In March 2010 Wales became the first country in the UK to ban the electric dog collars that are increasingly being used to correct the behaviour of dogs, a move which was welcomed by many including myself. Now discussions are under way within the Scottish Parliament to discover whether we too should introduce a ban, removing these devices from sale and prohibiting their use in Scotland.
What is an electric collar?
There are 3 main types of electric collars available in the UK which can be purchased by anyone regardless of age, knowledge or ability. The first is remotely operated by the handler via a hand held control unit, the second shocks automatically when the dog barks and the third type delivers a shock when the dog passes close to or through a boundary fence. In all cases the dog wears a collar around the neck which a casing is attached to which delivers an electric shock of varying strength and length.
Why ban them?
The theory with an electric collar is that if a shock is delivered to the neck of a dog while they are behaving in a way that is undesirable the dog will make a link between their actions and the pain of the shock. Once the dog has made this association the unwanted behaviour will decrease as the dog will want to avoid another shock. However in reality the dog often has no clue what caused the pain he has just experienced and this causes fear, anxiety and at times aggression.
There is also the possibility the dog will form an incorrect association as to the cause of the shock. For example an owner intends to use an electric collar to stop his dog barking but at the time the shock occurs not only is the dog barking but a person happens to appear. There is a very real possibility that the dog makes the association between the person appearing and the pain rather than the barking resulting in a dog who reacts negatively to approaching people yet is still vocal. Even if a dog does manage to make the correct association between his behaviour and the shock he has still being subjected to pain and will display fearful behaviour as he tries to work out how to avoid further shocks.
Another factor when calling for electric collars to be banned is that the production and sale of these collars is unregulated with no restriction to the strength and duration of shock received by the dog. These can vary hugely and at the extreme end of the scale can cause significant injury and burns.
As I have said we know what dogs learn through making associations between their behaviour and the surrounding circumstances or stimuli. It has been proven time again that using positive reinforcement is the most affect way of teaching animals our dogs included and this means that if a dog makes a positive association with something they do and something pleasant happening they will be more likely to repeat it. In short if dogs do what works, if coming back when called results in a worthwhile reward then they will come back again to see if they get another one.
To address behaviour which we consider undesirable, inappropriate or unwanted should not be inflicting pain on our dogs by using an electric collar. We need to take the time to understand why a dog is behaving the way they are, what is motivating them, then through positive training methods teach alternative suitable behaviours. Electric collars do not cure unwanted behaviour but merely suppress it and often only on a temporary basis.