A recent study, conducted by animal behavior specialists at the University of Lincoln, UK, revealed that training dogs with the use of an e-collar, or “shock collar,” is a risk to the dogs’ behavioral well-being, especially when compared to reward-based training methods.
While there are arguments both for and against the use of shock collars, with both sides genuinely concerned for the safety and welfare of their dogs, limited research has been done to compare behavioral, emotional, and physical effects of their use. So, researchers at the University of Lincoln sought out to determine the performance and welfare consequences of using electronic collars in training dogs in the field.
The research followed a preliminary study using a small sample of dogs that had largely been referred for training because of chasing sheep. Results showed changes in dogs’ behavior during training, which were consistent with pain or aversion, as well as increased salivary cortisol indicating increased arousal.
However, these trainers did not follow training guidelines published by collar manufacturers so a larger study involving industry approved trainers was conducted to assess if training collars can be effectively used to improve obedience without compromising dog welfare.
The new study involved 63 pet dogs referred for poor recall and related problems, including livestock worrying, which are the main reasons for collar use in the UK. The dogs were split into three groups — one using e-collars and two as control groups.
Trainers used lower settings with a pre-warning function and behavioral responses were less marked than during the preliminary study. Despite this, dogs trained with e-collars showed behavioral changes that were consistent with a negative response. These included showing more signs of tension, more yawning and less time engaged in environmental interaction than the control dogs.
Following training most owners reported improvements in their dog’s problem behavior. Owners of dogs trained using e-collars were, however, less confident of applying the training approach demonstrated.
These findings indicate that there is no consistent benefit to be gained from e-collar training, but greater welfare concerns compared with positive reward-based training.
The study’s lead author, Jonathan Cooper, Professor of Animal Behavior and Welfare at the University of Lincoln’s School of Life Sciences, said, “e-collar training did not result in a substantially superior response to training in comparison to similarly experienced trainers who do not use e-collars to improve recall and control chasing behavior.
“Accordingly, it seems that the routine use of e-collars even in accordance with best practice, as suggested by collar manufacturers, presents a risk to the well-being of pet dogs. The scale of this risk would be expected to be increased when practice falls outside of this ideal.”