The results of a recent study have revealed that the immediate effects of training pet dogs with an electronic collar cause behavioural signs of distress, particularly when used at high settings.
The research, conducted by animal behaviour specialists at the University of Lincoln, UK, indicates that, in the sample of dogs studied, there are greater welfare concerns around the use of so-called "shock collars" than with positive reward-based training.
The results have been published in the peer-reviewed scientific journal PLOS One.
There are arguments for and against the use of electronic training collars (or e-collars), with groups on both sides having a real concern about dog welfare and wanting to do what is best for their pet.
Nevertheless, limited studies have been conducted on the use of e-collars in the pet population. Academics at the University of Lincoln investigated the performance and welfare consequences of training dogs in the field with manually operated electronic devices.
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' behaviour 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 behavioural responses were less marked than during the preliminary study. Despite this, dogs trained with e-collars showed behavioural 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 behaviour. 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.
Lead author Jonathan Cooper, Professor of Animal Behaviour 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 behaviour. 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."
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