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Special Feature
by Doug Johnson

Citronella Collars

David wrote:

1. Bailey barks a lot during the day. She barks once about every 2-5 minutes, and more when called for. My vet lent me a collar that emits a little citronella every time she barks. This works great but I have two concerns with it. Will this "punishment" type solution inhibit my positive efforts to keep her quiet? The other concern is that the collar is training her not to play with Moses, which is certainly not what I want so I want to get her off the collar as soon as possible.

OK David bear with me, this may get a little "rambly". Using the scientific definition of punishment, a citronella collar is considered punishment, because it lessens the likelihood of the reoccurrence of a targeted behavior. But you have to remember that "punishment" does not necessarily have to be an aversive, as evidenced by the citronella collar explained below. This is one of the big problems with the scientific definition of punishment, it is circular reasoning. But don't worry Melissa, I won't go there .

Now, having said that, the majority of behaviorists and veterinarians consider a citronella collar not a punisher, nor an aversive, but rather a "disruptive stimulus." In my use of it, I have found that in about 75% to 80% of the dogs I have used a citronella collar on, it is indeed a disruptive stimulus in that they don't find it aversive, but rather they get the spray and immediately forget what they were barking about and start to investigate the intricacies of the spray. The other 20% to 25% of dogs I have used it on have indeed found it to be an aversive, as evidenced by their behavior and attitudes after the spray. Then every once in a while you get the odd dog that learns to bark in order to release the spray for a nice chase of the odor or a body spritz, but that doesn't count!! Anyway, the collar affects the behavior in either a disruptive or an aversive circumstance, but the results are amazingly different.

In late 1998, two French vets (Pageat, P. and Tesseire, Y.) did a study regarding the efficacy of disruptive stimulus as opposed to punishing stimulus. This is important in your case because they specifically used a citronella collar to eliminate barking. Here is a portion of the abstract:


[...]The concept of "disruptive stimulus" results from behavioral patterns. It can be defined as a jarring stimulus that interrupts the course of the sequence, which produces an expectation stage enabling enticement of the pet to another (desired) activity. The present study starts from this definition to show the usefulness of a citronella spray (device called ABOISTOP?, by DYNAVET, France) as such a stimulus in dogs showing territorial barking. 52 dogs spending at least 4 hours a day in a garden adjacent to a busy street were included. The trial compares the effects of a punitive stimulus consisting of a garden-hose spraying water, to the ABOISTOP? collar. Treatment was allocated at random. Once a week, each owner noted the frequency of barking towards 10 pedestrians. A first control was done on day 0 (which provides the reference figure), then every seventh day till day 35 when therapy was stopped. Relapses were to be assessed on day 90. It should be noted that every bark interruption by the device was immediately followed by a play session initiated by the owner (redirection of behavior). [emphasis inserted by Doug] In the "punishment group" we could note a sudden cessation of barking, as early as on day 7, which was subsequently steady until day 28. In the "disruptive group" the decrease of barking was more gradual (48.6% barking on day 7 - 16.9% on day 14) and a total disappearance could be heard by day 21. In addition, the relapse rate on day 90 was 86% in the "punishment group" versus 3.8% in the "disruptive group".


There are a couple of older studies that found basically the same results conducted in the Netherlands, South Africa, and the United States.

A couple of important points here. If your dog considers the spray a disruptive stimulus (look for visual and olfactory searching behavior after the spray), then you need to keep the collar on the dog at least a month or so. Look at the relapse rate of the disruptive stimulus. Another point to note is that there was a redirection after each disruptive stimulus. This is very important in the efficiency of the collar, but very hard to do in every instance for a person in the real world. Since you won't be able to do that as much, you may not see the same results because of a lower reward value of stopping the behavior (less Operant work going on in the dog). One way to get around this is to set the dog up for barking when you can redirect. Use the collar on the dog during the weekend when you are home. When the dog barks, the collar emits, the dog stops barking, you count to two, then come outside and redirect the dog to an enjoyable activity. If you can set that up enough, then the redirection will inherently be put on a VSR and you will get even better reliability, but you have to have a pretty good reward history for this to occur.

So, I don't think, in the majority of circumstances, a citronella collar is the type of an "aversive punishment" that you are thinking of, but more of a tap on the shoulder to the dog to get his attention. Because of this, I wouldn't worry about any of the fallout associated with aversive punishment. If you redirect, it will actually enhance your positive methods. But you REALLY SHOULD try to redirect when the barking stops as much as possible so the dog can see the benefit of not barking, this is the key.

Doug Johnson
copyright 1999 Doug Johnson

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