Where Good Intentions Breed Animal Suffering: The Cruel Truth of Electronic Shock Collars
The disturbing headline consumed the front page of the March 15, 2005, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: “Parents in Abuse Case Get Prison; They Used Shock Collar; Hot Iron.” The story below it detailed the unthinkable. A Wisconsin couple routinely shocked their 17-year-old daughter with a dog’s electric “training” collar and burned her with a hot iron. At the trial, Wisconsin Assistant Attorney General Tom Fallon described both tools as “instruments of torture.”
Why isn’t a shock collar considered an instrument of torture for a non-human animal as well?
These popular devices are marketed as “correctional collars,” and are often part of “invisible fence” systems, but they are hardly benign training tools. Rather, they are designed to electrically shock non-human animals, mostly dogs.
On its website, Invisible Fence Co. displays its “fence” like a golden aura surrounding dogs playing in a yard, and boasts of an ever-expanding market. The company claims its systems have “protected” more than one million dogs of every breed for more than 30 years. The systems are now sold for puppies as young as eight weeks old.
Invisible Fence, which originated the devices in 1974, was purchased by Radio Systems Corporation in 2006. Radio Systems also acquired several other brands of the systems, including SportDog, Petsafe and Innotek. In 2006, Radio Systems reported annual sales in excess of $30 million, which represents prodigious growth from the $1 million sales reported in 1991.
Yet as sales have risen, so has the outcry about the adverse effect of shock devices. Several countries have banned or severely restricted shock collars, including Denmark, Australia, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Slovenia and Wales. A bill to prohibit them is currently pending in England. When they were being considered for a ban in Wales, which became effective last December, Environment Minister Carwyn Jones pronounced them “totally barbaric.”
Scientific research has cited the harmful effects of shock collars. A July 2005 report by Esther Schalke, of the University of Veterinary Medicine at Hannover, Germany, found elevated heart rates and levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, in the saliva of 14 beagles
trained with electronic collars. Schalke’s report concluded, "The general use of electric shock collars is not consistent with animal welfare.”
This study followed another by Dr. Matthijs B. H. Schilder and Dr. Joanne A.M. van der Borg at the University of Utrecht, Netherlands, in 2004. It showed that 32 German shepherds were adversely affected by shock collars, long after the shock occurred.
Shock training teaches a dog to obey through fear and punishment. An “invisible fence” is actually a radio wire buried several inches deep along the perimeter of a yard. A hidden transmitter emits a radio signal along the wire. When the dog approaches the boundary, this signal is picked up by the computer collar and starts beeping. If the dog ignores the beeping and remains near the fence for more than a few seconds, an electric shock is delivered to the dog’s neck through two blunt electrodes attached to the collar. The shock increases in intensity if the dog fails to heed the warning, ranging from a level one shock to a level ten for “stubborn dogs.”
To find out what a level ten shock is like, FoA went to The Pet Store Online and had an email exchange with a customer service representative named Ellen, who declined to give a last name. Ellen explained that the highest level of shock on the stubborn dog device is comparable on most brands, which is “7,500 volts of correction. Pretty strong, but will not physically ‘hurt’ the dog, just get their attention.”
One of these devices, a SportDOG SD-400 s tubborn dog collar, was reportedly used on an eight-year-old girl in yet another disturbing case from Wisconsin in 2005. The girl’s stepfather was charged with felony child abuse for shocking her with the collar, which had settings from one to eight and delivered electrical shocks ranging from 760 volts to 6,520 volts, according to the company's technical support department in Knoxville, Tenn.. In the criminal complaint, the girl told investigators she "cried a lot because it hurt a lot," when the shock was administered.
Yet Invisible Fence spokesperson Mark Thomas claimed even the highest level of “correction may be uncomfortable and startling to your dog, but will not hurt them.”
The Scottish Kennel Club reached the opposite conclusion when they tested the devices on themselves and members of the U.K. Parliament last June. Although the collars were set at only one third of their full power, MP Eleanor Laing described the painful shock as a wake-up call. “That really hurt! Imagine if that was used on a dog’s neck. That is positively cruel …I am a complete convert and will definitely be signing the motion against them.”
Why, then, are shock fences and collars systems so popular?
Along with the labels which make the devices seem positive, they are advertised as simple, quick-working ways to keep dogs safe while allowing them room to play. They are also fairly inexpensive, usually selling for lower that $300, slightly less than a chain-link fence.
Anyone can buy a shock device. Yet the collars are capable of “effortlessly inflicting suffering and punishment at the touch of a button,” said Ross Minett, Director of the Scotland-based Advocates for Animals.
Occasionally, the authorities do pursue criminal charges against people who use the devices on non-human animals, but they are few and far between. Ami Moore, a Chicago dog trainer, was arrested on July 14, 2006, on two counts of cruelty to animals. She was charged in a police report with “tormenting a Newfoundland dog by repeatedly administering shocks via an electronic collar that caused the dog to cry out in pain, pant in distress and scratch at the collar in an attempt to stop the shocking sensation.”
Although Moore bills herself as Chicago’s “dog whisperer,” it is a self- appointed title, as no state in the U.S. requires any official certification for private dog trainers. In Connecticut, training companies (but not private trainers) must be licensed, according to Maureen Griffin, state supervisor of the Animal Control Division. Regulatory loopholes allow unlicensed, private individuals to use shock collars, but forbid licensed training companies from doing so.
Aside from being a dispenser of pain in the hands of a particularly sadistic owner, the s hock devices also come with a potential for malfunctioning, because of failing batteries, or faults in either the transmitter or boundary wire. In one such case in Idaho, on May 21, 2002, an eight-month old yellow Lab named Rufus suffered first, second and third degree chemical burns because a collar went haywire on a rainy day. The injury left a “deep hole in the neck and a green corrosion on and around the collar and on the hair of the neck,” according to the medical report by Susan K. Benson, DVM.
How many other dogs have been burned or otherwise traumatized by the collars?
The incidence is probably common, and “the emotional and psychological trauma is a guarantee,” said Marie Ansari. “ I personally know of five cases where dogs with previously stable temperaments became aggressive.”
Compounding the problem, an invisible fence system only confines the collared dog, and does not prevent others from entering the property, Ansari points out. “It doesn’t stop other roaming cats and dogs from entering the yard, and they can torment the heck out of the collared dog,” she said.
Ansari describes her first encounter with shock devices as unnerving, with striking similarities to the Ami Moore case. “I saw a 'dog trainer' last summer using shock collars with a remote. At first what I noticed were two lovely and timid dogs off-leash at an adoption fair and their beautiful eyes looked terrified. I learned was that a woman standing about 10 feet away was administering shocks if the dogs went too far from her,” she explained. “Since I heard no verbal requests from her, I'm not sure how the dogs knew what 'too far' was. I was moved to tears.... In speaking to others I found that many were just as horrified as I was, but that the method is legal.”
T he heightened sensitivity of non-human animals to electric stimuli makes these devices especially inappropriate, Ansari said. “We should be outraged by the use of shock collars. We have long talked about the sensitivity of non-human animals to electric stimuli generated from things like storms, earthquakes….The animal may feel the stimuli ten times more strongly. I find the popularity of the 'invisible fence' and the use of shock collars totally devoid of any thought for the feelings of the one receiving the shock.”
To Ansari, a “quick fix” training solution like an invisible fence system undermines the process. “ Integrating a new family member takes time, patience and compassion for best long-term results,” and works most effectively with positive reinforcement, she said. Ansari now refuses to adopt dogs to anyone who uses the devices, which she believes can cause irrevocable harm to our relationship with non human animals. “ My experience has been that the reasons someone chooses a shock fence have less to do with the well-being of the animal than the convenience of the human. When I hear them say they will use a shock fence, a red flag goes up: How will this person handle other challenges with the dog if what they want now is a neat, quick, easy fix? If someone is demonstrating an unwillingness to give their time then I cannot, in good conscience, approve an adoption.”
She would like to see other rescue groups follow suit. “ Rescue and adoption groups, including staff at municipal facilities, are in a position to influence a 'captive audience', so to speak, of individuals who are seeking to bring a non-human animal into their home,” she said.
Permanently etched in Ansari’s memory is a troubling case in which a dog was adopted to a family who used a shock fence. “ A family with a large home and yard applied for a chocolate lab who was available for adoption. The family's previous dog had been killed by a car when he broke through the 'invisible fence' to catch a ball that the children threw,” she explained. “The family planned to continue the use of the collar/fence with the new adoptee. At the time, I did not have final say on adoptions, and my strong protests against this adoption went unheeded. About a month later, the adopters called to say this wonderful dog was hyperactive and they were bringing a trainer in to work with him. I'm still haunted by that placement and believe that the use of the shock collar was causing increased anxiety in the dog.”
Ansari proposes a “product boycott” of shock fences and shock collars. “They’ve been around too long without challenge. I would love to see strong educational efforts to get consumers to refuse to use them,” she said. “From a consumer standpoint, I believe that shock collars and shock fences should give a full disclosure of all the problems that can occur, including the risk of injury or death to the resident animal as well as others in the area. And certainly a critique by influential groups is crucial.”
Despite the concerns raised by Ansari and other animal advocates, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) is listed as Invisible Fence’s “ exclusive partner” on the company’s website. This partnership comes with “donations in the form of royalties” for the ASPCA, according to ASPCA spokesperson Inga Fairclough, who would not disclose the amount.
But opposition is mounting. Last year, a grassroots movement opposing shock collars was launched by Barbara Davis of Corona, CA. Davis said she started a coalition and website, www.noshockcollars.com, so that all those opposed to “the use of electric shock collars…would have a place to record their name in a public way.” Davis’ effort has attracted growing support. “Many of the supporters are involved with dogs that have been emotionally and behaviorally damaged by the devices.”
The mythology about shock fences and collars has been replaced by scientific evidence. Friends of Animals refused to endorse them and supports Ansari’s call for action. It’s time to boycott these devices.
- Meg Jones, “Parents in Abuse Case Get Prison, They Used Shock Collar, Hot Iron” – The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (15 Mar. 2005).
- Invisible Fence, Inc., Online Services (last visited 27 Jun. 2007).
- Radio Systems Corporation Press Release, “Radio Systems Corporation Launches SportDog,” (dated 3 Feb. 2003).
- Information published by the Scottish Kennel Club in a brochure, “Why Electric Shock Collars for Dogs Should Be Banned” (May 2006).
- The national website of Wales, Online Services (last visited 27 June 2007).
- E. Schalke, “Stress Symptoms Caused by the Use of Electric Training Collars on Dogs in Everyday Life Situations” – Current Issues and Research in Veterinary Behavior Medicine (Jul. 2005).
- Matthijs B. H. Schilder and Dr. Joanne A.M. van der Borg, “Training Dogs With the Help of the Shock Collar: Short and Long Term Effects” – Applied Animal Behavior Science, (2004). Dr. Schilder was also interviewed by email about his study.
- Quoted on Invisible Fence, Inc., Online Services (last visited 27 Jun. 2007).
- The Pet Store Online, Online Services (contacted 27 June 2007).
- Dan Benson, “Man Charged With Shocking Girl, 8” – The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (12 Oct. 2005).
- Phone interview with Invisible Fence spokesperson Mark Thomas (18 May 2007).
- Kennel Club press release, “The Association of Pet Dog Trainers Supports the Kennel Club Campaign to Ban Electric Shock Collars,” (dated 21 Mar. 2006).
- PetSafe, Inc., Online Services (last visited 27 June 2007).
- Email interview with Ross Minett, Director, Advocates for Animals (9 May 2007).
- Tasneem Paghdiwala, “The Arrest of ‘Dog Whisperer’ Ami Moore for Cruelty to Animals Raises Questions about an Unregulated Industry” – Chicago Reader (6 Apr. 2007).
- E-mail interview with Maureen Griffin, Connecticut State Supervisor, Animal Control Division (26 May 2007).
- Helen L. McKinnon, <www.itsfortheanimals.com> (last visited 8 Jun. 2007).
- Phone and email interviews with Marie Ansari, New Jersey-based Dog and Cat Fosterer and Rescue Liason with the New Jersey-based Lawyers in Defense of Animals. Ansari also works on a spay-neuter grant with FoA. (May 2007).
- E-mail interview with Inga Fairclough, Media and Communications Spokesperson, ASPCA (23 May 2007).
- E-mail interview with Barbara Davis, CPDT, APDT, Corona, California (22 May 2007).