As Defra considers a ban, David Tomlinson asks if e-collars have a place in training

Defra is under heavy pressure from a number of organisations, including most notably the Kennel Club (KC), to ban electric shock collars, and has launched an online consultation to gauge public opinion.

The KC’s arguments are clearly explained: “The Kennel Club believes that electric shock collars have no place in a civilised society. The majority of dog lovers and welfare and veterinary bodies hold similar views. An electric shock collar trains a dog to respond out of fear of further punishment, having received a shock when it does not perform what is asked of it, rather than from a natural willingness to obey. This is not the type of training method the Kennel Club would choose to endorse.

“Unwanted behaviour in dogs 
 is best resolved by positive training methods. Furthermore, an angry or inferior trainer or even novice owner could misuse a collar to abuse and punish. It is unacceptable that these products are readily available by mail order, via retail outlets and on the internet, and are therefore available to anyone who, with no training or supervision whatsoever, can place them on a dog and administer ‘correctional’ treatment.”

electric collar controller

The use of e-collars is divisive, but in a small number of cases, they can be effective

No evidence

Intriguingly, Defra conducted research in 2012 and stated: “Research showed no evidence that e-collars cause long-term harm to dog welfare when used appropriately.” 
It concluded that: “A ban on e-collars could not be justified because the research provided no evidence that e-collars pose a significant risk to dog welfare. For a ban to be introduced there would have to be evidence showing they were harmful to the long-term welfare of dog.”

Some years ago I interviewed one of our leading professional gundog trainers, a much-respected member of his profession and a well-known A-panel trial judge. He told me that he didn’t own an e-collar, as it was more than his reputation was worth to risk doing so, but in exceptional circumstances he wouldn’t hesitate 
to hire one, as there were times when an e-collar could succeed when nothing else would. Similarly, the late Jack Davey, a great spaniel handler, told me that he wasn’t necessarily against e-collars, as in the wrong hands a big stick could do a lot more damage. It wasn’t the collar that was the problem, he insisted, but rather the person administering it.

I agree, which is why I have some sympathy with the Kennel Club’s concern that the collars are available to anyone “with no training or supervision”. However, this is hardly a unique situation. You can apply for, and get, a shotgun certificate and buy a shotgun, despite never having had any training in handling a gun. In the wrong hands a shotgun is a great deal more dangerous than an e-collar.

The advantage of an e-collar is that it allows the handler to correct or stop a dog as it commits a “crime”. In my view that shouldn’t be something as minor as running-in, but when it is chasing livestock it is another matter. I have known hardened sheep chasers instantly cured by an e-collar, and these were dogs that were in dire risk of being shot or put down.

E collar on spaniel

95% of dogs will never need an e-collar

Last resort

I believe that e-collars are a training aid of the last resort, one that 95 per cent of dogs will never need. But for that five per cent it can be a lifesaver. It is a training aid and one that should never be used in the shooting field. 
I have seen them used on shooting days far too often — if a dog still needs an e-collar on a shoot day, it shouldn’t be out in the first place.

However, I always try to talk 
to handlers who work their dogs 
in e-collars, and the responses I have had have been interesting. One springer owner told me that he always worked his spaniel with an e-collar, but never switched it on.

Communication

He said: “If my spaniel has his collar on, he knows what he has to do and never misbehaves.” Another e-collar user told me that his spaniels had never received a shock in their lives, but he found that communicating with them by using the bleeper in the collar was remarkably effective.

If e-collars are banned, so too will the so-called invisible fences that contain a dog within its owner’s property. I’ve no doubt that these have saved many dogs’ lives, as 
it has stopped them from straying. 
I first came across one many years ago when a neighbour of mine, a High Court judge, used one to stop his flatcoat retrievers from wandering out of his large and only partially fenced garden. It worked brilliantly.

In my experience, bans seldom work: in the case of e-collars, I’m convinced that education, perhaps a restriction on the amount of stimulation a collar can deliver, is the answer — not an outright ban.