Monima O’Connor is an adviser to the Centre for Welsh Studies.
Chris Laurence, a former Director of the Dogs’ Trust and ex-RSPCA Chief Vetinerary Officer, is reported to have used electronic collars linked with containment fencing in his own garden, to protect his cat and dog from getting out onto the road. A three-year study of the use of such systems on cats, carried out by Professor Daniel Mills, a top British animal behavioural scientist, and his team at the University of Lincoln, has proved there was no harm done by them.
Such facts might well assure you that electronic animal collars are a sensible, responsible practice in pet ownership, and promote good welfare. And yet, although containment fencing systems had been in use in Wales for decades without any adverse reports from the police, vets or animal welfare agencies, they were surprisingly banned in 2010. This was done without any scientific justification – all because the career civil servants citing animal welfare were insufficiently diligent to research the distinction between two types of device.
For context, there are about 170 types of electronic collar available in the world, and from these only five brands meet the British/European high safety & protection features of the Electronic Collar Manufacturer’s Association (ECMA).
Of these, there are two distinctly different types of electronic collar. One is used by a human being via a remote device to train dogs, and could easily cause suffering to a dog if misused. The other is a passive Pavlovian system governed by the animal’s own behaviour which alerts the pet with a warning sound if it is within about 10 feet of a designated boundary. If it proceeds, it gets a mild static charge powered by two three-volt watch batteries. It is designed to mimic the ‘nip’ given by the adult pet to its young.
Critics called this a ‘cruel electric shock’. Farmyard livestock fences give violent live electric shocks when touched, as the current goes through the body to earth. A pet’s electronic collar, however, gives a mild static pulse over a distance of three centimetres between two terminals during initial training and rarely ever again. The pet has fresh air and exercise in the garden all day, until the collar is removed when it is brought in overnight.
Those who designed the ban even ignored the responses in the public consultation from the Kennel Club and the Cat Protection League, who registered their opinion that a ban on these invisible fences were not as necessary as a ban on dog training or anti-bark collars. They also ignored submissions from various dog owners.
Elin Jones, the Rural Affairs minister at the time, was grappling with the horrors of a recent Tuberculosis outbreak in Wales, and understandably left the comparatively trivial matter of pet collars to the civil servants. Years later it became known that the Chief Policy Advisor on the topic didn’t even own a cat or a dog.
After meeting with petitioners, now as an ex-minister, Jones immediately called for a review of the legislation for ‘unintended consequences’. The review was carried out in 2016 by two vets in England, where boundary fences are legal, but no practical visit to a training centre to assess demonstration of the device seems to have been made. Disappointingly, the ‘review’ was just a rehash of existing legalese and the law left unchanged.
There have been multiple scientific studies since the 1950s for remote dog training devices, but only ever one for containment fencing for cats – that by Professor Mills which I referred to above. The benefits are easily observable by any visitor to a garden with such a system.
Animal welfare agencies will not re-home rescue cats and dogs in properties situated on or near a road unless the owner has a ‘secluded, contained garden’ or puts up a dog-proof fence or a seven-foot brick wall, both of which are extremely costly and require maintenance, assuming planning is granted or the neighbours don’t complain.
Furthermore, the agencies strenuously deny newspaper reports that rescue pets are put down after a few weeks if new homes can’t be found. At one meeting I attended, a PR lady from one charity proudly said that they had great success in relocating rescue dogs to China!
Depending on the garden size, the cost of a boundary fencing system runs into the hundreds of pounds – but even that can easily be outstripped by vets’ bills for road accident trauma, if indeed the pet survives. The only way a containment fencing owner could abuse a pet is if he or she either hits the cat or dog on the head with the collar repeatedly or holds the animal over the correction zone, in which case it would be the owner who ends up in A&E.
Why are animal welfare agencies so stridently against people like Chris Laurence? If people improved the quality of life for their pets with boundary systems, would it remove the agencies’ funding, and stranglehold over politicians?
Conservative votes in rural areas where thousands of boundary fencing systems exist would be wiped out by any ban.