Last week, I had the wonderful experience of spending a blisteringly hot week in Dubuque Iowa/Hazel Green Wisconsin attending a week of e-collar training at Robin MacFarlane’s training facility,That’s My Dog. The term “e-collar” stands for “electric” collar, sometimes also referred to as remote training collar, remote trainer, or shock collar. Now before you recoil in horror or start composing a nasty email, I’d like you to try to forget all the negative propaganda you’ve ever heard about these training devices and open your mind for a few minutes. Before I continue, you should know that I was an e-collar hater for a brief period before I became a trainer and understood the tool and how to use it. I’d read and believed a lot of the rhetoric and propaganda online, including the stuff espoused at this website. So if you are currently an e-hater, I understand where you’re coming from and I also know that with the right information, there may come a day that you might find this tool helpful in addressing your dog’s unwanted behavior.
Remember the enormous Zack Morris cell phone of the early 1990s? Urban Dictionary.com tells us these weighed approximately 8 pounds! Can you imagine carrying this “portable” phone around with you today? Compare that with the sleek, modern iPhone and you can see how far mobile phone technology has come in the last 30 years. The same is true for e-collars. The original shock collars lived up to their names and were often used to the same affect, to shock a dog. Keep in mind these collars were used with hunting and retrieving dogs in the field, primarily after the dog had flushed game and was in pursuit. Because the dog was fully engaged in an adrenaline pumping primal activity, hunting and chasing prey, the stimulation to the dog had to be pretty powerful to get its attention and call the dog off the chase so the game could be shot. No one disputes that these e-collars were not the picture of humane training. Modern collars have come a long way in the last 60 years and have been developed for more diverse training purposes than their predecessors, with nick and continuous stimulation settings, and a vibration pager option. While old collars had between one and six stimulation settings, modern collars have up to 127 settings so you can find the setting that’s just right for your dog in the current situation without overwhelming them. Regardless of all this advancement, public perception (with the help of a very vocal “all positive no exceptions” dog training minority) has not progressed along with the technology and lots of people and pet dogs are missing out on a great training tool that could help make their lives together more enjoyable, or even save the life of a dog with severe behavior problems for which other approaches have failed.
The key with modern e-collar training is to find the right stimulation level, in most situations just enough to gently get the dog’s attention so he can be directed to the appropriate behavior (quiet, come, lay down), but not so high that he’s anxious or fearful about the stimulation. The dog won’t automatically know what he’s supposed to do just because he received a stim, so it’s still necessary to complete a training process in which communication and expectations are established. The collar doesn’t communicate with the dog, YOU do. It’s also imperative that expectations be clear and consistent when using the e-collar. The dog learns that he has control over the collar and by paying attention and doing what is asked of him, he avoids further stimulation. However, if the stims are inconsistently delivered he won’t understand how to turn them off, and will become nervous, reactive, and anxious about the training. When the dog is handled consistently, he can progress very quickly through a training program because it is so much easier for the handler to reinforce the desired behavior and interrupt the unwanted behavior in a timely fashion.
We use the Dogtra 282 model which is considered a medium-powered collar. It has 127 levels. My dogs operate around a level 15 in our home and yard and when doing obedience with little distraction. However, if we go to a new or exciting place, it’s much easier for them to be distracted, and I may have to use level 30 to get their attention initially. Once they settle in, I can dial down the level again because they are more focused and attentive after the initial excitement fades. If one of my dogs is running towards a busy street and I really need his attention immediately, I’ll dial it up as high as necessary to get his attention so I can either call him back to me or place him in a stationary command to stop the forward progress. Most people would agree that it’s well worth the momentary discomfort of the stimulation in an emergency situation that could result in saving the dog’s life.
Besides a solid recall, even from a distance, there are countless other applications for the e-collar in everyday life with your dog. One example is when walking the dogs in popular public places like at public parks or down a busy street. Philosophically, I don’t have a problem giving a leash correction, but practically, it’s sometimes hard to do so in a crowd of people. For the uninitiated that don’t understand a leash correction or the person that’s under the mistaken impression that dogs are just children in fur coats, it may appear that I’m brutalizing my dog. The dog can also have a significant reaction to the body language—anticipating the correction and reacting accordingly. This appears to people like my dog is afraid of me. The nice thing about the e-collar is you can very subtly maintain control over your dog in a high-distraction setting by tapping the e-collar if he strays from a predefined zone (i.e., “heel”). If you’re operating at the right level, the only reaction from the dog is to become attentive to your position and move back into position beside you.
I had a great time in Wisconsin, expanding my skill set with some really amazing trainers. We saw some really cool transformations while there that strongly refute claims that these tools create anxiety or behavior problems in dogs. The people that make these claims have never seen the training done correctly and/or are coming from an ideologicalperspective rather than a perspective based in reality or science. The reality of our modern, dog-crazy society is that we are busy, well-intentioned people that want the love and companionship of our dogs, but don’t have a lot of extra time or patience for long, drawn out training programs to address our four-leggeds’ behavioral problems. We’re also an instant gratification society. For better or for worse, that means our dog training methods need to keep up with our pace as individuals and as a society in order for us to fully realize the training benefits for ourselves and our dogs. It’s simply not realistic to expect the average person to drop everything to spend 6 to 12 months training the dog.
To end this post, I’d like to share some of the aforementioned non-refutable evidence. There were two dogs at the training school that were there for a board and train program. This isthe before and after video of their behavior. For a family at their wit’s end with two large, unruly dogs, what kind of positive impact do you imagine this training made in the lives of the people and the dogs?
Additional Resources and Links:
Ruth Crisler’s intelligent and witty training and e-collar blog