Part II: Background information
What are electronic training aids?
There are a number of different electronic training aids and, whilst they are mainly used on dogs, some are also designed for use on cats. Some collars are designed to pass an electric current between two terminals that make contact with the animal's neck (a static pulse collar). These collars will transmit an electric current through the skin of the animal wearing it. There are also other training aids that are operated electronically but do not pass a current to the animal. These collars operate by emitting a noise or ultrasonic sound; or a spray of water or citronella.
The principle is the same for all of these devices; the static pulse, noise, ultrasound or spray is distracting and is activated when the animal engages in unwanted behaviour. The devices are designed so that the animal associates the behaviour with the unpleasant sensation and, in time, the unwanted behaviour stops.
There are three main uses of electronic training collars to modify an animal's behaviour:
- remote training collars - these collars are used as part of a training regime to address undesirable behaviours and deliver a stimulus (an electric static pulse, sound, vibration or spray) via an owner-operated remote control. The intensity of the stimulus can be varied depending on the model
- anti-bark collars - these are used to train a dog not to bark. The collars are similar to remote training collars but are vibration or sound sensitive (sometimes both) and are activated when the dog wearing it barks
- electric boundary or "freedom" fence - designed to keep a dog or cat within certain boundaries, e.g. to avoid pets running out of a garden onto a road. Can be used indoors to deter pets from entering certain rooms. A boundary wire that carries a radio signal is placed in, or on, the ground or on an existing fence that the pet could potentially jump over or dig under. The wire transmits a continuous signal that is received by the electronic collar. When the animal approaches the wire it triggers a pre-set stimulus, sometimes preceded by a warning sound
At present there is no specific legislation in place in Scotland for the regulation, manufacture or use of electronic training devices.
Section 19 of the Animal Health and Welfare (Scotland) Act 2006 ("the Act") makes it an offence to cause a protected animal unnecessary suffering. A "protected animal" is defined in section 17 and in these circumstances would normally relate to any animal under the control of man. Section 48 of the Act makes it clear that "suffering" includes mental as well as physical suffering. If it could be proved that activating, or causing an electric collar to be activated on a dog or cat caused it to suffer unnecessarily then an offence would have been committed.
In deciding if suffering is unnecessary, a court would consider if the use of an electric collar was for a legitimate purpose. Legitimate purposes could include use for the purpose of benefiting the animal or for the purpose of protecting a person, property or other animal. The court would also consider whether the suffering could reasonably have been avoided or reduced; whether the conduct was in compliance with any relevant enactment or provisions of licence or code of conduct; whether the suffering was proportionate to the purposes of the conduct; and whether in the circumstance the conduct was that of a reasonably competent and humane person.
Section 24 of the Act makes it an offence for a person to fail to take reasonable steps to meet the needs of an animal for which the person is responsible to the extent required by good practice. These needs include its need to be protected from suffering, injury and disease. However, a court would have regard to whether the circumstances included any lawful activity undertaken in relation to the animal.
Previous public consultation
In 2007 the Scottish Government issued a consultation paper on the use, sale, distribution and possession of Electronic Training Aids to obtain information and evidence about how these devices were used, their benefits and the problems which can arise from their use.
The full public consultation, which was also specifically targeted at around 300 organisations that were considered to have an interest in dog welfare, elicited 164 responses.
Support for a ban on some types of collars, including sonic or spray collars, from some animal welfare organisations was balanced by strong opposition to a ban from other organisations. Views amongst individual non-affiliated respondents were mixed.
It was noted that electronic training collars had developed considerably since the 1970s. The static pulse collars no longer reached the same maximum intensities, many were fitted with variable levels from vibrate or sound and the intensity of the static pulse provided by the collars varied on at least a 10 point scale. It was pointed out in many of the responses that devices contemporary to 2007 produced a stimulus less painful that a static shock from an electric fence.
It was acknowledged that electronic training aids could be misused, but that pain could also be inflicted on a dog or cat by its owner using a stick or lead.
Those who were against the use of the electronic training aids believed that the most effective way of training an animal was through positive reinforcement by rewarding the animal for good behaviour, rather than punishing it for unwanted behaviour.
Those in favour of a ban also believed that when using an electronic training device an animal only responded out of fear or pain, and may associate the stimulus with something in the area rather than with unwanted behaviour. Those opposed to the use of electronic collars commented that the most effective way to stop a dog chasing livestock was to keep it on a lead and that a suitable physical fence would keep a dog in a garden.
In contrast, some individuals felt that the use of electronic training aids had saved their pets from being destroyed. The devices were said to be used as a last resort, teaching their pets to remain within a garden and stopping them from chasing other animals (including livestock). Many felt that a freedom fence gave an animal more freedom to roam a safe area and prevented them from straying on to roads.
Many respondents believed that after the initial training, using static electric pulses, only the audio or vibrate function would be required as animals learn quickly.
On balance, there was no clear consensus from respondents to the consultation as to whether or not some or all electronic training aids should be banned.
Developments in electronic training aids
Since the public consultation in 2007 the technical specifications of these electronic training devices have again moved on and instructions for use have improved. There is also now a larger range of electronic training collars and greater availability of these devices with many being sold through the internet.
In the past few years some countries have introduced bans or regulated the use of these devices, and there has been further research into the welfare impact of such devices on animals.
There has been limited research into the welfare impact of the various types of electronic training aid, particularly into the welfare impact of more recent alternatives to the use of the static pulse as a stimulus, such as noise, vibration, or citronella spray. However, the results of some recent studies into the welfare impact of static pulse collars are presented here.
Defra research projects AW1402 and AW1402A
Defra and the Scottish Government considered that previous studies on electronic training collars were not sufficiently robust and that more evidence was needed before further thought could be given to either banning or regulating the use of these training devices.
Defra commissioned research from the Universities of Lincoln and Bristol. Project AW1402 was commissioned to assess the effect of pet training devices, specifically remote static pulse systems, on the welfare of domestic dogs. This ran from September 2007 to November 2010 with the final report being published on the 10 June 2013.
These studies looked at the physical characteristics of static electric pulse collars and the physiological, behavioural and psychological consequences of their use in dog training.
The key findings included:
- there are differences in stimulus strength/duration between brands of electronic collars
- while manuals were clear on the operation and fit of the collar, there were varying levels of information on their use in training and such advice was not always taken up by users
- the majority of owners in the study used electronic collars for specific problem behaviours; recall problems and livestock chasing being most commonly reported
- over one-third of owners reported their dogs vocalising on first use of an e collar and over a quarter did so regarding subsequent use
- some dogs did react to being trained with electronic collars, with levels of stress hormones and behavioural indicators of tenseness increasing between testing without a collar and testing with a dummy collar for some dogs using collars compared with those dogs subject to positive reinforcement measures
The second project, AW1402a, was a field study of dogs in training. Physiological and behavioural measurements were taken in three groups of 21 dogs in twice daily training sessions dealing with animal chasing/recall problems by experienced trainers over four to five days, with one group using static electric pulse collars in accordance with manufacturers guidelines, the other two groups without electronic collars. The project ran between October 2010 and June 2011 with a final report being published on the 10 June 2013.
The main findings of this project were:
- dogs trained using collars exhibited more yawning and showed more "tense" behaviour during training; however, other behavioural differences between the groups were insignificant or related to the approach of the trainer
- there were no significant differences in the physiological measurements of urinary corticosteroid and salivary cortisol (which could indicate a response to stress) before and after training
- cognitive bias testing and other behavioural assessments of the dogs three months later when they returned to the training environment also showed no significant difference in their behaviour, physiology or emotional state apart from a temporary elevated salivary cortisol in the group trained with collars
When considered in full detail, this research did not provide clear evidence that electronic training aids are inherently harmful to the welfare of dogs in general or convincing evidence of long-term effects on welfare following collar use in accordance with manufacturer's instructions. The researchers have however suggested the research demonstrates that electronic collars are a potential risk to the welfare of some dogs when equally effective results can be achieved by other forms of training. This research considered the use of remote static electric pulse collars for recall training only and did not consider anti-bark or boundary collars.
The reports can be viewed at:
Companion Animals Welfare Council (CAWC) report
The Companion Animals Welfare Council (CAWC) report (pdf), published in 2012, identified only ten publications of direct relevance to the specific use of static electric pulse collars in dogs; noted there were significant limitations in the quality of reporting and conclusions that could be drawn; concluded that there are sound animal welfare based arguments both for and against the use of electronic training aids in theory and a lack of relevant research to inform the debate; suggested that there is inconsistency in attitudes towards the use of electric current with animals, with general acceptance for livestock; suggested that regulated use of manual devices may be acceptable with safeguards and makes recommendations on the design and use of electronic aids
There were indications in 2007 that some members of the electronic collar industry recognised the need for change to help protect the welfare of pets using such devices, and that some helpful changes had already been put into place. There has been further progress since then.
The Electronic Collar Manufacturers Association
The Electronic Collar Manufacturers Association (ECMA) was established in 2004 following increased awareness of a need to regulate the industry and to promote the safe and responsible use of electronic pet training equipment.
ECMA states that its members commit to meet the requirements set out in the ECMA Charter for Animal Welfare; and that only products that meet the ECMA standards are allowed to carry the " ECMA approved" mark on their products.
ECMA Standards include:
Mandatory inclusions in instruction manuals
All products must include a user manual containing operational and training instructions. Manuals must advise operators that the electronic training equipment should only be used on animals over six months old and include advice on avoidance of pressure necrosis.
The manual should also advise that the collar is not worn continually (maximum 12 hours), that the collar fit is checked regularly and the animal's neck is checked often.
Approvals and product marking
All static correction products must:
- comply with current relevant EU standards (approval and test certificates must be kept by members and be made available if requested)
- comply with current EU radio frequency regulations
- carry the Conformité Européene (CE) logo
- carry the ECMA "Approved Product" logo
Product safety requirements for static correction products
ECMA advise that the power of static correction should not exceed either 15 mA RMS, or 100 mA maximum
The length of the stimulation must be limited by an automatic safety cut-out and the collars must have variable levels of correction power to suit the needs of the animal and the situation. Collar contacts must be safe, with rounded points. The distance between collar contact points must not exceed 60mm.
ECMA are working with Defra and the UK Department of Business, Innovation and Skills to develop a set of manufacturing standards for static pulse training collars to make sure any collars on sale are made to high standards and to draw up guidance about how such collars should be used properly to avoid misuse.
Other collar manufacturers
It must be recognised that not all electronic collar manufacturers are members of ECMA. With the increasing use of the internet to buy and sell electronic training aids, it is evident that there is a range of collar manufacturers producing these devices to varying degrees of quality and safety, and providing varying levels of information on how to use the devices correctly to ensure effectiveness and safety. Some such manufacturers may meet or even exceed some/all of the ECMA standards outlined above; others may fall significantly short.
Controls in other countries
The debate surrounding the use of electronic training collars is not restricted to Scotland or even the UK. Similar issues have been tackled in various ways by other countries around the world, and there may be useful lessons to learn.
Bans in other countries
Electronic training collars are banned in several countries including Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Australia (in most states), Austria and Wales.
The Welsh Government banned the use of any electronic collar capable of causing an electric shock to any cat or dog, including collars used to control behaviour and electric boundary fences, as a precautionary measure on the 24 March 2010 under the Animal Welfare (Electronic Collars) (Wales) Regulations 2010. Other types of electronic training aids (noise, vibration and spray) are not banned. This followed a review of the science on the topic existing at that time (The use of shock collars and their impact on the welfare of dogs: A review of the current literature - Emily Blackwell and Rachel Casey, University of Bristol, 2006); three consultations (November 2007, March 2009 and December 2009) and discussions with the European Commission.
The electronic collar industry raised a challenge by judicial review following the introduction of the ban. This looked at the process of the introduction of the ban introduction and the evidence on which the decisions were made. The ban was upheld.
The Welsh Government agreed that the decision to ban the selected electronic collars would be reviewed if significant evidence was subsequently produced that would merit a change to the policy decision. They consider that the subsequent Defra funded research did not show conclusively whether the static pulse devices investigated were significantly harmful or not. The Welsh Government has not moved to change the existing legislation; however, they are preparing to review this legislation (a standard approach in Wales following a period of time after legislative change).
In June 2004 Austria introduced animal protection legislation which prohibits the use of spike collars, collar type pronged collars and animal training devices using electricity or chemical substances.
"Executive Order 607 of 25 June 2009 on a Ban on the Use of Certain Devices, Collars, etc, for Animals" was introduced in Denmark in 2009. This prohibits the use of "any remotely operated or automatically-acting device that could secure to an animal and cause the animal electrocution or other significant disadvantage when activated."
The legislation also covers the sale and advertisement of such devices. A fine or an imprisonment of up to four months could be imposed on anyone who violates the ban.
Under section 3 (1a) (11) of the Animal Welfare Act it is prohibited to use a device which by applying direct electrocution restricts the species specific behaviour of an animal, in particular its movement, or forces it to move, thereby causing the animal considerable pain, suffering or harm, unless provisions of federal or land law authorise such practices.
Regulation in other countries
Other countries, including New Zealand, have issued guidance on the use of collars in statutory dog welfare codes. Some jurisdictions continue to permit the use of collars but have direct legal controls - one example is the Australian State of Victoria, where there are detailed legal requirements on the technical specification of collars and a direct legal requirement to use them only in accordance with a statutory code of practice under the supervision and written instructions of a veterinary practitioner or a qualified dog trainer.
Under the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act it is illegal to use, sell, possess or import an electronic collar in most Australian States. However, there are exemptions when veterinarians prescribe their use.
Australian State of Victoria
Under the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act 1986, the Victoria State Government introduced a Code of Practice for Training Dogs and Cats to Wear Electronic Collars that is compulsory where such training aids are put to use. This included the use of remote training collars and anti-bark collars for dogs and containment fences for both cats and dogs.
The Code of Practice sets out the minimum standards required when using any collar capable of imparting an electric shock to an animal. This includes ensuring that the animal has had veterinary checks before first use; the conditions in which the animal is introduced to the collar; and that the electronic collar is used only under the supervision and written instruction of a veterinary practitioner, competent trainer or qualified dog trainer. Operators must also comply with conditions on the power of the collar and design of the electric contacts.
In 2010, New Zealand introduced the Animal Welfare (Dogs) Code of Welfare 2010, which issued under the Animal Welfare Act 1999.
The Code of Welfare restricts the use of electronic devices (remote control collars, anti-bark collars and boundary containment systems) to competent operators only for use as a training aid for serious behavioural faults when other methods have proved ineffective and when without the use of such device the dog is likely to be euthanased.
A ban on the general use of electronic devices, acoustic signal devices and collars that operate with chemical agent was introduced in Switzerland in April 2008. Some exceptions are made for the use of these devices, for example for therapeutic purposes, however the operator must show they are competent in their use by sitting exams, document the use of the devices by submitting reports at the end of each calendar year with description, identification of the dog and outcome of the equipment use.
Pros and cons of different types of training aids
Most debate surrounds static pulse collars. Collar manufacturers believe that the static pulse stimulus may be uncomfortable or startling but, if used properly, it is not painful or harmful. They maintain that static pulse training aids are safe, humane and effective training for dogs. Only a small amount of electrical energy is used and the intended effect is to startle the animal and not to cause pain.
The majority of modern devices now issue an audible or sensory warning that alerts the animal that their behaviour is undesirable and the static pulse will only follow if the behaviour is not modified. Devices from responsible manufacturers are now also fitted with automatic time-out and fail-safe features and are designed to shut down the static pulse in the case of malfunction.
However, a number of animal welfare organisations still believe that these devices are painful and cause the animal pain and distress. They also maintain that the collars would not be effective unless the static pulse was painful to the animal.
Vibration, noise, spray
There is perhaps less debate surrounding the use of more recent alternatives to static pulse collars, which can use vibration, noise, or a spray as an alternative stimulus. There appears to be a general assumption that these alternatives are more welfare friendly; however, again, there is no clear evidence to support this and some important questions remain. For example, do long periods of vibration cause increasing levels of discomfort from friction? How loud are any sounds emitted to the cat or dog, which have different ranges of hearing to humans, and are they ever painful to sensitive hearing? In particular, while a squirt of water could perhaps be considered harmless, we have no real information, for example on the effect of citronella spray on the sensitive nasal passages of a cat or dog. Concerns have been expressed that such chemicals might linger in the nose for some time, causing lengthy periods of irritation as opposed to other more distinctly action-associated stimulus types, such as noise, vibration, or static pulse.
Remote controlled collars
Many people who are against the use of electronic training collars emphasise that reward based training is more effective than negative training methods. Most animal behaviourists do now believe that training methods that are based on rewards and an understanding of animal behaviour are generally more likely to be effective. These positive training methods can train dogs quickly without any risk of fear and pain or potentially damaging the relationship between dog and trainer.
Those against the use of collars suggested that there is the risk that the dog may not be aware what has caused any stimulus and associate it with something else within their immediate environment rather than their behaviour. It is suggested that such an association based on a painful stimulus could lead to the dog attacking another animal, or a human, within their vicinity at the time they experience the static pulse, though there is no clear evidence that this has ever happened
However, supporters of electronic collars counter that there are some instances where reward-based training regimes have failed to be effective. Those that were in favour of electronic training devices in the previous consultation believed that electronic training aids had saved animals lives as they had been successfully trained not to chase livestock or game, attack other pets or people or eat dangerous material.
Collars were also reported to have been successfully used to cure excessive barking. In many cases electronic training collars had been used as a training aid of last resort after other training methods had been tried and failed.
However, animal welfare organisations have concerns that the devices deal with the symptom rather than the underlying problem. It is suggested this may result in further behavioural issues in the future.
It has also been claimed that older style anti-bark devices could be activated by noises within the environment rather than by the dog barking. It is not clear whether this is the case with more modern devices.
Boundary fence systems
Freedom fences can be used where it is not possible, or practical, to place a physical fence or where the dog or cat can climb over or dig under an existing fence. There are many pet owners and dog trainers who believe that electronic training collars have saved pets from persistent straying, causing road traffic accidents, being rehomed or even being euthanased. It is claimed that animals learn quickly to respond to any audio warning and after the first few initial stimuli, the system rarely needs to be activated.
Some dog owners state that their dogs looking forward to putting their collars on as they have the freedom of the garden. Boundary fence systems can prevent dogs and cats from wandering, thereby preventing road traffic accidents or damage to other person's gardens and property.
However, it has been suggested that it might be possible for a pet to escape from a boundary fence system and then be unwilling to return. These devices are also unable to prevent other animals entering into containment area, which the resident would then potentially be unable to avoid.
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