E-collars: fact and fiction
When it comes to dog training, owners have A LOT of information to work through if they're to get the obedient, calm, happy dog they're looking for. That goes double for anyone dealing with problem behaviors like aggression, fearfulness, or anxiety.
Do you reward with treats and affection? What about when your dog misbehaves?
Ignore the behaviors you'd like to change?
Correct the dog and risk damaging your relationship beyond repair?
Let "dogs be dogs" and figure it out on their own?
Today I'd like to talk about one of the most controversial training tools out there: the remote collar/e-collar/shock collar.
First, here at Confident Canines, we use e-collars. A lot. Like as in on every dog that passes through our Reboot Your Dog in 60 Days program goes home on an e-collar. So it's safe to say we don't buy into all the hoopla about them damaging dogs physically and mentally, or making dogs impossibly fearful of their handlers (and neither do our clients).
Now, if you're unsure about this remarkable training tool, don't click away just yet. Read on and see if any of the insights in this post give you a new perspective.
So, why am I so big on using e-collars? In short, they’re reliable, they enable off-leash freedom, they’re extremely safe, and as gentle as possible on the dog. What's not to like right? If all this is the case, where does the controversy come from?
Well, I can't say for sure, but I'd hazard a guess that a lot of it comes from simple misinformation about how modern e-collars work. Years ago (like, decades), e-collars were primarily meant to be punitive. They were intended to deliver a literal electric shock to your dog as a means of punishing them (hence the name "shock" collars). And I think for a lot of people, this is still the image they have in their heads. They believe that the sensation of an e-collar is like touching an exposed wire in their house.
But I'm happy to say, things have changed. Modern e-collars are highly and finely adjustable. The ones we use range from 1-100, and I defy any dog owner to even feel the sensation at lower levels. I for one can't even detect the sensation until around 12 or 13. And believe me, even at that level it registers as little more than a slight tickle. Now your dog will likely feel it a bit lower than that, but regardless, the notion that it's a harsh, intense shocking sensation is simply untrue.
Beyond simply misunderstanding the nature of the tool, some people take issue with the idea of "correcting" or telling their dog "no" altogether. To this, I say that, well, life has consequences... Think about it, can you really escape consequences? Positive or negative, they're all around you, all day, every day, am I right? Are there very many choices you make in a day that are of literally no consequence? I doubt it!
Consequences are simply a part of life, and that's not a bad thing! Consequences not only help us learn, they help us stay on track and be accountable to ourselves and others. They comes in all shapes and sizes; some are small, some are big, some aren't so bad, and some, well, really stink. But they keep on coming, and they always will.
And the same is true for our dogs. Our dogs are all on this big spinning marble, just like us, and as long as that's the case they'll have consequences for their behavior. The question is, where will those consequences be coming from, and what kind of behaviors will they encourage or discourage?
It's my belief that it's our job to lead and guide our dogs through life. They don't come to us knowing how to make good choices, or integrate themselves into our very human world successfully all on their own. They need help. And that's where we come in. We're here not only to share love and affection with our dogs, but also to share with them expectations, rules, boundaries, and, you guessed it, consequences.
How do we do this? Well, for positive stuff it's easy! Treats, food, water, love, a pat on the head or a simple "good boy!".
For the negative stuff, well that's where people get a little stuck. I think the best way to share not only guidance and direction, but correction as well is using good, high quality tools. Think about it, what makes a good correction? How about something that's consistent, effective, lasts less than a second, intense enough that it avoids underwhelming the dog, while also not being so intense that it overwhelms the dog, and is devoid of emotional tension in the form of anger, frustration, or annoyance? I'd say that's a pretty good recipe, and the e-collar certainly fits the bill!
As I said, e-collars are highly adjustable, so you can find exactly the right levels for your particular dog in the particular situation in which you find yourself. Furthermore, a quick tap on the button on your remote will last less than a second, so any discomfort isn't exactly going to be ongoing. They're 100% consistent no matter who's holding the remote. I'm telling you, it doesn't matter if it's you, me, or The Rock pressing that button, it's the same sensation every time. Finally, they negate the need for any emotion, which makes for very effective training.
So we've established dogs need consequences, and that the e-collar is a great way to deliver consistent consequences for things we don't like, but is that all? Absolutely not!
E-collars also enable off-leash freedom in ways that no other tool can. Want to take your dog to any park, anywhere, any time and know your dog will come when called every single time? Want to go off-leash hiking with your dog and know they'll stay by your side the whole time? Want to be able to hold your dog accountable to a Down or Place at any distance in any environment? Well, e-collars are for you.
Yes, dogs come for treats, Yes, dogs will learn how to do behaviors with reward. I mean, that's how we teach all these behaviors in the first place. But can you really say that your dog will never get so distracted that treats cease to matter? The world is a distracting place, and sometimes stimulating variables like squirrels, cats, other dogs, or the leftover Taco Bell someone decided to leave in the park are just too tempting to focus on something like a command.
Not only that, but treats have diminishing value as time goes on. Let's say you did a nice 5K run on a hot day. You'd really like a Gatorade, so much so that you're willing to pay $2 for one. You drink it down and it hits the spot just like you'd hoped. Maybe, though, you're still a little thirsty. Do you go for a second? Well, if the day is hot enough, and the desire strong enough, sure you will. But what about the third? You might really love Gatorade. But come on, you won't keep forking over $2 indefinitely no matter how great that first one was.
Treats can have a similar effect with dogs. A hungry, eager dog may turn on a dime to come when called for those first few treats. But then, he's not so hungry. Then, it gets easier to start favoring other fun stuff like chasing squirrels over another treat.
Relying too heavily on treats assumes that consistent availability of them will ensure consistent behavior from each and every dog, and I don't think that argument holds true in reality. However, if we had a way to give our dog a tap on the shoulder at a level that truly motivates them when they became distracted (hint: we do!), well then we'd have a way to consistently keep our dog's attention and focus. Over time (and not much time at that) our dog would learn that responding to commands is simply the only option. If they ignore it, we have a way to enforce it, and with enough repetition they come to know and expect that.
And isn't this really what we're looking for? Do we want to have to constantly "buy" our dog's good behavior and choices? Should training be forever about a "payoff"? Frankly, I don't think so. I'm all about rewarding good choices, even in the long term. But I'm also all about working towards having a dog that does what I ask because, well, I asked them to. That's called respect, and it's a fundamental part of any relationship.
I respect my dogs by considering their needs, giving them plenty of exercise, structure, accountability, food, water, recreational time like running at the park or chewing a bone, among other things. In return, I think it's fair that I ask my dogs to respect me enough to follow through on the basic things I ask them to do, like walking calmly with me on our adventures, coming when I call, not growling when I take their food or bones away...simple stuff like that.
Ok, ok, I've waxed on about how great e-collars are. Because they are! I'm telling you, whether you're wanting to train obedience for a young pup, rehabilitate aggression, anxiety, or other major behavioral problems. e-collars can help tremendously. I know because I've seen it and done it over and over and over again. And the dogs? Well, safe to say I have yet to come across one that ended up afraid of me or their owners.
But let's spend a little time on the other side of the coin. Can these tools do harm? Can they hurt dogs? Can they actually CREATE behavior problems.
Yes! But you know what? So can anything else.
Every client I have (clients who, mind you, are paying me good money because of the issues they're already facing with their dogs) brings their dog in on either a flat-buckle collar or a harness. But somehow I don't hear people shouting "harnesses cause aggression" or "nylon collars encourage anxiety". And for good reason, they don't! They're just tools. Inanimate objects. They can't "do" anything. It's what the handlers do with those tools that create problems.
The same goes for e-collars. Can e-collars be used in a non-productive, damaging way? Sure. But let's not blame the tool for that. If we did, we'd have to abandon virtually any tool on the market today. After all, a finger tapping your dog on the shoulder isn't a big deal, but fingers balled into a fist and swung at your dog are a very big deal. Same tool, different application.
And this brings up an important point. If you choose to e-collar train your dog (and I hope you will) you should absolutely either seek out a qualified trainer or educate yourself prior to beginning. The last thing I want is owners putting e-collars on their dogs and pushing buttons. E-collars are fantastic tools for communicating with your dog, but first you have to teach them the "language" of the remote collar.
On its own, the stimulation your dog feels is meaningless. It's the training strategies and protocols which assign meaning to the sensation, thereby allowing your dog to understand what it is we're trying to communicate. And this takes time and patience. Truthfully, it takes hundreds if not thousands of repetitions to fully remote collar train a dog.
All this practice affords plenty of time to not only teach the dog, but to allow them to make mistakes. It's in these times of mistake that we can provide guidance to the dog on what we like, what we don't like, and how they should respond when they feel pressure from the e-collar. Without a strong foundation firmly in place, we can't expect our dogs to respond appropriately out in real-life situations.
So, what does this all mean?
It means remote collars are getting a bad rap. They're simply misunderstood by some, or don't fit the training agenda of others.
The truth is e-collars are safe. They're as gentle as any tool can be. They're reliable and consistent. They transfer easily from trainer to owner, or between owners within a household.
Not only that, but they HELP dogs. They allow us to quickly and painlessly work through serious issues, and that not only benefits people, but our dogs as well. Dogs who are lunging on the leash, biting people, getting into fights, or whining in their crates all day are STRESSED OUT dogs. They're dogs who need our help.
They also make our dogs' worlds so much BIGGER! Dogs who have awesome off-leash obedience
can explore so much more of this world with us. They can go to parks and roam free, they can visit shops and restaurants and cafes with us. They can easily go with us to our friends' or families' houses.
So when it comes to e-collars, keep an open mind. Check out some of our videos, or those of other trainers. See what's possible, and what owners who have used them in conjunction with a solid training plan are saying.
I bet you'll be glad you did :)
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Kyle Weaver is a dog trainer and behaviorist with 15 years of experience. He helps owners reboot their dogs behavior in 60 days or less