Defra’s research on dog e-collars is “very seriously flawed and should not be relied on”

The scientific case for Defra’s proposed ban on training dogs with electronic collars has fallen apart.

Bias in Defra’s research has been revealed along with a prima facie reason for that bias: the Department knew that the academics it was commissioning for its £539,000 research project had campaigned against e-collars.

Four separate expert reviews have now found Defra’s science to be unreliable. They are summarised below and cover research by the University of Lincoln which Defra paid along with recent analysis of it. [1] 

One of the reviewers is the world expert Professor Doug Elliffe who is Deputy Dean of Science at New Zealand’s top-rated University of Auckland. His hard-hitting review concludes that Lincoln’s work is “very seriously flawed and should not be relied on”. [2]

Professor Elliffe says the way the research compared e-collar and reward-based training was riddled with mistakes. All the errors were biased against e-collars. For instance, while the reward-based training took place in an English spring, the e-collar training was conducted during an extreme Scottish winter. The dogs endured drifting snow during the coldest December the UK had experienced in 350 years. [3] 

Professor Elliffe also states that there is established research which contradicts Lincoln’s view that reward-based training is better than e-collar training. He has found e-collars to be “reliable” in reducing predatory behaviour by dogs. Such reductions “could certainly not be achieved by positive reinforcement – ‘reward-based learning’ – alone”. [4]

In a second academic critique Sargisson & McLean say that Lincoln produced no evidence to support its conclusion that e-collars caused “suffering”. [5] They also state that, as the dogs were on leads, the results “shed no light on the possible behaviour of the dog if off-lead or when the owner is absent”. The inconsistencies meant that the research “cannot be used to justify the banning of e-collars for the prevention of canine predation”.

An earlier review was conducted by David Bailey, one of the world’s two qualified forensic vets and a European Recognised Specialist in Animal Welfare Science. [6] He said that the “blinding protocols” designed to ensure neutral assessment were flawed. The observers could easily tell which dogs were being trained with e-collars. He also concluded that the research did not demonstrate any cruelty from e-collar use as cortisol levels showed “no significant” differences between the two training methods.

Finally a review by the School of Canine Science found that “the bias seems to go one way” as the dogs Lincoln selected for training with e-collars had more pre-existing behaviour problems. [7]

The flaws identified by these expert reviews are not primarily with the analysis in Lincoln’s latest paper. They are due to multiple errors in the underlying research which Lincoln conducted for Defra.

These failings could be down to university research standards. [8] 

Yet there is also clear evidence pointing to prejudice against e-collars. Documents show that, prior to conducting the research, members of the Lincoln team campaigned against e-collars including speaking at events and signing petitions. Most embarrassing is that, prior to being commissioned to lead Defra’s independent scientific research, Lincoln’s lead academic wrote to the Department urging it to ban e-collars. [9] 

Repeated concerns were raised in writing with Defra about both this bias and the lack of understanding of e-collars displayed by Lincoln’s researchers. Officials chose to disregard it. The consequences are now clear.

It is two years since Defra announced its plan to ban e-collar training. Since then the Department has failed to address the adverse animal welfare implications of a ban on the predation of sheep as well as on euthanasia rates for dogs which could no longer be safely managed.

There was also a story in The Times about the then Defra minister, Therese Coffey, using an e-collar on her dog despite her Department’s policy. [10] Defra is naked on the science. It is also aware of how unpopular its policy is. Its public consultation showed a two to one majority against a ban.

2 thoughts on “Defra’s research on dog e-collars is “very seriously flawed and should not be relied on”

  1. Glad to see the ban is being fought, as our rights are being gradually eroded.
    I can’t see why the KC are so involved as I should imagine very few KC reg breeds are actively involved in dog sport of any kind!

    Like

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