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Is It Time to Ban Shock Collars for Dogs In All Situations?

Is there any wiggle room concerning the use of e-collars in certain contexts?

This post is in response to
What and Who Dogs Want and Need: Love, Not Shocks

Members of ESVCE [European Society of Veterinary Clinical Ethology] strongly oppose the use of e-collars in dog training

Causing pain to dogs by inappropriate training methods is clearly completely unacceptable and I want there to be no doubt that painful or unpleasant training for dogs will not be tolerated." (Scotland's Environment Secretary, Roseanna Cunningham)

"When taking all aforementioned points into account, training with e-collars is associated with numerous well-documented risks concerning dog health, behavior, and welfare. ESVCE members argue that there is no credible scientific evidence to justify e-collar use and the use of spray collars or electronic fences for dogs. On the contrary, there are many reasons to never use these devices. Better training options exist, with proven efficacy and low risk exist (sic)." (Sylvia Masson et al. 2018)

A recent essay (available for free online) by Dr. Zazie Todd titled "Study outlines reasons to ban electronic collars for dogs" caught my eyes and those of many others, some of whom wrote to me and asked me what I thought of it. I found it to be very informative and thought provoking and I'm glad she took the time to write a thorough review of the issues at hand. The research paper (not yet available online, but I've been able to read it) by Sylvia Masson and an international group of colleagues which Dr. Todd nicely summarizes is called "Electronic training devices: Discussion on the pros and cons of their use in dogs as a basis for the position statement of the European Society of Veterinary Clinical Ethology." In their analysis, the authors consider three types of electric collars (e-collars) also called shock collars and e-stim, namely:

-- Antibark collars that operate automatically in response to the dog barking: the vibrations produced by the larynx are detected by a sensor on the collar and the dog is shocked.

-- Electronic boundary fences that are activated by a radio signal transmitted from a remote wire, buried underground on the perimeter of an owner’s property.

-- Remote-controlled collars that can be activated manually via a remote-controlled transmitter.

Based on their review of available literature, the researchers express serious concerns about the use of e-collars. I quote them here because their essay is not available online. They write:

"When evaluating efficacy, no study shows a superior efficacy when comparing an e-collar to positive reinforcement training." "In the literature reviews discussed previously, the scientific data examined do not support the popular belief that e-collars are more effective generally, nor does the data support their use as a last resort technique where other methods have failed."

"E-collars are seen as an 'easy fix' (even if, as demonstrated previously, they are not). This impression neglects a preferable approach that would seek to understand the mechanisms of canine behavior on every level which cause undesirable behavior and then identify a successful and welfare compatible resolution (Schiller and Van Der Borg, 2007)."

"E-collars are not recommended for the treatment of behavior problems because they do not take into consideration the root cause of the problems."

Concerning spray collars and electronic boundary fences, they write, "if at all, spray collars should be used under veterinary or qualified behavioral supervision instead of bark activated collars and remote-controlled collars. This would allow the cause of the behavior problem to be addressed and not just the nonspecific sign or symptom. Electronic boundary fences carry the same risk already mentioned with e-collars and automatically activated spray collars." [Dr. Todd points out that one study found a higher risk of escape with electronic fences compared to a physical fence.]

Their final conclusion reads, "Members of ESVCE [European Society of Veterinary Clinical Ethology] strongly oppose the use of e-collars in dog training, using the previously stated arguments as a basis for our position, and we urge all European countries to take an interest in and position on this welfare matter."

Readers weigh in with differing views about the use of e-collars

I shared Dr. Todd's piece with approximately 6000 people, some of whom wrote to me about their views about the use of shock collars. I'm writing this brief essay because of the very different responses and wide-ranging views I received about whether or not it's okay to use shock collars on dogs, and because they raise some very important points for further discussion.

Needless to say, people were understandably very passionate about how they felt. The vast majority of the responses I received were strongly against the use of all types of shocking, not only the use of e-collars specifically. In addition to the ESVCE calling for the ban of e-collars, they note that Scotland has banned the use of shock collars and that similar legislation is being considered elsewhere. Many feel "It's the easy way out," "It's inhumane and not necessary if the dog is raised properly," "It allows people to shirk their responsibility for giving their companions a good life," "Using shock collars ignores that some people are too lazy or not present enough to properly train their dog," "It fosters irresponsible ownership," and "It's f____d up and we have no idea about the long-term effects and it should be stopped altogether."

"I don't support shocking dogs but..."

"Here is the moral dilemma faced thousand of times a day across the US. When you don't use this tool the dog dies. Is killing the dog less harmful?"

Some people's responses were sort of middle-of-the-road -- "I don't support shocking dogs but..." -- in that it was okay to use e-collars in certain instances but not in others. Some noted that while they hate collars, they support their use in very rare circumstances, especially in shelters where they could mean a life-death difference. Others also were hesitant to support the use of shock collars carte blanche, and focused on the intensity of the shock and how frequently shocking was used. Most recognized that there really is "no science" for these variables and that it might be impossible to gather useful data because of large individual differences among the dogs.

One person sent a very thoughtful set of replies that cover a lot of ground, and I've pieced them together here because they raise many questions that need to be thoroughly discussed. They wrote, "Never say never. Most municipal animal shelters have a few hours to, if lucky, a few day to correct behavior that if left uncorrected will make the dog 'un-adoptable' and will result in the dog's euthanasia. I make my employees use these tools on themselves so they know how to set at lowest levels, which is more of a tickle than a shock, but it gets the dog's attention and it saves his life. Any tool can be misused and that should never be tolerated. These tools are rarely needed, and should never be used by a novice unfamiliar with canine behavior, but when needed and used properly and humanely, they can save lives! I would tend to agree this tool probably never needs to be used on a pet as you have all the time in the world to correct. I'm only talking about its value as a tool in an overcrowded shelter, with behaviorally challenged dogs, overworked staff, insufficient budgets, etc. Finding life saving tools that work are invaluable in my world... Again, I emphasize, their use is very rare. Here is the moral dilemma faced thousand of times a day across the US. When you don't use this tool the dog dies. Is killing the dog less harmful? I prefer to choose life unless the dog is dangerously aggressive and unsafe in civilized society or irremediably suffering."

Along these lines, years ago, when I lived in the mountains outside of Boulder, I had a neighbor who bought a shock collar, zapped herself, used the same mild setting on a dog she had rescued who occasionally ran off of her land. After one shock, he never ran away again. However, when I told a trainer this story, they were very clear that they could have used positive training as effectively, and that there was absolutely no reason to mildly shock the dog, even once.

All in all, then, some of the variables that some people argue must be taken into account if shocking is to be used include context and who's doing the shocking -- shocking sheltered dogs versus homed dogs, how experienced are those who use e-collars, and have they ever shocked themselves? But there are some people who are adamant that there is never a reason to use e-collars.

To shock or not to shock: Where to from here?

Clearly, there are two or more sides about the use of shock collars, and the slippery slope for some people is extremely greasy. While there are data that show that shocking isn't all that effective for homed dogs, we don't know how effective it is for sheltered dogs. While I've been told by someone that their use does seem to help some dogs get adopted, I haven't seen any actual data for this claim and there don't seem to be any longitudinal studies of any length that specifically look at the long-term effects of using shocks, however mild, strong, or frequently, on these individuals once they're out the door of the shelter. It surely would be very useful and interesting to have some data that might inform the question about if it's okay to treat some shelter dogs this way. I fully know there are confounding variables such as who the dog is, who the human(s) is who takes them home, the nature of their relationship, and specific details about how they're shocked. Nonetheless, some data would be useful, and I was surprised to learn there are none. One veterinarian told me that many dogs at shelters suffer from extreme fear and may be experiencing pain, and that shocking them causes more problems because of their fragile emotional state. Another wrote that "shocking shelter dogs is never an alternative." In the past week I've received a number of emails along these lines, namely, that shelter dogs should never be shocked at all and this possibility "should be shelved forever."

The thoughtful comments I pieced together about sheltered dogs gave me a little pause, and I hope others will weigh in on whether shock collars should ever be used. Open and polite discussion is essential, and I have to say that on occasion some of the comments I receive are not user-friendly. While it's okay to argue against one's position, it's useless to attack them as a person. I look forward to further civil discussions on whether or not shock collars should be banned across the board.

My own take is that shock collars should be banned for homed dogs and I would like to know more about their use on sheltered dogs. Given the emails I've received since this essay was published, I frankly and strongly lean toward an overall ban, but a very few of the comments I received made me reflect on time sensitive "life versus likely or sure death" situations for at least some -- a very few -- sheltered dogs. Nonetheless, I want to be very clear that if I had to make one single comprehensive choice, I would advocate for banning shock collars across the board. I take some solace in that a good number of people who wrote to me took the same position. However, I hope this essay makes it clear that for some thoughtful and caring people there is a slight bit of wiggle room, whereas for others there is absolutely none.

Please stay tuned for discussion about this incredibly important topic. The well-being of dogs rests on our decisions about what to do to give them the best lives possible in a human-dominated world. My overall conclusion in Canine Confidential: Why Dogs Do What They Do is that we are most fortunate to have dogs in our lives, and we must work for the day when all dogs are most fortunate to have us in their lives. In the long run, we’ll all be better for it, and it'll be a win-win for all.

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