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Post: The Moneyist: My wife and I enrolled our terrier, Spencer, at puppy day school. We discovered they used electric-shock collars. Should we ask for a refund? Can we sue? 

Dear Moneyist,

My wife and I adopted a terrier during the pandemic. It was the best decision we ever made, aside from getting married. But this is a close second. 

We had some minor issues with Spencer — named after the late Diana, one of my wife’s favorite royal figures — “escalating the play,” according to one local dog trainer, meaning she roughhoused when she should be playing more gently. It’s sometimes tricky getting the leash on Spencer when we want to take her with us or go for walks. My wife can chase her round in circles around the yard, and Spencer wags her tail and loves it because she thinks it’s all a game. 

We sent her to puppy day school for a week to learn how to come when we call her, and also to play “funder” where she runs to you, darts under your legs and runs back around and expects a treat. The day school cost $120 a day, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. On the second day, it came to our attention that they used electric-shock dog collars. We were surprised and appalled. They never mentioned this to us when we signed Spencer up for her course. 

We immediately withdrew her, and expressed our anger and dismay that Spencer – who is like our child – would be given shocks to get her to do what they want. We could have done that ourselves if we wanted to, but we would never consider doing something like that. We immediately withdrew Spencer from the course. Do we have any right to a refund? We probably wouldn’t take legal action, but could we sue if we did decide to take that route? 

We feel terrible about being misled by this school.

Dog Parents

Dear Parents,

Most reputable trainers know this is a decision that pet owners ought to make for themselves. They broke your trust, and lied by omission. You were deceived.

The Humane Society and PETA oppose the use of such collars, which can range from a mild tickling sensation to more severe shocks. They can create anxiety and aggression in dogs, and damage the trust between them and their guardian. Electric-shock collars — or “e-collars” as they are sometimes more delicately, if deceptively, known — use negative reinforcement. “While they may suppress unwanted behavior, they do not teach a dog what you would like them to do instead and therefore should not be used,” the Humane Society says.

Those methods use fear to get results. That doesn’t work in human relations. It doesn’t work in the workplace. It doesn’t work when making decisions when buying or selling shares on the stock market. And it doesn’t work in dog training. It may have an immediate impact and cause the dog to stop in their tracks, but positive reinforcement such as treats and praise, and giving cues that they can understand work better. In your case: Walk behind the garden gate and close it so Spencer can see you’re going on a walk rather than trying to play a game with her.

Yes, ask for a refund. Electric-shock collars, regardless of their severity, are a fast and sneaky way of getting short-term results and — some would argue, including this writer — a cruel and unusual way to train a dog. I am assuming you did not sign a document that included the mention of such collars. Burying such a reference in the small print could be regarded as an acknowledgement that the practice is controversial, but it would give them at least one leg to stand on, albeit without any of the dignity of the proud pooches that pass through their doors.

Your question threatening legal action is more complicated. It may help provide leverage for a refund, but their use remains legal in the U.S. even while the use of electrical devices for disciplinary purposes have been prohibited under laws for the prevention of cruelty to animals in many other countries, according to Pupspal.com, including Austria, Denmark, Germany, Norway, Portugal, Slovenia, Sweden, Switzerland, Wales, some states in Australia — including New South Wales, Australian Capital Territory, and South Australia — and in Quebec, Canada. 

‘Electric-shock collars are a fast, cruel and sneaky way of getting short-term results.’

A study published in July 2020 in the journal Frontiers in Veterinary Science trained 63 dogs who had off-leash behavioral problems such as poor recall, similar to your Spencer. They split the dogs into different groups: one using electric-shock collars, one using the same methods as the first group without those collars, and another using positive reinforcement. “In many ways, training with positive reinforcement was found to be more effective at addressing the target behavior as well as general obedience training,” the researchers found.

There has been progress on the home front. In 2020, Petco

stopped selling electric-shock collars: “Today, we stop the pain for Buddy because he barks at the doorbell. We stop the stress for Sadie because she jumps for joy all over the neighbors when they walk in the door. And we stop the fear for Cooper because he prefers a good pair of sneakers over all the chew toys on the market.” The reason: “As a health and wellness company dedicated to improving pet lives, they have no business in our business. And frankly, we believe there’s a better way.”

There are collars that present fewer risks to dogs: vibrating collars can be useful for dogs who are hard of hearing, and flea collars for dogs to protect them from fleas, Elizabethan collars are those cones that prevent dogs from biting on stitches if, for instance, they have been spayed or neutered — a practice that is recommended by PETA, as it can prevent hundreds of thousands of dogs being born that end up on the streets hungry and alone, or are abused by humans. If only there was such a cone of shame for humans who mistreat animals.

If Spencer’s puppy day school refuses to give you a refund, tell the owner to wear a collar and have his/her spouse give them shocks when they behave badly.

See how they like it.

Check out the Moneyist private Facebook group, where we look for answers to life’s thorniest money issues. Readers write in to me with all sorts of dilemmas. Post your questions, tell me what you want to know more about, or weigh in on the latest Moneyist columns.

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