In the dog world, few subjects are as controversial as the debate on shock collars (electronic or e-collars). Advocates for their use claim that such devices don’t hurt but mostly emit an unpleasant vibration. They’re often the last resort for dogs with behavior drives that are difficult to control, like recall or chasing problems. Opponents to their use believe they can be harmful to dogs and should not be available to the public. They lead to abuse and don’t offer better results than reward based methods. Concerned about the welfare consequences on dogs, many countries have already banned these devices. With the release of two extensive studies from the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) in the UK, they could soon be banned throughout England and Scotland.
With close to 500,000 dog owners in Britain using electronic collars and the Kennel Club campaigning for their ban across the country, DEFRA has allocated close to £538,925 ( $821,968 US) to study their impact on the dog’s welfare as well as their effectiveness in training. With such an impressive budget, they were determined to get objective answers to this ongoing debate.
There are close to 170 different models of shock collars with different functions controlled by a remote. Some collars come with a tone or a vibration meant to warn the dog of the eminent shock or they can be used independently of the shock. Some collars give a short electrical shock that lasts between 4ms and 500ms where others also give continuous stimulation that can last for as long as the button on the remote is pressed. There are considerable differences between collars in shock delivered, from 110v (at 5 kW), to 6000v (at 500kW) and the effect on the dogs will depend on their skin resistance.
The first study by Bristol University, Central Science Laboratory and Lincoln University focused on assessing the physical and emotional impact these collars have on the dogs (AW1402). How the dogs experience these electric pulses will of course depend on the intensity of the stimulus, but also on the sensitivity of the individual dogs.
35 dogs were tested under the supervision of a veterinarian to assess whether they were afraid, in pain or distressed when shocked. The researchers watched for behaviors such as: stopping play, redirected attention, head, eye or ear movements and vocalization. All dogs were over 6 months old, social and playful with no nervous, fearful or aggressive disposition. None of them had been previously exposed to electronic collars.
The behavior and learning during training was measured between dogs wearing shock collars and dogs without them. In general, owners reported better success with positive reinforcement based training but the research could not determine if this was a difference due to perception or an actual fact since most owners who used the shock collars were rating their dog’s problematic behavior as severe. Results suggest an increase of the dog’s focus on the trainer when fitted with a shock collar but the overall training success was better with reward based training, including for recall and chasing problems (Blackwell & al. 2012).
When measuring salivary cortisol levels (related to stress) of the dogs with or without shock collars, the researchers found a significant increase of cortisol levels in the dogs exposed to shock collars, when they’re fitted with a collar a second time. This indicates that the anticipation of the stimulation immediately increases the stress level of the dogs. Behavior changes also indicated that the dogs were more stressed and tense than dogs trained using positive reinforcement. The dogs trained with shock collars also spent more time 5 meters or more away from their owner and were more distracted when trained by the researcher and active than the control group.
The study also investigated the information contained in the manual that comes with the purchase of these collars. All of them explain how to adapt the level of stimulation to the dog and describe what behaviors to expect when the dog notices the stimulation. Only three however warn about the level set too high if the dog vocalizes. All of them also warn about potential skin irritation and pressure necrosis if improperly fitted. A few also discourage the use of the collar on aggressive dogs and suggest the help of a professional trainer (harsh punishment can increase aggression in dogs).
The manuals provide information about using the shock collars for basic obedience training but also about dealing with behavior issues. Many provide suggestions to alternative strategies first. To assess the right level of stimulation, some suggest watching for behavior changes such as attention redirection, while others suggest looking for outward signs of discomfort and confusion. Even more concerning is the absence of explanation as to when to use short over continuous stimulation or how to use the tone or vibration modes. Many also emphasize the application and use of negative reinforcement, which can lead to prolonged electrical stimulation until the dog performs the desired behavior. Overall, most collars seem to lack sufficient information for the basic users.
Surveys from users also showed that 36% of dogs vocalized when the collars were first used and that the levels of stimulation applied were not necessarily those suggested by the manual. Even more concerning is that 26% of the dogs were reported to still vocalize on subsequent use, indicating that the levels were kept higher than recommended. Some owners even reported that they started at the highest level then either adjusted down or just kept using the collar at the highest level. Many simply didn’t read the manual or failed to follow the guidelines. The availability of such devices to typical owners, without the need to work with a professional trainer, clearly leads to poor timing and misuse and could have disturbing effects on the dog’s welfare.
Advocates for the use of shock collars have often argued that most studies do not offer objective data based on the appropriate use of such devices. As confirmed by the study above, owners don’t always use shock collars in the way suggested by the manufacturers. In a second study by Lincoln University but also involving ECMA (Electronic Collar Manufacturers Association), meant to measure the long term effects of using shock collars in training and its potential welfare consequences, three groups of dogs were compared while the shock collars were used by experienced trainers and as specified by the manufacturers: group A dogs were trained with shock collars, by trainers experienced in their use, group B dogs were equipped with dummy collars and trained by professionals experienced in the use of shock collars and group C dogs were trained by APDT trainers through positive reinforcement and no shock collar (AW1402a).
In general, the dogs from group C spent more time exploring their environment were less tense and yawned less than the dogs in the two other groups. The dogs from groups A and B carried their tail low more often, yelped more often, panted more and moved away from the trainer more often than those of group C.
This study also showed that the trainer’s general approach, as well as the tools that they use, affect the dog’s emotional response to training. When dogs are trained through more traditional methods, they show more signs of stress, anxiety and aversion than when trained through positive reinforcement techniques. Even when used by professional and experienced trainers, the researchers conclude that using shock collars did have negative consequences on some dogs during training.
Finally, this study also pointed to the fact that using shock collars along with treats did not make a difference in the efficacy of the training over using treats alone. This was true even for livestock chasing protocols, which is one of the most common reasons for using such devices.
Using shock collars on dogs may be effective in training or treating certain problematic behaviors. But if their efficacy is not better than reward based training alone and presents physical and emotional risks to some dogs, their use altogether becomes highly questionable. The results from these studies point out, that at the very least, such devices do indeed have welfare implication on the dogs and should not be available to the public at large. Their ease of use and immediate efficiency over more time-consuming reward based protocols make them very attractive to the user. Unfortunately, they may force the dog into behaving a certain way but they do not address the underlying reason for the problem in the first place. Inducing fear and discomfort also has the potential to cause further behavior issues. Other methods are just as efficient, do not increase the chances of problematic behaviors to develop, promote a desire to respond and enhance the relationship between humans and their dogs. For all those reasons, many animal welfare organizations, including the Kennel Club are now pushing for the ban of shock collars in the UK.
Jennifer Cattet Ph.D.