Let’s Talk About Electric Collars
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Is the trainer you are considering trying to convince you that the best way to train any dog is with an electric collar? Are you considering getting an electric collar, or hiring a trainer that uses electric collars in their training program? Well, this is the article for you. YOU ARE PROBABLY ABOUT TO MAKE A HUGE MISTAKE, AND WASTE A TON OF MONEY.
I NEVER recommend that someone use an electric collar as the primary and initial method for training a dog. I never train a dog from scratch using an electric collar, and I never will. And I think that you should be warned that many of the so-called “force free” / “leash free” dog trainers out there are going to try and sell you on the use of an electric collar for your puppy or adult dog. I have studied the use of electric collars, I have owned electric collars and I have years of experience with using electric collars on a variety of dogs for a variety of training issues, so I can speak from personal experience. As a general rule, I don’t use them any more. I rarely agree to work with students who want to try an electric collar, because they should be only used as recommended by the manufacturers: for advanced dogs when you’ve reached a point where you need this specialized tool for some very specific objectives, and you’ve taken the time to seriously evaluate the upside and downside of going this route and determined it is the most humane alternative training approach remaining to you. You need to be very far along in the training to warrant using such a training tool, and I need to see that you have the right attitude and sufficient skills before you make this transition in your training program.
Further, NOT ALL DOGS DO WELL ON ELECTRIC COLLARS, AND FOR SOME DOGS THEY CAN’T HANDLE THEM, EVEN ON THE LOWEST SETTINGS. That is even true of the new ones that just use vibrations! People who want one as a quick fix or to punish their dogs aren’t the types of people who should be using an electric collar, in fact, they probably aren’t the type of people that should be owning or training a dog at all. If you are being ’sold’ by a trainer on using one on your novice dog… BEWARE! Shop somewhere else.
Advanced Obedience Only: Electric collars should be used for advanced obedience, not for behavior modification. Electric collars should be used for distance control for a trained dog, for enforcing obedience commands. They should not be used for house training, manners, aggression, chewing, digging, fighting, anxiety, fear, jumping, pulling on a leash, phobias, strange behaviors, food aversion, whining or crying, barking, separation anxiety, hyperactivity, etc.
I use electric collars on very few dogs. In those circumstances, the dogs are already well trained, the owner is in agreement that we go this route and they have been instructed by me each step of the way, we are typically working on more distance control (such as when the dog is 100 yards or more away from the handler), the dog has been tested and isn’t showing any negative effects, we are putting the final polish on solidifying each of the trained behaviors, and we have determined that this is the best course for the welfare of the dog.
Long before that, we’ve done tons of fun and challenging drills, and used lots of treats, games, praise, petting, and leash work. The dog’s behaviors look pretty fine (exact & peppy, good endurance and attentiveness, and a broad range of skills), the dog is happy and eager for more training, and we’ve taken the traditional methods about as far as they will go with that dog. This is only for an advanced dog with an advanced handler / owner. In addition, I won’t make the recommendation unless I know the owners, they are good to their dogs, they have developed excellent handling skills and they are ready to go into the most advanced levels of training. There is no way I just spring an electric collar onto a novice dog or novice dog owner.
There are a number of trainers out there that specialize in electric collar training. A good example of a qualified electric collar trainer is Jim Dobbs. Jim Dobbs has been the official spokesperson and trainer for the Tri-Tronics electric collar company. He is primarily a hunting dog trainer, but there are many things you can learn from him and his approach. His methods are those endorsed by the manufacturer. After I explain his training method to you in this article, I want you to then compare it to what other trainers you might be considering hiring are trying to sell you. Further, I want you to consider whether you are qualified to just go out and buy an electric collar and start using it yourself without some expert instruction.
Because the term “electric collar” is associated with the negative image of using a “shock collar”, professionals tend to use the term “remote trainer”. In this article, I’ll use “electric collar” because I have no need to be politically correct. The collar is what it is, and when used properly in very limited circumstances, is an appropriate tool in the training of some dogs. [Also, don't be fooled... some "electric collar trainers" will promise they are only going to use the "vibrate" setting on their collars while you board the dogs with them for lessons... BEWARE... be skeptical... be very skeptical. The vibration settings are typically used AFTER the dog has associated the vibration with the stimulation of the collar, and then it is just as stressful on the dog as if the dog had the stimulation.]
Here are the main principles endorsed by THE MANUFACTURER’S OWN REPRESENTATIVE on how to use these collars. The manufacturer SHOULD know best how to use their technology, right? So, let’s go over a couple of these principles.
Teach The Commands First
If you read the Tri-Tronics book on electric collar training, you are already 63 pages into the 250 page book before you put the electric collar on your dog. Again, note that the entire book is about obedience commands, not fixing behavioral problems. By then, you have already socialized your pup, taught the basic commands (Sit, Down, Come, Heel, Get in your crate, taught directional commands of left and right, the Look command, Find It, etc.), taught puppy retrieves, taught the Forced Retrieve, taught the pup to walk on a leash, and introduced whistle commands (for hunting dogs). Or, look at the photos of the dogs that are being introduced to the electric collars in the book: They are all at least 6 months old, having been trained by an expert, and most are nearly a year old. Same is true with the dogs used in the Tri-Tronics training video.
The manufacturer states: “The dog must have a basic understanding of a command before you use the Tri-Tronics collar to reinforce compliance with that command. For pups, use the food reward method. Then use a leash to reinforce the basic commands in order to introduce the dog to the idea that it can ‘turn off’ mild discomfort. This will give the dog a smooth transition to the electric collar.”
That is why, if I am going to recommend the use of an electric collar to a customer, they have already completed Basic Obedience I & II. I want the dog to clearly understand and be doing each of the required behaviors exactly and correctly as they should be performed before we lock them down permanently, and the handler /owner needs to be able to issue commands properly, too.
On the other hand, you can find trainers that use electric collars and work to have the dogs performing all the basics in under a week. Some of the ones I have found on the internet will even start very young pups with an electric collar! The first time I heard of this kind of thing, about 10 years ago, was a ‘trainer” in the Seattle area. That was the basis of his business. The next one was a fellow in California. Same approach. The business plan was always the same: train your dog to obey in less than a week, saying that other trainers waste time and just don’t have the skills to do it faster, indicating they have “secret” dog training methods that are revolutionary, over promising that they can fix just about any behavioral problem, not being up front in their marketing materials that they were electric collar trainers, and so on (Do you see the electric collars on the dogs in the pictures on their web pages? Of course not! Many will take your money, and then tell you that they are going to use the electric collars, and then there is no way to get your money back.). I’d love to see some serious credentials in the dog world, and I’d love to see the science behind these so-called “secrets”. Seems more and more of these types are showing up, and I’m wondering if there is a franchise operation or something that these folks are affiliated with since the marketing is almost identical across the nation.
With that said, I’m going to ask you a few questions, and you answer them for yourself.
1.) Why does the manufacturer not recommend doing it this way? They have been in business for decades, spent millions of dollars with engineers and scientists developing their equipment, and huge amounts of money in producing training materials, books and videos… but somehow they don’t know these so-called “secrets” that can be done with their equipment?
2.) Why would a trainer offer to train your dog in less than a week? What is that all about? Do you think it has anything to do with making the most money in the least amount of time with the least effort possible? One of the latest trends is for these guys to do ‘demonstration’ videos on YouTube.com. The few I’ve seen: the dogs have the e-collars still on, the dogs are getting zapped during the videos and not doing the obedience off leash without corrections, the dogs aren’t doing the work more than a few feet from the handlers, and the dogs aren’t doing anything nearly as difficult or precise as what an AKC dog would do, off leash, in a basic obedience competition. Why isn’t there enough foundation on the dog for the “trainer” to demonstrate some obedience work without the collar and doing a difficult routine similar to what a competition-trained dog would have to do?
3.) Why do you think it takes serious competitors in every dog sport, or guide dog trainers, or police dog trainers at least 2 years before they enter their dogs into service? For example: Guide dogs are 14 to 18 months old before the enter formal training. Since about 8 to 9 weeks of age, they have been trained in a foster family home using leash and collar on most of the basic commands and manners. They then enter an intensive 6 month program to teach them the specific skills of being a guide dog. Then, the dog is paired with their new handler, and about a month of training is required to to train the blind handler to manage the dog. By then, the dog is at least 18 to 24 months old. Police dogs are typically 2 1/2 years old before they are ready for off leash obedience. Competitive obedience dogs are typically at least 2 years old before they have their skills in place. And so on.
4.) And if you are thinking of hiring me, why would I ask you to hold off on the use of an electric collar, most likely recommending that you NEVER get one, when I could just do like some of these other trainers and send you on your way in a few days? I sure would make a lot more money if I could do fewer lessons, less driving, less time invested, and so on for the same paycheck, right? And it isn’t as if I’m not experienced in using electric collars, or have forgotten how to use them, right?
I think if the manufacturer of one of the best known electric collars in the world, and a well known trainer hired by the manufacturer, tell you to teach the commands first, using traditional methods (food, praise, games, leash and collar), then that is the way you should do it.
Take Sufficient Time
The manufacturer’s trainer, Dobbs, also says: “After putting the collar on the dog, start off with a play session before beginning any collar work. Then keep collar lessons short, and include plenty of praise and play throughout the session. Quit when you see some progress, and don’t ask for more progress in the same session. This helps the dog come to believe in itself. Don’t grind on your dog.”
Now does that sound like you should try to fully train your dog in under a week? Even Jim Dobbs doesn’t train a dog in a week. Read his book! Nor do any of the other well known hunting dog trainers that specialize in electric collar training. (I use famous hunting dog trainers as the best example, because they are pretty much the pioneers in electric collar training, and they have proven their skills in public obedience and hunting trials, and in training thousands of well known dogs for customers, using electric collars. If the top guys in the field don’t do it in a week, then why would the “trainer” you are thinking of hiring tell you he or she can do it in a week?)
In fact, Tri-Tronics recommends that you take THREE WEEKS of daily, short lessons to introduce your dog to the electric collar… doing very simple things. AFTER THAT THREE WEEKS, then start using the collar to start making the dog comply with known commands. So, at a bare minimum, you’ve spent several weeks or months, at the least, training your dog in the basic commands using traditional methods (food, leash, toys, etc.), then another three weeks introducing the dog to the electric collar, then you start working on each of the individual commands. And these sessions should be short, with small objectives, and interspersed with play sessions. ALSO, THESE COLLARS ARE TYPICALLY BEING MARKETED TO EXPERIENCED DOG TRAINERS WHO ARE WORKING WITH DOGS WHO WERE SELECTIVELY BRED TO DO HIGH LEVEL SKILLS… NOT PET BRED DOGS, BUT WORKING DOGS FROM LINES THAT HAVE CHAMPION DOGS IN THE PEDIGREE FOR GENERATIONS.
If you want to do the training properly and humanely, here’s what that means:
1.) You will have spent at least 2 months of daily lessons training teaching the basics to your dog using traditional training techniques
2.) Your dog can do most, if not all of the skills that I outline in my Basic Obedience II program, and you’ve taken the dog about as far as you can with traditional methods. The dog performs them well, up close and at a distance; the performance is peppy and correct; the dog is well socialized; the dog is mostly well mannered; and your biggest problem is enforcing obedience commands at greater and greater distances from the handler.
3.) Your dog is a minimum of 8 months of age… and trained pretty well up to this point.
Now, just like any generalization, there are always exceptions to the rule. There are occasional behavioral problems where you might use an electric collar outside these guidelines. Note that I said “behavioral problems”, not obedience training. An example might be someone who is confined to a wheelchair, and can’t get their dog to stop jumping up on the kitchen counter because the dog has gotten wise to the idea that the owner can’t move quickly enough, and the danger involved, with the dog eating something that could choke and kill the dog, warrants moving to an electric collar. Aside from that kind of thing, then the above recommendations are pretty solid.
You see, a lot of novices think you can just put on the electric collar and start working the dog… NOT EVALUATING THE DOG, NOT BEING EDUCATED IN BEHAVIORAL THEORY, AND NOT KNOWING WHAT THE HECK THEY ARE DOING. That is why I never have a customer get an electric collar until they are well into the training. Novice trainers will train with their emotions, not with logic. They will use a collar to try and punish the dog or force the dog to do things that the dog isn’t ready for. They don’t know how to train a dog with traditional methods. They don’t know when to make the transition to using the electric collar. And they don’t take the time to do it right. For novices, they’d be better off just training with treats, if they aren’t going to do it right and humanely.
Do I need to say more? There are no quick and easy answers to be found in using an electric collar, whether you are a professional, hobbyist, or novice. You should do what is right, not what is expedient.
Ivan Balabanov, a trainer / handler I respect, is one of the top dog handlers in the world, yet he is not a fan of using electric collars. He has competed at the highest levels at world competitions, and can in no way be considered a novice dog trainer. However, he recognizes their use in the dog world. In his book, “Advanced Schutzhund”, he states, and I agree:
1.) If it is used, it should only be used as a correction tool after a behavior has been learned.
2.) We must be sure the dog already knows how to respond correctly to the given command without distraction or stress. If he doesn’t, the punishment is ineffective and abusive.
3.) Be very aware that if you accidentally shock the dog at the wrong time, you can cause your training to backslide dramatically. This is another reason why electronic collars should only be used by experienced trainers.
4.) The downside of using electronic collars to solve problems is that they allow the handler to be lazy. The handler may not bother to figure out why a dog is behaving a certain way and many not try to solve the problem by using psychology which is much longer lasting and better for the dog.
By the way, if you look at his web page, or read his materials, Ivan Balabanov doesn’t claim he can fully train a dog in a week or less, and neither do I. So, why do you think that a trainer of his caliber doesn’t offer to do this with your dog? Does it mean he’s not smarter, or has less experience, or has worse technique than these trainers that promise a trained dog in a week?
Though I advocate the limited use of electric collars, I am very cautious in their use, and I follow the recommendations of the experts in my training methods. I’m not in this for a quick result or a fast buck. Dogs mean much more to me than that. Is your dog important enough to you to do the right thing?