APBC Enlightens Scottish Parliament
On the invitation of the SSPCA (Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals), in response to a presentation by the ECMA (Electric Collar Manufacturers Association), APBC member David Ryan recently enlightened members of The Scottish Parliament Cross-Party Animal Welfare Group when he talked to them about the dangers and welfare implications of using electric shock collars to ‘train’ dogs. A Police Dog Trainer and handler for over twenty five years, David explained that for an electric shock collar to work it must fulfil certain criteria.
It must be contiguous. The shock must happen at exactly the same time as the behaviour for maximum effect. It can be extremely difficult, even for professional dog trainers, to accurately assess a dog’s state of mind so precisely that the shock is given just as the dog is starting to think about, for example, chasing sheep. It the dog is shocked a few seconds too late, it may start to associate pain with other external events, such as a child walking by. Sudden pain, such as an electric shock, can cause a fear response which may then stimulate an aggressive reaction.
It must be consistent. The shock must happen every time that the behaviour happens. As with contiguity, the definition of what the dog and trainer/owner are thinking must match. Whilst the owner’s definition may be that the dog is ‘failing to come back when called’, the dog’s definition may be ‘searching for rabbits’, the first time, ‘chasing the cat’, the second time and ‘peeing on the lamppost’ the third time. Therefore, whilst the owner believes that the dog is being shocked for the same thing, i.e., not coming back when called, in the dog’s mind these are three different events.
The shock must be intense enough for the dog to consider it sufficiently aversive to not perform the behaviour again. The correct degree of pain is very difficult to achieve. Some breeds are more touch sensitive than others and there is also variation within breeds. The dog’s emotional state will also dictate at what level it will find pain aversive. When dogs are in a highly charged emotional state, such as predatory chase, they shut down extraneous senses, e.g. the ability to hear. Endorphins released as a consequence of predatory behaviour also increase pain thresholds. The strength of the shock that the dog receives will also be affected by other factors such as how tight the collar is on the dog’s skin, how hairy the dog is, the amount of body fat on the dog, how wet the dog is. Water is a good conductor of electricity and will increase the pain administered, if the dog is wet.
David continued by emphasising that the margin for error and inflicting variable intensities of pain on the dog is extremely high. Even the most highly trained professionals find it difficult to get all these criteria right. If an electric collar does not stop the unwanted behaviour, all that is happening is that pain is being applied to the dog. This has serious welfare implications not only for the dog, but also potentially for people. For example, if an electric shock collar is used to stop a dog chasing cyclists, the dog might link the pain that it receives with the presence of the cyclist and it may then act aggressively towards cyclists, thereby worsening the problem rather than stopping it.
David concluded that since he started training dogs positive reinforcement methods of training have greatly increased. As society becomes more civilised, it is only a matter of time before ‘training’ products that work through causing pain will be banned and that, perhaps, Scotland should take the lead in banning electric shock collars for dogs.
The APBC (Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors) is the leading organisation representing professional pet behaviourists. Its membership specialise in helping dog owners overcome behavioural problems, many of which have developed as a result of misunderstanding the dogs’ natural behaviour and drives.
For more information visit the APBC website at www.apbc.org.uk.