Shock tactics: can electric dog collars ever be ethical?

Last year, the government announced plans to ban remote-control collars – but even a dog-owning minister is using one. So what is the truth about these training aids?

Is it cruel to give your pet electric shocks? Just little ones? The work and pensions secretary, Thérèse Coffey, has come under fire for using one on her beagle-pug cross, Lola, which reportedly kept trying to attack other dogs. She spoke to Steve Andrews, a Suffolk dog trainer, who recommended an electric collar to help control Lola’s behaviour. This seemed to work, and Andrews has since asked Coffey to help to overturn the government’s plans for a ban on remote-control collars. Awkwardly, the plans were announced by Michael Gove last year, when Coffey was a minister in his department. “Thérèse’s dog responds on setting 11 [out of 100],” Andrews told the Eastern Daily Press. “She felt what that was like and could feel nothing … This is not cruel. Thérèse and her family are dog lovers doing the best for their pet.”
But is he right? Aversive training methods, and electric collars in particular, are opposed by the RSPCA, the Kennel Club, the Animal Behaviour and Training Council and the British Veterinary Association (BVA). Research commissioned by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs found that shock collars cause stress and don’t train dogs any more effectively than the alternatives. To be blunt, aversive training doesn’t work because dogs are less intelligent than people. “If you shock your dog and, let’s say, a bird is tweeting nearby, it might think: ‘That bird has shocked me,’” Holly Conway of the Kennel Club explains. “The dog doesn’t know what it’s doing that’s unwanted, and associates the shock with something else.”

INTERESTING FACT ABOUT YOUR PET: One survey found that 81 percent of cat owners let their felines sleep on the bed, compared to 73 percent of dog owners.

Shock collars can influence a dog’s behaviour for the better, but the effect is unpredictable, and not always a success. While some dogs submit when they feel a shock, others react aggressively, making matters worse. “Even when applied at a low level, electric pulses from these aversive shock collars can produce that anxiety reaction in dogs, and may also have long-term adverse effects on their behaviour and emotional responses,” says Daniella Dos Santos, incoming president of the BVA. “In any case, there is a large body of evidence that positive training methods are more effective.”
If a dog has problems, Dos Santos advises owners to talk to a vet, who can recommend a behaviourist. A rewards-based training system has been shown to get the best results. Meanwhile, research continues on how to control the behaviour of politicians.