Bad Science and the ‘ban the e-collar’ campaign

In late July 2018, the international press released details of a 5 year survey, conducted in the U.K. by the Royal College Of Veterinary Surgeons (R.C.V.S. or Royal College), looking at the prevalence of ‘undesirable behaviours’ (UB’s) as a cause of destruction for dogs under the age of 3. Somewhat alarmingly (though many would argue conservatively), the survey, which was carried out in participating veterinary practices throughout the country, revealed that 1/3 – ONE THIRD – of causes of death for dogs below 3 years old, was owing to ‘undesirable behaviours’ – or ‘being badly behaved’ in lay terms. Dr Dan O’Neill, a senior lecturer in companion animal epidemiology at the R.C.V.S. was involved in the survey and subsequently cited in many of the resultant press articles.

One such article to immediately catch my attention, involved a quote from Dr O’Neill:

Study supervisor Dan O’Neill said some owners use severe punishments including beatings and electric shock collars if their pets misbehave, meaning the animals are “at risk of compromised welfare”. 

https://uk.news.yahoo.com/dogs-misbehave-more-likely-die-073706221.html

As a representative for the Association of Responsible Dog Owners, who are campaigning for the right to retain access to electronic training aids, this was of great significance to me, as the statement was quite clearly at odds with our position and experience and so deserved prompt and thorough investigation. If the R.C.V.S. had indeed recorded evidence relating to the misuse of electronic training aids resulting in premature destruction of dog, this was very serious. On 25th July 2018, I e-mailed my concerns to Dr O’Neill:

“Dear Dr O’Neill,

I read with interest (though sadly, little surprise) of your recently published study into the euthanasia of young dogs throughout the UK as a result of behaviour problems.

Apart from being a professional dog trainer and applied behaviour modification practitioner, specialising in control both on and off lead; I am a representative for hundreds of dog owners at the Association of Responsible Dog Owners (joinardo.com). We are entirely not-for-profit, with our sole purpose being to represent and educate owners who are struggling with genuine behaviour problems, which pose a threat to the lives and well-being of their dogs. We have no ideology beyond responsible canine stewardship, honesty and transparency. Our present active survey is open to any owner with first hand experience with electronic training aids, as part of the training and/or modification of their pet’s behaviour. With hundreds of replies and over 60 pages of owner feedback, this survey is unique in accessing the truth behind the reason, application and results of the responsible use of electronic training aids by genuine users.

I note in the ‘associated press’ today (uk.news.yahoo.com) that you are quoted as having said that:

“Some owners use severe beatings and electric shock collars if their pets misbehave, meaning the animals are “at risk of compromised welfare”

Given the influence of the Royal College, I would respectfully ask the following questions in relation to this quote:

  • Are we saying that the administration of a minor static pulse, capable of being felt by a dog at energy levels below that of human perception, is to be considered equal to ’severe beatings’; or indeed that the administration of 1-2 seconds of behaviour-linked, high level startle, in order to promote or preserve life and freedom is akin to ’severe beatings’?

  • Is this conclusion reached as a result of comprehensive, accessible evidence of compromised welfare through the professional use of electronic training aids, obtained via the behaviour study?

  • What scientific measurements were used to compare and equate low-level electronic pulse, with owner-inflicted ’severe beatings’?

  • Were ’severe beatings’ observed for accuracy of comparison throughout the study

  • What measures are used by members of the veterinary profession to directly attribute life-compromising behaviour problems, necessitating destruction of the animal, with the use of electronic training aids by the owner or another third-party at some juncture prior to destruction? What are the typical behavioural characteristics, and what ‘environmental filtration system’ is used to negate any other aspect of the dog’s heritage, exposure, health or training as being responsible in part or whole for the behaviour presented?

  • What proportion of the owners who used ‘electric shock collars’, had undertaken prior training beforehand, and what proportion of that training was reward-based only?

  • What proportion of the dogs destroyed, had undertaken prior training/behaviour modification procedures involving reward-only protocols?

  • What proportion of those dogs presented for destruction, subsequently had their problematic behaviour successfully modified through reward-based only procedures?

  • What efforts were undertaken throughout the study period, to access, observe and assess dogs undergoing training or behaviour modification procedures involving the application of electronic training aids, outside of scientific studies governed by ethical license?

  • Where dogs have failed to respond to popularised reward-based training efforts, does the Royal College condone euthanasia as the next logical step? For example, does the Royal College consider momentary discomfort, startle or both (contingent upon welfare compromising behaviour) to be of greater risk to welfare, than inaction, permanent restrictions upon species-specific behaviours, or destruction?

  • Does the Royal College have evidence of livestock killing dogs having undertaken reward-based modification efforts, subsequently proving themselves ’safe’ in the presence of livestock and absence of the owner/handler? *I ask this final question, since (due to ethical permissions) the DEFRA funded Lincoln study failed to test for efficacy in this critical component of modification efficacy; rendering the results valueless in terms of applied affect. The Association of Responsible Dog Owners have a great many such dogs available for your evaluation and assessment, both in terms of welfare and responsiveness. Living, breathing evidence.

Thank you for taking the time to read through this email Dr O’Neill, I eagerly anticipate your reply to the points raised.”

Specifically, I wanted to know the measure being used by the R.C.V.S. to justify their lumping electronic training aid application, to ‘severe punishments and beatings’? 

I also wanted to know how ‘severe punishments and beatings’ were quantified, i.e. what constituted a ‘severe punishment’ or ‘beating’?

I wanted to know by what measures, the use of an electronic pulse was scientifically and evidentially attributable to either the problem behaviours themselves, or the resultant destruction of the dogs?

I wanted to see the evidence.

I wanted to know how many of the dead dogs had undertaken reward-based training procedures throughout their existence, and why that had failed?

I wanted to know whether the R.C.V.S. condoned a ‘death before discomfort’ policy, since this would clearly oppose the very essence of surgical or pharmacological intervention as a route from illness and injury, to health and rehabilitation?

As scientists, I fully expected that the Royal College would have a wealth of evidence to present; sadly, I was wrong. The return e-mail from Dr O’Neill stated:

“This is a very detailed list of questions in relation to electronic training aids. The newly published  study did not focus specifically on electronic training aids so I don’t think that it can add much to the existing scientific evidence on these tools.”

This response puzzled me further; if the study did not focus on electronic training aids (Note how Dr O’Neill shifts from the use of the term ‘electric shock collars’ when in private communication), then why were electronic training aids receiving a special mention as a singular tool, in a concise abstract for a 5yr study? Why were they included at all, in both the abstract released to the media, and the quote from Dr O’Neill himself? I emailed Dr O’Neill again:

“I am (as an individual), and the Association of Responsible Dog Owners (as a collective) are, battling tirelessly to facilitate an objective platform from which to provide dog owners with full and honest facts surrounding ‘proper control over their dogs’, including the proportionate incorporation of electronic training aids only where necessary, in tackling entrenched, conventional treatment-resistant behaviours. 

A HUGE part of our thrust is rooted in our firm belief that the trinity of breeding, exposure and training are paramount in responsible, ethical dog stewardship; especially for a society with such high legal obligation and social expectations. Sadly, the UK dog-owning populous is becoming indoctrinated with an alternative trinity – time, love and patience – as any honour for the essence of the dog, seems to descend further down an oily slope of Disneyfication, into a vacuous misunderstanding of the terms ‘welfare’ ‘control’ and ‘responsibility’.

Your study is obviously of tremendous interest, since the findings appear to parallel our frustrations; namely that the perpetuated, error-less raising and training ideology of the past 30+ years is bearing poor fruit. Acts of aggression increase, livestock killings increase, and now we see evidence that avoidable, unnecessary and unacceptable destruction, also increases.

Please rest assured that we are not representatives of ’traditional’, ‘punishment based’, ‘dominance-justified abuses’ or indeed an ‘electronic panacea’ collective. We are representative of those who chose an alternative; very often a long thought-out and counterintuitive alternative, for the sake of protecting the well being of our dogs and other animals. This being the case, when we see a new study from a reputable source, concerning unacceptable rates of destruction for animals with often completely resolvable behaviours, we are disappointed to see the article highlight “electric shock collars and severe beatings”, since it implies a direct, singular correlation. Naturally, we are driven to establish the depth of evidence supporting the reported correlation, as we are deeply concerned that the article would appear to ‘blame’ electronic training aids for the prevalence of destruction, and align all use of such tools with ‘severe beatings’.”

I also sent Dr O’Neill several video clips, showing e-collar trained dogs and requested an appointment to discuss the study. He replied, saying that he found the videos “very interesting” and that there were “so many aspects to consider in all these decisions.” He declined the request for a meeting due to time constraints, but forwarded a copy of the survey and our correspondence then closed.

The survey itself, proved to be very interesting to read.

“An undesireable behaviour was defined as any behavioural attribute that was recorded in the clinical notes and which the owner and/or other people deemed to be unwelcome. ‘Other people’ included veterinarians and nurses, groomers, trainers, anyone in the dog profession, and family, friends or strangers that interacted with the dog”

The implications of such a broad ‘undesirable behaviour’ classification spectrum are daunting for the average dog. Misbehaving at the groomers would appear to qualify, as would defensive responding towards a veterinary examination room – I actually wrote a behaviour evaluation on behalf of a child fostering agency once, for a lovely old dog, only to later learn that a seasoned vet had previously labelled the dog ‘aggressive’ and untrustworthy. The vet was overruled as I also included video evidence.

Of the dogs whose source of acquisition was known, 32% of those destroyed for undesirable behaviour had come via a rescue centre. This figure ties in almost exactly with our own, active survey at joinardo.com, which shows that 1/3 of dogs for whom owners had sought assistance with electronic training aids for poor or dangerous behaviour had also come via rescue. This raises significant concerns regarding the abilities of rescue associations to identify, diagnose and more importantly effectively address problem behaviours for the dogs in their care. There are significant concerns surrounding both safety and legal liability, involving rescue centres handing out dogs with existing, unresolved undesirable behaviours: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-cornwall-45866489?fbclid=IwAR1Ht9SEyS_8VlgNUMWO8W7nIdekI5-5mordHekHWKOLpY_0j7zAWPmN5x4  When we consider the government’s recent ban on puppy farming, it is interesting to note that only 1.5% of dogs destroyed for poor behaviour are reported as coming from puppy mills. Whilst unethical breeding is certainly unacceptable, the fact that it accounts for only 1.5%, compared to rescue centre’s 32% of dogs being subsequently destroyed for undesirable behaviour, it is reasonable to suggest that the spotlight ought now shift onto the latter.

But what of ‘electric shock collars’? They must surely feature as a principal cause of destruction in the survey, or else they would not receive special recognition in resultant press coverage?

No. They do not. They do not feature ANYWHERE whatsoever throughout ANY of the evidence gathered throughout the 5 year survey. Neither do ‘severe physical punishments or beatings’. There is in fact, not a single mention in the statistics collated, of any owner ‘beating’, ‘severely punishing’ or ‘giving electric shocks’ to their problematic pooches; which begs the obvious question “why mention electronic training aids as a specific tool at all?” Why not mention head harnesses, ignoring undesirable behaviours, extinction or reward-based training failures? Why not mention a lack of structure and discipline, as opposed magnifying and distorting the concept of punishment and responsible boundary establishment into verbal representations of extreme abuses? Why not focus on something the survey did reveal, such as vets still recommending neutering as a cure for undesirable behaviour, or the fact that 70% of the failed advice to the owners of the death row dogs came from vets and behaviourists? what about the fact that ‘the drugs don’t work’ for several of the dogs?

I’ll be completely honest in saying that I was absolutely baffled as to why a fact-based, ‘means justifying the ends’ mentality, highly regarded and intelligent group of medical experts, would make public announcements and publish work, containing statements without a shred of relevent evidence?

Under a paragraph titled ‘Animal Welfare Implications’ of the survey, comes the following:

“Animals that exhibit UB’s are at risk of compromised welfare, either because of their own underlying emotional motivations for the behaviour (eg anxiety or fear) or because of the ways in which their owners might seek to resolve the problem (eg the use of aversive techniques, such as electric shock collars; Schilder & Van Der Borg 2004).”

For those who may not be aware, the Schilder & Van Der Borg study involved guard/protection dog training in the Netherlands, where high level stimulations were delivered to the dogs, for failures in a training regime which bore absolutely no resemblance whatsoever to how a pet dog might be corrected by an average pet owner. In fact, to include this example as justification for the risks and effects of all e-collar use, is akin to using Brazilian cliff diving to warn your child against jumping from the local swimming pool springboard.

That is it. That single study, used to support nothing more than a hypothetical supposition – a guess – is the single justification for the inclusion of the international press statement:

“Some owners use severe punishments including beatings and electric shock collars if their pets misbehave, meaning the animals are “at risk of compromised welfare”.

So that leaves me, and anyone with an ounce of sense to ask again WHY? What is the possible relevance or benefit in making such a statement, which clearly has nothing whatsoever to do with the survey to which it relates?

I then read the ‘acknowledgements’ paragraph at the very end of the paper, and all became crystal clear:

“We are grateful to The Kennel Club, The Kennel Club Charitable Trust and Dogs Trust for supporting VetCompass. Dan O’Neill was supported at the RVC by an award from the Kennel Club Charitable Trust.”

Not simply BAD science, but CORRUPT science.

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