If you go online and visit dog training websites you will probably notice that there is a lot of controversy over the use of electronic training collars. One training website praises their effectiveness while another claims they do irreparable damage to your dog. Who is right? It can be very confusing to the general public looking for a trainer that will give them the results they want without harming their dog in the process. Hopefully, as you read this blog post, you will become more educated regarding e-collars and their proper use. While no one training tool will fix all problems, the proper use of an e-collar can produce remarkable results and help dogs with a variety of issues become more obedient, less fearful, more confident, more reliable and do so in less time than other training methods will be able to accomplish the same things, which in some cases they probably won’t be able to do..
Notice I said their “proper use”. Unfortunately, most people that purchase an e-collar and don’t received professional instruction and have no clue how to properly use an e-collar and even amongst trainers that use them I find that many are not using them properly. The problem probably stems from the fact that e-collars are in essence a shock collar and most people relate to shock as being bad. But shock is not necessarily bad. Modern medicine uses TENS (trans epidermis nerve stimulation) units to delver low level stimulation (shock) for muscle rehabilitation and therapeutic purposes. Fitness oriented people are even purchasing TENS units that have been modified and designed to work out your muscles through contraction and release produced by the stimulation. All beneficial and completely harmless to the person using the machine. Modern e-collars come in a variety of qualities ranging from the cheapest ones that do not use TENS stimulation and instead use a simple ramped-up electrical shock, to the best ones that use TENS stimulation to safely provide feedback to your dog. But what constitutes proper use? Do you simply push a button when the dog is not behaving properly is or there more to it?
A Brief History Of E-collars
In the 1960’s Tritronics developed the first electronic training collars to help hunters that were working with highly driven dogs at great distances control their dogs. The original use of e-collars focused on using them to implement negative reinforcement. By definition, negative reinforcement means removing something unpleasant when the dog completes the task or command they were given. This would be followed up with positive reinforcement like physical praise to make it more likely for the dog to do the command the next time they are given the command. This was and still is the method being used by many e-collar trainers. This method has always been effective, but may seem unfair due to the fact that the stimulation is applied when the command is given so there is no way for the dog to escape the sensation except to do the command faster so it disappears sooner. But, like many things in life, advances have been made both in the methods used and in the quality of the e-collars being manufactured. In the last 60 years tremendous advancements have been made in electronics and the quality of e-collars today is far superior to the e-collars of 50 years ago in many ways.
Today’s high quality e-collars, which cost upwards of $180 as of the time of this post, are smaller and lighter than those first ones were and the distance they can reach is up to 2 miles in some units. Todays high quality e-collars also use the advanced TENS stimulation instead of old-fashioned shock, a significant difference between cheap e-collars and the best ones available. Todays modern e-collars are far more adjustable as well. They can be set so low as to be imperceptible to most people if tested on their own body. It is at these super low levels where we are able to bring out the best in a dog. Let me explain…
Most critics of e-collars have never used one and probably assume that everyone that gets one is using it to shock their misbehaved dog into better behavior. While this is probably true for a large percentage of people that do not receive training on how to properly use an e-collar, it is not true for people that know better ways to use an e-collar. The difference starts with how a person views the e-collar tool. Do they see the collar as only a correction device or do they see it as a way to improve the communication between them and their dog? How one views the e-collar has a lot to do with how one will end up using it. While it is certainly true that using an e-collar to stop dangerous behaviors like chasing cars is most effective when used at a level high enough that it imprints an experience on the dogs mind that car chasing is very unpleasant, (much like the experience every kid gets when they touch a hot stove the first time after being told not to), it is not the only way an e-collar can be used. That is not to say that using an e-collar that way is not useful in the context of chasing cars, because it definitely is useful for that purpose and using a high level is appropriate for that purpose as well.
What is misunderstood by the majority of people that condemn e-collars is that they can be used to enhance communication, improve listening, reduce fear based anxieties, build confidence and courage and to teach new behaviors humanely. Puppies and other fearful or easily distracted dogs can learn to focus on their handler/owner much more quickly and with greater confidence than with other methods and for better reasons. When compared with treat based methods where your dog tends to focus on you because you are carrying around goodies, a dog trained with an e-collar as a communication enhancer will be focused on you because you present yourself as a mentor or boss as opposed to them seeing you as a butler or buddy with food. Your dog will know that it is important to keep track of you making them exceptionally safe when compared to dogs only motivated if you are carrying treats.
By now you are probably asking yourself “So, what is the proper way to use an e-collar to obtain these huge benefits?” Great question and it is actually a lot easier than you might think. There is a vast amount of research that has been done on this subject which I will summarize to keep things simple. First, we need to understand that dogs in general are born being bad listeners. Hearing is not wired in their head for communication except for alerts to danger. An example would be when they hear another dog in distress most dogs will want to see what the problem is with the other dog, but dogs are not making noises to communicate with their other pack members. In other words, they are not speaking to the other dogs with verbal language. Instead, dogs are visual communicators, using their heads, tails and body to communicate a myriad of things to their other pack mates. They primarily use body language to communicate with one another along with some other subtle messages. So they tend to be experts at learning to read their human owners body language since that’s their natural language. Dogs are also experts at picking up on patterns that repeat in life.
Getting a dog to listen well in all kinds of environments can be a difficult challenge if you have an easily distracted dog or a dog with high drive. How can an e-collar help this pre-disposed way dogs naturally tend to be? By combining a super low level momentary stimulation of about one tenth of a second long with every word we say to the dog we can make everything we are saying to the dog the most important thing the dog hears. Think about it for a moment, if everything that you say to your puppy is also felt at a non-threatening level, it is the only thing in the puppy’s life that is simultaneously heard and felt. Imagine for a moment when you were a very young child and wanted to get your mom’s or your dad’s attention but they were busy talking to someone else. In such situations many kids will come up to their parent and tap a shoulder lightly while softly saying mommy or daddy to get their attention or they might tug lightly on their moms dress or other clothing.
By associating a very light tap from an e-collar at a very low level it is very much like a super light tap a child uses on a parents shoulder to get their attention when they are too distracted to hear them amongst the other stuff going on. Kids have been doing it since the beginning of time and we can learn from this lesson. Today, many professional e-collar trainers don’t use an e-collar just to stop unwanted behaviors. The best trainers are using the e-collar to enhance the communication between them and their dog. When the only thing in the dogs life that is both heard and felt is your voice, what you say rises to the top of the “What’s most important” list rather quickly and brings with it more focus and attention on you.
Fear based anxiety is growing more and more common in dogs and in my opinion much of it could be avoided with some simple changes to how they are being trained. Only a small percentage of dogs are natural born leaders. The rest want to follow a leader and feel safe. Our job as a dog’s owner is to be that leader and make them feel safe in the process. Unfortunately, treat based training that is solely based on positive reinforcement does not accomplish this well or at all and in most cases will cause the problem to worsen causing the dog to become more and more introverted over time. The primary reason for this is because dogs see leadership qualities somewhat differently than how humans see leadership qualities.
Dogs want to know that you are strong enough to handle any situation that comes along that they deem a problem, be it another dog walking close by or a suspicious person or anything else. It is our job to show them that we are that capable leader and can keep them safe. But how can we do that? Simply put, by working through obedience and applying appropriate consequences in those moments when the dog lets something else take priority over them following the command they were given. The best commands for this purpose are commands that tend to be incompatible with their go-to behavior.
Unfortunately or fortunately, depending on how you look at it, a dog will judge your ability to keep them safe in scary situations by how you administer discipline. If you use weak corrections your dog perceives them as weak they will extrapolate that into you are too weak to keep them safe. An example might be giving your dog a sit stay command when you see something is approaching that may cause stress to your dog. As the dog approaches we are constantly praising the dog for maintaining their composure… until they break from the sit stay command to lunge at or retreat from the dog that is approaching. At that moment that the fight or flight response kicks in and the dog breaks their stay command we will correct the dog for breaking the command using some kind of training collar. This can be done with almost any type of training collar, but if using an e-collar we would have it set at a level that is high enough to cause the dog not to be able to focus on the approaching dog because they need to deal with the annoying sensation of the e-collar which we activated when they broke the stay command. It must also be low enough to allow to dog to still think and not panic so choosing the proper level to use is very important. We are not trying to scare the dog more, we are trying to show it that focusing on the command will serve them better and keep them safer than trying to fight or run. The moment the dog resumes the sit stay we remove the annoying sensation by letting up on the button. It is best that the dog has prior experiences with the ecollar in non-threatening situations prior to setting up scenarios to work on approaching threats or other things that cause anxiety.
That is a super-simplified version of what we would do and I recommend hiring a professional well versed in e-collar training before attempting to work with a fearful dog. In essence though, one could say that we are replacing the fear of all things we can’t control with something we are in control of. If the dog has a fearful nature it inherited we are not going to rid the dog of all its fears and anxieties, but we can reduce them to a level so low it becomes very easily managed and sometimes the fear may disappear altogether by redirecting the dogs attention towards the task at hand at the moment. What I have noticed over the 40+ years I have been training is that once a dog starts to focus on the job given to them, the things they had issues with slowly lose their “boogie man” status and the dog becomes accustomed to watching whatever it is go by instead of fighting or trying to flee.
No matter what age a dog is or what their demeanor is like prior to starting training, an e-collar can help improve their listening and focusing skills and provide more balanced and clearer feedback to your dog. This will in turn raise their confidence level in unfamiliar situations and reduce their fear by redirecting their focus onto a task you have given them to do that is incompatible with the choices they would tend to make otherwise and by us enforcing that compliance we show the dog what they want to see in us… that we are a capable strong leader that can keep them safe and thus lower their anxiety and fears. Hopefully, I have opened your eyes to how e-collar training should be done versus how most people probably perceive it is done and have dismissed most or all of your fears or concerns over e-collars and their potential uses. In my opinion, they are one of the most misunderstood, and also one of the most useful tools in a dog trainers tool kit when used properly. Are they humane? In the hands of a person that knows how to use a high quality e-collar correctly, they are one of the most humane and useful tools available.