Dog Behaviour

Sue Gilmore MA FCFBA

A nation of pet lovers allows the use of electric shock collars: The headline designed to make dog owners wince has certainly hit a nerve. Is it long overdue or another example of our “nanny state” society?

Michael Gove, the Environment Secretary said that “punitive” collars “cause harm and suffering to our pets”. They have been banned in Wales and Scotland for some time. The use of these collars is to modify certain behaviours in animals, for example, aggression towards dogs and people, not coming back when called or straying beyond the boundaries of a property. These collars are activated when a remote control unit activates a receiver worn around then neck of a dog (or other animal). A warning sound usually precedes the electric shock, the level of which can be controlled generally on a scale from mild to strong.

Mr Gove goes on to say: “This ban will improve the welfare of animals and I urge pet owners to instead use positive reward training methods”. Note the use of the word “pet”.

Naturally, when anything is banned there are pros and cons; people in favour and those against. A good example of this is the ban on smoking in public places, even when scientific evidence confirms that smoking kills. The proposed ban on electric shock collars has evoked a similar, if less dramatic, response. Several well known charities have backed the ban, whereas other groups have said that the ban is a mistake and Mr Gove is ignoring counter evidence.

Let’s put this into perspective. Generally speaking, people who own pets would do them no harm, but there are exceptions to any rule. The ban on using electric shock collars will make it difficult to acquire one and is intended to keep them out of the hands of people who wish to train puppies and dogs to obey commands with a shock. There are trainers in America who do this in their classes, which causes the puppy or dog distress and pain. So, the ban is “a good thing” in such circumstances.

Now think of a dog that constantly escapes from its garden and finds whatever is across the road irresistible. Very few vehicles pass by during the day or night, but it only takes one to injure of kill the escapee on a mission. Example: A beautiful black Labrador was fatally injured on one such occasion, despite his owners fortifying their boundaries to keep him in. It could be that if he had been taught that the fence would deliver a warning shock such that it deterred the dog from straying he would still be alive.

Now take another scenario: the services use dogs for many different purposes, particularly security. Their dogs are trained to attack and withdraw on command. They are generally aggressive dogs by nature – you could say they have “attitude”, which is a necessary character trait for them to be able to do the job for which they are trained. In such circumstances, in the hands of professional service and security personnel who train these working dogs, the use of electric shock collars may have a use. They are not training pet dogs. The dogs are used by prison officers, the police, army, RAF, etc., in riot, crowd control or war situations. They have to respond to commands immediately or the prisoner, rioter, terrorist could be fatally injured.

So taking an objective view, the ban on using these shock collars to train pet dogs is to be largely welcomed. It may keep owners who do not have the best interests of their pets at heart from administering pain to achieve a level of obedience or response, but it may also remove a valuable training aid from professional dog trainers whose work includes training dogs to attack people on command and withdrawing immediately on command, too, which is a highly skilled job when dealing with animals in the red zone.

In my view the ban on electric shock collars being legal to use is good. They should not be on sale to the general public in pet stores or on line, although this will be virtually impossible to police since they are available in other countries so could be purchased by UK residents and used clandestinely. Train your dog to respond positively to you and you will not even think about other alternatives.