Control Yourself: Don't Use Ultrasonic Bark Control Devices on Your Dog
Beware: Ultrasonic bark collars are neither humane, nor are they a solution to barking problems.
March 31, 2023
If you or someone you know has a dog who barks a lot, you may scour the Internet for a remedy. One option you might come across is the "Ultrasonic Bark Collar," a collar the dog wears that often comes with a remote control for the human.
When dog guardians hear barking (or, on some automatic models, whenever the collar detects barking), the collar releases a high-pitched sound inaudible to humans, but which supposedly annoys the dog enough to stop them from barking. Beware: these devices are neither humane, nor are they a solution to barking problems. Ultrasonic bark collars should never be used, as they are inhumane and ineffective. Instead, use positive reinforcement training to address the root cause in a way that empowers, rather than victimizes, your dog.
These collars are inhumane because they subject dogs to pain, they erode your relationship, and the anxiety they provoke can lead to perpetuation or escalation of undesirable behavior, causing a spiral. While "shock collars" are widely frowned upon – Petco loudly took those off their shelves in 2020 – "ultrasonic bark collars" are just a euphemistic rebranding of the same thing. Think about it: the only difference is the sensory system the device uses to deliver the shock. So-called "shock" collars deliver an electric current to the dog's skin (tactile system) whereas "ultrasonic collars," when activated, emit a piercing high-pitched sound audible to the dog's ears (auditory system.) This is still a form of pain. And just like the more old-fashioned technique of hitting an animal that misbehaves, inflicting this pain will affect the relationship on both sides. The structure of using a tool to hurt your dog in exchange for temporary and immediate compliance becomes the structure of your relationship – the dog is a victim and the human is an oppressor. The dog is treated more like a piece of defective machinery than a living being with needs and feelings. The dog can sense that the human is impatient and angry, but has no hope of understanding what's going on or why. Using the collar might force them to stop barking in the moment (up until they get habituated to it and stop reacting), but it doesn't explain to them what you want from them, and it doesn't provide an appropriate channel for the energy that caused them to bark in the first place. So that energy will get suppressed and then inevitably resurface in more harmful ways – it could even lead to aggressive behavior.
These devices belong to a category known as "aversives," tools that apply punishment to dogs in the hopes of deterring future behavior, and the problematic nature of aversives is well documented. In Gal Ziv's 2017 review "The Effects of Using Aversive Training Methods in Dogs," 17 studies on the matter were synthesized. The author concluded that "using punishment can be accompanied by a number of possible undesirable, negative, and potentially injurious (to the learner) effects, such as escape behavior, aggression, and apathy." Respected dog trainer Zak George noted in a 2022 video on the topic that at least two recent compilations of studies came to the verdict that "aversive methods are correlated with stress behaviors, elevated cortisol levels, and fear and aggression within dogs." Is the singular "benefit" of ultrasonic collars – immediate and temporary compliance – worth a lifetime of stress and distrust, and all the potential for more dangerous behavioral problems that come with that?
Moreover, ultrasonic collars are ineffective because they treat a natural behavior as transgressive, because they address a symptom rather than its cause, and because the long-term welfare concerns also have negative impacts on dog behavior. Jessica Pierce, PhD, interviewed professional dog trainer Rain Jordan regarding ultrasonic collars and their effect on barking. In a 2020 Psychology Today article, Pierce writes: "When normal behavior is discouraged and suppressed, you 'risk either learned helplessness, on the one hand, or aggression without warning on the other.' Dogs wearing e-collars don't necessarily understand why they are being punished, and even if they do know why, they eventually habituate to the punishment and the 'problem' behavior returns." Some barking is a normal part of being a dog – it's natural and healthy for dogs to bark under certain circumstances, such as when they experience alarm or excitement. To suppress that behavior is to tell the dog they aren't allowed to be a dog or express their experience of the world in a natural way – but, again, that energy will go somewhere. Some dogs subjected to e-collars channel the suppressed energy into different negative behaviors such as aggression; other dogs become fearful and depressed; still others simply assume getting shocked is part of barking and resume the undesired behavior. When the collar ceases to produce results due to such habituation, frustrated guardians might escalate to higher levels of physical abuse seeking the initial instant compliance of early use, mirroring a drug user's escalation in searching for that first-time high. If your dog is barking to an abnormal degree, there's certainly an underlying cause. Addressing that problem will solve the barking in a more permanent and holistic, not to mention more humane, fashion. Perhaps the dog isn't getting enough social stimulation or exercise, or maybe the dog is suffering from clinical anxiety, or has some physical problem that compromises their ability to keep calm. Take your dog to a vet and consult a positive-style trainer to see what you can do to provide the life your dog deserves, and the inappropriate barking should diminish considerably. Use positive reinforcement training to help your dog build self-esteem as well as an understanding of what you want from them – in this case, to calm down and stop barking – and how they can read your signals.
Rather than resorting to abusive and clunky gimmicks, dog guardians will see better results from positive reinforcement training: using rewards such as treats, play, affection, and praise to indicate your approval of a desired behavior, and simply ignoring the undesired behavior. In the case of undesired barking, it could also involve distracting the dog from whatever is causing them to bark by giving them a command they've already learned, such as "sit." This will often help them calm down by giving them something else to focus on, and then once they comply, you offer them a reward. Sure, you might see immediate results from electronic collars, whereas positive reinforcement training takes more time and effort. But ultimately, any so-called "results" you see from e-collars and other aversives are extremely temporary – like putting a band-aid on a cracked dam – and they come at too great a cost: you sacrifice your dog's mental health and their trusting relationship with you. Dr. Alexandra Horowitz, Senior Research Fellow and Head of the Dog Cognition Lab at Barnard College, Columbia University, said it best: "To train a dog using positive reinforcement is to respect their dignity and worth as more than a possession obtained for personal satisfaction. If you want to build bonds with dogs, you must always choose a relationship built on positive reinforcement over one predicated on punishment, shame, or fear." The effort required for positive reinforcement training is the effort required in order to truly be a dog guardian – it is the form of partnership between dogs and humans that has withstood the test of time, and the foundation that all positive and healthy relationships rely upon. Think of it as a fun way to learn and bond with your dog, and build their self-esteem and problem-solving skills, which will make them a better life partner for you.
Let's call it like it is – "Ultrasonic Bark Collars" are not "Humane Bark Control," they are merely shock collars rebranded, working on a different sensory system to deliver a "shock" that causes immediate results at the expense of long-term health for the dog and their relationship with their guardian, not to mention failing to teach the dog anything and instigating other behavioral problems. As animal lovers, it is our responsibility to demand that the pet industry stop selling these abusive devices under whitewashed labels. Meanwhile, needless to say, not only should we refrain from using these devices on our own dogs, but we also need to spread the word to other dog lovers to do the same. Together, we can build the culture we want to see – a culture where shortcut-free dog stewardship and positive reinforcement training are seen as a pleasure and an honor shared by all human-canine partnerships.