Last Saturday was a gorgeous fall day, one of the last of the year here in the DC metro area nice enough to sit outside. So I decided to celebrate by spending part of the afternoon sitting outside a coffee shop in Old Town Alexandria with Boomer.
Along came a resident with a gorgeous German Shepherd. She placed her dog in a down stay, which he held remarkably well, while she ducked into the store for a cup of coffee. When she came out, I saw her showing the remote control for her Shepherd’s electronic collar to the women at the table next to me, explaining that the electronic collar “counted” as physical restraint under Alexandria’s leash laws. [Sidenote: Boomer was being a very good little pup (on leash of course), getting lots and lots of treats while he sat calmly between the Shepherd and two other large dogs.]
My curiosity was peaked. I’ve never used electronic collars or invisible fences, and I’ve heard too much regarding the downsides of both to care to try them. I made a mental note to check Alexandria’s leash law to see if an electronic collar would really “count.”
Fast forward to this weekend, when I had the pleasure of attending Dr. Sophia Yin’s Seminar, The Many Faces of Fear and Aggression, sponsored by Dream Dog Productions. [Sidenote: Very appropriate topics for me and Sophie, who of course did not come with me to the coffee shop!]
Dr. Yin has done a remarkable job putting together hundreds of photos and videos to make various training concepts like counter-conditioning, desensitization, negative punishment and positive punishment really come alive. One of the most fascinating parts to watch was Dr. Yin using an electronic collar and a prong collar. She explained the many pitfalls of punishment, which can occur even if you use punishment the way you are supposed to, by using (1) perfect timing, (2) a correct and continuous rate (catching the bad behavior each and every time it occurs), and (3) a high enough amount of force that the dog doesn’t just become habituated.
At one point, Dr. Yin showed videos of her with a leash attached to a chain link fence, demonstrating the force needed to use a prong collar effectively. When she lets owners considering a prong collar try to pull on the leash, it is remarkable how far off they are with their amount of force. When Dr. Yin tries an electronic collar, even with her perfect sense of timing, rate and amount of force, it has the unintended consequence of only serving to confuse the dog. No wonder she and many others have abandoned the use of forceful, punishment-based training long ago.
With all of Dr. Yin’s experience, even she was unable to communicate what she wanted the dog to learn using an electronic collar. Part of this is that punishment methods do nothing to tell the dog what kind of good behavior he could do instead of the bad behavior. Considering all of this, how is the average dog owner supposed to use an electronic collar effectively?
Even if the average dog owner could master the electronic collar with no ill side effects on the dog, would the law allow it? What has muddied these waters is the fact that Blacksburg, Virginia has recently passed a leash law specifically allowing “remote control collar systems” to be added to the leash options. So what about Alexandria?
To start, Virginia Code Section 3.2-6539 allows each locality to adopt its own ordinance requiring dogs to “be kept on a leash or otherwise restrained.” Alexandria has chosen to institute its own leash law, Section 5-7-35 of the City of Alexandria Code. With very limited exceptions for being on private property or in dog parks, Alexandria requires a dog to be
“…secured by a leash, lead or other means of physical restraint which leash, lead or other means of physical restraint is not harmful or injurious to the dog and which is held by a responsible person capable of physically restraining the dog.”
I doubt that the remote control for the electronic collar would qualify as a “leash, lead or other means of physical restraint” being “held” by the owner. Even if you make it over that hurdle, after seeing Dr. Yin’s presentation, I have to ask whether an electronic collar is “harmful or injurious to the dog.” Also, the Alexandria ordinance says nothing about remote collar control systems, whereas Blacksburg felt the need to include that explicitly in its leash law.
Taking all of this into consideration, I would think an electronic collar does not “count” as a leash under Alexandria’s leash laws. Even if it did, owners should think long and hard about the well-being of their dogs and the relationship between them and the dogs before using electronic collars, and other equipment such as invisible fences and prong collars.
FYI, Alexandria recently adopted an anti-tethering ordinance (Section 5-7-36.1), which will hopefully inspire other jurisdictions to do the same. For more on the anti-tethering ordinance and requirements of dog owners, take a look at my earlier post, So What Are My Responsibilities As A Dog Owner?
UPDATE (11/17/2011): The question of whether an electronic collar would count under Alexandria’s leash law has been determined once and for all. Congratulations to the Animal Welfare League of Alexandria and Alexandria’s Animal Control Officers for taking up the charge and successfully introducing a law clarifying that shock collars will not qualify as leashes or “physical restraint!”