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Pandas & Puppies

January 7, 2015

You may have seen news coverage of Bao Bao's refusal to come down from a tree after she was shocked by the enclosure's electric barrier at the National Zoo. You can read an official version of the story here. According to her zookeepers, the panda cub had a "normal" reaction to accidentally making contact with the electrified wire and receiving a "gentle shock." Bao Bao's terrified reaction was to climb a tree (a "safe" place where pandas go when they feel threatened), where she remained overnight and the next day - more than 24 hours.

 

I followed this story as it unfolded and kept abreast of news coverage. The rationale, phrases and language used by zookeepers and the media was eerily familiar. I'd heard these things countless times with regard to dogs and underground "invisible" fences. As a media consumer, it seemed easy to believe that Bao Bao had merely experienced a minor shock that startled her and that this was a perfectly normal and regular occurrence among captive animals. However, the dog trainer in me knew better.

 

Shocking any animal isn't right and I'll tell you why. Animals learn by association, which is classic Pavlovian bell-ringing, dogs drooling, lab coat guys stuff. An animal theoretically only needs to be shocked once and they'll negatively associate the shock with approaching too close to the "line" and become too scared to go beyond that point again. Electrified fences wouldn't work unless they caused sufficient pain to discourage the animal.

 

Think of Bao Bao that fateful day: She was frolicking around, perhaps exploring the outer portions of her enclosure or reaching out for a long branch of bamboo. Suddenly, she experienced searing pain and she retreated to her safe place as quickly as she could and remained there. Bao Bao is not likely to make contact with the hot wire again, at least not in that exact spot. However, she may also associate being shocked with reaching for bamboo or frolicking or even going too far outside her panda house. There's no guarantee that young Bao Bao has directly associated the shock with the outer bounday of her enclosure.

 

Now think of dogs and underground fences. Since dogs can't see the wire buried underground, flags are placed to mark the boundaries. The remote collar they wear emits a warning beep if the dog gets too close to the boundary and shocks them if they don't heed the warning. Shock fence proponents claim a dog only needs to be shocked once and they'll never need to be shocked again. The idea is that, like Bao Bao in the example above, the dog will associate the marker flags with the shock and avoid them like the plague.

 

Like people, different dogs have different pain thresholds and sensitivities. What may be a tingling sensation to one dog could be a paralyzing shock to another. The dog experiencing minor tingling will not be sufficiently motivated to stay within the boundary and the sensitive dog could become terrified by the prospect of feeling pain. Think about traumatic events in your own life. Our minds record negative events amazingly well. Any experienced dog trainer can attest that much of our work consists of undoing negative associations dogs have formed to various stimuli.

 

To say that using electrical shock doesn't work would be a lie. However, is it ethical to use pain to keep an animal in a yard? There are pain-free alternatives: Constructing a visible physical barrier such as a fence, invisible barrier training using positive reinforcement (using rewards instead of punishment) and instilling a rock-solid "Come" cue are several options.

 

Hopefully Bao Bao will not experience lingering negative associations between being shocked and anything other than the hot wire. Only time will tell. I'm neither zookeeper nor panda expert, however I do know about dogs. If you have an electric fence or are considering installing one for your dog, please remember Bao Bao's terrified reaction to being shocked and imagine how your dog would feel.

 

For more information on how to prevent your dog from running away, shock-free boundary training and more, contact us at Happy Hound Training to discuss your situation.

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