Wednesday, 4 February 2015

Shock Tactics: Why Banning E-Collars is a Poor Solution to the Problems in Dog Training.

The use of electronic collars ("e-collars") is one of the most divisive issues in world of dog training and welfare.  The collars are already banned from sale and use in some countries, particularly in Europe, and recently they have been banned in Wales, which marks the first ban in an English-speaking country.  Both sides of the debate over e-collars are entrenched, and vociferous in their criticism of the other. Those in favor of the ban claim that e-collars are "barbaric" and those who use them are de facto animal abusers. Those against claim that their opponents have a sentimentalized view of dogs, seeing them as babies to wrap in cotton wool, and that they lack adequate knowledge of how the collars are supposed to work.  

Tools designed to be painful or frightening to dogs should never be used as a first-line approach in behavior modification.  This is the position of the AVSAB, the IAABC, and the CCPDT. For that reason, I believe that shock and prong collars should not be widely available in pet stores or online. They should not be as easy to pick up as a bag of treats, and we should work to make them less available by lobbying wherever they are sold. But banning them entirely won't work. 

I am going to argue against calls from the UK Kennel Club, among others, to place an outright ban on the sale and use of e-collars.  This does not mean I am arguing in favor of their use - I have never used an e-collar on my dog, or anyone else's. I am merely arguing that banning a piece of equipment as an attempt to change the way dog trainers operate would be a mistake. 


Obviously, electronic collars are not the only way to cause physical suffering to a dog.  Other kinds of corrective collar are not covered by the proposed ban by the UK Kennel Club.  Kicking the dog is not covered by this ban.  By delivering a short, sharp sensation to the dog, e-collars are more likely to be associated with the undesirable behavior.  To contrast, jerks on pinch collars, alpha rolls and kicks in the ribs are less easy to get the timing right and more likely for the dog to associate with the owner or trainer as well as, or even instead of, the behavior.  By focusing on one item, the "ban the shock� lobby risk taking the best tool out of the compulsive trainer�s toolbox, making room for things that are more invasive and more unpleasant.  They are not addressing the underlying issue, which is, I will argue, that dog training remains an unregulated profession.  

An Ideal World 

The lobbyists often claim that no dog "needs" to be trained using positive punishment.  Any dog - every dog - could be successful with non-compulsive methods, and now that the information on how to use these methods is widely available, there is no excuse for using any other technique.  They point to listings of force-free trainers and organizations like the Pet Professional Guild, as well as all the online resources owners have at their disposal, and argue that because these exist, no dog ought to be subjected to any other kind of training than completely force-free. At the present time, however, such claims amount to utopianism. 

There are still parts of many countries that are not covered by force free trainers at all, and there are places where dogs need training outside a home or class environment, like dog shelters, who do not have access to skilled, experienced force-free trainers for whatever reason.  In real life, compulsive trainers who use e-collars might still be the only option for some people and dogs, if those trainers are the only ones who are accessible.  Taking away their e-collars is not going to provoke some kind Damascene moment of conversion to clicker training; it's more likely to lead to a fall back on more aggressive, more violent techniques.  Not all owners are capable of training their own dogs, especially for difficult or dangerous issues like predatory drive and aggression.  Expecting owners to train their own dogs using methods they are not skilled in is not only unfair, it's potentially dangerous.  

Banning e-collars doesn't change these realities, it merely makes force-free trainers look like they�re doing something.  Just because "something must be done" and you are doing something, doesn't mean you are doing what must be done!

Positive Punishment within a LIMA Framework

Force-free lobbyists often use emotive language in their arguments.  The Kennel Club even refers to e-collars as "barbaric".  We should remember, however, that the use of positive punishment can be a part of the LIMA (Least Invasive Minimally Aversive) approach, widely considered to be the standard of best practice in the ethics of dog training.  LIMA is a principle to guide decisionmaking about which approach to take to achieve a training goal.  It is most commonly, although not necessarily, related to the Humane Hierarchy.  If no other approaches are possible given the trainer's ability and the dog's specific problem, and if the training goal is required for safety, then neither the LIMA approach nor the Humane Hierarchy rules out the use of an e-collar or other method of delivering positive punishment. 

The Association of Pet Dog Trainers, and International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants� position statement on LIMA makes this point clearer:
LIMA requires that trainers/behavior consultants work to increase the use of positive reinforcement and lessen the use of punishment in work with companion animals and the humans who care for them. LIMA protocols are designed to be maximally humane to learners of all species. In order to ensure best practices, consultants/trainers should pursue and maintain competence in animal behavior consulting through education, training, or supervised experience, and should not advise on problems outside the recognized boundaries of their competencies and experience.

Competence is the most important factor in dog training.  We need trainers with a flexible set of skills and a commitment to continuing education.  But we should take something else from this statement too: trainers have different competences and the LIMA approach does not mandate any particular technique, only that the technique is the least invasive and minimally aversive given the situation.  This includes the owner�s abilities, the dog�s temperament and issues, and the trainer�s skills. 

Regulation, Regulation, Regulation

A much better solution than banning e-collars - or any other tool - would be to make dog training a regulated profession.  I�ve made some arguments about this in a previous post.

Ian Dunbar famously said:

To use shock as an effective dog training method you will need:
  • A thorough understanding of canine behavior;
  • A thorough understanding of learning theory;
  • Impeccable timing.
And if you have those three things, you don't need a shock collar. 
If this is true, then making sure that all dog trainers have demonstrated their education and skills to a required level would theoretically lead to the end of e-collar use and of all compulsive training, which is really the goal of the force-free movement.  Such regulation would also make for higher-quality training of every other sort, too - many positive reinforcement trainers mistakenly believe that they "cannot do R+ wrong�.  And, on those rare occasions where trainers do feel that suppressing a behavior is the best approach, the e-collar would still be available with all the benefits it has over other corrective tools. 

In demanding that governments ban e-collars, all the force-free lobby is doing is risking the alienation of a whole group of trainers who use them, including as an adjunct to mark and reward and as part of a LIMA approach.  Until we regulate dog training as a profession, there is no way to minimize the kinds of abuse that go on behind closed doors, and we won�t be able to make progress towards regulation unless there�s widespread support among trainers in all camps.  Dog trainers would need to show that regulation has strong support, and put pressure on governments.  

Furthermore, a regulation system will only be truly fair if it is consented to by as many trainers as possible.  Getting rid of one tool and using language like �barbaric� and �cruel� to describe everyone who uses it is not a step in the right direction because it will ultimately and lead to more divisions, less willingness to co-operate and less likelihood that regulation will happen.  Instead of focusing our energy on banning tools, we should be demanding higher professional standards for the people who use them. 

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