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Grumpy tech guy: Shock collars shouldn't be on shop shelves

By Patrick Pilcher
Mon 19 Sep 2016
FYI, this story is more than a year old

I love it when my two biggest passions (that’s gadgetry and my two greyhounds) come together. Unfortunately, technology and pets don’t always mix in good ways. Last week I discovered that Animates pet stores are selling electronic dog collars.

Electronic dog collars may sound harmless. They're not. The term “electronic dog collars” is actually a euphemism for electric shock collars which have been linked to some nasty dog injuries.

How do they work?

Shock collars use a low current and a high voltage to administer shocks intended to startle a dog out of a given behaviour.  Some can detect barking and will beep/vibrate when the dog barks. If the dog continues to bark, it electrocutes them. Others beep, vibrate and then shock if the dog strays past a predefined boundary. Most can be set to shock at different intensities and used with a remote controller.

Many countries have banned them, citing welfare concerns. Not New Zealand. Treatme.co.nz were selling them, but pulled them from sale after a public outcry. Animates are also selling them. They refuse to stop despite a growing pile of evidence highlighting their dangers to dogs and a lack of positive training outcomes from using them.

Query

I emailed Animates to ask why they're selling electric shock collars. I also asked if they would consider removing them from sale.

Credit where credit is due, Animates promptly came back, saying they’d investigate. Their second email reply is sadly little more than a justification for selling shock collars.

Response

Here’s what they said:

 “Thank you for getting back in contact with us.

Animates are very passionate about the welfare of pets and do not sell products that we deem inhumane. We are aware of some concerns around electronic collars and their usage.

However, we do stand behind Petsafe Anti-Bark Collars for the reasons outlined below, and provide ongoing training for our team members to ensure that the right collar is recommended as appropriate for the dogs' behaviour/size/age and importantly, that the collars are used correctly.

Also, many of our team members have personally experienced the sensation that a static collar emits, which is unpleasant, but not painful.”

Based on a growing body of evidence from studies conducted by scientists, dog trainers and canine behaviourists, the negatives of shock collars outweigh their positives.  Selling them also conflicts with any claims of being passionate about animal welfare.

While Animates say their team members have experienced shocks administered from the collars, the reality is that Animates staff are sentient human beings. They’re aware that they’re about to get a jolt. It mightn’t be all that scary for a human, but for an unsuspecting dog it’s probably terrifying.

The next part of their response was titled “WHY DO WE NEED THEM?”. They went on to say:

“Inappropriate animal behaviour is a significant issue for the public and in many cases, it can cause a threat to public safety. Electronic collars can be used to correct many nuisance behaviours, which could otherwise result in the euthanasia of animals.

In fact, Petsafe has received many testimonials from users claiming that the collar they purchased had shock collar effectiveness

These sort of statements are commonly made by shock collar advocates. They also puzzle me. On one hand Animates claim shock collars don’t hurt, but then they say it’s a last resort to prevent the “euthanasia of animals”. You'd think that one statement contradicts the other. If administering shocks is so painless, why are they only used as a last resort?

Findings from a study funded by DEFRA (the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs) in the UK contradicts claims around the effectiveness and pain from shock collars. 

The DEFRA study found  “evidence that use of e-collars negatively impacted on the welfare of some dogs during training even when training was conducted by professional trainers using relatively benign training programmes advised by e-collar advocates.”

These finding are not the rantings of a fringe animal rights group, but a branch of the UK government.

Surely a more compassionate, not to mention effective approach could involve encouraging dog owners to take their dogs to obedience classes. Educating and encouraging dog owners rather than selling a quick fix that causes more problems than it solves has to be a good thing.

Research conducted by impartial canine experts from the Pet Professional guild (who represent the world’s top dog trainers, pet care and canine behaviourists) found that the use of electric shock collars can cause unpredictable aggression and poor training outcomes, not to mention psychological harm and even physical injury to dogs. Just how any of this could be described as a good outcome mystifies me.

If their “do we need them” response left me stunned, their response around shock collar effectiveness astounded. Here’s what they said:

“EFFICACY

Anti-bark collars are activated by vibrations from a dog's bark. The success rate of electronic collars in solving behavioural problems is well documented. A research study in Hanover, Germany was conducted to identify efficacy between different training methods - a pinch collar, an electronic collar and a quitting signal. The test was conducted on forty-two police dogs and the measures were the behavioural reactions and the salivary cortisol levels (stress measure). Of the three methods, the electronic collar was the least stressful and most effective.”

I did some fact checking, and it turns out that a good many pro shock collar studies are funded by collar manufacturers. This plus the fact that most trainers are so repulsed at the thought of electrocuting an animal for study that they refuse to take part makes me more than a little dubious of the findings quoted by Animates.

A significantly more credible view comes from The Pet Professional guild. As mentioned earlier, they represent the world’s top Dog Trainers, canine Behavioural Consultants, Pet Care Service Providers and Veterinarians. Where studies funded by collar manufacturers have an agenda (selling shock collars), the guild's focus is only on animal welfare. They’ve looked into electric shock collars and what they found was appalling.

Stress and Pain

The guild found that even with electric shock collars set to their lowest shock intensity, they “present an unknown stimulus to pets which, when not paired with a positive stimulus, at best is neutral and at worst is frightening/painful to the animal”.

Dogs trained with electric shock collars are often emotionally and mentally shut down. They will work slowly deliberately as they usually don’t know which actions will lead to another electric shock. Imagine the international outcry if we did this to children? So why is it acceptable to do this to pets?

The guild concludes that electric shock collars cause “physiological pain and psychological stress to the animal, often exhibited by vocalisation, urination, defecation, fleeing and complete shut-down. In extreme cases, electronic stimulation devices may burn animal tissue”.

If Animates cared about animal welfare as they claimed, they’d be horrified by this.

The silly thing is that in most instances, better alternatives exist. Instead of selling hardware that trains through fear and pain, wouldn’t it be better if Animates to sponsored canine obedience clubs who emphasised the use of reward-based training? Is it just me or does rewarding your dog so it actually wants to adopt a particular behaviour a million times more humane than electrocuting them?

The guild also found that inexperienced users (members of the public rather than professional trainers) often increased voltage levels and the amount of shocks to get results.

Escalating the severity and frequency of shocks can lead to a Dog becoming “habituated”. IN essence, the dog becomes almost immune to shocks. This in turn leads to shocks being set at higher intensities and applied more often. It’s a dangerous spiral that the guild says can lead to increased cortisol (stress hormone) levels and rapid heart rates. This is both worrying and at odds with the Hannover study quoted by Animates.

Negative outcomes

If a dog is frequently shocked, the guild found they “may go into a state of “learned helplessness”. How is this ever a good outcome?

More worrying is the potential for aggression. According to the guild, aggression can come about from the use of an electric shock collar. They found that “dogs trained to honour the boundaries of an electronic boundary (also referred to an “underground” or “invisible” fence) will approach- a stranger on the other side of the boundary and encounter- the painful/frightening stimulus. Repeated instances of this will generalise to the dog fleeing or acting aggressively toward strangers on the other side of the fence in order to avoid the painful/frightening stimulus”.

Isn’t this setting up a dog for euthanasia rather than saving lives as claimed by Animates? If these findings sound extreme, remember they come from studies done by some of the world’s top canine behavioural experts. In this context, Animates refusal to cease stocking electric shock collars may well be the basis of a ticking time-bomb that could go off with devastating consequences.  

Then there’s the physical symptoms linked to the use of shock collars. The guild found that “…there is clear data that electronic stimulation can cause burn injuries.”

Burn injuries??? If Animates cared for the welfare of animals as claimed, they’d be appalled at these findings and would remove shock collars from sale.

Ask yourself this, what sort of pet store is it that sells a gadget that can cause burn injuries to animals? Certainly not one I’ll shop at.

Last (but by no means least), Animates mentioned the ECMA. Here’s what they said:

“The Electronic Collar Manufacturer’s Association (ECMA) has been formed by multiple manufacturers across the globe committed to the welfare of animals. Part of their charter is to operate under technical standards, pertaining to energy levels etc and ensuring that user guides and manuals are informative enough to enable owners to use the products effectively, responsibly and humanely.

Animates and Petsafe advocate responsible pet ownership and believe that these products should be used as part of an overall training program.

Anti-bark collars are not designed as a ‘quick fix’ or to do the training for the owner, but rather as a tool to effectively and humanely correct nuisance barking.

We hope this eases your concerns around the sale and usage of anti-bark collars.”

Is it just me or does this sound a whole lot like the abdication of responsibility for the long list of problems resulting from the use of shock collars as highlighted by a vast number of studies?

While technology can be an amazing thing when used for good, electrocuting a defenceless animal so it learns through fear and pain cannot and should never be called good.

What can you do?

If you are as appalled by this as I am, e-mail animates to express your displeasure and ask them to pull electric shock collars from sale as soon as possible. Also vote with your wallet. There are plenty of pet stores throughout New Zealand that refuse to sell these horrendous devices. You can also e-mail your local MP and ask them to consider getting involved.

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