A ban on using electric shock collars is great – but we need to ban sales of aversive devices to protect pets

Claire Stallard, Animal Behaviourist at Blue Cross, explains why we must seize the opportunity to ban the sale and use of electric shock collars and other aversive devices on pets...

News of Defra’s consultation on the use of electric shock collars on dogs and cats is hugely welcome to anyone like me who is passionate about pet welfare. But while Defra has said it intends to ban the use of these collars, it seems unsure about whether to ban the sale and distribution of them. To have any meaningful impact, I believe the law must remove these items from shop shelves and shopping websites. If they are still available to buy, they will still be seen as legitimate to use.

There is no need to use devices that cause pain to train pets - like the prong and spray collars pictured, or electric collars and fences - when kinder methods are available

We have to remember that owners who use these collars do so because they believe they will solve a problem they’ve noticed in their dog. These are owners who are trying to do something to fix the problem and they’ve turned to something that appears to offer a result. Behavioural problems in pets can be immensely stressful to deal with. If you live in a rural area and your dog has a high prey drive, it’s no surprise you will look for a quick solution to stop your pet chasing livestock. Electric collars are marketed as offering this but not only do they work by causing pain, they can – and do – lead to more serious and complex behavioural issues. They might also worsen the relationship between you and your pet. 

By design, electric collars give a shock when an owner or trainer uses a remote control. They, like other aversive training devices, are used to interrupt or stop unwanted behaviour by causing pain, fear, or both, to the animal wearing them. 

The science

We know from recent studies into e-collars that when they are used by the average dog owner, the manufacturers’ guidelines are generally not followed, whether intentionally or unintentionally. Defra-funded research has previously found that electric collars are no more effective in training than positive reinforcement methods, and they also have a negative impact on welfare. Just like us, dogs learn by association and a painful electric shock can have disastrous consequences for the dog. For example if a dog receives an electric shock when he is barking at people because he is scared of them, what will he learn? He’s likely to learn that being in the presence of people equals pain. He might not bark anymore, but the shock has done nothing to improve the way he feels about people - in fact the collar has made things far worse by increasing his fear which may result in him using aggression the next time he sees a person.

Defra-funded research has previously found that electric collars are no more effective in training than positive reinforcement methods, and they also have a negative impact on welfare.

A badly timed shock can easily create new fears that didn’t even exist in the first place. Imagine shocking your dog for running away from you, but at that precise moment your dog happens to be looking at a child. In a heartbeat your dog has paired children with pain and who knows what problems this may lead to. The other pitfall of using such devices is that the dog won’t always understand what it has to do to avoid being shocked – instead the dog begins to fear it coming and becomes distressed and anxious as a result. It’s impossible for a dog to learn anything constructive under these circumstances.

Our duty to protect

We have a responsibility to protect the animals we take into our homes, morally and even legally. The Animal Welfare Act 2006 outlaws causing unnecessary suffering to pets. Without outlawing the sale and distribution of these devices, we can’t enforce a ban on their use. These devices rely on pain to train, and when we have proven alternative ways of tackling behaviour problems, there is no excuse for keeping these on sale. 

Positive relationships built on trust are really important for dogs and we know they can learn fantastically well if trained using kind, reward based methods. With the knowledge that we have now, there is no need to resort to electric shock collars.

If you are struggling with your pet’s behavioural issue, please remember that there are qualified people who can help you without causing pain or distress to your pet. The Animal Behaviour and Training Council can help you find one.

— Page last updated 02/03/2021