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Electric Dog Collars

Volume 637: debated on Wednesday 14 March 2018

It is a real pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth.

The recent announcement by the Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs—

Order. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman intended to move the motion, and say that this House has considered the use, sale and distribution of electric dog collars.

That is exactly what I wanted to say. I beg to move,

That this House has considered the use, sale and distribution of electric dog collars.

Thank you, Mr Howarth. Can you tell that this is the first Westminster Hall debate that I have secured? It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship.

As I was saying, the recent announcement by the Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, proposing Government action to ban electric shock collars for cats and dogs, is very welcome. Members will be aware that I have been lobbying colleagues across the Chamber to support the campaign to outlaw the use, sale and distribution of these barbaric devices. However, there is a big difference between banning the use of shock collars and stopping their sale and distribution altogether.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate on a subject that I know he feels passionate about. However, can he confirm in his opening remarks that what he is proposing to ban is the shock collar that is used by humans when training dogs, rather than the collars that dogs wear that warn them when they are close to a boundary fence? Those collars serve a good purpose and even save dogs’ lives if there are busy roads or other dangers beyond the fence.

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. Having had numerous discussions with the Dogs Trust, as well as meeting the Secretary of State, I know that there is a difference. He is absolutely right that shock collars are controlled by humans and, depending on the device, they can control how long a shock is administered for, and those collars can even be used as devices of torture. The advice that I have had from the Dogs Trust is that although we do not like anything that administers a shock, when it comes to these boundary fences the dog itself is in control. Technically, therefore, the dog can administer the shock.

The concern with those collars for boundary fences is that if dogs were to cross the boundary fence, would they be nervous about coming back again, because they know that there is a shock coming? However, my understanding is that a ban on those collars is not being considered, because as far as the Dogs Trust, the Kennel Club and others are concerned, the dog is in control and not a human. Although they are not ideal, they are still better than an electric shock collar.

One of the key planks of my campaign has been around the sale—

I thank my hon. Friend very much for giving way in this important debate. What is his opinion on sonic collars, because they have a different function but should also probably be banned?

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. One of the things that I have learned throughout this whole campaign is the range of different devices that are available. Across the world, there are hundreds of different devices using different techniques, whether that is vibrations or shocks, to administer some form of treatment for a behaviour that is unwanted. Therefore, the consultation that has been announced is very broad, which is why I encourage Members here, as well as members of the public and all sorts of organisations and charities, to make their views known on exactly this issue and these kinds of devices.

I welcome the swift action that has been taken in Wales to ban the use of electric shock collars and I also welcome the intention of the Scottish Government to change guidance for prosecutors. However, we all know that banning the sale and distribution of these items across the UK requires action in this Parliament.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on bringing this matter forward and on supporting the Secretary of State in his endeavour. However, he has just touched on a point about the extent of this sort of legislation. In Northern Ireland, we currently do not have a democratic institution that could pass a legislative consent motion, for example. I am interested in hearing his views as to whether this process should extend to Scotland and Northern Ireland, and I invite the Minister to confirm whether that will be the case.

I wish to make it clear that if we are to tackle the issue of electric shock collars and properly ban their use, it has to happen right across our United Kingdom, and only this Parliament can stop the sale and distribution of these collars. We can prohibit their use, but if we really want to eradicate them, banning their sale and distribution is key. And I hope that the Minister will pick up on the point that the hon. Gentleman has raised.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. A number of other Members and I applied for a similar debate, but he had better dice than us in the selection. However, it is important to recognise that he has widespread support across this House and across parties for the points that he is making. I wonder whether he would agree to ask the Minister, in the gentlest terms possible, to explain why the whole matter of the sale of these devices has been left out of the consultation that was announced this week, and to encourage the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to include the sale in that consultation.

I genuinely thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. He is absolutely right that we have had cross-party support on this issue. I am glad that the Government are taking action, because right across the Chamber and regardless of party colour, there is real support for action on this issue. The hon. Gentleman’s intervention is very timely—

I will take another intervention, but first I will respond to the intervention from the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard). I was about to discuss what has been suggested regarding the consultation since it was launched at the weekend—namely, that the Government are not seeking to ban the sale of these devices. My understanding is that that is wrong, because the consultation document itself says that the consultation is seeking views and calling for evidence on the sale of electric shock dog collars, as well as views and evidence on their use. I will quote the consultation document directly, which says that the Government

“want to hear views about what these proposals will mean for the sale and retailers of e-collars and whether any further restrictions will be required”.

I have made it clear from the outset that I would only ever welcome a Government proposal for a ban if it applied to the sale as well as the use of these devices. So, yes, I ask the Minister to confirm that it is the intention of the Government to seek a ban that covers the sale and use of these devices, and I call on those colleagues who are just as passionate as I am about banning their sale to submit their views to the consultation. In fact, I hope that all animal lovers will take the opportunity to engage in the upcoming consultation and make their feelings clear.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way and I am also grateful to him for securing this very important debate. My parents have been training dogs—working dogs—for the best part of 30 years, and they have never felt the need to use these barbaric devices. My parents are good trainers and understand dogs very well. Does my hon. Friend agree with the recommendation from the Kennel Club that a ban should be rolled out across the country?

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. What he highlights is some of the anecdotal evidence that has come through this campaign from people who are dog behaviourists and trainers, and who have seen the effects of the use of shock collars and how detrimental they can be. I absolutely agree with him, and with the Kennel Club recommendations, that whatever we do must happen right across the country.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this extremely important debate. As chair of the all-party parliamentary group on dog advisory welfare, I have been inundated by people contacting me from right across the United Kingdom to give their support for this campaign. I wanted to let him know about that. Also, given his passion for this subject, I wanted to ask him to consider joining the all-party group and working collaboratively on this issue and other issues, such as Lucy’s law.

I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. She is absolutely right that there has been huge support from the public on this issue, and no doubt many of our inboxes are filled with emails about it from constituents and from others right across the country who care just as much as we do about animal welfare and driving up animal welfare standards. I congratulate her on all the work that she has done with the all-party group. I would be absolutely delighted to join it and support it in any work that it is seeking to do, because she is right that dog welfare does not just end with banning shock collars; there is an awful lot more to do, and introducing Lucy’s law is absolutely one of those things.

In the run-up to this debate, members of the public were invited to post and share their views about banning shock collars on the House of Commons Facebook page. The response to that invitation has been quite amazing and the comments are still coming in, so I thank everyone who took the time to share their thoughts. The majority of respondents believe that shock collars are not necessary to train dogs, and I will share with Members a couple of the comments. Deb said:

“There is no justification for training animals using pain, rather than reward and building trust. It is not only cruel. It risks creating behavioural issues in the short or long term that could be a risk to humans. Ban the shock collars. It’s overdue.”

Karen said:

“They need to be banned. It is a cruel and inhumane form of torture and abuse. If it isn’t suitable to use on your human child then it shouldn’t be suitable to use on a pet.”

Bill said:

“If you love your dog why would you want to give them an electric shock? Why not spend time with them training them?”

I congratulate my hon. Friend on bringing this important debate to us today. As he has just touched on, persuasion is always better than aversion. What we have is a sentient dog that is potentially living in fear, not knowing where the next shock is coming from. We must stop that cruelty as soon as we can. We must bring the ban forward and expand it, rather than just rolling on endlessly, given the time it takes to get through these things through Parliament.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. All the evidence from experts in dog training shows that when an electric shock is administered, the dog does not understand why it has received that shock. When using these collars, owners have to be incredibly precise with the timing, otherwise it can result in even more detrimental behaviour, rather than correcting the behaviour someone is seeking to change. I will come on to that, because there is worrying anecdotal evidence about cases in which people have got that wrong and what that means for the welfare of the dog.

My hon. Friend will agree that for generations, guide dogs, sheepdogs, hearing dogs, police dogs, mountain rescue dogs and, indeed, domestic pets have been trained very successfully without the barbaric use of electric collars. Does he agree that the vast majority of the British public would aim for one outcome: a ban on the use of such collars and, equally importantly, a ban on the sale of the devices in the United Kingdom?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right: there are many different positive, reward-based training techniques out there to train our dogs. Guide dogs are one of the greatest examples. People do not have to electrocute guide dogs to get them to carry out the marvellous, wonderful things they do. I experienced it for myself when I went out in my constituency blindfolded and with a guide dog. They are incredibly intelligent and they save people’s lives. People do not need to electrocute them to do so. My hon. Friend is absolutely right. If we are going to do this properly, we need to ban the sale and use of these devices.

Since launching the campaign, many people have been astonished that these so-called training devices are still so prevalent when there have been significant advances in positive, reward-based training. I recently met the Kennel Club and the Dogs Trust with the Secretary of State, and we made that case forcefully. The Secretary of State was struck that such devices of torture are still available. Although I welcome the announcement of a consultation by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, it is clear that the campaign cannot and should not end there. We need to continue to make the argument that someone does not have to own a pet to understand that an electric shock collar is cruel and unnecessary. They are openly marketed and sold as training aids, and they work by instilling in the animal a fear of punishment.

When fitted, shock collars deliver an electric shock either through a remote control or an automatic trigger such as a dog’s bark. The punishment can last for up to 11 seconds. In some devices, the punishment can last as long as the owner holds down the button on the remote. The theory is that having received a shock the dog is more likely to do what it is asked, rather than that coming from a natural willingness to obey. Research commissioned by DEFRA showed that one in four dogs subjected to shock collars showed signs of stress compared with less than 5% who were trained by more positive methods. It was found that one third of dogs yelped when they felt a shock, and a further quarter yelped again when the punishment was repeated. The research also found that even when used by professionals, there were still long-term impacts on dog welfare.

My hon. Friend is being very generous with his time. I congratulate him not only on securing this debate, but on the campaign he has been running so successfully over the past weeks and months. To declare an interest, I was lucky enough to prosecute animal cruelty cases at the Bar and to work for some time in the animal sphere with regards to the law. In that context, I came across and worked with a lot of animal behaviour experts. Perhaps he will discuss this in due course, but does he agree that canine behaviour is incredibly complex? That has become apparent to me. He has painted a vivid picture of the distress caused to animals by these barbaric devices, but in addition, does he agree that they simply do not work? They are counterproductive, given the complexity of dog behaviour and dog society.

I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. His intervention comes at a timely point. He talked about his experience prosecuting animal cruelty cases. He mentioned how it can be complicated to time when the shocks should be given. The dog might not understand, and that can create unwanted behaviour. When I met the Kennel Club and the Dogs Trust, they raised that very concern. Owners of the devices often do not get the timing right, and that leads to unwanted behaviour.

There is a dangerous dogs case that is cited. Ostarra Langridge was prosecuted in 2001 when one of her dogs attacked and killed another dog while on a walk. A control order was imposed on Miss Langridge’s dog because of its aggressive behaviour, which was attributable to the effects of the shock collar. Miss Langridge sought the help of a behaviourist when her dogs started to run away from her on their walks along the beach. The dogs were given shock collars, which Miss Langridge was told to keep on for three months and activate whenever they misbehaved, but the first time the dogs got a shock was by mistake, after a small dog they were walking past made Miss Langridge jump. From then on her pets associated the shocks with small dogs and became afraid of them. When Miss Langridge described the day in July that her dogs turned on a shih tzu, she had tears in her eyes. She stated:

“They connected the pain of the electric shock with little dogs because of the first time I used the collar. The day that machine came in this house I regret.”

There should be no place for this type of outdated practice, particularly given the recent advances in positive, reward-based training. In my view, it is not enough to simply tighten up regulations. We need to outlaw these devices altogether as soon as possible.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen South (Ross Thomson) on securing this debate on the use, sale and distribution of e-collars. As he pointed out, this is a timely debate, given the Government’s announcement only three days ago that we are seeking views on a ban on the use of e-collars in England. A public consultation provides people with the opportunity to express their views on the use of e-collars. They have until 27 April to respond to the consultation, which can be found via the website.

I begin by commending the campaigning work that my hon. Friend has done recently on this issue. He has raised it many times and has met the Secretary of State to discuss it. I also take the opportunity to pay tribute to the long-standing work in this area by my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Dr Offord). As long ago as 2014, he introduced a ten-minute rule Bill to ban e-collars. He has been a long-standing campaigner on these issues. As my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen South pointed out, many people are opposed to the use of e-collars for dogs and cats. That opposition includes many of the animal welfare and veterinary organisations, such as the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the Dogs Trust, Battersea Dogs and Cats Home, Blue Cross, the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals, the Kennel Club and the British Veterinary Association.

While we have signalled through the consultation our intention to act and introduce legislation, it is important to remember that in the meantime it is already an offence to cause unnecessary suffering to an animal. The maximum penalty is currently six months’ imprisonment, an unlimited fine or both. We have already announced that we will increase the maximum penalty to five years’ imprisonment, a fine or both. If anyone considers that someone has caused an animal unnecessary suffering by the use of an e-collar, they should report it to the relevant local authority, which has powers to investigate such allegations under the Animal Welfare Act 2006. Alternatively, they can report it to the RSPCA, which will also investigate.

The Government previously considered that e-collars should be used only as a last resort, when more conventional forms of positive reward training had failed. We also encouraged owners of such devices to read and follow the manufacturers’ instructions. However, we suspect that people are taking shortcuts, thinking that an e-collar might save them money in the long run, as they would not have to commit to a series of training courses for their dog. We think it is wrong for people to conclude that a simple hand-held device that emits a static pulse is all they need to correct their dog’s behaviour. As veterinarians, behaviourists, trainers and welfare organisations all tell us, it is not that simple.

Can the Minister be clear on whether the Government intend to review the legislation relating to the sale of such devices? He said that the consultation is about their use in England, but as the hon. Member for Aberdeen South (Ross Thomson) and others have made clear, there is great public concern about the sale of such devices. Failing to act on their sale may undermine attempts to curb their use. Can the Minister be clear whether the current consultation includes that issue, and if it does not, will he commit to reviewing it in the future?

I was going to come to that later, because it was one the key points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen South. The point is that the consultation leaves open that option; we are suggesting a ban on use, but we also invite views on whether that would be sufficient, or whether we should consider a wider ban. I will say a little more on that later, but first I want to describe some of the context.

In 2014, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs funded research on the use of e-collars on dogs. I stress that that research was restricted to remote hand-held devices, rather than containment fences for both cats and dogs. The research concluded that e-collars have a detrimental effect on the welfare of dogs in some cases. People need to be aware that an e-collar is by no means an easy answer to a problem. Indeed, using an e-collar may have a long-term, detrimental effect on the welfare of a beloved pet. In such circumstances, an owner could be in breach of the Animal Welfare Act 2006, leaving themselves open to prosecution.

At the time of the 2014 research—I was in the Department at the time—the Government stopped short of recommending an outright ban, for a number of reasons. Given that we were approaching a general election—frankly, since then we have all had lots of enjoyable referendums and elections that have distracted us from our duty in this place—we decided that it would be quicker to include some references in the updated dog welfare code. I pressed for that in 2015 with officials, having had representations from my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon, and those additions went into the updated dog welfare code that is currently under consideration. However, if we want it to be enforceable, and if we want clarity in the law, the Government are currently of the view that going a step further and simply banning the devices would probably give that clarity.

The difficulty with having codes that say that such devices should be used as a last resort, or that include comments that basically strengthen a presumption against the use of negative training devices, is that there is always a difficulty with enforcement. That is why, notwithstanding the position that we took then, now that we have a clear run in Parliament to address such issues without the constant distraction of forthcoming elections, it is right that we have a consultation and call for evidence, and consider going further.

As we make clear in the consultation, we want to promote the positive training of dogs. We do not consider that dogs should be subject to negative forms of training, particularly when positive methods can have such beneficial effects. There are some very good trainers out there whom people can approach about the behaviour of their dogs, and who are used to all sorts of challenges with regard to disobedient dogs. We want owners to use positive training methods as much as possible.

I have heard many arguments about individual experiences of using e-collars. My hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen South outlined some of the anecdotes that he has received. I have heard anecdotes on both sides. There are often-quoted reactions to e-collars, such as people using the hand-held devices at the strongest setting on the first use. Another example that we have had drawn to our attention relates to containment fences. When dogs chase something beyond the boundary line, they are often too scared to return. I have also heard stories of dogs that might not be alive today were it not for e-collars, particularly when it comes to those boundary fences. The consultation provides supporters of e-collars and opponents of such devices an opportunity to express their views on the issue.

Turning to some of the specific points that have been made, my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen South referred to the sale of the devices. I can confirm that the consultation is open to evidence on that. We have made a specific proposal on banning the use of e-collars, because that is the approach that has been taken successfully in Wales and other countries such as Denmark and Germany. I was not intending to dwell on EU law in this debate, because obviously we have lots of debates on that in this place. However, there are potentially complexities and difficulties, partly linked to single market legislation, that could make it more difficult for us to introduce a ban on sale while we are a member of the European Union. Nevertheless, in our call for evidence and in our consultation we remain open to representations on that.

My hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) raised the specific issue of sonic collars. I can confirm that the proposal covers all such electronic devices—not just shock collars, but those that emit noxious liquids or painful sonic signals. My hon. Friend the Member for Clacton (Giles Watling) referred to his impatience to get on with it. As somebody who has been quite sympathetic to taking further action in this area since 2014, I can tell him that patience is a virtue in this House. The reality is that if we want to introduce a ban of this nature, the first step has to be a consultation and a genuine debate and discussion, giving people the opportunity to express their views. I am afraid we cannot introduce a ban without getting to the point of legislation. I hope that he will recognise that the Government have acted in this area. We have made it clear that we are publishing a consultation and inviting views, which is the crucial first step to making progress in this area.

My hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Robert Courts) made a very important point, which in my mind goes to the heart of the debate. He talked about the complexity of canine behaviour, and the fact that dogs can associate the shock with something else in their immediate environment. My hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen South gave the anecdote of dogs that associated the shock with the first time that they received it, and with small dogs that were in the vicinity. I always remember my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon, at the time of his ten-minute rule Bill, giving a powerful case of a dog that had associated the shock with small children, because the shock collar had been used when children were in the area. It is clearly very damaging to confuse dogs and cause them to have concerns about small children. That could have completely unintended consequences from which we cannot row back.

In conclusion, we have had a very interesting debate, with lots of important interventions.

I asked a specific question about the extent of proposals. Can the Minister confirm that he will look carefully and kindly on the idea of the legislation, if it is introduced, extending across the entire United Kingdom?

Yes. I may have given the impression that I was avoiding the point that the hon. Gentleman raised earlier. The consultation is specifically for England because it is a devolved matter at the moment. Wales introduced a similar ban—I think as long ago as 2010, from memory. I understand that the Scottish Government are consulting on something similar. Our consultation addresses England, but I am conscious of the particular issue that we have in Northern Ireland at the moment, without an Administration in place. I will happily consider the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion, but I hope that he will understand that we would not want to violate the devolved settlement that we have on the issue of animal welfare.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.