There are many ways to train a dog, clicker or marker training, leash and collar, chain collars, prong collars, the Koehler Method, and e-collar training. Even within the communities of trainers who use the e-collar, there are different methodologies, cadence tapping, continuous application, proofing or some who use it only as a correction, or as a punishment. Most trainers use one or two of these methods.
Why use the e-Collar?
We believe that the e-Collar is one of the easiest and safest means of training a dog. It allows you to communicate with a dog with precise timing, at a distance. The e-Collar can be very gentle on a dog. There are dogs that do not respond well to leash pressure, slip chain corrections and have little to no food or toy drive. The e-Collar then becomes the only viable method of establishing communication, and thus a relationship with a dog - particularly if that dog is very independent.
The e-Collar is also incredibly useful for communication with a dog when their drive or levels of excitement become too high. It's easier on our dogs and on the trainers, it reduces chaos and increases control.
All of these benefits add up to mean that as you train, you can allow the dog the freedom, off leash, to learn through trial and error what you need it to do, while providing gentle guidance to make the right choice, however, it takes a skilled operator to accomplish this in a way that is effective and does not hurt or cause pain to the dog.
Is an e-Collar the same as a Shock Collar and is it safe?
No. Despite what you may have heard, despite public perception, the e-Collar and the Shock Collar are not the same. An e-Collar does not spark, sock, burn or generate heat of any kind. It cannot cause physical damage to your dog.
The original "Shock Collars" were discontinued between 2008-2010, when Shock Collar manufacturers replaced the technology in their collars with the same technology used by physiotherapists in TENS units. TENS stands for Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation, which uses a low voltage current to stimulate nerves.
Modern e-Collars have a variety of settings, some, like the Dogtra's go from 1-100+ while others, like the Garmin go from 1 to 7, with 3 cycle settings at each level. The cycle settings control the frequency of the signal. The higher the setting (low, medium or high) the faster the cycle. When the e-Collar sends a signal, like a TENS unit, it will cause a muscle contraction that gets the dogs' attention. The stimulus distracts the dog with a briefly unpleasant sensation, but it does not harm you. Nor does the sensation from the remote training collar harm the dog. The stimulus is designed to get the dog’s attention to help the dog refocus.
Below is a graphic showing the relative energy comparisons of Electronic Training Devices vs other common sources of static impulses. You can see, the energy output is very low compared to even devices used by humans.
Shock Collars on the other hand had one setting, hot, with a very high energy output, and they did deliver a significant shock to a dog. The only way to regulate the current going to the dog was to replace the conductive ends that press against the dogs neck. It was a Shock Collar and it was used for proofing, corrections or punishment. It was pure negative reinforcement and positive punishment training.
How can the e-Collar be used properly?
Modern e-Collars have 2 settings: Momentary and Continuous. The momentary setting sends a single signal for 1/25th of a second, its so fast that the first signal you send to a dog is likely to be completely missed. Continuous mode stays on until you release the button.
The e-Touch system uses a low to medium level of stimulation. The first part of the process is to find the dogs appropriate stimulation level. The appropriate level is when the dog can notice the stimulation in a way that brings his attention back to the lessons at hand. Instruction then proceeds using a combination of Momentary taps, done to a slow and steady cadence and/or Continuous stimulation for specific tasks. Some dogs understand one better than the other, so we need to adjust our application to the needs of the dog. This communication helps the dog understand what we want them to do and helps shape behavior.
The key here is that the e-Collar serves as a prompt to perform and not a punishment. Much of the time, it's a way to refocus attention. This is, in fact, the exact way that we train dogs to stop whining. Whenever they whine, we tap at a slow and steady cadence. When they stop, we stop. When they start, we start tapping. The level of the stimulation is low enough that we are effectively nagging the dog to stop whining by making the "nagging" more uncomfortable that what they are whining about. If we are persistent and consistent, they eventually give up. It's the equivalent of your teenager telling you "Ok, I'll clean my room, just stop nagging me!"
When we get into training more complex behaviors, like proper heeling, we will often combine many methodologies together with the e-Collar to increase the effectiveness of learning. Many times we have combined food luring, marking, guidance through gentle leash pressure and the e-Collar. Food luring, marking and the leash help guide the dog to understand what we want him to do, while the tap from the e-Collar lets them know that we are going to change direction, turn, stop, sit, etc. When they feel the nag from the collar, they know to pay attention and expect a change in behavior or performance. This is generally referred to as 'balanced training.'
Contrast this with the typical and expected use of the e-Collar - as a punishment device where you teach a dog to do something and when it won't do it, you turn it up to an uncomfortable level in an attempt to inflict pain to force compliance. I have seen this usage in the hands of untrained owners and trainers, particularly in the GunDog world where dogs are high energy with strong prey drives and have not been properly taught to focus and perform calmly.
At Central Texas Dog Training, we never seek to inflict pain during the course of training.
If e-Collars are so great, why do they have a poor public image?
Three reasons: First, public perception remaining from the original Shock Collars. Second, irresponsible use by untrained amateurs who use it to punish. Unfortunately, e-Collars are commercially available and are often used incorrectly and inappropriately by amateurs not properly trained in their use. Lastly, marks or sores on the necks of dogs who have had e-collars fitted incorrectly. These are either pressure sores caused by tissue necrosis, or chafing due to rubbing b/c the collar was fitted too loosely. Necrosis, basically the same as bed sores, are the one downfall of using any collar device that can put pressure on specific points of the skin. This is not limited to e-Collars. Preventing this problem is extremely simple, the collar just needs to be rotated or moved every few hours. At Central Texas Dog Trainers, we use different collar straps than what come with these training devices. These straps have elastic bands in them to prevent too much pressure being applied to the skin and to allow a dog to rotate the collar on it's own if it is proving irritating.
In the hands of a trained professional, an e-Collar can be a humane and effective communications tool, more so than the common training methods listed above. Chain collars, prong collars and even treat training can all be more aversive than the muscle stimulations from an e-Collar.
Modern e-Collars have a Vibration setting, wouldn't that be better, more humane?
Not at all. Most dogs are terrified of the vibration setting and react to it with more fear and anxiety than they do the regular, low level settings of the e-Collar. Before being trained in the e-touch system, I first used the vibration setting on both of my dogs thinking that it would be more humane. My older GSP, a gundog used to shotgun fire and brave enough to chase down a kicking rooster, buck or wild hog, tucked his tail and bolted into his kennel. I found him there shaking like a leaf. My other dog, a 6 month old Deutsch Kurtzhaar, a very tough, fearless and stoic hunting dog line, yelped, whined and stood, trembling and pawing at the collar trying to remove it. I have never used the vibration setting on a dog since, although there are some situations where it is appropriate to use it.
Isn't just using a leash and collar, or a choke chain easier on a dog and more humane?
Absolutely not, far from it. A flat collar and a leash means that there is a focus of pressure against a dogs throat and tracheae with a definite risk of compression. This is why when dogs are pulling their owners around on walks, you can hear them gasping, wheezing and choking. A "choke chain" is better, in that it puts even pressure around the entire neck of a dog - preventing the dangers of compression on the throat, but it is almost always misused. A chain collar is meant to deliver very fast on/off corrections to a dog in a way that does not cause too much harm, but often, the force of these corrections is much more physical, with much more pressure applied to a dog's neck and spine than an e-Collar could ever apply, even on the maximum setting.
Aren't "corrections" bad?
The purpose of a correction in dog training is not to punish a dog for inappropriate or bad behavior but rather the purpose of a correction is to change a dog’s behavior to the "correct" behavior. A skilled training will know how to use the right tool and technique at the right time, depending on the dogs personality and level of distraction or arousal.
Here, the e-Collar, slip lead, chain collar, leash and a harsh tone of voice, can all be used to deliver a correction. Ed Frawly from leeburg.com (link in the references below) perhaps articulates it best:
"There are two ends of the correction spectrum. At one end are trainers who consistently give ineffective corrections that don’t change behavior. They nag their dog with non-behavior changing corrections that have little to no effect on the dog. Ineffective corrections desensitize a dog to corrections. They simply teach a dog that they don’t need to pay attention to the handler.
At the other end of the correction spectrum are those trainers who feel the need to punish a dog with a correction. These handlers can train a dog but they never develop what I consider is a deep bond with their dog. Trainers who give a prong collar correction to a dog that would have offered a behavior change with a verbal warning are abusing their dog. Trainers who nag their dog with repeated ineffective corrections desensitize their dog to corrections."
Remember this when you are walking in the park with your dog and you see an owner yanking, tugging, dragging or pleading with their dog to behave. They are offering "repeated ineffective corrections" that will just continue to desensitize their dog to proper corrections. The more they do this, the more their dog will ignore them and the more difficult it will be for a trainer to break that habit.
Isn't purely positive, clicker, toy and treat training the best and most humane?
There are many great things about clicker/marker and treat training, including being invaluable tools for shaping complex behavior and teaching tricks. While a purely positive approach works for some dogs in highly controlled environments, it may also take much longer [if ever] to extinguish problem behaviors and reinforce good behaviors, leading to higher training costs and relying much more on owners to be consistent and disciplined over long periods of time. It also can effectively leave problem behaviors unaddressed or inadvertently reinforce them. In reality, this works best for a trainer that has a consistent and focused long term plan for training a specific type of dog, in very controlled environments, on a daily basis. It is less effective for dog owners who are not professional trainers and don't always want to be training their dog.
There is a perception that all dogs just want to please you. This is not, in fact, true. There are many dogs that just want to please themselves, and when dogs have no food, treat or toy drive you have no options. When a dog has aggression or behavioral problems, food and treats will not help and an e-Collar, used properly, is a powerful tool to help resolve these issues, something not possible with positive only training. For examples of this, you may want to review the YouTube channels of Larry Khron and Upstate Canine Academy such as this.
The administration of an unpleasant sensation can be said to be a “negative” stimulus, so some trainers and dog owners may be opposed to it. However, correction with a leash, choke or pinch collar, and the withholding of food or a treat (for lack of correct performance) are also considered “negative” training. In fact withholding a food or treat reward can be considered by some dogs with high food drive to be more aversive than e-collar stimulation. Unlike these other forms of training, electric collars deliver humane communication, similar to tapping the dog on the shoulder, from a distance, without the use of a brute force leash correction that can damage the dog’s spinal cord and larynx.
We are not all-positive trainers.
Training dogs with the reward based methods is the best way to train a dog, but this work must be balanced by introducing corrections into our advanced training. All-positive dog training only works in sterile environments. To get 100% reliability on recalls under every conceivable distraction requires a dog to go through a correction phase of training. 35 or 40 years ago we used to call this the "PROOFING" stage. That simply meant that the dog needed to learn to comply under distractions. In the proofing stage we gradually increased levels of distractions to a behavior that we 110% knew the dog understood. When it failed to comply it got a correction that fit it's temperament and the situation we put the dog in. The goal being to get a behavior change that resulted in compliance.
Trainers or training companies like Petco or Petsmart that advertise all-positive dog training are a hoax. The best advice I can give is don't buy into their advertising scam - their training doesn't work.
Not only does it not work, it's dangerous in that it sets dogs and their owners up for failure and can encourage future behavioral problems. What it is, is pure marketing. It appeals to the emotions of an uneducated public, sounds fantastic to everyone who wants to believe that their dog is a little human, and so it sells. But, if you treat your dog like a human, your dog will [eventually] treat you like a dog.
If you train with an e-Collar, then won't your dog only listen when the collar is on?
Initially, yes. You need to continue its effective use until the behavior becomes conditioned and you can reduce and then remove your dependence on the collar. It should be noted, however, that this is the same challenge with food or treat based training, and training with a leash. If you don't believe me, just take your dog out to a park with other dogs and animals present and remove its leash.
James Hamm explains the e-Collar
An Overview of Remote Collar Training (they utilize the same approach that we use)