Regardless of what manufacturers claim, electric shock dog collars are never the best way to correct a dog’s behavior as it is simply inhumane. Even those so-called state-of-the-art gadgets that provide very ‘minimal’ static electricity, there really is no way to determine that this ‘minimal’ shock will not hurt dogs. While there are still many dog owners who use electric shock dog collars for both training and behavioral correction purposes, there is an ever-increasing number of pet owners who are using citronella dog collars. But the question remains, is this really a safer alternative to electric shock?
A Look at Citronella
Before we can say that citronella dog collars are a much better alternative to electric dog shock collars, let us first try to understand what citronella is.
Citronella is lemongrass and is highly valued for its exceptional insect repellent properties. Its use as an insect repellent has been well-studied and is now accepted to be effective in repelling the mosquito that brings the dreaded dengue virus, the Aedes aegypti mosquito, as well as Culex quinquefasciatus. It has also been proven to be especially effective in repelling head lice, body lice, and even stable flies. A study in 1963 found citronella to be effective at repelling terrestrial and aquatic leeches.
Its insect repellent action is closely related to the mechanism of action of its active ingredients, hydroxycitronellal and geraniol. These two ingredients are what provide citronella with the amazing capability to repel a variety of parasitic organisms. More importantly, when these two ingredients are applied topically, they produce no unnecessary reactions in humans.
There is another active ingredient in citronella that may play a role in its use as a dog collar: limonene. D-limonene is a known irritant which, when combined with the insect repellent action of both hydroxycitronellal and geraniol, can provide a very irritating mixture for dogs not to take notice.
Citronella is also considered a very powerful antifungal agent especially against species of Candida. It can also relax and dilate the blood vessels leading to low blood pressure and slowed heart rate. Chemical analysis also reveals that citronella has mild anticonvulsant, hypnotic, sedative, and antinociceptive effects.
Understanding How Citronella Dog Collars Work
Citronella dog collars are examples of spray dog collars. They are pretty much the same like electric dog collars except that the corrective stimulus applied is not in the form of an electric shock, but rather as a spray. Most spray types of canine collars, water or lemon juice is used. Water is meant primarily to startle the dog while lemon juice, because of its limonene content, can ‘sting’ quite a bit. In the case of citronella dog collars, a solution of citronella extract is used as the startling and as a really offensively smelling agent. This is sprayed onto the face of your pooch, startling it, catching it off-guard, and hopefully acting as a deterrent in the future.
The spray is activated by the dog’s bark, just like any other electronic system. Unfortunately, this is where some of the drawbacks of such systems lie. You see if the bark sensor of the device is not accurately calibrated to respond only to the bark produced by your dog or the wearer of the collar, then just about any barking dog can set the trigger off. For the poor pooch, it will definitely be confused as to why it deserved to be sprayed something so repugnant as citronella.
Is It Effective?
You may be skeptic about the effectiveness of these types of collars, so we made a little digging. It turns out that in 1996, a study by the Animal Behavior Clinic and published in the Cornell Chronicle of the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine found citronella dog spray collars to be particularly effective in the management of nuisance barking among dogs. Now, before you start rejoicing, you need to understand that the study was not performed under strict research guidelines. There were no randomization and no controls were established to really determine the probability that the observed effects of citronella dog collars are indeed attributed to its anti-barking behavior properties and not some random chance.
Nevertheless, the study did include a description of the experiences of a number of dog owners who were given the choice to use either a citronella dog collar or an electric shock dog collar. The study findings revealed that more dog owners considered citronella dog collars to be more effective and more humane than electric shock versions of the product especially in the management of nuisance barking in dogs.
Unfortunately, this is where detractors of the system have been quick to point out the obvious. Since the results of the study are nothing more than a description of the subjective experiences of dog owners, it hardly qualifies as sound empirical evidence to support the claim that it is more effective and more humane than electric shock collars. However, we do recognize that behavioral sciences can hardly be quantifiable since everything exists in the subjective realm. That being said, we can only hope that the professed experiences of the study participants really reflected the real score of the test and not because they wanted to portray this product as better and safer.
Is it effective? There’s no question that citronella spray dog collars work. The mere fact that spraying water into the face of your dog without letting it see you doing it also work in momentarily stopping the dog from what it is doing. If water can provide such a temporary distraction, what more a solution that is so repugnant and offensive that you clearly don’t want to smell it even from afar?
The question now is whether it is more effective than electric dog shock collars. As we have already said, there really is no conclusive evidence to show that one is indeed better or more effective than the other. All that we have been given so far are results of descriptive studies that, in the research community, while still considered as research, are some of the lowest forms of researches especially when it comes to its empirical validity.
There are some reports, nevertheless, saying that citronella dog collars are more effective than electric shock collars. This statement is based on the observation that there are some dogs that kept on barking even with the application of an electrostatic shock. Also, it is observed that dogs wearing the citronella collar tend to never repeat the triggering behavior again perhaps for fear that the offensive odor will be set off.
There are a few questions to such observations. If indeed shock was delivered, yet the dog kept on barking, the next logical question is at what level was the shock delivered? As for citronella, what other factors were controlled to really pinpoint that the resulting aversion towards the collar is the result of the citronella spray itself and not something else?
Are These Types of Dog Collars Humane?
Since we clearly cannot find strong evidence to support the effectiveness of one system over the other, it all boils down to the second parameter as identified in the 1996 Cornell study – are these types of dog collars more humane than their electric versions?
Common sense will tell you that using a spray is a lot less offensive and threatening than getting an electric shock, regardless of the level of static electricity delivered by the device. It is like comparing which between getting electrocuted and getting sprayed by a skunk is more offensive. Clearly getting electrocuted is simply incomparable what with the resulting tissue damage that you have to contend with. Conversely, the worst thing that will happen to you if you get sprayed by a skunk is that none of your friends will want to see you or even get near you in the next several weeks or so. You will even find yourself so repulsive that no matter how much you try to bathe yourself, there’s just no getting rid of the skunk odor that easily.
The same is true with citronella and electric shock dog collars. One is clearly safer from the point of view of damage or injury to the dog’s tissues. Just like the citronella study, there is no conclusive proof that delivering electric shock to the dog’s body, even the slightest bit, will not result in tissue or cellular damage. While it is also true that there are also no studies proving otherwise, sometimes it is a lot better to err on the side of safety.
This is not to say that citronella spray dog collars are completely safe. We did mention something about the sensitivity of the device to the dog’s barking. If it is extra sensitive that even the bark of a dog some distance can set it off, there is a chance that you are not helping your dog at all.
The point in using a spray dog collar, like most corrections, is to immediately halt the dog’s behavior. For example, if it is barking then the device automatically sprays the solution. The moment the spray hits its face, the dog will stop barking and since citronella has a rather offensive odor to dogs, the smell will linger on the dog’s face. It will be able to remember this. Over time, it will associate the offensive smell to the act of barking.
Unfortunately, as we have mentioned, what if the device is not properly calibrated that even if the dog is not barking, something will set the device off? What will the dog think now? Which stimulus will it associate the activation of the device? Clearly it will associate it with something that resembles a bark. And if that is the case then you are instilling fear in your dog. If it hears other dogs barking, it will already be fearful that the offensive smell will appear. And this is clearly no way to train your pooch not to bark.
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Is it Right to Suppress a Dog’s Bark?
There is another point we would like to raise and this is something that is also held by many experts. Dogs bark because it is inherent in them. It is their way of communicating. They bark for a variety of reasons. Many dogs bark to acknowledge the presence of something in their environment. They bark as a means to get attention. They bark in response to other dogs’ bark. They also bark if they fear something or are guarding something.
That being said, if you suppress your pooch’s natural barking behavior, you are actually preventing it from exercising its being. If we had to translate it into human terms, it would be like gagging the person you love so that he or she will never ever talk. Is this the way we treat our so-called best friends?
True, there are dogs that bark for no apparent reason at all. And these are called nuisance barkers. While these gadgets can provide a temporary solution, they should never be used as the ONLY solution. The real answer lies in training our dogs and in acknowledging their need to communicate their needs and sentiments through barking.
Check out our guide on the Best Bark Collars.
It is important to understand why our dogs bark in the first place. For instance, if they bark whenever we are away during the day that our neighbors complain about them, then clearly we have to manage their separation anxiety. If they bark to let us know something is outside our home, acknowledging their notice and telling them ‘good boy’ afterwards will let your dog know that you are communicating with it. If you find it quite challenging to address the barking issues of your dog, there are animal behavior experts who can help you.
The point is that, while these gadgets can be useful in the short-term, only a carefully-planned canine behavior and obedience training can help you manage your dog’s barking in a more constructive, more positive way. Remember, your dog needs to bark in the same way as you need to talk.
Is citronella dog collar a safer alternative to electric shock dog collars? Yes, it is. But should you use it on your dog? If you don’t mind suppressing your dog’s natural behavior, then you should use it. However, if you think your dog deserves to have a voice through its barking, then you’ve got to have the patience and perseverance to train your dog.
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- Dog Collars, The Humane Society of the United States