Journal Article: Shock Collar Trainers Don’t Follow Device Instructions with Questionable Welfare Implications

Title: The Welfare Consequences and Efficacy of Training Pet Dogs with Remote Electronic Training Collars in Comparison to Reward Based Training

Authors: Jonathan J. Cooper, Nina Cracknell, Jessica Hardiman, Hannah Wright, Daniel Mills

Published: September 3, 2014 in PLOS ONE 

General overview: This article studied the welfare impacts and efficacy of remote electronic training collars (e-collars) in comparison to positive-reinforcement based training. After a preliminary study of 9 dogs to determine method feasibility, the authors compared three groups of 21 dogs each (63 dogs total): Group A (trained using e-collars), Group B (trained by the same trainers as Group A but without e-collars) and Group C (trained without e-collars by trainers who used positive reinforcement-based training protocols). Data collected from the three groups included video recordings of dog behavior, which were evaluated by an independent team of trained observers and salivary and urinary cortisol* levels. Behavioral and cortisol differences were marked between the groups in the preliminary study while behavioral differences only were significant in the larger study. Cortisol levels were elevated in the preliminary study in dogs trained with the e-collars. Stress and displacement behaviors were seen more frequently in dogs trained with the e-collars in both the preliminary and larger study.
*Cortisol is a hormone that is released in association with stress.
My comments: 
I first heard of this study on Science Daily, and it was also reported on the DogingtonPost and DogTime. The revelatory lead sentence to the Science Daily story was, “…the immediate effects of training pet dogs with an electronic collar cause behavioural signs of distress, particularly when used at high settings.” Who would have guessed that giving a dog an electric zap would cause distress? I would have thought that was common sense but I decided to read the study understand the details.
The purpose of this study was to provide evidence to support or detract from the argument that, when used according to the manufacturer’s instructions, e-collars are effective tools for avoidance conditioning (learning a behavior to avoid an aversive stimulus). Furthermore, the authors point out that there have been studies on the immediate impacts of e-collars in dog training but they have been restricted to specific populations of dogs, like police dogs or laboratory dogs, and the generalizability of those findings to the general population of dogs is questionable.
From my perspective, the methodology of this study is sound. The authors did a great job defining the study group and control groups as well as the way data was collected and evaluated. The use of the three groups controlled for differences between trainers with diverse opinions about positive vs. aversive training techniques. The use of independent observers for the recorded behavior of the test dogs avoided bias for behavioral responses. I can’t think of any potential confounding aspects of this study that weren’t addressed by the authors.
I understand that this study was novel in its study population (“regular” dogs) but I don’t think it’s particularly interesting that the authors found use of e-collars during training was associated with stress and displacement behaviors in dogs. I’ve read a few other studies about aversive training techniques and behaviors like yelping, moving away from the trainer and lowered ears all seem to be common and expected behaviors with that type of training.
I do think it was interesting that all but one trainer who used e-collars regularly did not follow the manufacturer’s instruction to use the lowest setting that the dog responded to – the majority of these trainers set the devices on the highest or nearly the highest setting right away. The oddest part about this is that the trainers were nominated by the Electronic Collar Manufacturers Association. Why did these trainers ignore their own professional association’s directions?
I’m not sure why there were differences in cortisol levels during the preliminary study between e-collar exposure groups and not in the larger study. The authors noted that it may have been due to the time frame differences between the short preliminary study and the several months that the larger study took, but I don’t know enough about cortisol levels in dogs to say whether or not this is a valid argument.
The major finding of this study is that there was no difference in training efficacy between the three control groups: positive reinforcement based training was just as effective as more aversive-based training. The authors note that positive reinforcement training protocols are completely void of the questionable welfare implications of aversive training techniques like e-collars.
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