With a ban on electric training collars for dogs still on the agenda in England, David Tomlinson examines both sides of a complex issue
Four years ago, Michael Gove introduced plans for legislation to ban the use of electric training collars for dogs in England. It was a proposal supported by not only animal-rights groups, but also the Kennel Club.
I suspect that it was a calculated decision by the Conservative Party to show that it could be equally sympathetic to animal-welfare issues as its Labour opposition. Perhaps surprisingly, the proposed ban has never been enacted, though Lord Goldsmith, the Government minister for animal welfare, has said that it is still planned.
Electric training collars for dogs – an important role?
I’ve long argued that e-collars can play an important role in dog training, as long as they are used both sensitively and sensibly. Banning them by law, as is the case in Wales, would be a serious mistake. (Read more on the ban on electric training collars for dogs in Wales.)
Far better to issue strict guidelines on their use, perhaps even restrict the power of the shock they can deliver, than to simply make an outright ban. Thousands of people have e-collars and many would undoubtedly carry on using them despite a ban, making them all potential criminals.
I strongly believe that e-collars are an instrument of last resort and that for the great majority of dogs their use is at best unkind, at worst cruel. They can be used by lazy trainers, who fail to put sufficient effort into training a young dog and are looking for a shortcut.
However, all dogs are different and hard-headed spaniels, even retrievers, that can’t resist chasing deer or livestock can usually be cured by the judicious use of a collar. As such, the e-collar can be a lifesaver, not only for the dog itself, which might well have been at risk of being shot or put down, but also the animals it might have chased. (Read more on how to stop your dog chasing sheep and livestock.)
I was interested to read in a recent newspaper report that Welsh farmers are suffering much greater problems with livestock worrying than their counterparts in England and Scotland. E-collars were banned in Wales in 2010.
Data from the police shows the number of dogs shot by landowners or farmers in North Wales was at least three times higher than in rural police force areas of England, while NFU figures show that Welsh farmers suffered £306,068 in losses from dog attacks last year, compared with only £68,408 in claims from Scotland.
Whether these differences are really due to the Welsh ban on e-collars is debatable, but it does seem more than likely that there is a connection. Certainly, former Welsh secretary David Jones thinks so and he is urging the devolved Welsh government to reassess the law. However, the latter’s reaction has been entirely predictable, its spokesman stating: “E-collars cause pain. We have no plans to review this decision.”
E-collars can cause pain, but there’s no doubt that sheep savaged by an out-of-control dog also suffer acute pain, and there is the pain experienced by owners of pet dogs that have been shot or destroyed for sheep worrying. There’s also a lot of pain experienced by farmers who have lost livestock to marauding dogs. I speak from some experience, having had free-range hens attacked and killed in my own field by wandering dogs. However, the loss of a few bantams pales into insignificance compared with a flock of sheep. (Read more on sheep worrying here.)
Kennel Club statement
As is the case with so many animal-welfare issues, the case for and against e-collars is a complex one. If this subject interests you, it’s well worth looking at the KC’s statement on it. According to the KC: “It is often claimed that electric shock collars are effective in preventing dogs from chasing livestock. However, research demonstrates that use of an electronic collar does not create a greater deterrent for disobedience, nor does it result in better learning outcomes.” I would be interested to see that research, for my experience suggests that the sensitive use of an e-collar can be extremely effective.
The statement goes on to say: “A review of evidence commissioned by the Welsh government demonstrated that owners do not typically read the manufacturers’ instructions prior to use and that advice on correct usage is not consistently followed.”
I’m sure that’s right, but is it a good reason to ban e-collars? The KC obviously thinks it is: “We fully support a total ban on the use and sale of electric shock collars. We have extensively lobbied the relevant authorities to prohibit shock collars from being used to train dogs.”
To put the KC’s position into perspective, you have to remember that it is an organisation concerned primarily with showing. I do know that there are a number of eminent KC members with working gundogs who do not support its policy on this issue, but have found it difficult to oppose it.
The KC does recommend that pet owners and trainers “use positive, rewards-based tools and methods when training their dog”. I totally agree, but sadly they don’t always work. E-collars remain legal in all countries of the UK except Wales.