Recently, a video surfaced on social media of a Best Friends Animal Society (BFAS) meeting in which the organization’s leaders delivered a defense of shock collars (e.g. e-colors, static correction etc.), which included the possibility of sending dogs to trainers or shelters who use shock. (5 minute video with notable excerpts) Donors and network partners of this 100 million dollar animal welfare charity are likely to take notice that this position runs contrary to BFAS’s primary goal of saving animals’ lives, given the known connection between shocking dogs and euthanasia.
Shock Collars Connected to Fear, Anxiety, and Aggression
The simple truth is: shock collars cause an increase in fear and anxiety, which leads to more aggression and more dog bites. (1,2,4) Any shelter operator will attest that fearful dogs, aggressive dogs, and dogs that bite are far more likely to end up in shelters, and also more likely to be killed there. Despite the protestations by BFAS leaders that shock collars save lives, the fact is, they increase the probability that lives will be taken.
Pre-eminent Veterinary Behavioral Medicine Specialist, Dr. Karen Overall put it succinctly: “There are now ample published data in the peer-reviewed literature showing that shock harms dogs and adversely affects their behavior and welfare… In my patient population, dogs whom clients have shocked are over-represented in those euthanized because of the adverse effects shock has had on their behavior.”
Canine behavioral scientists have decoded body language of canine fear and anxiety, which is clearly visible in dogs who have been shocked. They express these emotions by crouching, panting, looking away, ears held sideways or down, tongue flick, tucked tail, etc. Yet, because the dog isn’t showing obvious outward expressions of aggression, these warning signs can easily be misinterpreted by those without the relevant education and experience in canine behavior.
Best Friends’ Defense of Shock
Dr. Overall reflects, “Many people who resort to shock are afraid that without it, their pet will die because of their behaviors. The companies who sell shock collars prey on these fears.”
BFAS has also fallen prey to those fears by relying on claims made in the sales literature of shock collar manufacturers. Co-founder Judah Battista defended a training program that included shock, and claimed that without that option, the dogs would otherwise be killed. That is the false choice BFAS has repeated in various forms: it is either shock collars or death.
Despite information on the BFAS website explaining the harmful effects of punitive training methods and shock, Chairman Francis Battista has asserted in the video that the organization has never had a policy against using shock, and commented, “…it is not whipping, it’s not beating…and if it saves lives, then I am prepared to look at that.” After being asked if BFAS based their positions on available scientific literature or personal observation, Judah Battista made the erroneous assertion, “there is, not great research… there is not a lot of studies…” BFAS animal care manager Carley Faughn, denied that she endorsed shock, yet commented that she was “impressed” by results of the shock collar demonstrations that she attended.
Francis Battista opined that shock collars need not cause pain or stress, and can be used as “attention-getters” in the hands of skilled users. He went on to say that they were “unlikely” to use them, but would not rule it out. Although only minutes before, Faughn gave her assurance that BFAS would not send dogs to trainers that use shock. So after all the tenuous justifications offered and mixed messages sent, why should anyone be comforted by such assurances? And since BFAS is willing to prioritize opinion over prevailing science in order to conclude that shocking dogs is not painful punishment, why would the methods they consider to be free of punishment, not be judged by that same standard?
Even the most genuine life-saving motivation cannot alter the reality that shocking dogs in order to change short-term behavior to facilitate adoptions, is only “saving lives” on paper, because the harmful effects of shock increase the chances of euthanasia after the dogs leave the shelter.
Best Friends leans on an anything-to-save-lives narrative to drive fundraising, without realizing that the “anything” in question leads to more dogs being killed; and that killing is easy to overlook, since it happens at another time, in another place.
Sowing Seeds of Confusion.
BFAS describes their trainers as animal behavior experts, a professional sounding term with no legal definition. After requesting the qualifications of those in the BFAS behavior program, I learned that it lacks properly credentialed animal behavioral specialists (neither Board Certified Veterinary Behaviorists nor Certified Applied Animal Behaviorists). I requested Carley Fauhgn’s specific credentials in canine behavior, since she will be overseeing applied animal research for BFAS. After that request, media relations manager Barbara Williamson, stopped responding to my emails
BFAS presents themselves as an authority on dog and cat related issues, and promote their opinions to thousands of network partners who look to them for guidance. That situation is likely to have a profound effect on nationwide relinquishments in the future, given their advocacy of punitive training methods.
Donors Lead the Way
Francis Battista says no-kill is the “North Star” of BFAS, not “any particular training philosophy.” Yet a training philosophy that leads to more animals being killed is clearly a contradiction of their mission. As with any nonprofit organization, donors can be the guiding light, and the time has come for the ship to be steered back on course.
BFAS donors can leverage the power of their checkbooks and call for an explicit policy that prohibits the advocacy of, or use of shock to train dogs. But until the polices that are known to reduce the chances of successful adoption are rejected, the life saving mission of BFAS and their many network partners cannot be fully realized.
- Clinical signs caused by the use of electric training collars in everyday situations.
- Training Dogs with help of the shock collar: short and long term behavior effects.
- Documentary: Dogs, Cats and Scapegoats
- Should dogs be shocked or pronged?
- Punishment based dog training risk factors and euthanasia.
- What Experts Say
- Relationship Based Training: Best Friends Animal Society
- Animal Behavior Society
- Board Certified Behaviorist
About the author: Guest writer Hugh Dorigo is the director of the recent documentary, “Dogs, Cats and Scapegoats” a sobering look at the root causes of companion animal homelessness and euthanasia.