Updated: Feb 8, 2019
This blog specifically covers how I use e-collars in my training programs and why I find them to be one of the most useful tools in dog training.
Why use an E-collar?
This is a very fair question. E-collar training is extremely controversial and there are many articles out on the internet claiming terrible things about e-collars and their uses. Some of the biggest claims are that e-collars cause fear and intimidation in dogs and admittedly, this isn't entirely untrue. However when use properly it can be one of the most beneficial dog training tools ever made. Read on to see the pros and cons of e-collar training and how we use it in our training.
Take this example:
A man, we'll call him Bob, has a German Shepherd he's raised from a puppy. We'll call his dog Rex. Bob often allows Rex roam the front yard to run off energy. This front yard is enclosed by a chain link fence and is right up against Bob's mailbox outside his property.
From a young age, Rex has had a habit of charging the fence and barking every time the mailman stops to make his delivery. This is seemingly a very normal dog behavior, but Bob was growing tired of his dog barking and embarassing him everyday in front of the mailman. He tried squirting the dog with a water bottle and yelling at him from the front door, but nothing seemed to be working to get Rex to "knock it off". Well, Bob was getting pretty frustrated at this point and getting tired of his dog's disobedience so he decided to go to his local pet store and purchase an e-collar for $50.
The next day, Bob put the collar on Rex and let him outside. Bob knew the mailman usually arrived at 3pm and Bob patiently awaited the mailman's visit, ready to correct his dog for his nonsense.
Let's take some inventory here:
- Bob does not walk his dog, only lets his roam out in the yard all day. The dog is under-stimulated.
- The only fun the dog has each day is to protect his home and territory from the mailman. Rex is really proud of himself for being such a good defender of the property.
- Bob has never put this e-collar on Rex before. Bob has no idea what the lowest level is that Rex even feels.
- Bob has never spent any time teaching Rex what the e-collar means before today and has never taught Rex a recall command formally. He's just called the dog to come and expected his dog to understand English.
Now back to the story.....
3pm rolls around and sure enough, the mailman arrives. Bob is watching from the window inside, already prepared with his e-collar set to the highest setting it has. He's ready for Rex to rush the fence. There he goes! Rex takes off at full speed like he does every day, barking at the mailman through the fence.
At that same exact moment, Bob hits the button at the highest setting and Rex let's out a yelp!
Bob says to himself "I bet he learned his lesson, he won't do that again."
But to Bob's surprise, he leaves him outside the next day, only to find that today, Rex is now not only barking at the mailman- he's lunging and snarling! The e-collar seems to have made Rex more aggressive!
What Happened Here?
You see, Bob doesn't know what "the conditioning phase" is. He never taught this dog what the e-collar means. He never taught the dog that charging the fence was unwanted, only yelled at the dog from a distance (in case you're wondering, that doesn't teach a dog anything), and never spent time out of his day to teach the dog how to come when he was called.
Then, when Rex was focused in on the mailman that day, Bob zapped him with the dog having no prior knowledge that an e-collar is even a thing that exists!
Rex is an animal, which means when something happens that doesn't make sense, he is going to try to make sense of it in his own animalistic way- but that doesn't always turn out how we hope.
It's likely, when Rex felt the e-collar he said: "Oh Sh**! The mailman just zapped me! Now I hate him even more!"
You see, this is where things get messy.
This is where the "purely positive" (which is a scientifically impossible concept by the way) movement, wants you to believe that "shock collars" will instill fear in your dog. That just one use could send your dog running for the hills. That their whole world will be irreparably torn apart with just one use. People with this agenda have often never seen an e-collar used in person (or if they have it was abused) and have never used and e-collar themselves OR they used it improperly and decided to vilify and entire training method based on one experience. These groups of people often consist of corporations who also have lots of money to be able to allow "experts" to cherry-pick information from scientific data to support their claims in many of the articles you see online. People from the "purely positive" movement are very "passionate" and some will go as far as handing out DEATH THREATS if they discover a trainer uses an e-collar or any other aversive training tool. These extremeists have even been able to persuade legislature in places like England, Germany (which ironically is the home of the manufacturer of Herm Sprenger prong collars, the most popular prong collar among dog trainers, including K9 units, IN THE WORLD) and more.
That is a load of Baloney! Here's what you need to know:
E-collars are not all created equal. People will cherry-pick information from "scientific" articles to get you to believe anything (Think about the articles you read that state eggs are terrible for you and wine and chocolate will make you live longer) Here's the TRUTH...
Yellow: High quality dog training tool- Retails $189-$389
Black: Quick fix that belongs in the trash- Retails $30-$100
What else you need to know:
Cheap e-collars are the kind that emit "static shock", the kind you hear about in forementioned articles. High quality e-collars deliver muscle stimulation that is identical to that of a tens unit (a tool they use in rehabilitation, chiropractic offices etc. to relieve pain)
Any e-collar can cause psychological damage when it is applied with negligence or uneducated use.
High quality dog training collars DO NOT cause physcial damage and do not interfere with medical illnesses such as eplilepsy or ailments effecting the equilibrium. However it is only common sense to say they do effect the nervous system because the nervous system is connected to the brain and training happens, well, IN THE BRAIN. But it is very uncommon for e-collars to cause any "domino effect" to prexisting conditions or cause onset illnesses. In fact, there are no recorded cases of such happening, ever.
The e-collar, when used properly, is an amazing tool that can give dogs the freedom to roam without a leash and be trusted to come back when called. It can also be used to enforce any and all obedience commands as well as resolving behavior issues such as: jumping up, nipping, chewing, running off, playing too roughly with other dogs, resource guarding, and even aggression.
The e-collar is a supplement to good dog training, not a replacement for it.
How do we use the e-collar at Happy Hound?
After discovering how we use the e-collar, nearly all of our clients decide to use it. We start like this:
Phase 1, The Conditioning Phase:
Step 1- finding the lowest level the dog feels. We call this the "working level". We usually know when the dog can feel the e-collar because the dog's ear may twich, the dog might sit, or sniff the ground looking for what cause the "tingly" feeling.
Step 2- we put the dog on a leash and start conditioning them to the word "come". Using the working level, we say come, then tap the button and give a light tug on the leash at the same time. When the dog turns in our direction we say "Yes!" and give praise and encouragement as the dog travels back to us, receiving a tasty treat when the dog has reached us. This is repeated dozens of times until the dog starts figuring out that the 'tap' from the e-collar is directly related to the command we're giving and the leash pressure they're feeling.
Step 3- Once the dog is "fluent" in the language of the e-collar, we can start overlapping it with other commands the dog knows. This is always done in combination with a leash and collar and we NEVER try to condition the dog to a command on the e-collar that they didn't already know prior. We also never take the leash off if the dog seems confused or struggles to comply. In fact, in that case e-collar use is often halted in order to go back to positive reinforcement training. This simply means the dog hasn't had enough practice yet and by no means implies that the dog can't be trained to an e-collar.
Phase 2, The Proofing Phase
Step 1- The dog now understands the language of the e-collar and we've overlapped the e-collar onto all the commands the dog knows. If there are any commands the dog didn't know, but we wanted them to learn, we would teach them with positive reinforcement and a leash ONLY during phase 1 so we could later add the e-collar into that command.
Step 2- After many hours of practice, the dog is then taken into more distracting enviroments to practice "proofing" their obedience around distractions and at longer distances or durations. During this step it is likely that the working level will need to be increased due to the level of distractions present. This DOES NOT mean we are zapping the dog for non-compliance. We are simply raising the level just high enough that it can compete with the environment around us and still get the dog's attention.
Step 3- This is practiced often until the dog becomes profecient in these commands even around distractions and even if taken off the leash.
Phase 3, The Weaning Phase
Step 1- The dog wears the e-collar in every scenario that it needs to so that the owner/handler can reinforce commands around extremely high distractions and start correcting any bad behavior in or out of the home.
Step 2- Depending on the issues or goals of training, the dog will wear this collar until his new found good behavior has become more of a lifestyle for him than just something he must obey. We want the dog to be happy to obey and enjoy his calmer, more freedom filled life.
Step 3- Slowly, the dog is weaned off the collar in small steps. This usually starts with being weaned off the e-collar in the home and soon progressing to more distracting areas. The same way the trained the dog to the e-collar in the first place.
This, my friends, is what REAL dog trainers do. We want to train all dogs with love, praise and compassion. However, we also understand that we don't live in a perfectly safe world and as animals, our dogs will make choices that don't always align with what's safe or wanted in our human world. This means the dog must learn the difference between right and wrong in their human habitat and it is our responsibility to guide them on that journey. When we do this, our dogs live enriched lives far beyond what any dog could imagine who lives a life on a leash and behind four walls.
So as you can see, this style of training is far more than the sum of all it's parts and even if you may still be skeptical of the e-collar, I at least hope I've opened your mind enough to consider that for some dogs it can be a remarkable and lifesaving training aid.
Tara is a dog trainer helping struggling dog owners have extraordinary dogs in the Navarre, Milton and Pensacola areas. She got her start as a struggling dog owner herself which was her fuel to learn the skills to help others. Today, she's helped nearly two thousand dog owners all over Northwest Florida learn how to be better leaders to their pets so that their dogs can be better companions for the family. Hire Tara or learn more at www.happyhoundfl.com