The Gift of Freedom for my Sighthounds

Updated: Dec 1, 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.

Ash's first time running off-leash

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.

My dogs' ECT e-collars with biothane bungee collars and slip leads.

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

Remotes: Dogtra Arc, ECT Micro, Mini, and Educator

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.