electric shock collars

Former Thatcher aide behind campaign to prevent ban on electric shock collars for dogs

A former assistant to Margaret Thatcher has been running an alleged astroturf campaign lobbying governments to prevent a ban on the use of electric shock collars on dogs.

Ian Gregory runs a public relations firm called AZ Advice which created Facebook pages encouraging people to sign a letter urging politicians to resist calls for a ban on the use of electric shock collars — controversial training devices which deliver shocks to a dog’s neck. 

Gregory  — a former producer at BBC News who worked for Margaret Thatcher — has lobbied on behalf of the electronic dog collar industry previously, and for both fracking and grouse shooting interests. 

Electric shock collars, aka e-collars, have already been banned in Wales and they will be prohibited in England from 1 February 2024.

Combined, AZ Advice’s two Facebook pages spent £5,583 targeting users interested in sheep and farming, and encouraging them to sign the letter. Neither Gregory nor AZ Advice disclosed details about who funded them to create and manage the pages.

There is nothing illegal about this and there is no suggestion of malpractice. 

However, opaque political campaigns such as these have been criticised and the term “astroturf” refers to an activist group or movement that misleadingly appears authentically grassroots in origin. 

In reality, they have been created by public relations organisations or other politically motivated actors to disguise the identity, funding and intentions of those behind them. 

The Ferret revealed last year that a public relations firm in London was behind an astroturf campaign targeting Scottish Government proposals to regulate the vaping industry.

electric shock collars dog attacks sheep
Dog owners can be fined up to £40,000 or jailed for up to 12 months if their dog attacks or worries livestock. Image: Lori Ayre

Electric shock collars

Electric shock collars are controversial and the Scottish Animal Welfare Commission said in April they should be banned in Scotland. 

But advocates for e-collars argue they are a “reliable and non-restrictive way” to control dogs and stop them attacking sheep.

Gregory is described as “an expert in counter-campaigning and crisis media relations” and has been linked to at least one other alleged astroturf campaign targeting the RSPB. 

On 11th April 2023, AZ Advice created a Facebook page called Stop Dog Attacks on Scotland’s Sheep. A month later, a second page called Stop Dog Attacks on English Sheep went live.

The Stop Dog Attacks on Scotland’s Sheep letter opens with a reference to a graphic tweet from Jim Fairlie MSP, showing 16 lambs killed by a dog on a friend’s farm in April 2023.

In Scotland, livestock worrying and attacks are covered under a law which came into force in November 2021. Under this legislation, dog owners can be fined up to £40,000 or jailed for up to 12 months if their dog attacks or worries livestock. 

The Stop Dog Attacks Scotland letter argues this fine “is not enough”.

Current legislation: Scotland, England and Wales

Politicians in Scotland have been debating e-collars and in March this year, a letter drafted by Conservative MSP Maurice Golden, and signed by a cross-party group of Holyrood politicians, was delivered to the SNP Government’s rural affairs minister, Mairi Gougeon. 

The letter stated: “Electric shock collars continue to be used as even though a ban was referred to, there were no supporting regulations, only guidance and as a result, even though the Scottish SPCA received 47 reports to its animal helpline regarding electric shock collars being used on dogs from 2019 to 2021, there was nothing that could be done to bring forward a prosecution.

“We now believe the time is right for the government to commit to its animal welfare commitment to ban electric shock dog collars by way of Regulations, rather than ineffective guidance.”

On 11th April 2023, a report regarding the use of electric shock collars in Scotland was published by the Scottish Animal Welfare Commission

The commission concluded “that the use of e-collars for the training of animals in Scotland should be prohibited in Scotland.”

In England, the outlawing of electronic shock collars was part of the DEFRA Action Plan for Animal Welfare.

In Wales, the 2010 Animal Welfare (Electronic Collars)(Wales) Regulations made it illegal to attach an electric shock collar, or to administer a shock to a cat or dog, or be responsible for a cat or dog to which a shock collar is attached.

Maurice Golden MSP said: “Only the campaign (Stop Dog Attacks) can explain their motives and reasons for this particular offensive. From my point of view, almost everyone I speak to about electric shock collars think they are cruel and ineffective. That’s also the view held across the political divide in the Scottish Parliament. We all want to stop dog attacks on sheep and other livestock and, of course, the best way to do that is ensure dogs are always kept on leads when around them.”

Former Thatcher aide behind campaign to prevent ban on electric shock collars for dogs 6
“We all want to stop dog attacks on sheep and other livestock and, of course, the best way to do that is ensure dogs are always kept on leads when around them,” said Maurice Golden MSP. Image: peplow/iStock

Mike Flynn, Scottish SPCA chief superintendent, also argued that the most effective way to prevent dogs from harming other animals is by keeping them on the lead within the vicinity of livestock or wildlife.

He said the Scottish SPCA would support a ban on shock collars and has long advocated “positive reinforcement-based training” for dogs. “Electric shock collars can have negative welfare implications, causing physical pain and long-term fear,” Flynn said. “We have been rehabilitating dogs for decades without using methods that cause distress or discomfort. We hope that the Scottish Government will consider banning these collars as they have no place in modern Scottish society.”

Jess Probst, a behaviourist and dog trainer who runs Dundee Dog Trainer and founded Angus Dog Training, said she was aware of the Stop Dog Attacks campaign and supported the use of e-collars when training dogs “using a positive reinforcement approach”.

She said there was a significant increase in the number of dog attacks in 2023 in the UK, compared to the last five years, and argued that banning e-collars would be “discriminatory against those with disabilities”. 

Pointing out that some people do not have the physical ability to restrain their dog, Probst argued that an e-collar provides a “reliable and non-restrictive way” to control them. A ban would not be in the “best interests of the welfare” of some dogs as this would limit exercise due to lack of freedom, added Probst.

She continued: “A working dog breed such as a labrador, spaniel, shepherd, have higher requirements for physical and mental stimulation. The frustration caused by being restricted on a lead can lead to aggressive and hostile behaviours. This then results in dog bites against other dogs and humans.”

Electric shock collars can have negative welfare implications, causing physical pain and long-term fear.

Mike Flynn, Scottish SPCA

A Scottish Government spokesperson said ministers take animal welfare “very seriously” and any dog training that includes “unpleasant stimuli of physical punishment, resulting in unnecessary pain, suffering and distress needs to be fully addressed”. 

They added: “The Scottish Animal Welfare Committee concluded the use of such devices for the training of animals should be prohibited in Scotland as there are more humane and widely applied training methods available that do not risk welfare harm. 

“The Scottish Government recognises that livestock harassment by dogs is a major source of frustration and distress for livestock farmers and something the Scottish Government takes very seriously. The worrying of livestock by dogs is completely unacceptable and any attack is one too many.”

Gregory did not respond to repeated requests for a comment.

The insurance company NFU Mutual estimates the cost of dog attacks on livestock in the UK is now 50 per cent higher than pre-pandemic levels, with £1.8m worth of farm animals maimed or killed by dogs in 2022. 

The National Sheep Association, which conducts a yearly survey of UK sheep farmers regarding the prevalence of dog attacks on their livestock found that, out of 305 respondents, 70 per cent reported at least one dog attack within the last 12 months.

David Jones MP, a Conservative politician representing the Welsh constituency of Clwyd West, argued in March 2022 that the ban on e-collar usage in Wales should be reversed. He told The Ferret: “I am chiefly concerned about the damage and unnecessary suffering caused to livestock by uncontrolled dogs and also the destruction of dogs caught worrying such livestock. E-collars can be a useful training aid that avoids that.”

Main image: Vera Aksionava/iStock/jorge_photo

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