How Many People Use Electronic Shock Collars in the UK?

People who train their dogs with a shock collar report less success than people who use positive reinforcement, this study shows.

Two cute dogs looking up at a man with a treat bag on his belt
Photo: Ksenia Raykova

By Zazie Todd, PhD

A new paper investigates how many people use electronic collars on their dogs, and whether or not they think they work.

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Electronic collars deliver a small electric shock as an aversive stimulus, with or without a preceding warning signal. It is useful to know how many people use them, since a recent British report on shock collars found they have the potential to cause harm if mis-used, and recommended controls on their use and design.

The study took place in the UK and dog owners were recruited via questionnaires distributed to people out walking their dogs, at agricultural shows, at vet surgeries and pet shops. The questionnaire was adapted from a previous study by Blackwell and colleagues. It asked detailed questions about people’s experience at owning and training dogs, about the training methods they used, and about any problem behaviours that their dogs exhibited. The response rate was 27% and a total of 3897 people took part from across the UK.  People in Wales were excluded from the analysis on e-collars, since they are banned in Wales.

The proportion of people using a remote-activated e-collar was 3.3%; 1.4% used a bark-activated e-collar; and 0.9% used an invisible fence. The main reasons people gave for using an e-collar were recall and chasing, and barking. Since those using it for barking were often also using it for other purposes, there weren’t enough participants using it only for barking to assess whether or not this worked. 

However, there were enough people using it for training recall and chasing to investigate further. By training recall/chasing, they mean teaching your dog to come when called, and not to chase off after other things (like joggers, bicycles and sheep).

The researchers compared the 83 owners using an e-collar for recall and chasing to a subset of the rest of the sample that included 123 owners who were using other aversives (positive punishment) and 373 who were using rewards (positive reinforcement) for recall and chasing. There were no differences between these groups in terms of attending puppy classes or other obedience classes; 69% had attended some kind of training class.

People who trained using the e-collars reported significantly less success than expected, and those who trained using rewards reported significantly more success in training their dogs for recall and chasing. 

Another interesting finding is that men were more likely to say they used e-collars than women. It’s not clear why this is the case, and I would be interested to see more research on this.

The study relies on owner reports and so it is possible there are confounding factors. For example, people who use e-collars might feel a need to justify their use, either by saying their dogs are more disobedient than they really are, or by exaggerating their success. Nonetheless, this is a valuable study because it investigates the training experiences of ordinary dog owners. Since there is a potential for e-collars to cause harm, there would be ethical problems with conducting an experimental study of the use of e-collars with ordinary owners and their dogs.

This study joins a growing list that finds a correlation between positive reinforcement and success in dog training. The authors conclude that “more owners using reward-based methods for recall/chasing report a successful outcome of training than those using e-collars.” A newer study also finds that positive reinforcement leads to better success in dog training than electronic collars

If you liked this post, check out my book Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy. Modern Dog magazine calls it "The must-have guide to improving your dog's life."

What training methods do you use for recall?

Blackwell, E. J., Bolster, C., Richards, G., Loftus, B. A., & Casey, R. A. (2012). The use of electronic collars for training domestic dogs: estimated prevalence, reasons and risk factors for use, and owner perceived success as compared to other training methods. BMC Veterinary Research, 8, 1-11.

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