Shock horror: electric shock collars

04 Oct 2018
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With Scotland and England both announcing a ban in recent months on electric shock collars for dogs, you might be wondering why these countries have decided to ban dog collars. Electric shock collars, also known as ‘e-collars’, are an aversive behaviour-modifying collar which delivers an electric shock or impulse to a dog’s neck when activated. These collars have been shown to cause both pain and fear, and for this reason, the Australian Veterinary Association does not support their use on animals.

What are ‘e-collars’?

Although the term ‘e-collar’ is often used to describe the plastic ‘cone of shame’ sometimes offered after a pet undergoes surgery, in this context an e-collar is an electric shock collar. Shock collars fall under the category of behaviour-modifying collars, of which there are three main types:

  1. Manual collars
    Activated by a remote hand-held transmitter, these collars are remotely controlled with a shock delivered whenever the operator presses the activate button. These collars can often be set at different levels of intensity, meaning the electric shock delivered to a dog can often be quite severe. Manual collars are often used as a training aid, however, they rely completely on the operator to exercise judicious use.
     
  2. Anti-bark collars
    Likely the most well-known of the behaviour-modifying collars, anti-bark collars are activated whenever the dog barks. These collars may deliver an electric shock, sometimes increasing in intensity if the dog barks multiple times in a short period. They may also use other aversive substances such as citronella instead of electric shocks. These collars utilise a vibration sensor, microphone or a combination of both to detect barking. Anti-bark collars are often used to combat problematic barking.

  3. Containment devices
    Often called ‘invisible fences’, these electric shock collars are activated when the dog comes in close proximity with a wire placed around the boundary of a property. They are designed to keep animals within a certain area, and often utilise a noise before the shock to warn the animal of their proximity to the wire. This noise allows animals to associate the noise with the shock, allowing them to learn about the boundary and avoid the shock. These collars aren’t always effective at keeping a dog contained, as some dogs will endure the shock if they are strongly motivated to escape, such as in the case of separation anxiety.

Reasons for use

As outlined above, there are several different types of shock collars on the market. People might reach for them when they are training their dog or trying to stop problem barking. Containment collars are used to restrict dogs without a physical barrier. Unfortunately, these collars rely on negative or aversive techniques to change behaviour. These techniques cause pain and distress. Additionally, issues like problem barking often have underlying causes which are unable to be treated with these devices.

The issues

Electric shock collars often deliver immediate results. However, these results are underpinned by serious consequences. It has been established in the scientific literature that the shocks delivered by e-collars are not just unpleasant, but also painful and frightening for dogs. The pain and fear generated by these shocks go beyond short-term suffering and has been shown to cause long-term stress. Dogs subjected to these collars can develop conditions such as anxiety, reduced motivation, learned helplessness, increased and redirected aggression and can cause the underlying problem to become worse over time.

Many of these collars can be set at different ‘intensity levels’, which means that the degree of shock and pain able to be delivered can be quite severe. In the hands of inexperienced trainers and owners, the harm enabled by electric shock collars is significant. It has been demonstrated that the use of punishment in training is actually associated with an increase in problematic behaviours, as well as a reduction in owner satisfaction with an animal’s behaviour. 

Legality

Although the use of electric shock collars is illegal in New South Wales, South Australia, and the Australian Capital Territory, they are able to be used in all other states and territories, although often with restrictions on use.

Alternatives to shock collars

Research has demonstrated that positive reinforcement training using rewards are more effective than punishment-based methods. Positive reinforcement training also builds a relationship based on trust between a dog and its owner, which makes for a more satisfying partnership.

It’s important to remember that barking is a normal part of being a dog. Dogs bark when excited, when seeking attention or guarding their territory. The motivation behind problematic barking needs to be investigated, as excessive barking can often be a sign of an underlying problem. Conditions like generalised anxiety and separation anxiety may lead to problem barking, which would remain untreated if masked with an anti-barking collar. A dog with anxiety that stops barking because of an anti-bark collar will still be in distress. If you suspect your dog may have anxiety or are worried about problematic barking, see your vet for assistance. There are many treatments available for anxiety and separation anxiety that don’t require punishment or aversive techniques.

Regardless of the reasons why electric shock collars are used, it’s important to understand that any results gained are the result of pain and distress. Part of responsible pet ownership is caring and protecting your pet from unnecessary pain and suffering. Using electric shock collars, when alternative training techniques are available, is difficult to justify. If you need help training your dog, are worried about problematic barking or would like to know other ways of keeping your pet contained on your property, make an appointment to see your local vet. They will be able to point you in the right direction and help you maintain a trusting relationship with your dog.

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