on a random schedule. The experiment should continue for at least a few hours or even days and you should get frightened several times without knowing when it’s going to be. You will soon realize that the actual fright is not as bad as the endless minutes that you’re dreading it. Even though you don’t want it to happen, you almost hope it won’t be too long before it does so that you can rest for a little while afterwards—which isn’t really the case because it could happen again a few minutes later, and then again—whatever your friend decides. Doesn’t sound too nice, does it?

Another big problem is the fact that dogs learn by associating things with other things. Let’s say that Fido wears the collar and gets the shhhh because he hasn’t reacted to several calls to come. You do this because you want to show him that he will be punished if he doesn’t obey. However, there’s a good chance that he might see a child, a runner, or another dog right at that very moment—whom he then connects to the punishment. Then you’ll have a dog who is still not reacting to your calls but is now afraid of or even aggressive toward the person or animal he saw. People have no clue why their dog doesn’t like kids anymore and barks at runners, which he didn’t do before.

I work with many of these cases in my dog school. Very recently, I met a male Rhodesian ridgeback whose collar was activated whenever he was about to go hunting. However, his female companion dog was always present on those outings too. His human companions didn’t come to see me because of the hunting but because the male dog seemed to avoid the female’s company. Whenever she entered the room or wanted to snuggle with him (as she frequently did), he anxiously left the room and nobody knew why. What had they done to these dogs! What kind of feelings had humans provoked in them? The dog had become afraid of his friend whom he used to love so much. She, on the other hand, just couldn’t understand why he avoided her now, when, in the past, they used to play and have fun together. And by the way, the trainer who recommended the collar now thought it was a good idea to give one of the dogs away because they had developed very differently and just didn’t get along anymore. She said that the male’s fears had to be attributed to the female’s very dominant character. I could cry when I meet dogs like these—or get very angry.

And it gets worse because, among dogs, nothing generalizes as quickly as the fear of noises. Many dogs develop a fear of noises after having had to wear a citronella collar. They are afraid of things they didn’t care about before, like the opening of a soda bottle, the noise of hot oil in a saucepan, banging sounds, and gunshots. The Rhodesian ridgeback I was talking about ran straight under my table when I opened my bottle of water. I didn’t do this because I was thirsty—sadly enough, this has become part of my standard procedures when getting to know and analyzing a new dog, to see if people have used a citronella collar on him or her before.
His human companion was really surprised when I told her straight away after the bottle trick that I knew a citronella collar had been used on him before. She hadn’t planned to tell me as she had heard that I don’t approve of those things. She was really shocked when I told her about her dog’s reaction to the bottle. And she was angry when I told her the reason why her dog was afraid of his companion and various noises now. She was mad at the trainer who didn’t tell her about the side effects of the collar but instead constantly told her how simple and harmless it was. I have to ask myself whether my colleagues using this device don’t know about the side effects or simply don’t tell people because nobody would allow them to be used otherwise. I don’t know which is worse.

Last, but not least, there are also technical problems with these collars. It has been reported that citronella collars can be triggered by other radio frequencies or even the remote control of another citronella collar close by. That means that a dog who is just standing there, playing or doing something else, can get the punishment. Of course, this causes the dog to expect it even more often and greatly increases the likelihood of a mistaken association.

Additionally, these collars don’t always work properly and can fail or be delayed by damp air (fog or rain). Plus, they don’t show you in advance when the batteries will run out, so you could be pressing the button without anything happening—which could have the effect of praising Rover for negative behavior (if he ever understood the punishment in the first place). The dog then learns that he just has to do something over and over again in order to succeed (i.e., not get punished by the collar).

So there’s really no doubt: Citronella collars are not harmless at all—they are, in fact, dangerous. Some dogs are so traumatized by them that they develop „learned helplessness,“ which causes them to hardly do anything because of the constant fear of punishment that seems to come out of nowhere. Rehabilitating these animals—and helping their desperate human companions—often requires long-term appropriate training in order to lead them out of their helplessness and free them of their fears.
Citronella collars are supposed to be a quick solution for all real and imagined „problems.“ But it’s just not that simple. Dogs are sensitive and intelligent beings who can’t be manipulated and whose ways of learning are very different from ours. I urge people to become informed and to research all methods recommended by trainers before trying them on their dogs. When in doubt, the best way to decide is by applying the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

© Clarissa v. Reinhardt
animal learn

P.S.: Hiermit lade ich alle Hundefreunde ein, bei der Verbreitung dieses Textes zu helfen. Ich erlaube als Autorin ausdrücklich, ihn (vollständig und unverändert und unter Nennung der Quelle) auf anderen Homepages zu veröffentlichen, auszudrucken und zu verteilen oder auf ihn hinzuweisen. Je mehr Menschen um die Tücken und Gefahren des Sprühhalsbandes wissen, je mehr Hunden bleibt dessen Anwendung – hoffentlich – erspart. Ein herzliches DANKE an jeden, der diesen Text weiter gibt.