Updated: Nov 30, 2020
We arrived at my family's timeshare on the Olympic Peninsula. We have 5+ miles of essentially private beach. It has always been on of Ash's favorite places, even when he had to go there on a long line. But this time, Ash and I had been training recall hard for six months. We head down the bluff and onto the beach. I check his collar to make sure it's on securely and then take off his leash. As expected, Ash bursts forward with enthusiasm, completely deaf to anything and everything else other than the joy of running. He runs in large, looping circles as Anubi, Amidi, and Argos alternately join him, wrestle, and sniff around the beach. Finally, after he's gotten his exuberance out, I call him. He doesn't listen. I'm not surprised. I turn the stimulation level on his e-collar higher one level at a time, reaching almost 20 levels above his typical working level before his head swivels back toward me and he comes bounding up. I treat him heavily and then turn his e-collar down to roughly 10 above his usual working level and then send him out to run again.
He spend five days running free on that beach. He had never been off leash (intentionally) without dragging a leash before that weekend. E-collars have changed Ash's life. They've changed my life too. My Azawakh have always been easy off-leash, but I hated having to bring Ash on-leash to off-leash hiking trails, I hated leaving him behind instead, and I hated even more that his life was clearly suffering because he couldn't do his favorite thing in the world freely: running. Since that week, we've never looked back and all my dogs and myself are immeasurably happier because I accepted my biases for what they were and tried e-collar training.
I worked in a busy, balanced training facility for four years. Balanced dog training is the concept that utilizes both positive rewards (food, praise, toys, etc) and aversives (No, prong collar, squirt bottle, etc) and bases their approach on the individual dog in front of them. While I was working at the facility there were some concepts that and techniques I didn't agree with, even once I has thoroughly educated about the topics. More commonly, though I came to understand why certain tools are utilized, even when they look scary or inhumane.
The biggest turn around in my thought process was absolutely in regard to e-collars (electric collars). These are also referred to as radio collars, stim collars, or shock collars. There are some nuances to the individual terms, but ultimately the concept is the same. Initially the concept of using "shock collars" on any dog was horrifying. But it turns out, and this has happened so often in my life, I didn't understand the tool or the proper usage.
Now, think about a dog that isn't coming. Before letting them outside, you put an e-collar on them. You call the dog. They don't come. You "zap" the dog, you can see the dog jump and twitch, hear the dog yelp. Because the dog doesn't know what you want, the dog starts to flinch away. Then run away. You "shock" the dog again and again until finally the dog slinks back to you. Isn't that inhumane? Sure is. Good thing that's not proper e-collar usage.
There are various, humane usages of e-collar training. I want to give an overview of my favorite technique. This is my favorite because it gives the dogs the most fluent understanding of the e-collar while also positively conditioning the collar so dogs have a positive association with it. Firstly, just like almost everything we buy as consumers, it starts with a quality product. Sure I could buy $20 shoes that hurt my feet and replace them every 4 months. But instead, you can buy $100 shoes that fit
well, don't hurt, and you won't need to replace for a year. The exact same principals apply with e-collars. When my facility started utilizing e-collars more, after several seminars, we would use any brand a client brought us (often $30 ones). Overtime, we came to realize that it's not worth teaching a dog with an e-collar without a quality brand. After experiencing a wide variety of brands, we landed on only using E-Collar Technologies (ECT) including their popular Educator line and Dogtra. These were brands that had a large dynamic range of stimulation levels (100+ levels), had a stimulation profile that wasn't painful, have good range 1/3 mile+, waterproof, user friendly remote, vibrate, tone, and stimulation options, multiple dog options, and more.
Once you have quality equipment, find a quality trainer to help teach you the ropes. It's easy to doubt yourself or have trouble finding the right levels without having an experience hand to help you through those issues. With e-collar training, my go to method will generally be to use stimulation (stim). Yes, that means I'm "shocking" my dogs. Just like your physical therapist is shocking you with a TENs machine. The general concept is exactly the same: low level electrical current to stimulate muscles. The goals are different, however, While a physical therapist is looking to promote healing, a dog trainer is looking to give the dog a physical "tap on the shoulder" to get their attention from a distance.
Why not vibrate or tone? Most e-collars only have one level of vibration, which means that when a dog is particularly excited, they likely won't feel the vibration at all. Additionally, vibration can be far more naturally aversive to most dogs compared to stimulation. Thus is can be difficult to create positive associations with vibration (don't believe me, imagine putting your vibrating phone on your dog's head and ears and they'd likely duck away). Tone has many of the same problems as vibration: the tone isn't loud enough when the dog is highly excited and when the dog is relaxed a loud beep right next to a dog's sensitive ears can be quite aversive. Thus, I prefer stim, which has much more granularity on most collars.
To positively condition the dog to the collar I put the collar on the dog. The biggest mistake most people make (myself included) is to put the collar on too loose so the contact points aren't touching. If the contact points aren't touching, the collar can do its job, just it needs to fit more snugly than most collars. For those with long coated or dense double-coated dogs they make longer contact points you can put on the collar (ECT collars include longer contact points even). A dog's neck expands and contracts as they excercise and relax, so I very much reccommend getting a collar strap with a bungee component so the collar expands and contracts with the dog but maintains a good fit. Once I have a solid fit I make sure the collar is on, make sure the remote is on and get to work.
In a quiet space, I'll start at 1 (out of 100+) and have the dog on leash. I'll walked the opposite way the dog is going, let the leash go taught, and just start tapping the stimulation button with a regular rhythm. Most (though not all) dogs won't be able to feel a level 1, so I start going up a level at a time until the dog has a noticeable change in behavior (turns toward you, shakes head, cocks an ear, scratches, etc). Once the dog moves toward me the tapping ceases and I give the dog a reward (often a treat paired with praise and petting). Then we repeat the process. If the dog starts to get distracted because the environment changes (someone walks in/by, a dog barks, someone starts cooking steak in the kitchen, etc) then I will change the level I am working at to be higher until the dog responds again. If the dog really starts tuning in, then I drop the level until I stop getting a response to my tapping. Notice how dependent this is on the handler understanding and seeing dog behavior. This is why it's so important to do this process with a trainer who knows what they're looking for to keep your dog comfortable and happy working.
In these early stages I am heavily rewarding every time the dog gives me attention for tapping. Once the dog is readily moving toward me as soon as I tap, then I start adding a verbal "Dog's Name, Come Here." I don't add a verbal cue until I am quite certain the dog is going to do the behavior when physically cued by the collar. From there I start to increase my criteria (like I do for all training). If I'd been working inside on a six foot leash, I work outside on a six foot leash or inside on a ten foot leash. I only try to change one criteria on the dog at a time to make the learning process seamless. My goal is to get to where I am working successfully outside with the dog on a 25'+ long line. I progress to the dog dragging the long line (so if we progressed too quickly and the dog doesn't come, I can just step on the line from a long distance away), then dragging a shorter line 6-10', then working off leash (I tend to test this in a fenced area first).
And now to address some common objections: "But my Malinois or Saluki or Pit Bull or Jack Russel Terrier has too much drive/prey drive to respond to an e-collar." To the first question: when a collar is properly conditioned, the dog should respond to it even while they are in drive (extremely excited). That's why the dynamic range of a collar (how many levels of stimulation it has) is so important. If a lion is chasing me and you tap lightly on my shoulder as you run alongside me, I'm not going to feel that. I have too much adrenaline level. You're going to have to shake my whole arm to somehow get my attention away from the lion. In contrast, if I'm in a library and you shake my whole arm to get my attention instead of just tapping my shoulder, I'm going to be pretty irritated with you. Getting your working level right based on your dog's excitement is the most important (and most difficult part of good e-collar training). You have to be as dynamic as the dog's energy and emotions.
"My Border Collie or Whippet or Vizsla is too sensitive for me to work with an e-collar". Yes, dog's can be too sensitive or fearful to jump right into e-collar training (or for it to ever be the right choice). Those dogs often are the dogs that struggle not to flinch from the crisp noise of a clicker as well though. With time, they can be positively conditioned if you wish. Alternatively, sensitive breeds tend to be clingier as well, so the ability to physically tap your dog on the shoulder from a distance might be less necessary. I will say though that most people underestimate their dog's resiliency. Ash is a dog that used to hide when you went and got treats because he hated the pressure of training. But he took to e-collar training like he was born to it.
"It'll damage my relationship with my dog". Never, not ever, have I had a better relationship with Ash. He gets to off leash hike and lure course (because the recall behaviors have transferred nicely even when I'm not using the collar) and hang out in friends' unfenced yards. All of those were things he never got to do before. He comes running to me when I hold up his collar and thrusts his head into the collar. And then when I start putting the other dogs' collars on he tries to put those ones on too. My dogs see their e-collars as their "Go Places" or "Go With" collars. It means that we're going to go do something fun and exciting.
You don't have to utilize e-collars if you don't want. I'm never going to pressure anyone into it because I honestly believe that you should do what's right for you and your dog. And don't feel like just because you use an e-collar to train that you'll be stuck using one forever. I have called my dogs off rabbits and an elk (they weren't chasing it just interested) without using their e-collars. All of my Azawakh and Argos can be off-leash without needing their e-collars. Honestly, Ash is almost to that point. However, particularly when hiking, I always always put their e-collars on as a backup. I love having that feeling that they're wearing a seat belt just in case.
E-collars aren't a substitute for not training your dog. They're an invaluable tool for some people to help give their dogs more freedom.
One final note: e-collars can be utilized in a similar manner as described above to teach behaviors other than recall. I do use mine to help with Ash's leash reactivity for instance and they can be helpful when doing long distance sits and down practice. But the reason I use them is for off-leash freedom for my sighthounds.