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Electronic collars (or e-collars) are one of the most maligned tools in dog training, and one of the tools most likely to be referred to as “abusive” by single-quadrant (often referred to as pro-positive) trainers and their advocates. Typically, we see e-collars referred to universally as “shock collars”, for example in the recent banning of specific tools by a major retailer.
When we talk about e-collars we are referring pretty exclusively to the ecollar technologies brand of tools, which are based in a TENS system and have a simple vibrate setting. For clarity, we do not use non-TENS (shock) units, and recommend against bark collars.
If I (Ejay) had to give up all of my other training tools, from collars to cookies to leashes to even my beloved crates- I would go to the ends of the earth for my damn e-collar.
Let’s talk about it. First and foremost, RT does not train on a constant pressure pattern. What the hell does that mean? Many trainers use a method popularized by Larry Krohn, in which you hold a low level stimulus down on an e collar until the desired behavior is performed. So for example, I may give my pup a command, and then hold the e-collar on a stim setting until I get that command. I personally am not the biggest fan of this, as someone who works with two primary groups of people- pet owners with several behavioral modification needs, and service dog clients. I understand the methodology and even to a degree why it works so well. However, I don’t think that it is accessible to many owners not incredibly savvy in the nuances of dog training, and honestly what we see often is an increase in obedience compulsion rather than a development of a dog to think and choose the wanted behaviors.
Instead, we use a technique that I began developing ten years ago, and have continued to expand upon as our clients and colleagues have grown with us. In short, we pair the sensation of pressure (first and often exclusively on vibrate or stimulation levels under 20) with a verbal correction marker, and command repetition. The process of conditioning a dog on this tool will often time take us weeks, and we refuse to rush. The goal is for the dog to have a fair sensation attached to our verbal correction which increases reliability with the initial request and provides a reasonable interruption. But that is only one aspect of utilizing this valuable communication tool. For example recently Cara began adding a positive reward marker on her e-collar for Jonas, which is a technique that I have also used for deaf and blind dogs who need an additional communication marker. She learned about this not from me, but from her own work with another trainer. In our discussions, she snapped a puzzle piece into place for me around advancing many of our clients use of the tools, and even the way I use the tool for my own dogs versus how I am teaching, specifically our more advanced students. This is to say, nothing is fixed in time or space when it comes to teaching dog training and we are allowed to evolve our methodologies even if the techniques we have developed already seem “sufficient”. The use of e-collars should change substantially as the technology changes. It hasn’t changed as much as it should based on our understanding of dog cognitive processes.
When the e collar is maligned by other dog professionals, or even pet owners, it is most often done so in a way that assumes that all usage of the collar is punitive, and pain based. I take no joy in harming dogs and have the constitution of a bowl full of jello if my personal dogs experience so much as too short of a nail. I also have this deep, abiding respect for the emotional and intellectual intelligence of dogs, and understand that a more simplistic method of training that offers only food or the absence of food is undermining the engagement relationship necessary for many dogs to be successful in learning. I do not think that applying low levels of stress to a dog, including physical stress, such as a simple vibrate sensation is abusive by any stretch of the imagination.
Why the ecollar is maligned is pretty simple to follow- the technology has changed over time, consumers have had access to cheaply made, more painful tools, with no real instruction. Dog training is often considered a luxury service full of charlatans. It seems so simple- the assumption that people use these tools to cause pain because they are frustrated with dogs and so called “certified” trainers would never do such a thing.
The truth is that nothing is ever that simple.
Ruff Translating proudly identifies itself as committed too allyship to owners of reactive dogs and to owners self-identifying with a disability. These two (sometimes overlapping) groups represent a very large consumer population for dog training companies. Service dogs, while representing a very thin profit line also cost upwards of twenty thousand dollars for initial training, and likely additional expenses for mantainence training. Reactive dogs, particularly those with bite risk potential may honestly spend close to the same over the lifetime of a dog seeking to work on behavioral modification. The focus of our topic today is a tool, but the economics can’t not be overlooked. It is extremely expensive to train either a reactive dog or a service dog.
Even with substantial investment, many of those same owners still find themselves on our doorstep. There are a lot of tools and tech that we offer, but the least of which is not the ecollar that makes our program different. Ultimately, if folks are going to invest in us and our methods, we really want them to be able to execute the same level of response as we do with their dogs.
E-collars are adaptive. We can personalize the settings to each individual handler, and dog based on their timing capabilities, the behavior we are seeking to resolve or train and the individual learning style of both parties. Moreover, e-collars are an equalizer, allowing clients with physical limitations the ability to still continuously communicate with their dogs.
Here is an example: We are training a service dog in training who has recently discovered that his handler can not chase him. This is very exciting to the eager pup, and has resulted in him basically baiting his handler with some spicy behavior and then avoiding her completely because... he can. This is not malicious on the dog’s part, just part of the training process even though he is overall a very engaged student. Dogs are dogs though, and he is also in a developmental milestone stage that is notoriously sassy (basically a dog teenager). What is the solution here? If my client were fully a member of the Abled community, I would suggest a house leash, guiding the pup away from the unwanted behavior and redirecting to another activity. My suggestion remains the same here- only in this case my client will hit a small button on a transmitter, sending a vibrate sensation to her dog. The e-collar is non-directional, so the sensation is just step one, her pup has been taught that the feeling of vibrate is a pause- and we need to stop and pay attention to our handler. It is not an immediate solution, but it does allow a handler to have her service dog in her home, and reinforce the training we are working on without undue physical burden. Dog training has become ableist in nature. We expect that if someone is to own a dog, they must be able to physically overpower, lure, exercise, understand etc etc. This is not reasonable, I may argue to anyone, but particularly to those of us with some types of disabilities. Folks with disabilities deserve the companionship of a pet dog too, and also deserve service dogs if they need them as part of their treatment plan. If this means that they have access to tools that allow them agency in communication, we as trainers have the responsibility to modify our training programs to teach those tools. Read that again.
The above scenario is just one example of a client needing a way to tell her dog “no” with the additional layer of mobility challenges. We could also be talking about clients who have language differences (as in, some folks have periods of being non-verbal due to a variety of health conditions), clients who can’t visually see what/where their dog is up to, clients with sensory processing issues, etc etc etc. There are countless variations of the human condition where getting a hold of your dog (for attention, behavior interruption, etc) would be made much easier by using a push button than basically any other tool in training.
Consider reactive dog clients, also. Rescue dogs are incredibly popular options for bringing a pup into your household. Unfortunately, behavior screening, rehabilitation and support are less available then they should be for those who rescue dogs. ALL dogs need training, and we see plenty of non-rescue dogs come to us for behavior modification. But there is a persistent myth of “if you just love them enough” a reactive rescue dog will be cured of their unwanted, sometimes dangerous behaviors. Love and patience only go so far for a dog who is so shut down they can’t walk down a street because of extreme fear, or a dog so reactive they are actively asphyxiating at the end of a leash. You still need both, but also professional help. I firmly believe it is an unrealistic situation for many handlers to learn timing, luring, marking etc while their dog is mid-reaction at peak level. We are still teaching all of those things, we are also just teaching them through a very clear and concise method that allows space in the reactions for the owner to regroup when it is done properly and giving a tool that allows physical control without physical overpowering. This is is about safety, and for many handlers- the ability to take their dogs, whom they love, outside at all- not just about interrupting the unwanted behavior.
An e-collar is not going to be our first or primary recommendation in any training case, from reactive to service dog. There are many prerequisites and assessments that my team makes before we move into teaching an e-collar, partly because the method that I have developed requires a certain amount of baseline command response and comprehension. But once we do- I can tell you without hesitation- that it makes an incredible amount of difference. Dogs that we have worked with for over year, who have been unable to function around other dogs or even strangers are able to have play groups, attend social events, and have a 100% reliability with recall. The ability of an owner to be in constant communication and reinforcement with their dog is life changing in terms of consistency.
I am tired of arguing about e-collars, about defending their usage, explaining how we do what we do, and why. Mostly because the opposition is inherently rooted in ableism and the tool itself has been unceremoniously laid claim to by trainers from a police background. You do not have to be a hard line, law and order trainer to appreciate the value of an e-collar. But you do have to be ableist to believe that there is never a use for one. Adaptive equipment, such as paging your dog using a safe and effective technology should not be controversial. But it is. And it is high time we start talking really about why rather than hiding behind animal welfare straw houses.