University of Lincoln research: “Very seriously flawed and should not be relied on”

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Four separate expert reviews find Lincoln’s e-collar research to be full of mistakes

 
Finding effective training techniques to stop dogs attacking livestock is vital if we are to keep them and their predatory targets safe. That is why there was so much interest when the University of Lincoln claimed that training with e-collars was less effective than training with rewards. [1] 

However, four separate reviews have now found that Lincoln’s research was full of serious errors and bias. On top of this comes evidence of what might have caused that bias – academics at Lincoln had campaigned against e-collars prior to conducting the research.
 

One of the reviewers is the world expert Professor Doug Elliffe who is Deputy Dean of Science at New Zealand’s top-rated University of Auckland. His hard-hitting review concludes that Lincoln’s work is “very seriously flawed and should not be relied on”. [2] 

Professor Elliffe says the way the research compared e-collar and reward-based training was riddled with mistakes. All the errors were biased against e-collars. For instance, while the reward-based training took place in an English spring, the e-collar training was conducted during an extreme Scottish winter. The dogs endured drifting snow during the coldest December the UK had experienced in 350 years. [3] 

Professor Elliffe also states that there is established research which contradicts Lincoln’s view that reward-based training is better than e-collar training. He has found e-collars to be “reliable” in reducing predatory behaviour by dogs. Such reductions “could certainly not be achieved by positive reinforcement – ‘reward-based learning’ – alone”. [4]

In a second academic critique Sargisson & McLean say that Lincoln produced no evidence to support its conclusion that e-collars caused “suffering”. [5] They also state that, as the dogs were on leads, the results “shed no light on the possible behaviour of the dog if off-lead or when the owner is absent”. The inconsistencies meant that the research “cannot be used to justify the banning of e-collars for the prevention of canine predation”. 

An earlier review was conducted by David Bailey, one of the world’s two qualified forensic vets and a European Recognised Specialist in Animal Welfare Science. [6] He said that the “blinding protocols” designed to ensure neutral assessment were flawed. The observers could easily tell which dogs were being trained with e-collars. He also concluded that the research did not demonstrate any cruelty from e-collar use as cortisol levels showed “no significant” differences between the two training methods.

Finally a review by the School of Canine Science found that “the bias seems to go one way” as the dogs Lincoln  selected for  training with e-collars had more  pre-existing behaviour  problems. [7]

The flaws identified by these expert reviews are not primarily with the analysis in Lincoln’s China et al. (2020) paper. (It was the first attempt at writing a paper by an MSc student.) They are due to multiple errors in the underlying research which Lincoln conducted for Defra.

These failings could be down to university research standards. [8] 

Yet there is also clear evidence of prejudice against e-collars. Documents show that, prior to conducting the research, members of the Lincoln team campaigned against e-collars including speaking at events and signing petitions. Most embarrassing is that Lincoln’s lead academic wrote to the UK Government urging it to ban e-collars before he was chosen to lead its independent research project. [9]

The Lincoln research has been a crutch for opponents of e-collars. That crutch has been removed. By contrast, dog owners who use e-collars will feel vindicated in their choice. More than 1,000 have completed the survey on this website with 73% saying that they use them to prevent predatory attacks and improve ‘off-lead’ reliability.
 
They are responsible owners. Responsible governments now need to revisit the science to ensure that legislation enables dogs with strong prey drives to have training that serves their welfare as well as that of the animals they encounter. 
Sources
 

[1] China, L, Mills, D.S., & Cooper, J.J. (2020).  “Efficacy of dog training with and without electronic collars vs. a focus on positive reinforcement.”  Frontiers in Veterinary Science:  https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fvets.2020.00508/full

[2] Elliffe commentary on China, Mills & Cooper (2020)

[3] The winter of 2010/11 saw extreme weather in Scotland: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Winter_of_2010%E2%80%9311_in_Great_Britain_and_Ireland

[4] Elliffe commentary on China, Mills & Cooper (2020) see footnote 8. This view of the efficacy of e-collars concurs with the findings of CAWC, 2012 which stated that ”a systematic review of peer-reviewed scientific publications revealed… that the application of an electrical aversive can suppress predatory-type behaviour and that these effects might be quite enduring”: http://eprints.lincoln.ac.uk/id/eprint/14640/1/CAWC%20ecollar%20report.pdf

[5] Sargisson & McLean draft commentary for Frontiers in Veterinary Science, 2020

[6] Bailey review of Lincoln’s AW1402A research project for Defra

[8] University rankings: the University of Auckland is 82nd in the world, the University of Lincoln is ranked in the 800 to 1,000 cohort: https://www.topuniversities.com/university-rankings/world-university-rankings/2020
 
[9] Prior to leading the AW1402A research project for Defra, Lincoln’s then principal lecturer, Daniel Mills wrote to Defra to say that along with electronic prods, “Shock collars and other apparatus from which the dog is unable to escape should also be banned.”

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