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Dogs: Electric Collars

Volume 753: debated on Monday 7 April 2014

Question for Short Debate

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what action they intend to take with regard to electric dog collars following the conclusion of their research on the effect of pet training aids.

My Lords, I shall concentrate my remarks today on dogs. This issue has quite some history. The last time that this House addressed it substantially was in 2006 with the Animal Welfare Act, when I tabled some amendments. At that time we took a lot of evidence from the police and other serious dog trainers, and none of those serious dog trainers, such as the police, had a good word to say for electric shock collars as a training method, and no force would use them. Nor would any of the other organisations training dogs as help animals, whether for the visually impaired or for the deaf. Nevertheless, after strenuous lobbying from the electric dog collar manufacturers, the then Government resisted a ban.

A few things have changed since 2006. Public support for a ban has grown even stronger; 79% of people would now like to see these things banned. I accept that it might be a bit different in your Lordships’ House, having just had a lively debate over tea with a number of colleagues, but nevertheless 79% of the general public would like to see them banned. Since 2006, Defra has commissioned and completed the research on this issue, on which I congratulate it, and I will mention the conclusion shortly. Since 2006, I have become a dog owner again after a long break. That is relevant to this debate in so far as our dog Beano was the runt of the litter for whom food was of no interest, which made her especially difficult to train.

Why do I see a severe problem with England continuing to allow such things to be used and misused as training aids? As dogs are both the most faithful and the most useful companion animals to man, we feel that we can make great demands on them when it comes to training. Every day in your Lordships’ House, for example, the spaniels are at work keeping us safe as sniffer dogs, while guide dogs guide some of our noble friends. As I mentioned, none of the trainers who train these dogs would dream of using this device. They want and need well trained dogs, that result from positive training and dogs that have a really high level of trust with their handler.

There have been a number of academic studies on this subject. I could quote the 2004 study by Schilder, who found that there were many signs of stress. His conclusion was that the dogs learn that the presence of their owner announced the reception of shocks even outside the normal training context. That demonstrates a lack of trust between dog and handler. I saw for myself a vivid example of the confusion of a dog subjected to an electronic training aid. A small terrier, on the beach where we were walking our puppy in the winter, was attracted by our young puppy and ran towards her. Each time the small terrier approached, his owner zapped him. He screamed and jumped. It was quite clear that he did not understand whether it was our puppy, us or the sea that was the problem but I am sure that he lives in fear of his owner.

In 2006, the arguments against a ban seemed to have two main elements. First, there were livestock concerns. Indeed, the worrying of sheep concerns all of us, and I am as concerned as anybody about that. If we were to think of a real country of sheep in the UK, we might think of Wales. It may surprise your Lordships to know that the Welsh Government banned electric shock collars in 2010. There is no evidence that the Welsh regret this ban. One of the results has been dogs on leads, properly under control—as they should be around sheep. If you imagine the hills of Wales and a dog with an electronic collar on the other side of a hill, it will not even be within range of the zapper. It needs to be on a lead.

Another argument was that a ban would endanger dogs as some owners use collars that prevent the dog leaving their property—say, on to a busy main road. The ban I am suggesting is for manually controlled devices only, not “proximity collars” for those activated by the dog passing a virtual fence line. I agree that the latter have a place and, just as livestock in a field will learn not to approach an electric fence, the dog will learn not to approach that place of danger, such as a road.

The Defra-funded research studies published in 2013 greatly favour the Kennel Club’s and Dogs Trust’s electric shock collar campaign. The first Defra project concluded that there was great variability in how electric shock collars were used on dogs and showed that owners worryingly tended neither to read nor to follow the advice in the manuals. The main conclusion was that there were significant negative welfare consequences for some of the dogs that were trained with electric shock collars in that study. The second study—interestingly, and imaginatively on Defra’s part—was designed with the Electronic Collar Manufacturers Association to make sure that it was fair. It followed all sorts of designs which that association put in place. Yet it concluded that there was still a negative impact on dog welfare.

My noble friend the Minister may say that action following the research is impractical because owners can still get collars from the internet, through the post. That argument does not hold much water because, as I am sure my noble friend will agree, anything that is banned or controlled—whether drugs, firearms, and so on—is rightly banned. Just because you could get them through the post is not a reason for neither controlling nor banning them. Then again, the Minister may feel that guidance to owners is enough already, but the evidence is that many owners are already not reading the manual. Guidance is not amenable to enforcement. You cannot make somebody read a manual; that is really impossible to police and enforce.

I hope that the Minister will be tempted to take some further action following Defra’s research. He may envisage a number of options, and I look forward to hearing them—from an outright ban, for example, to a minimal collar that would allow only a low-grade shock and not something up to six or eight volts. In researching this, I looked up some of the adverts for these collars. You buy the same collar for an extremely small terrier as for a Rottweiler; you simply alter the size of the neck. It gives the same level of shock which, to a small dog, is going to be severe, but I am not arguing that they should continue in any case. Given that the Defra research showed that most people do not read or follow the instruction manual, what does the Minister suggest regarding guidance? With misuse the dog may show absolutely no visible sign of physical hurt. However, given that the Government have declared parity between physical and mental health, and given the Defra research that says that a dog becomes psychologically damaged—and, I contend, in many cases very fearful and cowed—is that an acceptable method of training a dog?

In conclusion, I strongly urge the Government to take action on this. At least two Bills in the other place have called for a ban, both with cross-party support. Such collars are now banned in Germany, Norway, Switzerland, Denmark, Austria, some states of Australia, and, as I mentioned, Wales. Such a ban has widespread public support. There is no argument for their continual use, as we can see from professionals such as the police, who train dogs properly. The Kennel Club and the Dogs Trust, which represent thousands of dog owners, see the efficacy of properly run dog-training classes which result in the sort of effects that owners are trying to get. I therefore hope that this Government will take further action in a positive spirit.

In the end, a decision will not be technical. It will be a political decision based on informed judgment, although at the end of the day it will be a moral decision, such as those taken by those countries that have already chosen to put this ban in place. I therefore hope that the Minister and his colleagues will shortly be able to make a decision on further action.

My Lords, I regret that I can see no case for any further action being taken with regard to these collars. I declare an interest. I have two dogs; one is a small border terrier, who does not enter into this discussion at all—it has never had a collar put on him and does not need one. The other is something of a cuckoo in the nest. It is the result of a piece of enterprise on the part of one of my granddaughters, who saw an advert in the newspaper which sought a home for a dog. She asked her father—my son; he and she live in Leicester—who said, “No; we’ve got no room”. She then rang us and asked if we would have this dog, and we replied, “No. We’ve got the room, but we don’t want this dog”.

Being a self-willed girl, she then got on the bus, got the dog and brought it home to Leicester. It came down to visit us in north Buckinghamshire; we have lots of room and a largish garden, and it was quite a nice dog, although nothing special. It went back to Leicester with the family, and began to get bigger and bigger—it was a bitch—and eventually, out popped five little puppies. Goodness knows what the father was. The bitch herself was a big mongrel, and the puppies were of a parentage undiscoverable. However, puppies are always lovely, so all the puppies came down to spend weekends with us, and eventually my enterprising granddaughter sold four of them, for £80 each. She is 18 years old and is obviously on her way to becoming an entrepreneur of some sort. They kept the final puppy, which grew and grew, and got bigger and bigger. They could not possibly have it in Leicester as they live in a house in the middle of the town and the puppy needed space. We have the space, so it came down to us as a puppy and stayed with us, and has stayed with us ever since.

It is a very big dog indeed. It has a head and jaws like a Rottweiler, the coat and the demeanour of a Rhodesian Ridgeback, massive feet which suggest that it has mastiff ancestry, and it is a lovely dog with people. It is a beautiful dog, admired whenever anyone takes it for walks by people, who say, “What a lovely dog”. However, the problem is that it is very aggressive towards other dogs. We have consulted dog psychiatrists, who say, “The trouble with your dog is that he regards all dogs, particularly ones that yap at him, as potential prey”. So he deals with them as he would deal with any prey—rabbits are fair game and every now and again he has caught one, though not very often—and when he gets in the way of these little—what is this?

I have had a note that says “One minute left”. I am afraid that I am going to ignore it. This debate is scheduled for an hour.

Well, the upshot is that this dog is controllable by an electric collar. We have an electric wire going around the house and he wears an electric collar that means he gets a bit of a shock if he goes out into the garden, so he does not. That works.

When we take him out for a walk we take that off and put another collar on him. We have a little zapping instrument, and if he shows signs of aggression towards other dogs, which he has done—he has damaged dogs severely, and I have paid vets’ bills for the owners of these dogs that now run into four figures—we start using this collar, which works. He is learning, and is becoming a manageable and controllable dog because of the collar. He is intelligent enough to know that when he gets zapped, he gets zapped. He is beginning to leave other dogs alone now. He is only two years old and a lovely dog, and the notion that I would have to have him put down because of some idiot proposition that any use of collars is bad I find repulsive. I quite agree that any excessive use or misuse is serious, and that would be a criminal offence, but when they are properly used they can render a dog controllable and avoid it being put down.

My Lords, I was delighted that my noble friend Lady Miller excluded the wiring of gardens. It is on that subject that I want to speak, and I will continue so to do, to dissuade my noble friend from ever bringing in a ban on such electric fencing, if I can call it that.

Like the noble and learned Lord, I also speak from personal experience. We have a four year-old working cocker spaniel on whom we put one of these electric collars when she was about nine months old. Our garden is small and is totally ringed, with the exception of one gate, which is relevant to something that I shall say in a minute. It took only about two hours to train her, and no distress whatever was shown. When we take her on a walk, we take off the collar. We have just one gate on to the road that she will go through. The interesting point, and the reason why I mention it, is that the dog will not go near going through the main gate into our property, which is wired—it is for vehicular access—even without the collar on. Four anchors go down and she just stops rigid. It is amazing what training does. That is without the collar on—she has never tried it with the collar on.

The alternative of, let us say, perhaps one or two slight shocks in this very short training period is for a dog to go, as I have written down here, AWOL—absent without leave—causing death or injury to the dog concerned and indeed to others. I illustrate that with my son’s Labrador, some 30 years ago at a different house. Unfortunately, the postman left the gate open when he came to deliver the post. The dog escaped and was hit by a car and fatally injured, causing injury to the driver of the car, not to mention £1500 of damage to it. That just shows what can happen when a dog can get out. As far as I am concerned, the trade-off is between the electric collar to keep the dog in or the risk of injury to the dog and others in a serious accident on a busy road.

I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer, for bringing the subject of man’s best friend before us today for debate. I am grateful for the further contributions from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Scott, with his particular experience, and the noble Lord, Lord Geddes, to whom I listened with interest, as I once lent my daughter electric fencing equipment from my farm when she was living in Battersea to keep waif and stray cats from using her garden as their toilet, at great detriment to her children. I listened with interest to the noble Lord’s comments about boundary fencing with that in mind.

I am also grateful to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the Kennel Club for their assessment of the use of electronic training devices. The RSPCA strongly opposes the use of electric collars to train and control dogs and believes that the Government should follow the lead of the Welsh Government and prohibit their use. As the noble Baroness clearly stated, the RSPCA argues that applying the use of aversive stimuli to suppress unwanted behaviour carries a number of risks: most notably, increasing the dog’s fear and anxiety about the situation in which it is used, associating other coincidental events with a fear-provoking event and decreasing its ability to learn. Dogs’ experience of the electronic shock will be affected by their temperament, previous experiences, frequency of application, location of shock, thickness of hair and the level of moisture on the skin.

The Kennel Club has also been campaigning for the ban of electric shock collars, which it believes is a barbaric method of training dogs. Since 1997, electronic shock collars have not been allowed at Kennel Club-licensed events. The Dogs Trust is also against the use of electric shock collars. Instead, it argues that every dog should be trained using kind, fair and reward-based methods.

In her opening remarks, the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, outlined the results of scientific studies. She is correct that numerous studies indicate that electric shock collars can cause a dog to develop behavioural problems, especially increased aggression, and certainly found an association between the use of aversive training techniques and the occurrence of undesired behaviour in dogs.

Electronic collars can pose health risks. There have been reports of physical lesions on the necks of animals caused by high intensity shocks as well as burning and skin irritation. Defra’s code of practice for the welfare of dogs in England specifically states that dog owners should:

“Only use positive reward-based training. Avoid harsh, potentially harmful or frightening training methods”.

Defra-funded research found inconsistencies between manuals included with the purchase of such collars, that there was generally not enough information provided for the inexperienced and that point-of-sale material did not allow sufficient comparison to be easily made between different products.

Currently, no national legislation or regulation covers electronic dog collars. However, in March 2010, under Section 12 of the Animal Welfare Act providing for regulations to promote welfare, passed by the Labour Government in 2006, the Welsh Assembly prohibited the use of electronic collars designed to administer an electric shock to cats and dogs. Defra’s research, conducted in two studies that ended in 2010 and 2011, concluded that the use of such collars can lead to a negative impact on the welfare of dogs.

The noble Baroness is right to press the Government for a response. They have spent £500,000 of scarce resources on research that they initiated. Will the Government now take action to curtail or ban the use of electronic collars? Will they take further steps to encourage dog owners to undertake more positive, research-based incentive training rather than negative e-collars? Have the Government made an assessment of the long-term effects of using such devices on dogs? The Minister may want to comment on the Welsh experience since they brought in their ban in 2010. Perhaps the Minister could also give the Committee an indication of the size of the market in electronic collars and whether there have been further discussions with the Electronic Collar Manufacturers Association.

In 2006, the Labour Government brought forward the Animal Welfare Act. Section 4 says:

“A person commits an offence if an act of his, or a failure of his to act, causes an animal to suffer …and the suffering is unnecessary”.

Section 9 says:

“A person commits an offence if he does not take such steps as are reasonable in all circumstances to ensure that the needs of an animal for which he is responsible are met to the extent required by good practice ... An animal’s needs shall be taken to include its needs to be protected from pain, suffering, injury and disease”.

I quote this at length, because I would like to ask the Minister whether his department has made any assessment of whether the use of electronic dog collars conflicts with this legislation. What considerations have the Government given as to whether suffering could reasonably be avoided or reduced should the use electronic collars be prohibited?

Police dogs, Armed Forces dogs and assistance dogs are never trained using electronic shock training devices. Will the Government now take action on these devices to enforce best practice?

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for securing this debate. Before I get into the detail, it is worth reminding your Lordships, as did the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, that it is an offence under Section 4 of the Animal Welfare Act 2006 to cause any unnecessary suffering to an animal.

In declaring my interests, I should say that I have been a dog lover all my life. My wife and I now have a particularly wonderful rescue dog which is reputed to be a cross between a poodle and a shih tzu—I leave it to your Lordships to suggest a name for that combination. One of the great pleasures of my current role has been to become well acquainted with our wonderful dog charities, which do such wonderful work.

I will return to the Animal Welfare Act. If anyone has evidence that an animal has suffered as a result of the inappropriate use of an electronic collar, a prosecution under the Animal Welfare Act can be taken forward by any person or organisation; the act is what is known as a common informers Act. My noble friend set out very eloquently her concerns and the concerns of others about the general availability and use of such devices and their potential effect on dogs. These concerns are what motivated my department to commission research into their use and the effect they have on the dogs, because we take dog welfare, like all animal welfare, extremely seriously.

I understand the strength of feeling some people have about the use of such devices, but before introducing a blanket ban on their use, the Government would need to be satisfied that such a ban was in the public interest and could be supported from an animal welfare point of view. The research was published last year and concludes that electronic training aids had a negative impact on the welfare of some dogs, but not all.

Based on the research, we do not believe that the evidence is strong enough to introduce a legislative ban on e-collars. Furthermore, the fact that such training aids are no more effective than other training methods is not a reason to introduce a ban or impose any restrictions. The Government recommend that people use positive methods in the first instance, then consider using these devices when other methods of training have failed, having taken professional advice, for example, from their vet.

I was taken by the argument of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Scott, that without his collar, his dog might have to be put down. I agree with him that it would not be difficult to envisage a situation where a reasonable and sensible person owns a dog which is a danger to no one but itself, for example, because of a tendency to act erratically but not dangerously, which but for its collar would have to be put down.

However, we need to ensure that e-collars are used responsibly and manufactured to a high standard. The reports showed that there is variation in the design and operation of e-collars. Noble Lords may be interested to hear that I have done my own rather unscientific research of these devices, which bore this out. I borrowed two of them and tested them on myself. While one gave me a minor shock which I would certainly not describe as painful, the other when turned up to maximum power certainly gave me quite a jolt. We have asked the industry to work up standards for their design and manufacture to reduce the likelihood of their causing unnecessary suffering due to manufacture or misuse. We are also working with the Electronic Collar Manufacturers Association, which is drawing up guidance for dog owners and trainers advising how to use e-collars properly.

I acknowledge that some owners do not read the instructions, as my noble friend said, and that some electronic training aids can be obtained over the internet from overseas. That is why it is important to get the message out to unwary dog owners who are considering purchasing one of these devices to make sure that they obtain one from a reputable manufacturer, rather than a cheaper alternative which may not be safe or operate properly. Our position is consistent with the 2012 report from the Companion Animal Welfare Council, entitled The Use of Electric Pulse Training Aids in Companion Animals, which concluded that there was no evidence to justify a ban on welfare grounds.

Once again, I thank my noble friend for introducing this debate and conclude by reminding the Committee that under the Animal Welfare Act 2006, it is an offence—the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, said this—to cause unnecessary suffering to a dog through the use of an electronic collar, or any other means and could be punishable by a fine of £20,000 and/or six months’ imprisonment.