The Electric Collar Debate

I bought a box of toothpicks recently. On the label was a list of instructions which – as a Douglas Adams fan – made me laugh, but then it got me thinking. It is impossible in this day and age to purchase any product without also receiving strict instructions and safety warnings as well as a variety of other information. There is only one exception I can think of. Go into any pet store and pick up a check chain and look closely – you will see little more than the manufacturers name and a price. Something as incongruous as a piece of chain link metal doesn’t need instructions or safety warnings apparently.

On the same day, I read Gary Martin’s letter in the September issue of WTM about electric collars. Nobody could argue that this is, at best, a piece of equipment for use by a dog training professional alone. So why is it that anyone, regardless of their age, experience or motives, can have one delivered to their door with no training on how to use them correctly? I would never dream of using a heart defibrillator without training, and there isn’t much difference in my mind.

Are electric collars just another tool in a dog trainer’s arsenal, to be used as and when necessary, or should they be banned, or perhaps only be leased out to licensed, trained individuals? Should electric collars remain on sale at all; or is there no feasible situation when they are needed? Personally, although I started my dog training career using what are now termed traditional techniques, I even then steered away from using electric collars. They just don’t sit well with my conscience. However, I have decided to put emotion aside and look at the issue as objectively as possible.

Electric collars work by using pain as a positive punisher to eradicate a problem behaviour. For punishment to be successful, it needs to be timely and of such a level as to elicit a fear response in the dog. It must also be applied each time the problem behaviour occurs, so that any reward received when the behaviour goes unchallenged is removed.

In the case of the electric collar, there is the danger that the dog will learn not to display the problem behaviour only when wearing the collar. The solution to this has always been to utilise a ‘dummy’ collar, but this is completely counter productive. The dog simply learns that sometimes when he is wearing a collar he doesn’t get a shock, resulting in the clever dog may risk a shock to ‘test’ the collar.

Looking at the instructions that come with one particular electric collar, I am very worried about their author’s credentials. It is suggested that the optimum level of shock needed by a dog is found by starting with a low intensity and increasing gradually until the correct level is found. Learning theory states that this method is not effective, as the dog will in fact habituate to the stimulus. The correct approach would be to start with a high level of punishment, although arguably not from a welfare point of view.

Another significant problem is that punishment is fast acting, but not selective. It takes a professional degree of timing to ensure that punishment is linked to the correct behaviour. The potential for unintentional misuse is therefore immense, as is the potential for abuse by more immoral individuals. I learnt early on to respect that old adage ‘do not train when you are in a bad mood’. This becomes more extreme when an electric collar is involved.

The animal welfare issues cannot be ignored. I will try not to be too emotive here – but administering an electric shock is not pleasant to any animal. I will avoid using the word ‘cruel’, but anything that can cause lesions on the neck of dogs needs to be questioned. It has been shown that dogs subjected to shocks from an electric collar have increased levels of the stress hormone, cortisol. Dogs who are stressed do not learn. Long term, dogs who have become fearful or anxious are not reliable. Notably, the few studies that have been done show that fear and stress responses are markedly higher in dogs treated with electric collars when compared to other traditional methods such as check chains, prong collars or physical punishment.

The arguments supporting electric collars cannot be ignored in an objective discussion. The first is that there are certain situations where the time it would take to follow a different training route would put the dog or owners at risk and that a ‘quick fix’ is needed. Often cases of aggression or livestock worrying are quoted where the only alternative option would be euthanasia. The second argument relies on the experiential evidence that using shock collars is successful (if only as a last resort when other techniques have been exhausted). Further, the punishment can be administered from a distance and at a higher (and therefore more effective) level than other punitive tools.

Check chains bring with them similar arguments, but should really be kept separate. Check chains (and prong collars, for that matter) work by using negative reinforcement, that is the aversive stimulus is presented and only stops when the dog displays the desired behaviour. The big problem is, without correct training, how are people supposed to know that? Most check chains I see a firmly attached to the neck of a straining dog, with an owner some way behind on a mobile phone.

One of the major problems underlying this whole debate is that there is a lack of scientific investigation into the use of these tools. Staying objective – I cannot accept the argument that ‘shock collars are cruel’ any more easily than I can the argument that ‘shock collars don’t hurt dogs’. Without scientific evidence to back them up, both arguments are opinion alone.

Of that evidence, some studies suggest that non-aversive training gets better results, whereas others report that aversive training gets perfectly valid results. Often, where studies have been done, the sample size is so small that the results are irrelevant, or else the methods used leave many gaps to be questioned. Of the few good studies out there, the results are worrying. A study from 2004 compared dogs trained using electric collars against those who had not. Even without wearing any collars, the ‘shocked’ dogs showed increased signs of stress, more worryingly still, directed at their handlers. One thing lots of studies agree on is that training using punishment will lead to an increase in displays of aggression.

There are many more issues that need to be discussed than there is room in this article. For example, if you are presented with a pet owner who has a dangerous dog but can’t be bothered to put in the hard work, is it kinder overall to eradicate the behaviour with a quick, properly delivered course with an electric collar than to let them go away with a clicker that they won’t use and end up being bitten, or dumping the dog somewhere?

From a purely emotional viewpoint, I would happily see electric and prong collars banned in their entirety. But my scientific integrity makes me pause and say that further scientific research is necessary. Admittedly, modern techniques are not a ‘quick fix’ and can take significantly longer to see results. But the results will be better and more reliable because you will finish with a dog that understands what it is expected to do and is comfortable in doing so. What worries me most of all is that the true reason many people use positive punishment in dog training is due to a lack of patience. It is easier to get quick, visible results by using harsh punishment. In my opinion, if patience is an issue for a dog trainer, then they should hang up their lead right away and look for a different career.

There may be no immediate answers, but ethically I believe it is our obligation to use the least aversive means necessary to get the desired results. Perhaps the problem is not that an electric collar can be bought with no qualifications and with no instructions or safety information, but that a dog can be.

Adam Beral