The the Use of Electric Collars From the Vet's and Dog Trainer's Perspective

The aim of this blog post is two share two differing views on the use of electric collars to provide you with information to make up your own mind on the devices. You are welcome to express your opinions but please keep comments constructive, and where possible include links to articles or explanations for your feelings so we can continue to grow, learn and improve animal welfare for our pets!

Dr Sheridan Lathe (Vet Tails):

 The controversial image a I shared on facebook. This injury is reported to have occurred after a child was allowed to play with the remote of an electric collar. 

The controversial image a I shared on facebook. This injury is reported to have occurred after a child was allowed to play with the remote of an electric collar. 

As vets we see the worst of everything… we see the cat that got a collar caught in a cat flap and strangled, the dog that ate a bone and ruptured their stomach or the bird that’s leg ring crushed their leg. Although these scenarios are often the exception to the rule, they still shape our opinions of different things. I for example have never and would never give my dog a bone, simply because I have removed bones from COUNTLESS dog bellies.

So saying all that, I have seen damage caused by the incorrect use of ‘electric collars’ (RTC/ecollar/shock collar) as have many other vets (do a quick google search for more reported images). As a veterinarian I have also consulted on numerous behaviour cases, and take a positive reinforcement approach (all Australian veterinarians study animal behaviour as they are the only legal source of behaviour modification medication). It is not just what I have seen in the clinic that shapes my view on these collars but also recommendations, guidelines and research I have read.

For example the Australian Veterinary Association (AVA) has a very clear statement on the use of ‘electric collars’; and they are illegal in three states of Australia. The AVA guidelines help shape the views of Aussie veterinarians, but also help govern us, so this is one reason I do not recommend the use of these collars to my patients/clients.

There have been many studies on the use of ‘electric collars’ for dog training and they have varied results. I have included links below but the main thing I get from these studies are: The electric shock causes fear, and sometimes pain, which is demonstrated by the dog through yelping, cowering, ears lowered and submissive postures; Electric collars can lead to a negative association with owners or other subjects; One study showed that when used CORRECTLY the collars do not increase cortisol levels (stress hormone)– key word being CORRECTLY which means the timing must be perfect, which it often isn’t unless owners have had intensive training and the study showed used INCORRECTLY they do increase stress; and finally that a decrease in a negative behavior does not mean the underlying problem has been addressed and may actually lead to an increased level of anxiety for the dog.

Another huge concern I have is that when you google ‘canine shock collar’ the first statement is that the collars can be bought for $25-200 and that they are a cheaper alternative to a trainer… the lack of regulation is what concerns me most and I think these collars should only be available through behaviourists or veterinarians to ensure quality and prevent fear, pain and injury. Veterinary behaviour specialists, dog trainers and dog behaviourists may have a slightly higher price range than a collar but a much better outcome!

So all in all I would not recommend the use of an ‘electric collar’ to my clients. I do believe that ‘electric collars’ when used correctly can reduce problem behaviours, but I still do not believe they need to be used in most circumstances. I also am a very strong believer that positive reinforcement is the training method of choice for pets and with the advances in research into animal welfare, canine cognition and animal training methods we need to grow, learn and adapt to new methods.

Further reading from Vet Tails:

AVA stance on behavioural modification collars: http://www.ava.com.au/policy/613-use-behaviour-modifying-collars-dogs  and also from the BSAVA (british): https://www.bva.co.uk/News-campaigns-and-policy/Policy/Ethics-and-welfare/Electronic-aids/

Editorial piece from Journal of Veterinary Behaviour: http://www.k9behavioralgenetics.net/resources/Articles/Why%20electric%20shock%20is%20not%20behavior%20modification.pdf

Study showing when used correctly cortisol levels did not increase, but when used incorrectly stress levels were elevated: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0168159106003820

Study on behavioural affects using electric collars for training: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S016815910300248X

Interesting article from a trainer discussing why he uses positive reinforcement, and the work he has done to try teach aversive trainers his techniques: http://www.clickertraining.com/is-it-really-all-or-nothing

Grant Teebon - The Paw Man

I started using RTCs in 1996 after being an Air Force Police Dog Handler for 17 years and I thought I would be able to use them perfectly immediately….. how wrong I was. I had been hearing about RTCs for about 10 years and I knew a few civilians who had them when they were a restricted import.  The good things that I had been hearing about RTCs were brilliant….. other trainers saying that they increase the efficiency of training 5-10 fold…… that things that used to take days or weeks to teach a dog can now be done in a single training session using a RTC. But I was also hearing some horrible things about them, that they were cruel and inhumane.  I became a Police Dog Handler because I love dogs and I had no interest in doing anything to a dog that was cruel or inhumane but my curiosity was also peaked by the positive things I was hearing about RTCs because that information was coming from some VERY credible sources, fellow Police Dog Handlers around the world as well as professional trainers of good repute.

So in 1996 I decided to buy my first one and do my own research. Looking back on the unit I bought makes me cringe somewhat…. It was a very early Innotek model called ‘The Companion’ and by today’s standards it was extremely primitive.  It only had a range of a couple of hundred meters and the batteries only lasted a few hours before needing to be recharged.  To change the stim level on the dog’s collar, you had to call the dog back to you, remove the collar from the dog’s neck and unscrew the colour coded contact point on the collar with a special little spanner and replace it with a contact of a different colour to give a higher or lower stimulation.  There was no ability to change stim levels at the hand held remote.

I used that Remote Training Collar to build my skill set, all the time scouring the internet to find articles and people who were using them. I located one brilliant source of information... SGT Donn Yarnall who had recently retired from the LAPD and their Chief Dog Trainer for the Police Dog Squad was incredibly giving when I made contact with him online and then over the years he never held back teaching me and giving me information on the best way to use RTCs.

Donn Yarnall travelled here to Australia to give a seminar to law enforcement and various professional trainers on things he’s learned over the years. He had heaps of clips to show and stories to tell of how various tactics with the dog have proved life saving on the street. When Donn came to Oz for his seminar I caught up with him for a day and we just talked dogs…. No surprises there. 

Editors Note: I just went to Donn’s Facebook page to invite him into this discussion as I hadn’t heard anything from him for over a year and thought this article would be a good reason to get back in touch, only to find out that he passed away 12 months ago. So excuse me while a take a break for a few hours to just come to terms with that.
<The following day>

I’ve passed on my respects to Donn’s friends and relatives. I hadn’t heard from him in over a year and I didn’t even know that he was ill, but looking at some of the pics on his page he obviously fought a long hard battle, and Donn was not the sort of many who would make that public. Vale Donn Yarnall. You will be remembered in the knowledge that you passed on to so many other people so freely in your lifetime. I am a better man for having known you.

OK, back to the point.
When you first start using a RTC without any kind of training or guidance you typically make a very predictable series of mistakes;

1. You assume that if a particular level of stimulation doesn’t achieve what you want it to achieve then you just deliver a higher level of stim and the dog will eventually ‘get it’. This is one of the most dangerous assumptions that even seasoned trainers make when first using RTCs. I made this mistake in my first year, and if it wasn’t for Donn Yarnall teaching me about ‘preconditioning’ a dog to the stim, then I would have just gone for higher and higher stim levels and done who knows what training damage to various dogs.

2. I would not have understood the need for ‘fitting protocols’ – how and where to put the collar on the dog and how long to keep the collar on the dog. Untrained users of RTCs usually end up making the dogs that they work on RTCs ‘Collar smart’ in that the dogs work very well with the collar on but the moment the collar is removed the dog reverts back to its old unwanted behaviours. Knowing how to avoid making your dog collar smart or correcting a dog if it does become collar smart are critical things to know before you ever put a RTC collar on a dog.

3. If you haven’t been taught about pressure necrosis or tissue necrosis when being introduced to RTC’s then it’s a good bet that you will quickly learn that the contact points of a RTC cannot be left tight against a dogs neck for more than 24 hours before causing tissue necrosis. Nurses will know tissue necrosis as ‘Bed sores’. Typically, most of the bad press pics of damage caused to dogs supposedly by the stim of an ecollar are actually related to tissue necrosis and not the electrical stim at all….. because if you know anything about electrical engineering, or if you have done your research about ECollars you will quickly learn that the stim alone from an ECollar is incapable of causing any tissue damage.

4. Assuming that the level of stim we feel from the collar is the same that the dog feels is another gross error. Due to the vast difference of the makeup of human and canine skin the dog’s level of electrical impedance is much higher than ours, therefore we conduct electrical current far easier than a dog’s skin does. Our nerves only register the current that passes through our skin….. so if skin has a very high impedance to electrical current then less current will flow through it and therefore the nerves will feel less stimulation. The best human example of this is putting a 9volt battery on your tongue (moist tissue with very low impedance) and you can feel the stim from the 9volts. But if you put that same battery on your finger tips or on your forehead (dryer skin with much higher impedance) you will not feel anything.

5. Most people who use a RTC without any guidance assume that it can only be used to ‘shock and stop’. This assumption is like assuming that a Microwave oven can only be used to reheat frozen pies. There is so much more than an RTC can do than ‘shock and stop’, but just like a Microwave oven you need to be trained to learn what else it can do. And also like a Microwave oven, once you learn just how versatile a RTC is then it will become a tool that you will use a lot more than you ever expected to.

6. You will eventually (most likely through the unintentional misuse of RTCs) learn about how important ethics are in training. If you’re an average trainer you might adopt one of two well-known ethical models for your training including the use of RTCs. Most positive-only trainers adopt the LIMA (Least Intrusive Minimally Aversive) ethics model and I personally have adopted the more versatile LIEBI (Least Intrusive Effective Behavioural Intervention) ethics model.
The LIMA ethical model can be found in my primary reference book “The Handbook of Applied Dog Behaviour and Training” Vol 3 Chapter 10, Cynopraxis: Theory, Philosophy and Ethics, Part 3.

You can read about the LIEBI ethical model here:http://www.associationofanimalbehaviorprofessionals.com/lie

Using a RTC without having ethical guidelines is like driving a car without road rules…. It’s only a matter of time before something goes wrong. :)

My views on RTCs from this point onward might just surprise a few of you. Although I am a staunch supporter of RTCs, I do not believe that they should be freely available to the general public, over the counter in pet shops or online. In fact, I would support the introduction of legislation to restrict their sales to people who have been trained and certified in how to use them or to dog owners who are using them under the supervision of a certified trainer.

If anything is going to cause the banning of remote training collars it is NOT going to be the correct use of them by qualified trainers, but rather it will be the misuse of them by people completely untrained to use them.

Another of my pet hates (pun intentional) is the influx of cheap and nasty, non-ECMA-compliant ECollars out of China. I would love to see these imports banned for so many reasons, not the least of which is that they do not comply with the Industry supported standards (ECMA) for animal welfare. I have had clients show me collars they have purchased off eBay and online web shops and these collars would not meet the minimal animal welfare regulations in any country outside of China.

I am motivated to write so much more, but then I’d just end up using all the material from my RTC Course and that would be detrimental to my real business. :( But that’s all for now.

 

The good news is that although we may disagree about some things we both want what is best for dogs and we both agree that Remote Training Collars should only be used under the guidance of a trained professional.

 

Until next time may all your tails be happy,

 

Dr Sheridan x