As soon as a child is old enough to process information, he or she is taught
that electricity is a potentially painful entity. In fact, children likely
understand that electricity is “hot” or “will bite” before they can comprehend
that it is also the power that makes the house light up and the television pop
on. It is natural, therefore, that humans have learned to use electricity as a
deterrent, both in the world of people and in that of the animals they seek to
Dogs are man’s best friend, or so the story goes. However, people and
dogs seem to get on much better when the dog is subservient and the man is in
command. Electricity has become an effective training tool for dogs. A harmless
but painful “zap” simulates the natural and instinctive reaction from a dominant
dog to a subordinate for inappropriate or unacceptable behavior. Dogs are
directly descendant from wolves, which will kill one another in battles for
superiority. People have determined that a weak electrical charge, stronger when
necessary, is more efficient and actually less violent than nature’s
Electronic fencing is a simple tool for training dogs to remain within an
acceptable boundary. It eliminates the need for confining kennels or tie stakes
and gives the dog much more freedom within his own property. At the same time it
also serves to keep the animal safe from several dangers. While an underground
electric fence will not deter other animals from entering one’s property, it
will keep the dog from chasing cars or crossing the street; becoming a nuisance
to neighbors; or simply running off and becoming lost. All of these carry
potential liability factors for the pet owner, so by protecting the dog, a dog
owner also protects himself.
How does it work?
Typically, an electric fence for training a dog is buried beneath the ground
around the border of the area where the dog is to remain. The power (and
generally expense) of this training tool will vary, and a professional installer
will insure that the area surrounded by the fence is the appropriate size to
keep it working correctly. The installer will bury an antenna wire around the
property, making only a small trench that will not become an eye sore. The dog
will be fitted with a special collar that can sense the antenna wire beneath the
ground. As he begins approaching the property boundary, the collar will emit a
warning noise. If the dog continues toward the boundary, he will receive a mild
shock. Many systems can be customized so that there are several levels of shock
to deter the dog.
Of course, this is not a failsafe program. While the dog will not be able to
burrow beneath the fence or jump over it, the electric training system may not
work for all dogs. Some breeds with exceptionally thick hair do not receive the
shock from the collar because there is simply too much insulation in the way.
Other dogs, like human babies, will not understand the relationship between
their location and the pain because they are simply too young. An exceptionally
aggressive dog may choose to ignore the shock. There is always the possibility
of technical malfunction, as well, although this is very rare.
In order to make maximum use of an underground dog fence, the shock should be
used in conjunction with training. By firmly telling a dog “no” or “stay home”
when the warning sounds, a dog handler can help the animal to learn his
boundaries. The noise and the ensuing shock should reinforce the owner’s
commands instead of becoming a random challenge in the yard.
Aside from the specialized collars used in conjunction with underground fencing,
other electronic collars are often used in training dogs. Originally developed
in the 1960s for training gun dogs (most notably bird dogs), the “shock collar”
has since evolved to accommodate many tasks. Not only have the collars advanced
in performance, but their scope of use has also greatly broadened.
What are they?
An electronic collar or shock collar is a specialized collar that corresponds
with a transmitting box held by the dog handler. The dog handler can control
when the dog will receive a shock, how powerful the shock will be, and how long
the shock will occur. Most collars have a “dummy” setting that creates a mere
vibration or emits a noise to use in very light training situations or as a
warning. The most common devices have a range of about 400 yards, but some are
still serviceable at distances of two miles, making them one of the most
flexible training devices available.
How do they work?
The electronic collar, if used properly, allows a dog to understand instantly
when he has done something wrong. When an undesirable behavior occurs, the
handler shouts “no” or another appropriate command, giving the dog the
opportunity to end or correct his behavior. If he does not, the handler issues a
shock and can continue to raise the power or frequency of the charge until the
dog obeys. At that point, he is praised and will quickly learn that minding his
commands brings positive reinforcement; whereas, disobeying brings an unwanted
shock. Many dog experts believe that one of the most positive aspects of this
type of training, aside from the range, is the fact that dogs do not associate
the negative reinforcement with the handler, but see them only as a safety zone
once the shocking stops.
How are they used?
While still commonly used in hunting dogs, electronic collars are now used in
many, many more situations. They can be used in common obedience training as
effectively as a leash. More commonly, however, they are used to combat specific
negative behaviors. For example, a hunting dog may receive a shock when he
begins trailing the wrong type of animal, say a deer as opposed to a raccoon. A
dog who repeatedly rushes at cars may be shocked each time he reaches the road.
Electronic collars are now used to train every type of dog, from the standard
household pet to the highly specialized K-9 units. Specific collars or
electronic devices have also been developed to combat specific behaviors. Bark
collars sense the contractions in a barking dog’s throat and will apply a simple
static shock automatically when the dog barks. Scat mats are similar, but can be
placed in front of unwanted areas. When the doge steps on the scat mat to, for
example, go into a child’s bedroom, he is shocked. These also work on barefooted
humans and cats.
The other animal kept by people that most commonly benefits from the use of
electricity is cattle. Most types of herd animals can be contained or controlled
by the use of electrical shocks. Similar to the nature of a dog, a herd animal’s
natural instinct is to recognize a pecking order within its group. Animals that
choose to battle the hierarchy are rewarded with kicks, bites or other physical
punishment with the strongest animal gaining rights to territory, breeding or a
food source. Electricity was easily adapted as a controlling factor for herd
Electric fencers are powerful containment devices that have been used on cattle
and horses, and even pigs, for years. New types of fences come on the market
weekly, but the idea behind an electric fence is inherently the same, regardless
of the product.
Creating an electrically controlled environment
A closed circuit is created by making a loop of wire. It may be only a few yards
square, or it may cover literally hundreds of miles. Inexpensive posts are
driven into the ground at regular intervals and are fitted with plastic
insulators, many of which are especially made for specific types of fence posts.
A wire is then run all the way around the loop of a pasture or other enclosure,
starting near the power source. Fences are typically powered by either plugging
into a standard electrical outlet, or by attaching to a solar power supply. At
any rate, the circuit is considered closed when the wire makes a constant loop
around the enclosure. Charges are released at regular intervals from the power
supply and will travel around the wire and back again. An animal that touches
the wire will receive a shock.
What are they good for?
A single strand of electric wire is likely to keep a large animal contained
where up to five strands of sharp barbed wire will not. Other fences, such as
wooden or metal gates, offer no punishment and rely on being physically stronger
than the animal to keep them contained. An animal will quickly learn that he
controls how much pain he receives with a barbed fence. The harder he pushes,
the more the barbs dig into his skin. If the pain is less acceptable than the
reward (a tempting corn field or possibly another desirable animal), he can stop
it by simply backing away. If the reward is worth the pain, the animal can
continue. Some creatures will even learn to use the barbs on a fence to scratch
themselves when flies or stinging weeds become problems.
An electric fence takes control away from the animal. A slight testing touch or
a full scale attempt at escape will both garner powerful shocks. Animals new to
an area will likely test the fence, just as they test other members of their
herd. As soon as they realize that they cannot win, they stop trying and take
their rightful place in the herd and in the enclosure. The fencer uses the
animal’s natural instinct to control it.
Positives and negatives
Electric fences do have drawbacks. Of course, there is an expense in operating
them and they are costly to initially purchase. They do require maintenance.
Posts can become uprooted and insulators can be removed from their posts by a
variety of forces, ranging from wild animals to weather. Weeds or brush may also
grow into the wire. These circumstances can all create a short in the fence’s
circuit and render it useless or at least less effective. Often, however, cattle
that have already been trained to the fencer’s capability will not even realize
that the fence is “down” and will remain contained. Electric fences are not
recommended for all types of cattle. Unshorn sheep will only receive a real
shock if they touch the wire with their noses. Moreover, electric fences will
usually do nothing to deter predators that can simply run beneath it.
There are many conveniences associated with electric fences. Outside of the ease
of containment, another positive of an electric fencer is its flexibility. The
scope of an electrically enforced enclosure can be changed in just a few
minutes, since it is a matter of relocating small metal poles, and stringing the
wire to them. A different type of fence will require a phenomenal amount more
work, and is usually considered permanent once it is installed. After the
initial cost of the power unit, the fencer is usually cheap to maintain and
expand. The variety of strengths makes it an effective tool for a variety of
Prods and Goads
Electricity is also used in the farming industry as a portable tool when working
with creatures. While a cattle prod can be anything from a baseball bat to a
branch from a tree, most farmers are referring to an electrical prod when they
use the term. Many also refer to electrical prods as “hotshots”, which actually
took its name from a specific brand of electrified prod. Many electric prods are
cylindrical with two connectors on one end and an insulated handle on the other.
When the connectors create a circuit by touching something that conducts
electricity…in this case skin…a powerful shock occurs.
Why use an electric prod?
There are many situations where electrified prods can be commonly seen.
Generally, they are used to encourage cattle to move. Cattle can be stubborn and
refuse to go where they are bid for a variety of reasons. Some are frightened of
a new environment, others simply don’t understand what is being asked of them,
and others still are hostile or aggressive. On occasion, a down or sick animal
can be made to rise for treatment when its adrenaline level suddenly spikes in
response to a shock. In general, however, the hotshot is considered an equalizer
since a bare handed slap has very little effect on a large animal.
At one point in history, every barn that housed animals likely had some type of
prod…many electric. Other common places to see an electric prod were sale barns
and auction houses for cattle. Truck drivers who specialized in moving cattle of
various species had a hotshot device handy in the cab of their trucks and
slaughterhouses used them to move cattle into very fear-inducing settings. With
the modern animal rights movements, these devices are growing less common in
federally mandated areas. Many states have outlawed electric pokers or prods in
sale barns and slaughterhouses, requiring handlers to use noisemakers and other
devices to encourage movement.
Other uses for the electrical prod
Humans are adaptable creatures and have changed the use of the cattle prod over
time. An electrified prod can be placed in the ground in order to bring night
crawlers and worms to the surface for bait. A modified prod is often used in
pools and ponds when government endorsed agencies are studying fish populations,
since an electric current running through the water will stun fish temporarily
and bring them to the surface for study, tagging or census. People have also
invented many ways to use modified electric prods on one another.
Electricity and People
Using electricity as a deterrent is not limited to the animal kingdom. Electric
shocks hurt, regardless of the species they strike, and people have been using
electricity on one another for many years. Many of the ways people use
electricity on one another are results of direct adaptations from animal control
Prods for People
In the 1960s American Civil Rights Movement, police officers in many states
found themselves in dangerous and riotous situations. With the taser and stun
baton yet to be invented, many law enforcement agencies turned to the cattle
prod to control dangerous crowds.
A specific device, the picana, was developed in South America
using the standard cattle prod for inspiration. It was used for human torture.
The trademark of the picana is the low current but high voltage shocks its
victim receives, dealing a maximum amount of pain but leaving few marks on the
skin. Continuously applied shocking will result in seared skin, burn marks and
welts. The picana effectively reduces these incriminating marks.
While the picana is portable and flexible in that it could be
applied to any exposed body part, the parilla was perhaps more gruesome.
Basically a large metal rack based on a grill, the parilla served as a bed for
its victims. The victim was laid over this huge rack and an electrical current
was run through the metal frame, creating instant and excruciating pain.
Tasers and Stun Guns
As technology advanced, so did the use of electricity on people. The Hotshot
company eventually developed an electrical police baton. Literally thousands of
products have reached the market since then, some available only to military and
law enforcement agencies, and others offered to the general public. Many new
ideas are in development, such as using pools of water as conductors. Most of
the electric weapons, however, use the same basic principles.
The Taser, or Thomas A. Swift’s Electric Rifle, was invented in the late sixties
by Jack Cover, who named the gun after a fictitious hero. The primary use of the
modern Taser gun is in law enforcement, and many agencies have turned to the
Taser as a non-lethal means of incapacitating suspected criminals for
Modern Tasers and their relatives work in a manner similar to an air gun where a
small charge propels two small darts at the intended subject. These darts are
most usually attached to a power source within the gun by thin, coiling wires
that burst out with the dart, although other conductors (such as liquid) are
under study. Some guns have the capability of sending a single arc of
electricity at the subject. Most, however, rely on the darts to embed in the
skin of the target and convey a powerful burst of electricity to bring down the
target. Many Tasers also have what is commonly referred to as a “Drive Stun”
features, which allows the handler to utilized the weapon much more like the
cattle prod that inspired it. No barbs or darts are deployed, but an electrical
current still flows from the gun and inflicts pain on an uncooperative or
hostile subject that is within reach.
Are they safe?
The safety of the Taser has been up for debate since its inception. While
numerous volunteers have demonstrated how quickly a subject can recover from the
sting of a Taser, over 200 deaths have also been reported across America as a
result of taseing. The greatest detriment to taseing an alleged criminal is that
the law enforcement official has no real knowledge of the subject before
discharging the electrodes. If the subject has, for example heart issues or
mental problems, the sudden electric shock can be fatal. The existence of
certain drugs in the bloodstream of a perpetrator is also thought to change the
danger of a sharp shock. Women have less resistance to shock than men, simply
because of their size.
As previously mentioned, many new designs of Taser-type, non-lethal guns are
under study, predominantly by the U.S. military. Some of these guns, such as the
Electrified Water Cannon, use liquid as a conductor for the electrical charge.
The Plasma Taser has an interesting name, but actually uses aerosol as a
conductive substance instead of plasma. Various issues have cropped up with
these Tasers, including poor conductivity, lesser range, and illness from gas
Other electrified weapons are used by law enforcement, but are not intended to
work like the Taser. Nightsticks and other devices are now commonly electrified,
and are used in crowd control. A long-range device, also manufactured by TASER,
fires a charge without connectors. Electric belts are sometimes used in prisons
to control dangerous or aggressive criminals when they are removed from their
cells for interviews, cleaning and so forth.
Judge Rotenberg Educational Center
Electricity is also used as a controlling device by educators in one institute,
located in Canton, Massachusetts. JRC is an educational center that works with
special needs children, most commonly those with autism, although other
cognitive and emotional disorders are also present. The center uses psychologist
B.F. Skinner’s theories as learning and behavioral aids for its students.
The goal of JRC, formerly the Behavioral Research Institute, is to use a variety
of stimuli to decrease the frequency of undesirable behaviors and attitudes,
ranging from poor hygiene to cursing, in its students. While JRC uses many types
of punishments, the most controversial is the electric shock.
Students are generally made to wear a conductive device, similar to that of an
electronic dog collar, on areas such as the hands, feet or belly. This Graduated
Electronic Decelerator emits a two second shock when activated. Students are
constantly monitored, either in person or via video. When the student
demonstrates an unacceptable behavior, he or she receives a jolt as issued by a
staff member. The center aims to encourage behaviors that are most accepted by
the mainstream public and reduce outbursts or medically controlled behaviors by
providing instant feedback when an undesirable behavior occurs.
JRC deals with students aged three to adult and has been functioning at some
level since the sixties. It typically utilizes twenty plus staff members and
houses around 200 students in a co-ed, nonsectarian environment. Learning hours
at the school are six hours each day. There are several levels of intensive
treatment used at the school, which boasts a near zero expulsion rate after
nearly 40 years of service. JRC believes that its methods can be effective on
virtually any behavioral issue, whether it is due to medical, emotional or
Of course, JRC is exceptionally controversial and has endured numerous lawsuits.
At the same time, parents of some special needs students praise the school’s
efforts for creating an atmosphere that teaches difficult children about
expectations and needs. It is the only center of its type in the United States
and is extremely expensive in comparison to other private schools. It is
typically considered a last resort for the most extreme cases.
While the actions at JRC are extreme methods to correct unwanted human
behaviors, they do not reflect the ultimate use of electricity by people, on
people. Developed and primarily used in the United States, the electric chair is
one accepted form of capital punishment for criminals receiving the death
History of “the chair”
Often simply referred to as “the chair,” the electric chair was first used in
the late 1800s and was specifically developed in response to a particular
hanging that occurred in New York State. Alfred P. Southwick began developing a
type of electric chair after hearing a story of a drunken man who touched
exposed power lines and died almost instantly. Southwick was a dentist, and saw
the benefits of electrifying a chair as a more acceptable method of human
extermination than hanging.
Harold P. Brown and Arthur Kennelly expounded on Southwick’s idea and built the
first practically used electrified chair. Both worked in one way or another with
Thomas Edison, which has led to the mistake that Edison developed the electric
chair. Many animals were publicly killed with AC current during the early stages
of the chair’s development, both as an experiment in effectiveness and a display
for the press. Tests began with cats and dogs, and moved to calves and horses.
Many qualities of lethal electricity are debated, from economic advantages to
the humanity of death by electrocution. The span of time between Southwick’s
initial idea and the first electric execution was less than twenty years.
Killing with the chair
After Brown made his case through the public “execution” of number of animals,
the use of electrocution as a capital punishment went into law in 1888. William
Kemmler of Buffalo, New York was slated to be the first man put to death using
the chair after he was convicted of brutally butchering Matilda Ziegler with an
axe. After a seventeen second jolt of electricity was piped through Kemmler,
witnesses reported that he was unconscious but still breathing. Prison officials
tried a second time, and yet again. Kemmler thrashed and convulsed and his skin
and hair caught fire, creating an overpowering stench of roasting flesh within
the small chamber. The time elapsed from the initial shock to his pronounced
death: eight minutes.
The second and third electric executions were flawless examples of the chair’s
effectiveness. The fourth, however, was possibly the most notoriously gruesome.
Similar to Kemmler’s experience, William Taylor did not die from the first shock
he received. Instead, his legs stiffened so suddenly and violently, that he tore
away from the restraints on the chair and was freed. He was kept alive via
cholorform and morphine while the generator, which blew in the initial blast,
was repaired. Over an hour later, he was returned to chair and executed.
1903 marked the last recorded botched execution using electricity when Fred Van
Wormer was killed in the chair, but was later found to be breathing in the
autopsy room. The executioner had already left and had to be recalled to
electrocute the still living
Van Wormer. By the time the executioner had returned, Van Wormer had passed away
in earnest, but was set upon the chair and electrocuted for an additional thirty
seconds, making him the first dead man to be re-killed by the chair.
The chair’s evolution
Since the initial executions in the late 1800s, the chair has evolved in
effectiveness, though the design has stayed relatively stagnant. One distinct
irony of the chair’s evolution involved the addition of metal clamps to restrain
the condemned. This addition was invented by a prison inmate named Charles
Justice who was assigned to cleaning the death chamber. After the clamps were
implemented, Justice was paroled, only to return to prison some eleven years
later when he was convicted of an additional murder and robbery. He died in the
chair he helped to improve.
The modern chair still sees the criminal seated in a chair and attached to
several electrodes. He or she is restrained using clamps as invented by Justice.
An initial jolt of AC current is meant to kill the brain and render the victim
unconscious and incapable of feeling pain. Ensuing shocks destroy the vital
organs and overstimulate the heart, making life impossible.
Twenty-five U.S. states have used the chair to some extent, but its use has been
in constant decline, with lethal injection taking its place. Alabama, Florida,
South Carolina and Virginia still use the chair if the condemned wishes, but a
death row inmate may also choose lethal injection. Kentucky and Tennessee seldom
use the chair, but it is still a viable means of execution for prisoners
convicted of crimes prior to its retirement in 1998. Both Illinois and Oklahoma
have clauses in their legislation that allow for potential continued use of the
chair, but it is not normally used. Nebraska used to offer the chair as its only
method of execution, but that policy was repealed in 2008.
Electricity, while useful in countless ways, is also a potentially deadly force.
When controlled by people, it is an effective deterrent, punishment and
executioner and will likely continue to provide these services, on both people
and animals, for years to come.
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