E-Collars - Common Misconceptions Addressed
First my credentials with e-collar. I was trained at a seminar given by Robin McFarlane. I have taken numerous e-collar courses from trainers with a variety of different styles (Tyler Muto, Larry Krohns, Jeff Gellman, etc). All of my personal dogs that are old enough are e-collar trained. I have successfully trained hundreds of dogs with e-collar. Equally important, I have trained many hundred more without an e-collar. I have recognized when an e-collar wasn't the correct tool and recommended against using it with individual dogs. I have trained Labs, Border Collies, Malinois, Azawakh, Taigan, Shiba Inus and everything in between with e-collar. I don't regularly preach the benefits of e-collars. I generally let people come to inquire about the tool in their own times, but I also am tired of seeing so much misinformation about the tools.
All I ask as you read through this is that you keep an open mind (or just click away now). There are so many misconceptions about how e-collar training works. Some of those are based on decades old common practice. Some of those are based on ARA propaganda that has been disseminated and believed. Some of those misconceptions are simply inexperience with them as a tool and thus a deep seated belief that you cannot do X, Y, or Z with them.
A few more clarifications before I dive in. I have layered in e-collar training with just about every behavior from Stay to Place to Leave It to Heel to Recall. With my own dogs, I primarily utilize it for recall purposes, but understand and have utilized e-collar for other purposes many times.
I came to e-collar training from a very anti-"shock" collar position. I was convinced it would never work on my dog, that it was cruel. I was gently educated differently.
E-collars should be used dynamically. Yes, you have a regular range, for most of my dogs that's below a 10 of 100. But if there is a rabbit running that level might be a 50-60 and you as a handler must understand how to adjust levels and when it is appropriate to do so.
Unless you are doing aversion training involving livestock or rattlesnakes, etc where it's the dog's (or livestock's) life on the line, e-collar should never just be put on and then stimmed high.
E-collar use can make reactive and aggressive dogs worse. You should not just stim a reactive dog on high for reacting to another dog. That is a recipe for the dog to come up the line and bite you. When dealing with behavior modification you need behavior modification protocols first before layering in an e-collar as a prompt, not as a correction.
Dogs can be too sensitive for e-collar and while it is usually possible to counter-condition a dog to stimulation, it's usually not worth the process.
There are very few e-collar brands that I will use or recommend. There are very few e-collar brands that reputable trainers and owners will recommend. If I buy a cheap e-collar (less than $100) then it is possible that you could be hurting your dog. The recommended brands at E-Collar Technologies (ECT), Dogtra, and Chameleon.
There is no other tool on the market that is as versatile for working in high distraction environments with any breed of dog and I will never regret the newfound freedom that my dogs have through e-collar training.
I have 11 week old Taigan puppies right now that have never been on a leash before. If I throw a leash on them and start walking without a thought to their feeling or comprehension of what is happening, allowing them to panic would be cruel. That doesn't make a leash cruel.
If I put an e-collar on a dog that has no concept or recall (or worse, runs the other way when they hear the words "Come Here"), call the dog, when the dog doesn't come stim them high, then yes. What you're doing is cruel. No arguments from me there.
Teaching a dog recall through games and food and praise and petting. Catching when your dog comes to you and praising it. Practicing recall in a low distraction environment, then a higher distraction environment, on a long line, then on a leash drag, then off leash in safe environments, and then finally layering in low level e-collar to help support the solid foundation you've built. That is not cruel.
"But that's not how everyone does it! I saw this one trainer that shocked a brand new dog that didn't know what they were doing." Then, in a sentence, that trainer is a jerk and unethical and doesn't represent good e-collar training.
As part of my e-collar demonstration, I take a collar, turn the remote to 100, and stim myself. My muscles contract, I jolt, and that's it. And people's jaws always drop open. For the first time the other week I had a client request to feel the collar at max. And they jumped, and laughed, and asked me if that was it. E-collars can damage a dog's mental state when used incorrectly. They are not without consequences and must be used responsibly. But there are no dramatic shock burns. If you see marks from an e-collar that is almost, without exception, pressure sores from the contact points, which is something all ethical trainers should be warning you about.
There are programs that do aversion training where they utilize high stim to make a dog wary of approaching something dangerous (rattle snakes or livestock typically). Those programs are designed to help save lives. I'm not here to debate whether that's cruel or not, but it is about the only exception to the processes I'm discussing.
My dog is too sensitive
I was in this camp. Ash, my Saluki, was so sensitive when we first got him that I would take out treats and he would go hide under the table. I desperately wanted to improve his recall but hesitated because I was so worried that e-collar would shut him down.
I trained Anubi first because he had a solid, positive recall foundation. Ash had all the same foundation and was perfect on a long line, but if you accidentally dropped the line, he was gone. I taught Anubi e-collar work and he was sensitive to it (his working level is usually 1-5 out of 100) he didn't shut down and very quickly understand the tingling sensation meant check-in/listen.
We had some new apprentices learning about e-collar work and I offered Ash as a practice dog. I watched as these apprentices built a positive response to low stimulation and then as they started proofing the behavior - other dogs in the room, mid-play with other dogs, outside in the field with another dog chasing a ball. And again, while he had a low working level like Anubi, he never shut down and he responded positively to the clarity in the signal of the low level stimulation.
I have seen this time and time again. An owner who thinks their dog will be too sensitive find that it was exactly the tool they were looking for. That being said, I have recommended against using e-collars on handler soft dogs (pretty much exclusively border collies) where even on a level 1 (of 100 or 127) the dog would melt and submit to the pressure. And for those dogs, ones that never really left their owner's side anyway, e-collar was the wrong tool. But I would say that is under 1% of all the dogs I've worked.
My dog is too stubborn/prey driven
This was something that I worried about, training e-collar with sighthounds. Everyone I talked to told me that while I could get recall with e-collar it still would be reliable. They'd see game and they'd take off and blow through the e-collar (even if it were maxed).
I have called my dogs off rabbits, birds, squirrels, deer, and elk (yes. elk). I have been able to call them off that game both with and without e-collar usage. Of my adults, five of them have been allowed to run jack rabbits. They have the prey drive. They also understand the circumstances in which they are allowed to chase.
If I know there's even a slight chance I'm going to encounter prey when I am first teaching a dog e-collar work then that dog stays leashed, often a 6' leash, not even a long line. I know Azhidar the Taigan has a lot of prey drive, even as a young dog. It's only recently where he's been allowed off leash in places we might encounter game and he's been less reliable the last couple outings, so it's likely he'll go back to working on a long line for awhile as he works through his adolescents feelings.
People will tell you that you cannot proof a dog not to run game. I have eight examples (including Argos who has insane prey drive) of my own dogs, of a variety of breeds, of a variety of temperaments, of a variety of backgrounds that not only recall game but don't chase it in the first place. You can proof it, but it has to be done methodically and carefully.
And equipment matters, my friends. If my dogs are in a tracking collar, on a mechanical slip leash, in a coursing blanket they know they'll be chasing some jack rabbits. If they are on their e-collars in an area we regularly walk off leash, wearing their regular jacket or hunting vest they understand they are never allowed to chase game. Be consistent with your contexts and they will understand with enough practice and training.
It won't work on my breed
I touched on this in the beginning, but I've trained just about every type of dog known to humankind with an e-collar and I have literally never seen a dog not respond to it. I have a pretty large sample size and I've never had a dog not understand tactile low level stimulation. Not ever.
I was a skeptic too. I promise. I really thought with my Saluki that I'd have found the exception. Or the deaf terrier with prey drive off the charts. But again, with solid foundation I find most dogs understand the concept much more readily than they even understand a leash.
I'm not going to punish my dog for coming to me
Please go read how good e-collar training works. If not from me than from someone more talented than myself on the subject. I describe the process of teaching recall foundation without e-collar above. To layer in e-collar I start in a quiet room with the collar all the way turned down and slowly start raising the collar level by level (remembering that the minimum number of working levels on a collar I recommend is 100) until I notice the dog responding. If they look at me I mark (click or verbal) and the dog returns to me for a treat. And we repeat. By the end of the first session the dog should feel the stim and immediately come looking for their treat. It's not true marker work, there's other uses for the collar, but I want the e-collar pressure to be associated with treats.
"Well you can counter-condition any aversive so a dog enjoys it. You still shouldn't use aversives."
First, it's the learned that decides what's aversive. Watch a talented trainer start a dog on e-collar for the first time and you won't see any discomfort from the dog. You may see an ear flick or a head swivel, maybe a dog will shake off. But I have seen dogs respond more aversely to a confusing verbal cue than I see most dogs respond to low level stim. If the dog does not find the stimulation aversive that's what's important. What should be happening is that you're creating a tactile cue, just like with light leash pressure, or tapping the dog physically on the shoulder. It's a conditioned response, just like verbal signals are.
E-Collars work but they'll never work in ___________ situation
I see this statement all the time. Usually with sighthounds and terriers (I've trained a whole lot of terriers on e-collar). People state that they will never be able to call a dog off pursuit. And here's the thing, I've never seen with thorough adequate training, that this is the case. I have never seen a dog blow through e-collar and very very rarely have I ever needed to max a collar.
I've called a deaf Parson Russell Terrier off a rabbit. With proper training, every dog I have ever trained on e-collar has been able to be called off pursuit. Do you still need to be careful? Definitely, there are plenty of places I would never let my dogs off leash. And your level of comfort with letting dogs off leash needs to be in proportion with your skill as an e-collar handler.
My dog's recall is so good I don't even need stim, just beep or tone!
I just said that every dog I've ever trained to e-collar has been able to be called away from pursuit. That applies only in regard to stim. There have been times, at owner's requests that I trained a dog to recall to either vibrate or tone. There's actually a pretty wide variety of problems utilizing vibrate and tone instead of stimulation (stim).
On most collars the vibrate and tone are at static levels. Which means the dog's adrenaline level spikes and you can't adjust the vibrate and tone up so the dog can feel it despite the adrenaline. Even more common of a problem, you can't adjust the levels down when you're working in a low distraction environment.
Put your cell phone right behind your ear against your skull and activate vibrate. It isn't terribly pleasant. I have found that true of most dogs too - vibration against their skull, right next to their ears is often quite aversive. And while I find tone is less often aversive, often a bright tone right next to dog's sensitive ears can also be aversive. However, from a human perspective vibrate and tone seem so mundane because we hear them on a daily basis and we aren't thinking about how the dog views them. Can you condition these sensations so that the dog associates them with food or a positive response? Yes, usually you can. But I ask, why? At that point why not utilize stimulation which has a much wider dynamic range?
Additionally, with a green dog, because the stimulation serves simply as a tactile cue, I usually will tap at their working level as I verbally recall them every time because I want the dog to be as fluent with tactile cues as they are with verbal ones.
E-collars make dogs more aggressive
This is the charge you most often hear against e-collars and in this case, it's not all untrue. Inherently, does it make stable, well-adjusted dogs aggressive? Absolutely not. Can it make true aggressive dogs or frustrated or fearful reactive dogs worse? Absolutely yes.
When a dog gets into defense or fight drive where they fear for their own safety I wouldn't use e-collar if you paid me. Think about if you're watching a scary movie and someone comes up behind you and taps you on the shoulder. Often what happens is you jump out of your skin, maybe shriek, and swat at the person. In a dog a similar equivalent would be a reactive dog staring at another dog intently and then applying an e-collar or leash correction. That correction comes out no where for the dog and they often respond as if they'd been attacked, all their adrenaline pumping. This is most often where you see a reactive dog with no bite history bite their own owner.
It's why I never recommend prongs and e-collars as a first step in those cases. Instead we work on a counter conditioning and desensitization plan in a controlled environment. We recondition the dog's emotional response from negative to more neutral (or ideally positive). We give the dog alternative behaviors.
Only at that point will I add an e-collar and only as a tactile cue, never as a correct (for the reasons mentioned above). For dogs that have all the training foundations, what should happen is the low level stim should act as a tactile grounding cue to help the dog remember to avoid rather than confront. Even so, it is extremely easy to implement this incorrectly and so I generally recommend against it.
E-collars can't be used with nervous, insecure dogs
I actually appreciate e-collars with nervous dogs under specific circumstances. One of the issues with nervous dogs that are prone to bolting is that they kick into a flight response and get so focused on fleeing it's hard to give them a verbal cue that they actually hear and respond to.
Like with reactive and aggressive dogs above, I don't start right away with e-collar. I get started teaching confidence building exercises such as environmental agility, targeting behaviors such as place, desensitization, counter conditioning and more. Much of this training often focuses on giving the dog a target that they can focus on instead of the scary trigger. In this way, low level e-collar can provide a grounding focal point for the nervous dog. But again, this must be taught slowly and carefully.
E-collars should only be a last resort
I think of this entire list of misconceptions, this is my least favorite, because it denies dogs that are struggling access to all the tools in the tool box. It also means you can't teach e-collar work preventatively to help prevent chasing from ever occurring (just one example). A behavior is much harder to break once it's been practiced and develops into a habit.
It took me a year before I was comfortable letting Ash, who had a history of escaping and chasing, off leash. It took me six months before I was comfortable letting Tabiri off leash with no drag line. He didn't have terrible habits, but his recall wasn't fluent when he came to me either. Meanwhile, I started letting Gem off leash after two months because she came to me with a solid recall foundation, though she'd never hiked off leash.
Life is so much easier when you teach your dog what you want and reinforce that habit early. And when using a modern e-collar correctly, there's zero reason for it to be a last resort. To me it's almost like saying you'll only use a long line as a last resort because it could be dangerous if you don't manage the line correctly (which is true). Make the tool part of your training plan from the beginning and it is much easier to get proofed, fluid behaviors.
So much of the dialogue around e-collar training is wrapped up in emotion. The idea that someone would want to shock their dog. And yes, if you look at the technology from the 90s, it was indeed shock collars. You were training with blunt force because there weren't more advanced nuanced pieces of technology around yet. I don't blame people for being leery because the process used to be:
*Fido doesn't come*
*handler shocks dog*
*Fido comes or process repeats*
And that's not what e-collar training should be in this day and age. Do I use e-collar every time I go out with my dogs? No, most days I don't touch the buttons at all. And that's how it should be with trained, proofed dogs. But if something happens - my dog gets the zoomies and takes off into the brush, we flush a deer, or whatever else, I have the e-collar there as a back up, a seatbelt. And it's such amazing peace of mind.
If you are interested in utilizing an e-collar, please find a trainer who is well versed in low level e-collar work rather than trying to do the training yourself. It really does make a world of difference in how the training process goes.
Below I've included two videos of me starting e-collar work with my personal dogs. The first is Tabiri who had a history of being inconsistent with his recall. Second is Gem who came to me with a solid history of recall. I am tapping the stimulation button when I raise the remote in the air.