The Welsh Assembly announced a ban on electronic training collars last week, making Wales the first part of the United Kingdom to impose a ban on the devices. Caroline Kisko of the Kennel Club had this to say:

This is a historic day for animal welfare in Wales….it is truly leading the way and we hope that the rest of the UK will follow by example to outlaw these cruel and unnecessary devices.

There have been calls for similar bans on this side of the pond, where electronic training collars have been in use since the 1960’s. The collars certainly inspire a fair amount of vitriol both here and in Canada. To get a feel for the rhetoric involved, let’s visit a Canadian “anti-shock” website. Perusing the home page, one encounters a number of provocative statements, such as

The animal has no escape. Shock devices are used to control unwanted barking, jumping, running, socializing etc. Sadly, these are normal behaviours that healthy dogs will exhibit and that contribute to a dog’s well being and happiness.

The argument seems to be that the very idea of curtailing any of a dog’s natural behaviors is wrongheaded. Bad news for pretty much all of us.

As for how the collars “work”, the site explains,

The dog is…expected to respond out of fear of further punishment. The problem is many dogs don’t know why they are being shocked and consequently don’t know how to respond. Therefore, when the punishing shock is delivered it causes further confusion.

I need to interject here that fear and confusion do not play a role in any sound or effective training methodology.

Add to this, the potential for defective collars, the unstable vindictive nature of an operator and you’ve set the stage for serious animal abuse.

Personally, I’d tend to think that once “the unstable vindictive nature of an operator” was added to nearly anything, you’d have set the stage for abuse, but maybe I’m setting the bar too low.

Just in case the reader hasn’t caught on to the idea that people who use electronic collars are mean sons-of-bitches, or that perhaps human beings generally do not deserve to own dogs, the author of the site goes on to lament,

Watching their dog wince in pain doesn’t seem to deter them. They seem blind to the flood of information given by credible sources that shock is harmful. Ultimately, it is their degree of respect for living beings that determines if they can stomach hurting animals.

All human beings are volatile creatures. Consider the daily display of road rage for example. Is there a driver who hasn’t been given the finger or flashed one at someone else? Domestic violence, family squabbles, schoolyard bullying and hate crimes are all everyday occurrences. You are deceiving yourself if you believe that people in control of a weapon like a shock collar would not use it out of anger and frustration. After all, it is the frustrated dog owner who seeks out these devices. Most shock users agree that abuse is possible but each one feels they are the “responsible” one. The plain fact is, some people are not cut out to be pet owners.

Some people aren’t cut out to craft logical arguments, either. But we still allow them to set up their very own websites.

What civilized person would allow a painful tool to be used on their animal that they would not allow to be used on their child?

If I’m understanding that last bit correctly, I shouldn’t do anything to a dog I wouldn’t do to a child, begging the question of what if any training aids a civilized person might use, or even where one might house a dog or how one might lead it about (I don’t care what anyone says, those leashes they sell for kids are seriously creepy).

Worst of all, even the most civilized and responsible among us need be concerned about “unintentional rogue shocks caused by device malfunction”, of which the site states,

The outcome will be a dog with a broken spirit and a fear of expression. A dog transformed from joyful and loving to paranoid and unpredictable.

No sir, the decent folks of Canada wouldn’t want that.

I admit it is a bit unfair to poke fun at such baseless hyperbole, so let me explain why I picked this website (which incidentally has a photo insert of baby dolls with shock collars strapped around their necks on its home page) as a representation of “anti-shock” rhetoric. I chose it because a very well known dog trainer, the author of several books in fact (one of which I not only own but refer to occasionally), and an otherwise intelligent woman so far as I can tell, recommended it as a “good anti-shock website”.

For the record, I fully appreciate the revulsion people feel when contemplating animal abuse, and am not wholly unsympathetic to the discomfort many people have with the popularity of these devices. Nor do I deny their significant potential for misuse. Personally, I wince a little each time I pass by the electronic collar display at Pet Smart. But then, I wince at the display of retractable leashes and formaldehyde laden rawhides as well.

I likewise respect the desire to keep them out of the hands of bad people, or even well-intentioned but unknowledgeable people, on the basis of their capacity to do real harm when used unethically or unskillfully. And I will go so far as saying that there are legitimate arguments (not to say I am in agreement) to be made for restricting or regulating their sale, or at minimum discouraging their widespread and casual use.

But, I believe there are far more compelling arguments to be made for holding ourselves to a high level of discourse when discussing subjects as important as animal welfare and the rights of animal owners. Passion, even outrage, is understandable. But neither gives one license to make false claims and specious arguments. Failing, whether deliberately or not, to distinguish between abuse and responsible use is misleading; fear-mongering is never called for.

Perhaps it would be helpful to look to a more ‘credible’ source for solid information regarding electronic collars, perhaps an authority on animal behavior, one with impressive credentials. After all, a website is one thing, a PhD is another.

An individual whose opinions on animal welfare, behavior, training, and electronic training collars are frequently cited is Dr. Karen Overall, VMD, PhD, Diplomate ACVB. By the way, she is also a certified Applied Animal Behaviorist. Gee, isn’t that the gold standard? I bet someone as famous and learned as Dr. Overall would have nothing but highly intelligent and erudite things to say on the subject of electronic training collars. Let’s see…

In An Open Letter from Dr Karen Overall regarding the use of shock collars, published in December of 2005, the esteemed Dr. Overall opens with her long held opinion that

there is never any reason for pets to be shocked as a part of therapy or treatment.

I’m not sure whether she classifies training in her mind under therapy or treatment, but then, she isn’t actually a dog trainer, so I suppose it’s understandable if her language when referring to training is less than perfectly natural or crisp. Nonetheless, her opinion is crystaline:

Let me make my opinion perfectly clear: Shock is not training– in the vast majority of cases it meets the criteria for abuse.

Gosh, that’s a bold statement. Of course, on the one hand, I’d have to agree: Shock is not in fact training any more than tossing a piece of steak at a dog is training, unless some meaning is attached to it (this is where being a dog trainer helps one to analyze these matters). On the other, I have to wonder how Dr. Overall, who presumably eschews “shock” collars herself, has achieved enough familiarity with electronic collar training methods and protocols to declare that in the vast majority of cases such training rates as abuse, particularly when many trainers use very low levels of electronic stimulation nearly exclusively.

Certainly, Dr. Overall would not fashion such a strident opinion out of whole cloth: she must have a great deal of science to back it up. And indeed she does. In her words,

There are now terrific scientific and research data that show the harm that shock collars can do behaviorally.

Hold on a moment–the harm that shock collars can do, or the harm (nay, abuse) that they do do in the vast majority of cases? Which is it?

Dr. Overall cites a pair of studies, one by Schilder and van der Borg (2003) and another, new at the time, by Schalke, Stichnoth, Ott and Jones-Baade (2006). There are both older and newer studies, but let’s look at those two, since presumably they represent a good portion of the “terrific scientific and research data” that informs Dr. Overall’s expert opinion.

According to a paper produced for 2007 publication by the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants titled Electronic Training Devices: A Review of Current Literature (Jo Jacques, CPDT, CPCT and Myers, CDBC), the goal of the Schilder and van der Borg study was

to determine the behavioral changes in dogs during training using electronic training collars.

According to Jacques and Myers, the study comprised thirty-two dogs divided into two groups. Each received general obedience and protection training. One group was trained using electronic collars, the other without. They state,

The authors concluded that shock-collar training is stressful; that receiving shocks is a painful experience to dogs; and the shock group of dogs evidently learned that the presence of their owner (or his commands) announced the reception of shocks, even outside of the normal training context. They suggest that the welfare of these shocked dogs is at stake….

Yikes. But there is one small problem. According to Electronic Training Devices: A Review of Current Literature,

This study has come under considerable fire because the experience of the handlers and dogs is not clear, and the level of shock is not stated.

Are you kidding me?! I found this a little hard to believe, so had a look-see at the study itself. From the section titled Materials and Methods:

All of these dogs were adult German Shepherds. Sixteen dogs (2 females, 14 males) had received shocks during training and 15 dogs (3 females, 12 males), that never had received shocks, were control dogs. Some control dogs were trained on the same training grounds and with the same trainer as some shocked dogs. These 31 dogs, their handlers and their trainers belonged to five different training groups, spread over the Netherlands. The group of 31 dogs was used not only to study direct behavioural effects of shocks, but also to compare the behaviour of shocked versus control dogs. We had no influence upon the methods and aids the trainers used during the training sessions we observed.

But this is my favorite part of that section:

To assess direct effects, we filmed training sessions on videotape using a Canon UC-X30 Hi-8 camera with 40digital zoom, and analysed these tapes later on, using standard video equipment.

That’s right, the authors take pains to detail what camera equipment they employed, while saying not one word about the electronic training collars, stimulation levels, or methods that were used. Very scientific, scientist guys. In fact, no information is given regarding training methods until the Discussion section. That is where we discover the following assertions regarding police and guard dog training generally:

First, this type of training is typically and traditionally work by and for men: it is mostly men, that do these trainings and they have been doing it their way and successfully for many years. Men mostly are harder on animals than women, men may be perceived as more threatening than females (Wells and Hepper, 1999; Hennesy et al., 1997). Secondly, training time is too short. Thirdly, prestige is an important factor: championships or high rankings count heavily. All this promotes severe punishment in order to get quick results.

And, to the question of electronic collars and animal welfare, that the

effects of the electric collar, at least when used in a harsh way, may be visible outside the training area. The most likely factor here is the presence of the handler.

In other words, dogs trained by brutal men overly concerned with prestige in too short of a time using shocks of unknown (and presumably unlimited) strength and duration, at least in a harsh way, can suffer visible fallout, and in fact appear to have suffered more fallout in this case than dogs trained with other methods or equipment.

That is about all I am personally able to draw from the study, but let’s see what the authors themselves were able to glean:

To the question of whether shocks are painful or merely annoying, they argue,

All in all these responses show that shocks elicit fear and pain responses.

And under Conclusions and Recommendations they confidently state,

We concluded that shocks received during training are not only unpleasant but also painful and frightening.

I am not a scientist, which may be why I have so much trouble wrapping my brain around how one could presume to ask the question of whether shocks are painful or merely annoying, much less answer it, without any discussion of what level or duration of electronic stimulation caused the behaviors documented.

According to the often cited Handbook of Applied Dog Behavior and Training: Procedures and Protocols, Vol. 3 (Lindsay 2005), high-level electronic shock causes a neurological response and a perception of pain (although no physical damage), but low-level electric shock causes tapping, tickling, and/or tingling sensations. And Schindler and van der Borg themselves point out that shocks may last anywhere between 1/1000 of a second to 30 seconds. Do they not imagine a dog might perceive a low-level shock lasting 1/1000 of a second somewhat differently from a high-level shock lasting up to 30 seconds? If they do, they certainly keep that to themselves.

Well, let’s look at that other study. Maybe it’s the terrific one.

The title certainly gets my attention: Clinical signs caused by the use of electric training collars in everyday situations. And I am excited to see that the authors took the trouble to outline the training equipment they used, which in all cases was the Teletakt micro 3000 (ohm levels of 500 to 2.2 kohm). The Abstract states,

The aim of this study was to investigate whether any stress is caused by the use of electric shock collars or not and in this way to contribute to their evaluation with respect to animal welfare.

Three applications of electronic stimulation were included in the experiment:

  1. The elimination of hunting behavior
  2. Punishment of a dog disobeying a verbal recall from prey
  3. Random shocks (to simulate inappropriate owner use)

Now, I can buy those as examples of real life situations, but they are hardly representative. None of the above situations involves negative reinforcement, which certainly accounts for a huge portion of all electronic collar training and very possibly comprises the majority of it.

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The subjects of the experiment were fourteen laboratory bred beagles (a frightening concept in and of itself), who prior to the study

only had contact with humans during the daily feeding and grooming routines. They were not accustomed to being separated from their kennel mates.

Hmm. This is sounding less and less like an “everyday situation” to me.

Returning to equipment, the authors note that the Teletekt collars have five stimulation levels. As far as what levels of stimulation were actually used in their reconstruction of “situations that often occur in dog training”, the following line of impenetrable reasoning is offered:

In this investigation the device was run at level 5 in all of the experiments. This level was chosen in order to investigate the dogs’ reactions under the highest electric pulse and as such the worst condition possible.

Funny how they didn’t mention that in the beginning. And also, are these people sadistic?!

I feel compelled to note that in the years I have trained dogs professionally, attended seminars, read journals and books, worked alongside other trainers, and participated in public and professional forums, I have yet to encounter anyone who felt it acceptable to subject a dog to nothing but the highest setting on an electronic collar right out of the box and in every context. At least, I had not before now.

Coincidentally, the authors of Electronic Training Devices: A Review of Current Literature did not think this worth mentioning either. They are, however, careful to include the following statement from the researchers:

This study indicates that the general use of electronic shock collars is not consistent with animal welfare.

Strange, I missed that sentence, because it does not appear anywhere in the actual study. What is stated is this:

The results of this study suggest that poor timing in the application of high level electric pulses, such as those used in this study, means there is a high risk that dogs will show severe and  persistent stress symptoms.

And that is indeed all that the study shows. Even when subjected to the highest level of shock first time out of the box (no collar conditioning whatsoever), neither of the groups in which shocks were doled out in association with some identifiable behavior demonstrated remarkable stress symptoms. And in fact, those beagles shocked in conjunction with touching prey (the scenario in which the way to avoid punishment would have been the most obvious) showed entirely negligible stress symptoms.

I’m not sure Schalke et al. contributed very much to the evaluation of electronic collars with regard to animal welfare, but they for sure demonstrated that beagles would be better off if there were four fewer behavior scientists. Which reminds me, I’ve always wondered how it is that using shock to train a dog is widely considered inhumane, while using shock to earn a degree raises very few eyebrows.

So, are these two studies outliers in a field of otherwise impressive research? Afraid not. Even the authors of Electronic Training Devices: A Review of Current Literature, in contemplating the body of relevant scientific research, admit that

most studies involving dogs have discernible methodological weaknesses.

As you may have guessed, I use electronic training collars in my own training practice with some regularity, although they have never been my mainstay. I actually prefer the term “remote collar”, not so much because it sounds more friendly, but because the fact that the collars operate remotely, allowing hands-off and off-leash communication, is more essential to their utility than the fact that they operate electronically or produce electronic stimulation.

I could launch into a fair discussion of that utility, recounting true stories of the effectiveness of gentle remote communication. I will do at some point. But right now I am less interested in making that argument as in making a simple, straightforward plea to all of us to raise the standard of discourse regarding electronic collars beyond the intellectually sloppy, overly politicized language that currently prevails.

In the words of Dr. Karen Overall,

It’s time we replaced everyone’s personal mythologies and opinions with data and scientific thinking.

There is no longer a reason for people to be misinformed.

My thoughts exactly.

© Ruth Crisler and Spot Check, 2010.

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