If you own or have owned a dog, you very likely used a collar on your dog at some point. They are convenient for attaching a leash for walking, they offer a method of control to your dog while in public, and they make a convenient place to hang identification tags and license tags required by many communities. They are just a standard part of owning a dog for most of us. In recent years, two specialized kinds of dog collars have come under heavy criticism and are the subject of campaigns to ban their sale outright – the electronic (or “shock”) collar and the prong (sometimes called “pinch”) collar.
Efforts are underway in several countries to restrict or ban the sale and use of electronic and prong collars. It is an attempt to move the dog owning public to a more humane and scientifically appropriate way of working with dogs while discarding generations of out-dated methods and tools. I support and endorse these initiatives and those promoting them. But efforts to ban these collars concern me for two reasons. First, they are divisive to the dog owning community. People who have used these collars and are satisfied with the results they have gotten don’t want to be told what they can and cannot use to train their dogs. These collars are popular and have been available for decades. Removing them from dog owners who may not know how to work without them should not be taken lightly. And secondly, the campaigns tend to focus on the wellbeing of the individual dogs who wear these collars and don’t seem to take into account the larger community issues that will inevitably result from their sudden removal.
What’s all the fuss?
Dog owners have been using these collars for decades, why are they now coming under so much criticism that their sale should be banned? The answer is simple: we now have effective training alternatives for dog owners that do not require causing discomfort or pain to the dog. The past 15-20 years has seen something of a revolution in the field of dog training. A combination of more modern training techniques based on behavioural science and an increase in research about dogs and their behaviour has given dog owners a vast array of new approaches to training and working with their dogs. This modern, science-based approach largely advocates for encouraging the behaviours we want from our dogs instead of using unpleasant actions to discourage the dog from doing anything but what we are asking them to do.
A defining characteristic of the electronic and prong collars is that they are designed to provide sensations to a dog that they will find uncomfortable enough to try and avoid. It’s kind of an “if you don’t do what I ask, you won’t like what happens next” approach to teaching a dog. In the past, these collars were considered innovative tools and effective tools but the advancements in dog training technology have made them just one of many training techniques that dog owners can use to get the results they want. The trouble is that not all “results” are equal when it comes to dogs and behaviour. Some approaches are less intrusive and more humane than others.
Proponents for banning electronic and prong collars have one simple argument why these collars should not be used – given the availability of highly effective alternatives, there is no reason to deliberately cause discomfort or pain to a dog in trying to teach them. It is a matter of being more humane to our dogs. It is, in my opinion, a very sound and reasonable argument. If there is a way to work with my dogs that does not risk them finding the experience unpleasant, why would I not choose that approach?
This is where the difficulty begins. It cannot be denied that dog owners have been using electronic and prong collars for many years. Sales and use of these collars would indicate that many people find them useful and are satisfied with the results in using them with their dogs. Estimates indicate that there are millions of these collars in use today. Generally, most dog owners will use whatever methods and tools have given them results in the past. There is no motivation to change if the results have been satisfactory.
Even though dog training techniques have advanced significantly, the electronic and prong collars remain popular with some in the dog community. Efforts to ban these collars will necessarily upset people who have depended on them in working with their dogs. Wanting to make the world a more humane and pleasant place for dogs is a laudable and important goal. But if we could snap our fingers and make all of the electronic and prong collars disappear tomorrow, what would the world look like?
A perfect world?
Imagine a sunny day in that idyllic world without electronic and prong collars. A petite woman in her mid-40s walks her 100 pound rottweiler with some difficulty. She no longer uses a prong collar to manage her dog and he is easily pulling her down the street as she struggles with her leash and flat collar. Another woman approaches ahead with a small toy poodle that erupts with barking as it strains at the end of its leash. And this is where the nightmare begins.
Having had the prong collar that she has depended on taken away, the woman cannot control her rottweiler and loses control of the leash. The larger dog charges the barking poodle and its fearful owner. In a matter of seconds, the two dogs scuffle and the small poodle lies dead with its neck snapped before the rottweiler’s owner can even get there to regain control of the leash. Not having a prong collar to manage dogs does not benefit the dog owners in this scenario, at least from the standpoint of the woman who owned the poodle in this scenario.
And this is just one of a hundreds, perhaps thousands of potential scenarios. It is a simple fact that each year millions of dogs are surrendered to shelters, the most common reason being unmanageable behaviour problems. How many additional dogs would be surrendered if owners were not able to use familiar tools that are suddenly declared illegal? How would dog owners cope with the loss of tools they have depended on to safely work with their dogs in public? It’s an interesting question.
Not so black and white
While there is anecdotal evidence that many dogs are harmed or killed each year by electronic and prong collars, it is impossible to accurately estimate how many lives would be saved by banning these collars. Similarly, as in the example above, it is impossible to estimate how many dogs would die as a result of a sudden and outright ban of these collars. It is common sense that as dog training technology advances, less humane tools and methods should be replaced by better, more humane approaches. But getting there is not just a simple matter of legislation. It is a matter of education.
The woman in the scenario above could have avoided that unpleasant confrontation had she been taught alternative methods to work with her rottweiler to manage or prevent its aggressive behaviour. Banning the use of prong collars does nothing to provide those alternatives, it simply removes one tool that was useful to her. How beneficial would it have been for her if someone had offered her a free 4-week course to help her learn and use new training skills with her dog if she agreed to surrender her prong collar at its completion?
Local governments should also have a vested interest in promoting public safety in the community. Providing funding for dog owner re-education would not only ease the transition from electronic and prong collars to more modern methods, it could reduce the incidence of dog aggression in the community and reduce the number of dogs ending up in community funded shelters. Unfortunately, it takes time and effort to craft dog owner re-education programs and to lobby for funding of such programs. It is a far easier thing to show horrifying pictures to the public and law-makers and get a ban on the sale and/or use of electronic and prong collars. But it is not a complete solution.
My concern here is that these efforts to ban these collars, although well-intentioned, have the potential to create as many problems as they might solve if they are seen as a complete solution to the problem. A ban would address only one part of the larger problem of moving society forward toward more humane and effective dog training. It seems that the rest is left up to individual dog professionals to take up the slack (or not) and deal with whatever fallout may result from banning legislation.
In my view, we have an opportunity here. The issue of electronic and prong collars has been brought to the forefront. Using this opportunity to engage organizations for dog professionals like the APDT, IAABC, CCPDT, PPG, and others to develop dog owner education programs and lobby lawmakers to support them seems like a logical, necessary, and complementary approach to advocating for banning legislation. If dog professionals are truly concerned about a more humane world for dogs, I think we own it to them to invest as much time and effort into teaching dog owners how to do better as we do into removing outdated and unnecessary tools from the marketplace.
PLEASE NOTE: Canine Nation believes that efforts to ban the sale and use of potentially dangerous and harmful tools like electronic and prong collars are useful and necessary. We support them. We also believe that dog owner education programs are necessary to assist in providing adequate tools and training alternatives for the health and safety of the dogs and the general public.
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