How Many People Use Electronic Shock Collars?

By Zazie Todd, PhD

Regular readers of this blog will know that we take a special interest in research on dog training. We were excited to read a new paper by Emily Blackwell that investigates how many owners use electronic collars on their dogs, and whether or not they think they work.

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

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).

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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

What training methods do you use for recall?

Zazie Todd, PhD, is the author of Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy. She is the founder of the popular blog Companion Animal Psychology, where she writes about everything from training methods to the human-canine relationship. She also writes a column for Psychology Today and has received the prestigious Captain Haggerty Award for Best Training Article in 2017. Todd lives in Maple Ridge, BC, with her husband and two cats.

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You might also like: the ultimate dog training tip and why don't more people use positive reinforcement to train dogs?

Blackwell EJ, Bolster C, Richards G, Loftus BA, & Casey RA (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 PMID: 22748195

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  1. I hate these collars with a passion - I have seen too many dogs come into rescues and shelters with deep, infected burns on their necks from owners who up the voltage when the dog still doesn't respond to the shock or who leave the collar on all the time and the wet fur and skin combines with the electrical jolt to make a bad situation worse.
    I'm a huge advocate of clicker training, which uses only positive reinforcement. Dogs taught this way respond incredibly fast, giving owners a sense of encouragement instead of frustration.

    1. Thanks for your comment. Ugh, that sounds nasty.

      I agree with you about clicker training. It works really well!

  2. Is this study of practical use? Surely dog owners will be biased in that they will a) differ greatly in their views as to what they consider to be a successful outcome and b) will favour their own training method.
    Any serious study would have to be assessed by independent & experienced dog trainers/behaviourists and not be based on the views of the dogs' owners.
    From a personal view I advocate positive reinforcement in dog training - but I will admit that the use of punishment by aversive methods is sadly so much easier for us humans!

    1. Thanks for your comment. It's a good question. There are many different ways to study dog training, each with its own advantages and disadvantages. For a study of this size (almost 4000 people) it would be very expensive to send observers to meet each dog. So if they were to use independent observers, it would have to be a smaller sample. Also, some dogs might behave differently in the presence of an observer, especially if they had to go to a new place for the study. If it was in the lab, there wouldn't be all the distractions that exist in everyday life that are part of a dog's normal experience. Also, if you had to advertise specifically for people who use the e-collar, you might not get a well-rounded sample as, for example, advocates of the collar might be more likely to sign up than those who hadn't found it successful.

      Another perspective is that the owners are best placed to judge whether or not they find their dog's behaviour to be a problem.

      So I think this is a 'serious' study and a valuable contribution, especially given the size of the sample and the good response rate. Unfortunately there's no such thing as one perfect study; every approach has its imperfections.

      There was a very nice study of training methods by Rooney and Cowan that included independent observations of the dogs. You'll find my report of it under August (part VI)

      Thanks again for your thoughtful question!

  3. I'm pleased to see such a small percentage of UK dog people using electronic devices. Hopefully, someday they'll disappear.

    I suspect the percentages are much higher in the U.S.

  4. People who use this shock collars should be ashamed of themselves. This only shows cruelty to these canine lovies. The use of these should be banned.

  5. Great post! Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts on this pretty controversial topic. Keep up the awesome posts on this blog!

  6. I use a system of conditioning and positive reinforcement largely patterned after Leslie Nelson's "Really Reliable Recall." I have two dogs, both with stellar recalls, and many clients with similar results. There's no reason to use shock. You just need to understand and apply the science.
    You decide. I'll take joy any time.


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