Today marks an important step forward for dog welfare in Scotland. The Scottish Government has announced that it will effectively ban the use of electric shock collars in the near future. No doubt this will be the media focus as the cruelty of these devices is plain to see for all, and there is overwhelming support from the public and dog trainers for such a ban. But the announcement goes further than this: it is effectively a declaration of war against all aversive training of dogs (and indeed cats).
Aversive training techniques employ pain and fear to deliver the desired change in an animal’s behaviour, be it to stop a dog from barking or to get him to walk to heel, or to stop a cat from leaving a garden. Such practices are the polar opposite of reward-based training, which uses positive reinforcement through praise and/or rewards. The vast majority of dog-trainers use this approach. Indeed, we are aware of only a handful of dog trainers who still promote aversive training in Scotland and in a survey of professional dog trainers carried out by OneKind, 91% supported an electric shock collar ban.
Outside of professional circles, it’s more difficult to know how much aversive training takes place and it is of course very difficult to enforce a ban. Today’s announcement, however, is an important milestone on a journey that will see inflicting pain on our pets as culturally unacceptable as inflicting pain on children. The days of tough-guy trainers bullying dogs into submission on TV are now surely over, and taking their place are compassionate and far more effective trainers such as Victoria Stilwell.
This trend aside, we still have a problem. In spite of today’s announcement regarding the use of electric shock collars, shock fences, citronella collars (not as nice as they sound – they squirt citronella into the dog’s face), and such like, these devices will still be available for sale in Scotland. Indeed, across the UK they can be brought for as little as £20 online – even in Wales, where their use has been banned since 2010. That means people can legally purchase the collar and then break the law by using it – which is bizarre and confusing. The only way that this can be addressed is if Westminster takes action and bans the sale of these devices. With the UK Government’s apparent enthusiasm for animal welfare at present, and the devolved nations already taking the lead, this should be an easy decision.
The other significance of today’s announcement is that it is another indicator of a change in political support for animal welfare. For years, the Scottish and UK public’s support for progress on animal welfare has been neglected by politicians. There have been two important events that have, I think, catalysed this shift. Namely, Theresa May’s ill-fated romance with fox hunting and the SNP’s misguided decision to weaken the tail docking laws in Scotland against the advice of animal welfare and veterinary charities, both of which led to significant public backlash. Now, however, I hope that we are witnessing the beginning of a race to the top and that here in Scotland we can look forward to much more progress.
There will be some, I’m sure, who will criticise today’s announcement. In particular, why didn’t the Scottish Government ban electric shock collars last year after they consulted on it? I agree they should have done, but I’m also inclined to take things at face value. They explored a regulatory approach and concluded that it wouldn’t work. Good for the Scottish Government to have the courage to say so and to change course when it became clear to them that only a ban would do.
Others will point out that this is ‘guidance’ rather than a legislative ban. Here at OneKind we’re actually quite excited by this route. The guidance will be issued under Section 38 of the Animal Health and Welfare (Scotland) Act 2006. We believe that this will have the desired outcome, and it will do so without the lengthy, resource-intensive demands of primary legislation. Not only that, but this is the first time that Section 38 has been used, even though it has been in place for over a decade. Today sets a precedent that I hope can be used to fix many other pressing but straightforward animal welfare issues over the coming years.
Finally, it’s important to give credit where credit is due. A number of MSPs have championed an electric shock collar ban, including the Convener of the Cross Party Group on Animal Welfare, Christine Grahame MSP. In recent months. Ben Macpherson MSP (SNP) and Maurice Golden MSP (Scottish Conservatives) have shown that ending cruelty need not divide our politicians down party lines – it certainly doesn’t divide the public they represent.