GoDogPro's secondary logo of a dog runningGo To DogReads

San Francisco's Proposed Shock Collar Ban: Why We Stopped Arguing and Took Action

Ren Volpe and LT Taylor, November 4 2022
Logo for Shock Free San Francisco of a dog cowering after being shocked

When was the last time you changed your mind after an online argument? Chances are, never.

Of course, meaningful online dialogue is possible, but when it comes to hot-button issues, there are more effective ways to make change than debating with strangers in the digital world. It can be irresistible and sometimes even fun, but arguing on the internet can also be an enraging energy suck that takes a toll on your psychological well-being.

Pick any topic and you'll find an army of well-meaning people on each side furiously smashing their keyboards in an attempt to change minds. And when it comes to dog training, online discussions can get downright vicious. Right now, one of the raging battles in the dog training community is between trainers who use positive reinforcement methods (training without punishment, fear, or pain) and so-called "balanced trainers" who use corrections, punishment, and aversive tools like shock and prong collars.

Many of us have already spent countless hours engaging in online debates trying to convince people that shock collars are inhumane and unnecessary. But that’s proved to be an exhausting and probably futile exercise. Instead, with the help of local dog trainers, we recently decided to stop arguing and take concrete action in the real world.

In September 2022, we started SF Shock Free with the explicit goal of passing a citywide ordinance to ban the sale and use of shock collars in San Francisco. In a very short period of time, we’ve garnered enthusiastic support from the SF Animal Welfare Commission, the SF SPCA, members of the Board of Supervisors, and numerous pet stores, dog trainers, dog walkers, and dog owners.

An Unregulated Device in an Unregulated Industry

Dog training's dirty little secret is that the field is entirely unregulated, at least in the United States. Anyone can create a website, print up some business cards, and call themselves a dog trainer. As a result, from YouTube to TikTok, the internet is full of outdated and often dangerous advice about how to train your dog.

Consumers - that is, dog owners in need of behavioral help for their dogs - don't have the time to read through the latest studies on best methods in dog training. Punishment-based trainers who use shock collars make their money by promising immediate results with the push of a button. The industry that produces shock collars is also unregulated. There is no standardization for manufacturing these collars, and the amount of current delivered can vary widely between models and brands.

In fact, animal training is a science, and today it's well established how animals learn best. We now know how to systematically increase or decrease behaviors without resorting to aversive techniques that rely on fear or painful corrections. Aversive techniques were primarily popular 30 years ago, before we had more recent science to consider and before we understood the risks of behavioral fallout. But the pain inflicted by shock collars has no place in responsible dog training today.

We're not saying these collars don't work. An electric shock delivered to a dog's neck can result in behavior change, but this is not ethical nor is it as effective as other well-established methods. In addition, using a shock collar can result in unintended consequences such as increased fear and aggression, which is a danger not just to the dog in question, but to the wider community.

In short, shock collars serve no purpose other than inflicting a painful stimulus to stop unwanted behavior. Training with these collars is not based in science. It’s simply inhumane.

Shock collar supporters say that banning these tools will lead to an increase in shelter surrenders and euthanasia. But San Francisco's municipal shelter has seen dogs surrendered because their owners unwittingly sent them to a shock collar trainer who intensified aggression issues. In fact, both authors of this piece have personally witnessed shock collars used in egregiously irresponsible ways in our animal-loving city.

When dog owners hire trainers who use shock collars or buy a shock collar and DIY their own training, they're doing so in an unregulated industry. And the consequences can be grave. SF Shock Free wants to help people make better choices for themselves and their dogs.

Why Do We Need an Ordinance?

History has shown that rights and freedoms are rarely given freely. They must be fought for, and this has been especially true for animal rights. We can't wait for some powerful, faceless entity to make the changes we wish to see in the world. We have to take action ourselves.

Online debates will not convince people who use shock collars to give them up. Trainers who make their living using these devices will not ditch them just because we share solid studies and research. In addition, there are millions of dollars at stake for companies that manufacture so-called e-collars (the friendlier PR term for shock collars). They aren't going to change their business plans without a fight.

The idea of banning shock collars is not radical, and it is not new. In fact, many countries have already enacted laws that ban the sale and use of shock collars. Germany first did so in 2006, and other EU countries have followed suit. If San Francisco adopts the proposed ordinance, it will join a broader global animal welfare movement.

This movement is already gathering steam here in the United States. Just last month, New York Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal introduced a bill that would ban the sale of shock collars in that state. In 2020, Petco, the second largest pet retailer in the country, officially discontinued the sale of shock collars online and in all their stores. According to Petco's CEO, selling shock collars didn't align with the company's mission of improving the lives of both pets and people.

What Would the Ordinance Do?

The proposed ordinance would prohibit dog trainers, dog walkers, dog daycares, dog boarding facilities, and dog owners from using shock collars on their dogs and any dogs in their care. The ordinance would also ban the sale of shock collars within city limits. This means that pet stores in San Francisco would no longer be allowed to sell shock collars (like Petco, most of them have already stopped selling these collars because they understand the inherent liability in their use; the ordinance would simply codify that trend).

This animal welfare measure is not meant to be punitive. Its primary goal is to educate the public about the harm that shock collars cause and protect dogs from these cruel devices. SF Shock Free is also exploring the possibility of a trade-in program that would encourage people to exchange their dog's e-collar for safe training and walking gear, and it is discussing providing free online training for those who want to learn how to train their dog without using electrical shocks.

Last week SF Shock Free received an email from someone who indignantly asked, "Are you really going to tell people how they should train their dog?" But the answer is clear: using electric shock and pain to train dogs is wrong. And while it’s true that dogs are considered property in the eyes of the law, animal protections are nothing new. Various animal welfare laws that regulate how we treat defenseless creatures have been on the books for centuries (see box below). It’s just taken a while for animal protection laws to catch up with this relatively new-fangled device.

There will always be individuals and groups who push back on attempts to provide more rights and protections to animals. But our dogs deserve better than shock collars, and SF Shock Free is prepared to fight on their behalf. We welcome you to join us!

To learn more about SF Shock Free, read the full text of the draft ordinance, or get involved, visit www.sf-shockfree.org.

A Brief (and Incomplete) History of Dog Welfare Reforms

1635 The Irish parliament passes one of the first known animal protection laws.

1824 The world's first animal protection organization is created in the United Kingdom: the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, now called the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA).

1835 The Cruelty to Animal Act passes in England, protecting bulls, dogs, bears, and sheep, and prohibiting cock-fighting and bear-baiting.

1866 The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), a nonprofit organization dedicated to preventing animal cruelty, is founded in New York.

1876 Britain passes The Cruelty to Animals Act of 1876, which regulates animal experimentation.

1960 India passes The Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, its first national animal welfare legislation.

1966 The American Animal Welfare Act is enacted to set minimum standards for handling, selling, and transporting dogs, cats, primates, rabbits, hamsters, and guinea pigs. The act also regulates animal experimentation.

1976 Federal law passes making dog fighting illegal in the United States.

1987 The Council of Europe agrees to the European Convention for the Protection of Pet Animals, which promotes the welfare of pets and ensures minimum standards for their treatment and protection.

1992 Switzerland adds the concept of animal dignity protection to its Constitution.

1997 The European Union's Protocol on Animal Protection recognizes animals as "sentient beings" and requires EU countries to pay "full regard to the welfare requirements of animals" when making laws.

2006 Electric dog shock collars are banned in Germany.

2010 Electric shock collars are banned in Wales.

2013 The European Union bans testing cosmetics on animals.

2014 India bans testing cosmetics on animals and the importing of animal-tested cosmetics.

2014 The Animal Fighting Spectator Prohibition Act makes it illegal to attend a dog fighting event in the U.S.

2015 New Zealand enacts the Animal Welfare Amendment Bill, stating that animals are sentient beings.

2018 The Dog and Cat Meat Trade Prohibition Act is signed into federal law, making it illegal to slaughter a dog or cat for food in the United States.

2018 Switzerland bans anti-barking dog collars.

2019 The Netherlands bans shock collars for dogs.

2021 The UK approves legislation formally recognizing animals as sentient beings.

2021 Spain passes a law recognizing animals as sentient beings.

2022 A Class Action Lawsuit is filed against PetSafe, a U.S. manufacturer of dog shock collars, for false claims that its collars are "safe" and "harmless."

About the authors:

Ren Volpe is a Professional Dog Trainer and a Certified Behavior Consultant. She is also the crazy dog lady behind GoDogPro, a new online service that matches dog owners with force-free dog professionals godogpro.com

LT Taylor is a shelter worker specializing in humane education, intake data analysis, and dog behavior/training. LT is currently employed by the Behavior and Training Division of San Francisco Animal Care & Control.