Study examines welfare concerns and efficacy of training dogs with electronic collars

Many dog trainers advocate the use of positive reward-based reinforcement rather than electronic collars. Now animal behavior specialists at the University of Lincoln in the U.K. have conducted a study that supports the trainers' recommendation due to welfare concerns about the collars.

The University of Lincoln researchers began their effort by following a study involving a small group of dogs that had been causing problems by chasing sheep. During training sessions using electronic collars, researchers observed negative changes in the dogs' behavior that indicated pain or aversion, they reported. The dogs also displayed increased arousal through increased salivary cortisol.

Because the trainers in the first study did not follow the collar manufacturers' training guidelines, researchers then conducted a larger study involving 63 dogs being trained by industry-approved trainers. They divided the dogs into three groups - one group trained with the use of electronic collars, and two control groups trained using positive reward-based reinforcement. The trainers used lower settings on the electronic collars than had been used in the previous study, and the collars also featured a pre-warning function. 

The dogs in the study received two 15-minute training sessions per day for four or five days. During the study, they were videotaped to enable behavioral analysis, and researchers collected saliva and urine to measure cortisol levels.

Dogs trained with electronic collars did not display reactions as pronounced as those in the previous study, but they did show more signs of tension, yawned more often, and spent less time interacting in the environment than the dogs in the control group, the researchers reported.

The study suggested to researchers that positive reward-based training is as effective as electronic collars and better for the dogs' welfare, said lead author Jonathan Cooper, Ph.D., professor of animal behavior and welfare at the University of Lincoln's School of Life Sciences.

"E-collar training did not result in a substantially superior response to training in comparison to similarly experienced trainers who do not use e-collars to improve recall and control chasing behavior. Accordingly, it seems that the routine use of e-collars even in accordance with best practice, as suggested by collar manufacturers, presents a risk to the well-being of pet dogs. The scale of this risk would be expected to be increased when practice falls outside of this ideal," Cooper said.

More information

Read the full study titled "The Welfare Consequences and Efficacy of Training Pet Dogs with Remote Electronic Training Collars in Comparison to Reward Based Training."

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