In what the Kennel Club calls a “historic moment for animal welfare,” the use of electric shock collars on dogs will be banned in England starting February 1, 2024.
A shock collar is a collar worn by the dog that can apply an electric shock, typically when the dog’s guardian or trainer presses a button on a remote control.
There are potentially many negative effects from the use of shock collars to train dogs, including that it may hurt or startle the dog, and that the dog may associate the shock with something unintended, e.g. the presence of the dog owner or the approach of a strange person or dog. A number of studies have shown that shock collars, like other aversive methods, can have adverse effects on dogs in both the short- and long-term. You can find a summary of the evidence in my book, Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy.
One study compared the use of shock collars to reward-based training for teaching dogs to come when called in the presence of livestock. Even though the shock collars were operated by trainers who specialized in their use, the study found evidence of compromised welfare in dogs trained using electronic collars (Cooper et al 2014). As well, it turns out that they are less effective than using reward-based training methods (i.e. positive reinforcement) (China et al 2020). When ordinary dog guardians use shock collars, they say that it’s less successful than they expected (Blackwell et al 2012; Masson et al, 2018). Most people who use shock collars do so without taking professional advice (which would hopefully counsel them against it) and 75 percent after trying only zero to two alternatives (Masson et al 2018).
When dogs are trained with two or more aversive methods (including shock collars), they are more pessimistic than dogs trained with reward-based methods (Casey et al 2021). This is important because it reflects experience over time, i.e. a longer-term effect on welfare. Another study found dogs who were trained with aversive methods including leash jerks, yelling, and shock collars, are pessimistic compared to dogs trained with food rewards as positive reinforcement (Vieira de Castro et al 2020).
In 2018, the European Society of Veterinary Clinical Ethology reviewed all of the evidence on electronic collars and concluded that:
“There is no credible scientific evidence to justify e-collar use and the use of spray collars or electronic fences for dogs. On the contrary, there are many reasons to never use these devices. Better training options exist, with proven efficacy and low risk.”
There have long been concerns about the use of shock collars in England. A ban was initially announced by the UK parliament in 2018, but it did not become law. In November 2022, a coalition of British animal welfare organizations joined together to call for the ban on shock collars to pass into law. The group was comprised of leading British animal welfare organizations: The Kennel Club, Dogs Trust, RSPCA, Battersea Dogs & Cats Homes, The British Veterinary Association, and Blue Cross.
At the time, Rachel Casey, Ph.D., FRCVS, RCVS Specialist in Veterinary Behavioural Medicine and Director of Canine Behaviour and Research at Dogs Trust, said:
“It is both unnecessary and cruel to use these collars on dogs. They are painful and have a serious negative impact on dogs’ wellbeing. Worse still, they can be a mechanism for abuse if used in anger.
“I will never forget coming across a little terrier when out on a walk, with no owner in sight. He was crouched down, shaking and screaming repeatedly as his e-collar was activated again and again.
“These devices have no place in modern dog training. We know that positive reward-based methods are at least as effective. We know that using e-collars impacts on dog welfare and risks causing further behaviour problems. It is past time for a ban.”
Some other countries already ban the use of electronic shock collars, including Wales (which banned them in 2010), Germany, Finland, Denmark, and Sweden. The French Assemblée Nationale voted to ban them in early 2023. Bans are most effective when also accompanied by information campaigns (Todd, 2018). Dog training is not regulated in Canada or the US, so you have to read trainers' websites carefully as some trainers still use shock collars.
There is already a broad consensus against the use of shock collars. Many organizations, including the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists and the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior, recommend the use of only reward-based dog training methods. The Canadian Veterinary Medical Association also strongly recommends the use of reward-based methods. The Canadian Association of Professional Dog Trainers includes shock collars on its “stop list” of aversive training methods that their members must not use. The BC SPCA’s AnimalKind Accreditation only allows the use of kind, humane methods, and therefore also prohibits the use of shock collars by its members.
Members of the Pet Professional Guild pledge that they will only use reward-based methods, and the organization set up the Shock-Free Coalition to campaign to ban the use of shock collars in the US.
Dogs should be trained using reward-based methods. Positive reinforcement is fun for your dog—and it’s effective too. Remember that dogs are learning all the time and so you should build dog training into everyday life.
If your pet has behavior issues, it’s important to get good advice. For any sudden changes in behavior or if you have concerns about your dog, see your veterinarian. For help with dog training and behavior issues, find a competent dog trainer or behavior professional.
Blackwell EJ, Bolster C, Richards G, Loftus BA, & Casey RA (2012). The use of electronic collars for training domestic dogs: estimated prevalence, reasons and risk factors for use, and owner perceived success as compared to other training methods. BMC veterinary research, 8 PMID: 22748195
Casey, R.A., Naj-Oleari, M., Campbell, S. et al. Dogs are more pessimistic if their owners use two or more aversive training methods. Sci Rep 11, 19023 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-021-97743-0
China, L., Mills, D.S. & Cooper, J.J. (2020) Efficacy of dog training with and without remote electronic collars vs. a focus on positive reinforcement. Frontiers in Veterinary Science, https://doi.org/10.3389/fvets.2020.00508.
Cooper, J. J., Cracknell, N., Hardiman, J., Wright, H., & Mills, D. (2014). The welfare consequences and efficacy of training pet dogs with remote electronic training collars in comparison to reward based training. PloS one, 9(9), e102722. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0102722
Masson, S., de la Vega, S., Gazzano, A., Mariti, C., Pereira, G. D. G., Halsberghe, C., Leyvraz, A.M., McPeake, K. & Schoening, B. (2018). Electronic training devices: discussion on the pros and cons of their use in dogs as a basis for the position statement of the European Society of Veterinary Clinical Ethology. Journal of Veterinary Behavior, 25, 71-75. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jveb.2018.02.006
Masson, S., Nigron, I., & Gaultier, E. (2018). Questionnaire Survey on The Use Of Different E-Collar Types in France in Everyday Life With A View To Providing Recommendations for Possible Future Regulations. Journal of Veterinary Behavior. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jveb.2018.05.004
Todd, Z. (2018). Barriers to the adoption of humane dog training methods. Journal of Veterinary Behavior, 25, 28-34. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jveb.2018.03.004
Vieira de Castro, A. C., Fuchs, D., Morello, G. M., Pastur, S., de Sousa, L., & Olsson, I. A. S. (2020). Does training method matter? Evidence for the negative impact of aversive-based methods on companion dog welfare. Plos one, 15(12), e0225023. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0225023