Dear Doctor: Citronella collar for training?
Q. We live in a fairly rural area on a country lane with a good amount of land. We moved out this way so our two dogs could run around behind the house. We are always outside when they are, but sometimes something attracts their attention — a jogger, a bike rider, a coyote. On a really good day the boys will listen and stay close to us out back if they see someone coming down the road — lots of praise for listening to us, and all is well. But sometimes, they are dogs being dogs and will run out to the street. Would a citronella collar work to stop them in their tracks — the kind that emits a citronella spray when you press a gizmo? A fenced yard is not an option, and I do not want to shock my dogs with a shock collar or with the perimeter around an electric fence.
Pittstown, New Jersey
Dear Ms. Martin,
A. We are not fans of electric collars or electric fences, either. We believe all training should center around rewards for getting it right, not punishment for getting it wrong, because that only frays the trust between human and dog and also simply does not work as well as reward-based training to teach a dog appropriate behavior over the long term.
And even though getting sprayed by some citronella usually doesn’t feel punishing the way an electric shock would, it would be ineffective in stopping a dog in his tracks while he’s in pursuit of something too interesting to pass up — a moving target like a jogger or feral animal. “There doesn’t seem to be any evidence that it’s worse than a spray of water,” says Tufts board-certified animal behaviorist Stephanie Borns-Weil, DVM. “For some dogs, it feels like a punishment, but for most, it’s a distractor. Many dogs get used to it and ignore it after a few tries. If a dog is chasing after a squirrel, citronella’s not going to stop it.”
In a situation like this where safety is on the line, the best bet is prevention, the doctor says. If an actual fence is out of the question, the next best thing is to put the dogs on long lines that don’t stretch far enough to let them near the road. When it comes to life-and-death safety — a car could come along even though you live on a country lane — you can’t take any chances.