Shock collars, Regulation, and Education on the Alternatives

Shock collars should be banned, according to a survey of the use of electronic collars to train dogs in France.

Study shows support for regulation of shock collars, but a need for more information on the alternatives
Photo: SebiTian/Shutterstock

By Zazie Todd, PhD

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Recently, I reported on a study by veterinary behaviourists in Europe that concluded by calling for a ban on all three types of electronic collar across Europe (remote-controlled, boundary, and bark-activated collars). Another paper by Dr. Sylvia Masson et al, published in the Journal of Veterinary Behaviour, investigates the use of shock collars in France, and some of the results are surprising.

For one thing, they show that even amongst people who use shock collars there is a lot of support for regulating them.

But they also show a sizeable minority – even amongst people who do not use shock collars – that mistakenly say they are the most effective way to resolve behaviour issues. This shows a need to get the message out that positive reinforcement is an effective way to train dogs (see seven reasons to use reward-based training methods and literature review recommends reward-based training).

The effectiveness, as reported by the electronic collar users, was not particularly high (51.1% of those who used remote-controlled collars, and 25.5% who used bark-activated collars, said it had worked and they could stop using it). As well, users of remote-controlled collars and bark-activated collars reported more abnormal behaviours in their dog than those who did not use them.

The paper concludes,
“based on this survey, it appears that in a real-life setting, ECs’ [electronic collars] ability to modify behaviors is limited. Thus, and as expected, the risks associated with their use are increased. Consequently, EC should not be used in everyday life without regulation. 
However, answers in this questionnaire show that some owners still think that EC can solve behavioral issues better than any other existing method. Considering the high use revealed by our results, a huge communication work toward the public has to be done. In the current survey, 78% of questioned owners ask for a better regulation of ECs. This seems to be a much needed and achievable goal that would restrict the access to devices (e.g. through the internet).”

Most people who used a shock collar did so after trying 2 or fewer alternatives (75%) and without taking professional advice (71.8%). 12.7% of shock collar users did not try any alternative prior to using the collar.

The most common alternatives that were tried before using the shock collar were “group training in a club” and looking on the internet. The next most common alternatives included books, advice from a veterinarian, a private trainer, and ‘none’.

People’s use of shock collars was associated with having a bigger dog (more than 40kg), the dog not being spayed or neutered, and the dog being used for protection or hunting. It is not known if the dog's sexual status is linked to behaviour issues, and/or to the owner's different treatment of the dog. The authors note that some disciplines may use electronic collars by tradition, as those who did agility or obedience training were less likely to use them.

“Based on this survey, it appears that in a real-life setting, electronic collars' ability to modify behaviors is limited"

Electronic collars were more likely to be used on dogs less than 2 years old. As well, users of electronic collars were more likely to say their dog showed excitement and aggression.

There are some interesting differences between those who did not use electronic collars and those who did. People who did not use them were less likely to have tried group training in a club, and more likely to have read dog training books or used the internet.

95.2% of those who did not use electronic collars and 77.9% of those who did thought their use should be regulated. 60% of non-users and 14% of users thought there should be an outright ban on electronic collars.

According to the electronic collar users’ ratings, although a majority (58%) said they would recommend them, in fact they were not particularly effective. The bark-activated collars, which were more often used on small dogs (weighing less than 10kg), were the least effective and had the highest rate of reported injuries (burns from the collar) at almost 11%.

But boundary collars and remote-controlled collars also were not reported to work as well as might be expected. This suggests real-life training use is not as effective as when the collars are used by trained professionals in controlled settings.

Not surprisingly, the main reason people gave for using bark-activated collars was due to barking. Boundary fences were typically used because of lack of a physical fence, but an American study found dogs escape from electronic fences at a much higher rate than from a physical fence.

The most common reason given for using a remote-controlled shock collar was for recall (coming when called). However, it’s worth noting that an experimental study using professional trainers found that positive reinforcement is just as effective as shock collars for teaching recall, but that there are risks with the use of shock collars.

The survey asked 1251 dog owners in France about their use of electronic collars. It’s important to note this is not a representative sample, so the results may not reflect the beliefs of French people as a whole. In particular, those who completed the survey were more likely than the general population to have a pedigree rather than a mixed-breed dog, and more likely to have a dog that weighs more than 10kg.

The use of shock collars in this study is much higher (26%) than found by Blackwell et al in their study of shock collar use in the UK (3.3%). Since neither is a nationally representative sample we can’t draw conclusions about the relative use of electronic collars in each country (but note that the British government recently announced a ban on two of the three types of shock collars in England).

The paper concludes that bark-activated collars and remote-controlled shock collars should be banned. In this study, few people used boundary fences, but the authors note they could also be banned as physical fences and reward-based training methods are a good alternative.

This is an interesting study that shows substantial support for the regulation of shock collars in France. At the same time, it shows there is much work to be done to teach people how to effectively train dogs and deal with behaviour problems using reward-based methods.

For the full set of results, see the paper (link below). If you’re interested in the wider research on dog training methods, my dog training research resources page has a list of articles along with places where you can read about them.

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

Masson, S., Nigron, I., & Gaultier, E. (2018). Questionnaire Survey on The Use Of Different E-Collar Types in France in Everyday Life With A View To Providing Recommendations for Possible Future Regulations. Journal of Veterinary Behavior. 

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