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Electric Shock Collars Banned in England

Written by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

electric shock dog collar

Story at-a-glance -

  • England announced plans to ban the use of electric shock collars for dogs, joining Scotland, which banned such collars in 2018
  • Shock collars use an electric current that passes through metal contact points to deliver electric signals to your dog, which can range from a mild vibration to painful depending on the strength of the shock
  • Using too high of a shock intensity can induce intense fear, pain, aggression, phobias or severe stress that makes it difficult for an animal to learn from the shocks
  • Stress-related behaviors, including distress, yelping, tongue flicking, lowering of tail position and inhibition
  • Positive reinforcement behavior training is a far better option, which uses very small-sized treats, verbal praise and affection to encourage desired behaviors in your dog

England announced plans to ban the use of electric shock collars for dogs, joining Scotland, which banned such collars in 2018. At the time, Scotland’s Environment Secretary Roseanna Cunningham stated, “Causing pain to dogs by inappropriate training methods is clearly completely unacceptable and I want there to be no doubt that painful or unpleasant training for dogs will not be tolerated."1

In England, the ban follows a public comment period, which brought in more than 7,000 responses, many of which expressed concern that such devices were being used incorrectly and without proper training.

While banning the use of remote controlled electronic training collars (e-collars), which have a remote device that allows an owner to trigger an electric pulse (or in some cases a spray with a noxious scent), the ban does not extend to invisible fencing systems that use such collars.

“We are a nation of animal lovers and the use of punitive shock collars cause harm and suffering to our pets,” Secretary of State Michael Gove said. “This ban will improve the welfare of animals and I urge pet owners to instead use positive reward training methods.”2

As for why the ban won’t extend to electric fences, England’s government stated that pets usually learn quickly to stay within the boundaries before receiving a static pulse. Further, about half of the people who responded to the public comment period stated they did not want electric fences banned.

How Do Shock Collars Work — and Why Are They Being Banned?

Shock collars use an electric current that passes through metal contact points to deliver electric signals to your dog, which can range from a mild vibration to a painful sensation depending on the strength of the shock. Shock collars are sold over the counter as training devices to stop barking and other unwanted behaviors. As noted by the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS):3

“The least humane and most controversial use of the shock collar is as a training device. The trainer can administer a shock to a dog at a distance through a remote control. There is a greater chance for abuse (delivery of shocks as punishment) or misuse (poor timing of shocks). Your dog also may associate the painful shock with people or other experiences, leading to fearful or aggressive behavior.”

Proponents of shock collars and punishment-based trainers argue these collars are critical to rehabilitate dogs with behavior problems that are headed for the pound or euthanasia. The problem is, they aren’t sold by “prescription-only” (meaning the user is required to have some training and competency in operating the device correctly).

I understand this sentiment, as a veterinarian. I also reach for potentially toxic drugs that have profound side effects and may be risky to use if I am desperate to save an animal’s life. If I have exhausted all safe alternatives and my patient is crashing, I have a discussion with my clients about using less-than-favorable options that may have long lasting and unfavorable side effects.

The difference between these scenarios is you can only use these high-risk medications under the supervision of a trained professional. Anyone can use a high-risk training device, as e-collars are sold over the counter (OTC), and the results can be disastrous.

To be clear, there are several types of e-collars, including “clicker collars” that administer sounds/beeps instead of potentially painful electrical pulses (i.e., “shocks”). These collars, when used correctly, help teach dogs yes from no and are a pain-free alternative for remotely training dogs in the field.

There Are Serious Risks With Using Collars That Create Pain

The European Society of Veterinary Clinical Ethology (ESVCE) is among the groups of experts who have spoken out against the use of collars that create pain, highlighting the following problems:4

  • Shock collar intensity is not completely controllable, and it’s easy to administer a level of pain that’s unacceptable; factors that influence the shock intensity include the length of the shock, moisture level of the skin, how much fat the dog has and even fur length
  • Using too high of a shock intensity can induce intense fear, pain, aggression, phobias or severe stress that makes it difficult for an animal to learn from the shocks
  • Using a lower shock level may not result in the desired outcome, as the animal may be forced to habituate to the pain
  • The dog may learn to associate other things with the shocks, including the trainer
  • Perfect timing is required between the undesired behavior and the shock, and if the timing isn’t exact, it’s likely to lead to fearful or aggressive behavior; many people using the shock collars are untrained and at high risk of creating negative outcomes

Shock collars also carry a high risk of abuse, particularly if an owner uses one when in a bad mood (hence my opinion that these devices are only used in the hands of trained professionals and not available for OTC purchase). There are also proven risks to dogs from the use of these devices, including:5

  • A rise in salivary cortisol, indicative of a stress response
  • A raise in heart rate
  • Burn sensation, physical burns and skin damage
  • Stress-related behaviors, including distress, yelping, tongue flicking, lowering of tail position and inhibition

Interestingly, I have some personal experience with this topic as well. I was a part of a Facebook Live last year where we discussed different types of collars and what they are best used for, including e-collars. My statement during the event was that because these collars have risks, they should only be used as a last resort and only through trained/certified professionals.

In 2005 my dog, Esau, was returned to me, after I boarded him over the weekend with a well-known professional trainer in Chicago, with a large open wound on his larynx. When I inquired about how he became injured the trainer informed me she did some unsolicited training with him and it was tissue necrosis (not a burn, which it resembled; a 3x3-inch patch of raw, inflamed, painful skin with two symmetrical puncture wounds) from his electric collar (which she did not ask for consent to use).

After I made this statement on social media I had over a dozen personal threats from professional dog trainers saying I was threatening their livelihood. Part of the emotionally charged debate over e-collars stems from vastly different training methods that have been studied and implemented over the years.

Most parents recognize fear and punishment are very effective training tools (for kids and pets). The question is: Can we accomplish the same desired behavioral outcomes using kinder and potentially more effective methods that don’t have lasting negative ramifications? The research is overwhelmingly clear for people and animals: in the vast majority of cases, yes we can.

The use of collars that create pain is a negative form of training, which is associated with a number of problems for both trainers and dogs. As ESVCE explains:6

“Punishing training methods induce higher risks of aggression, fear, anxiety and undesirable behaviors, while they decrease the quality of the dog-owner relationship, dog welfare and dog-human team performance, compared to non-aversive techniques.

This is especially the case with positive punishment, where an aversive event (an electric shock, a kick, etc.) follows an undesirable dog behavior and in the case of negative reinforcement where an aversive event (an electric shock, a sharp pull or a check on a choke or prong collar) ends after a desired dog behavior.”

Training Your Dog Should Be a Good Experience — for All Involved

Learning how to communicate with your dog should be a positive experience for all involved — including your dog. A positive dog trainer can really help you on your journey to creating a lifelong, trusting relationship between you and your pup. If you have adopted a dog with behavioral problems or your dog’s behavior has escalated to the point you’re worried, contacting a veterinary behaviorist is your best bet.

These specially trained vets can create comprehensive behavioral modification protocols using positive reinforcement behavior training. As ESVCE noted, “[T]here is no strong evidence to justify e-collar use on dogs. On the contrary, there are many reasons to never use these and better training options exist.”7 Companion Animal Psychology states “A review of the scientific research finds there are risks to using electronic collars in dog training and says it's time for a ban,”8 but Whole Dog Journal says it best:9

“The chasm between those who abhor the electronic/shock collars as an abusive dog training tool and those who support and promote it as an exceptionally effective and humane training tool is so huge it will probably never be bridged.

In more moderate positions in the middle of that chasm are those who believe that the collar can be an effective training tool for very limited circumstances in the hands of skilled professionals, and those who prefer not to use them but feel compelled to educate clients who insist on using them on how to use them properly.”