When I was five, I got really interested in physics – and electricity, in particular. My dad had a degree in it and could make or fix anything from a mesmerising microelectronic plate to a car. Naturally, one day I asked him what the electricity was exactly. He explained that there are loads and loads of tiny “bubbles” called electrons and protons that run through a copper wire and create energy for tv, radio and other things around the house. This sounded solid enough. The only missing part was the actual electrons. I really wanted to see them… In a way a kid wants to meet gnomes or some other mystical creatures.
So one cosy winter evening I pinched a pair of scissors and used them to quietly un-do a few screws on a lamp switch. Somehow I thought that the switch was the destination where all the electrons and protons would meet up and sit around swinging their tiny legs and having a chat.
Sadly, the reality was a bit of a shock, a combination of initial disappointment and an actual crisp painful hissing ache that left me crying. But nothing a chocolate wouldn’t fix. I forgot about the incident quickly and filed the story in the back of my mind for future reference.
Never in a million years I would imagine that one day I’d link it to an e-collar! I’ve learnt about them pretty late in life. In 2010, to be precise. Some woman in the neighbourhood used one to stop her dog barking. The collar was recommended by the dog’s vet. Until then I was completely unaware that some people use aversive devices to train their dogs. E-collars, citronella collars, collars that cause physical pain… the list went on. It felt so wrong and made me wonder what these people would be like if they experienced the pain and shock of such a device themselves just like I did when I played with that lamp! Alas, the collars are still around despite campaigns, legislations and previous studies that show their negative impact on dog’s emotional and physical health.
Before we move on, allow me to explain how these collars work.
Imagine you visit a foreign country and don’t speak the language. You are excited and looking forward to the experience. You have no idea what people are saying to you, it’s just noise. You want to find a place to eat, but you can’t read the signs or ask for directions.
You pop into the first place that looks good. As soon as you walk in, the person inside jumps at you out of nowhere and punches you in the face. As far as you are concerned, you’ve done nothing wrong! You are stressed out, in pain and still hungry! Your brain struggles to understand anything because the stress naturally stops it from processing any new information efficiently. So you try another place and the same thing happens… and again… and again… Eventually you get it right, book a table and order a meal. But you are in pain and frightened. You can hardly remember how you got here and why. You swallow the food because stress affects your digestion, so you can’t really taste anything that well. For the rest of your life you remember this day as a nightmare and do your absolute best to prevent it from happening again. You suppress the memory and never return to the area unless you are made to. This is how an e-collar works.
But what if it was a different scenario? You walk in, a person appears with a smile, maybe gives you a hug (people hug a lot in my native country, especially if you are a lost foreigner) and even offers you a snack (people do this a lot where I am from), then tries to show you directions… If you get it wrong again and walk into another place by mistake, you meet another person who comes out with a smile and does his best to help…
For the rest of that day and beyond you will not only remember the place where you ended up having your meal and everything you ordered, but you will be able to recall everyone you met on your way, what they did and maybe even their names. You are also likely to return to this place because you felt so good and made some wonderful memories!
This is what dog trainers call “positive reinforcement” – a type of training that involves praise and rewards whenever something (even the tiniest thing) is a step in the right direction towards the goal. There is no pain or stress involved here, only love, endorphins, oxytocin and a handful of biscuits!
Imagine how delighted I was to see another research that compared the use of e-collars and positive reward-based method for training dogs. Conducted by Daniel Mills, Lucy China and Jonathan Cooper, the study included 63 dogs that were split into three groups and trained recall and “sit” with the use of e-collars and training techniques (including both positive and negative reinforcement) (e-collar), same training techniques but no e-collars (control 1), and positive reinforcement (or rewards-based) coaching (control 2). Each group was trained for 150 minutes over 5 days in total.
The study clearly demonstrated that even though all groups achieved results, it was the “Positive reward” group that not only succeeded but also developed higher long-term response to the cue without unnecessary suffering and risks to the dog’s well-being associated with the use of aversive devices.
Now, all we need is to get them banned for good.