Controversial: E-Collar as a training tool?

Disclaimer: In my philosophy, ALL dog training, no matter which tools you use, should be humane, animal friendly, MOTIVATIONAL, effective and contribute to a BALANCED relationship between dog and handler. Here in the ISDC we do NOT use the E-collar as a tool. I have written this article to give a better understanding of what this tool is.  This article is also written if you are new to dog training, if you are using e-collars, if you want to know a little more about them. This article will touch on many different topics of dog training and is far from complete. It’s only a brief introduction. This is my personal opinion and some of you might not agree. There are many other opinions that I respect.

If you ask the average companion dog owner about e-collar training most of the time you will get a response of “abusive, cruel, in-humane”, which in a lot of cases is fact. You will get the same answer from lobbyists in humane societies and animal rights organizations. If you ask the average Police K9 handler or working dog owner they will be familiar with the use of the E-Collar as an effective training tool. However and unfortunately not many of them do know how the properly use it and do use it as a punishment tool. And using it as a punishment tool is the WRONG thing to do.   

Although I use Relationship based training and operant positive reinforcement training as my training method I know that lots of working dog handlers believe that the E-collar can be the right tool in some cases. With this article I will try to explain the different ways these collar can be used and hope to give you a better insight about this tool.   

What is electricity? 

Before I start let me explain you what electricity is. If you ask the average person if he or she is afraid of electricity the answer will be “yes”. The reason for this is the education we were given as a child in school and by our family. Often we think of worst-case scenarios, just think about the use of electricity in the electric chair in the US used to terminate “bad guys”. However electricity is used in the medical field and in Beauty Salons. Electro-massage is used by many athletes to stimulate their muscles as part of their training program. Look at the many TV-Commercial for the electro muscle belts to loose weight. If your hearth stops we use electricity in a defibrillator to restart it. Nobody I know has problems with that.   Electricity can be good and bad. Have you ever tested a 9V battery with the tip of your tongue? If so you will know that it only give a small sensation. It doesn’t hurt nor burn you. Electro-massage doesn’t hurt nor burn you either. Within our body we have one big electric cable called the spine. Our nerves are fed with electricity in order to move our muscles. They STIMULATE the muscles.   

I like to use the term “Electro Stimulation Collar” rather than E-Collar or “Shock Collar” as the proper use of these tools is to stimulate and motivate the dog. One word of advice is you can’t use electro-stimulation if (for people the same) the dog suffers from heart problems or epilepsy.   

Stimulation and Communication 

When we look at a “stimulation Collar” we will see that these have different stimulation levels. When we look at the dog they have different drive levels. For example, one moment the dog can lay down very calm and a rabbit runs by and within half a second his drive state changes, he chases it and is in high prey drive. Dogs have the ability to change drives within half a second. In this article I assume you know what drives in a dog are and understand drive changes. The different levels on the collar will be used in most cases according to the different drive states where the dog is in.   

If we look at the way dogs communicate they are very different then humans. We use our voice and audible capabilities while dogs use non-verbal communication and touch. Dogs are pack animals and their communication system is based upon respect and the commands are very clear. There is neither confusion nor conflict. For example, when a puppy sucks to hard on a mother’s nipple, she will push it away, either pound it with her paw or nip it with her mouth. She made it very clear to the pup that it is not going to be done like that anymore. But she doesn’t beat up the puppy and the puppy has respect for her leadership. Having said that you need to know that dogs live in a dictatorship, they have a strong leader and every dog in the pack respect that. Dogs can’t live in a democracy.  The commands given by this leader (Teacher) are very clear and consistent. This is key for successful and effective dog training. Your relationship with your dog is based upon respect and trust, you respect the dog and the dog respects you, the commands given and expected behavior are very clear and you are consistent in you communication. If that communication is not consistent, trust will never happen.     

The E-Collar 

Let’s take a closer look to the “Stimulation” Collar. One important thing to understand is skin resistance to electro simulation. Resistance is measured in Ohm. When the skin of a dog is dry it has a resistance of approximately 100 Ohm. That means that the skin is quite electro-stimulant resistant.  When we moisten the skin the resistance drops to about 40 ohm. When the skin is completely wet the resistance drops almost to zero and electricity flows easily within the body. Of course every skin is different and so are the tolerance. Important here to know is that the resistance decreases when the skin is wet. (We train in the rain, snow, after swimming)   

In modern E-Collars we have two types of electro-stimulation, Continuous and Alternating. The amount of electro stimulation is measured in amps. With a power level of 80miliamps we could stimulate the dogs continuously for hours and hours.  With a power of 80– 250 milliamps, we can stimulate about 25 to 30 seconds. Continuous electricity of 300 milliamps and higher longer than 1/10 of a second could result in a dead dog. The same for alternating electro-stimulation higher than 8o milliamps, 1/10 of a second can result in a dead dog. As a dog trainer this is very important to know so you can select the right and safe collar to work with. There are a lot of cheap and dangerous collars on the market.   

If you want to learn more about the scientific view on this, Dieter Klein, a German electro scientist has written many great articles about it.   

If you look at the receiver end of the E-collar you will see two contact points. Electricity always looks for the shortness distance to travel. When the contact points are placed on the skin, electricity will travel between those two contacts using the skin as its “highway”. Dieter Klein describes that only a very small part of the skin is stimulated.   

The idea is the work with very low-to-low stimulation only. I do not believe in punishing the dog or using these collars to cause pain. Only use professional collars like Dogtra or tritronics. The ones they sell in the big pet-store are unreliable and don’t allow very suitable increments in stimulation. Between you and your dog there is a communication program and not a punishment program.   

In order to work proper, fitting the collar is very important. We place the receiver as high as possible, just under the chin and as tight that you can stick two fingers in between the neck and the collar. The collar will then lower itself a little and be “stuck” at the neck of the dog. Make sure you can’t rotate the collar and the collar stays in place when the dog shakes his head. Never leave the collar on the dog longer then 12 hours a day. That can cause necrosis. Important to know is that modern professional E-Collars can’t burn the skin of the dog, many studies have proven this. If there are skin problems is due to the improper fitting of the collar and the fact that people leave the collar on the dog longer then 12 hours.   

Stimulation versus Reward 

Important to understand is when we take a look at dog training, no matter what system, method or tools you use, a dog has only one goal and that is to better his own situation. A dog can improve his situation by two things; the first one is to increase positive things, like play, food, social contact, and the second one is to decrease or eliminate negative, unpleasant things, like hunger. In dog training these are the only two tools you need.   Stimulation for example is like the continuous pull on a leash. Reward is when the stimulation is taken away. Example of this is the “Old School” way of teaching the sit, the dog is put in a sit with continuous tension on the collar, and as soon as the dog sits correctly the tension is taken away. Another example is again “Old School” way of teaching a dog to hold a dumbbell, they put the dumbbell in the dog’s mouth, they put tension on the collar, and as soon as the dog holds the dumbbell firm, the tension is released. This is his reward. (this is “old school” methods and not the way it should be done!)   

There are six main reasons why dogs resist or fight stimulation:   

1.   The dog is not accepting your leadership, lack of respect 

2.   The dog doesn’t understand you, confused, in conflict 

3.   Boredom, I did already 200 sits, why one more 

4.   Physical Injury of the dog, pain, bodily discomfort 

5.   Avoidance because of being afraid 

6.   Opposite electronic communication from what you want, for example, teaching the out with an e-collar. The dog is biting the sleeve, you want him to out, you stimulate him, and the electricity will stimulate the muscles resulting in biting harder. Conflict in the brain and avoidance to the stimulation, resulting in frustration   

As a dog trainer you have only two seconds to find out why the dog is fighting the stimulation. That is why a lot of people have problems using the e-collar and start using it as a punishment device. Important to remember is that releasing stimulation is a reward. A dog always needs a reward in order to learn something. The time between the wanted behaviors  and reward is ideally half a second. When you can do it faster, even better. Realistically everything between half a second and two seconds will work. However the ability of rewarding faster will differentiate good dog trainers form great dog trainers and will be the difference between winning and loosing in a competition.   

Another important thing to realize is that dogs live and act and relate in the moment and that moment last about 2 to 5 seconds. In 1998 my dog Toy took 1 place in obedience in the Netherlands and I brought home a big trophy. That trophy stood in my dog’s kennel. When I in 2005 went back in his kennel, looking at the trophy and petting my dog saying “that was very good of you back then, daddy is still so proud” do you think my dog relates to the championship? NO, my dogs thinks, “hey today, daddy gives pets and massages for free!”   

In my philosophy nothing in a dog life comes for free. He always needs to work for something, that something can be food, play, bite, massage etc. Sometimes he needs to work a lot for a little and sometimes he must just look at me and can go to his food bowl and get a jackpot.   

The reward will vary according to the drive of the dog. The dog’s drive will vary and change with age and external stimulation level. When our pups are young, food will be the biggest motivator; most all pups will do anything for food. Of course there are exceptions.   

Using food is simple, but not easy.   

For example I see many trainers using food and rewarding only one behavior. They only reward when the dog looks them in the eyes.  By doing so they create little psychopathic monsters that will try to look them always into the eyes. If the dog feels that no food is coming even when they look into they eyes, the dogs become dominators by showing frustrated behaviors, like being pushy and/or excessive barking. In worst case they start to bite the handler. If you use food you will need to reward many different behaviors.   A rule of thumb is that all the basic behaviors (sit, stand, down, heel, recall, go away, go to your place) and new behaviors wanted are thought with food. More about the phases of training in my system can be found in Here.   

When it comes to E-collar training, and I want to remind you that my method is based upon Operant Positive reinforcement,  hence a dog does something you don’t want, during the unwanted action the negative reinforcer needs to be introduced without using your voice or giving any form of audible warning. Here also the rule is you have between half a second and two seconds time.     

In Bite sports another important behavior that the dog needs to learn is barking, and being quiet. And doing this in such a way it’s like a light switch, barking on, barking off. When a dog is in high drive that will take a lot of control from the dog. This means his head needs to be very clear. Remember always in training our basic principles need to be in place, RESPECT, BE VERY CLEAR, and NO CONFLICT AND NO CONFUSION.   

When a dog gets older, play and chase games become more motivational. Now it’s the hunt for the food that becomes interesting rather then the food itself. The dog builds prey drive, good prey drive is when you throw a ball, and the dog will immediately be amped up and run behind it. I call that drive for living prey. Better is when you throw the ball and hold the dog on its collar until the ball stops rolling and then let him go. When the dog is amped up and runs to the ball immediately, that is what I call Prey Drive for a dead prey, what is much better and desirable for working dogs and when we want to compete with a dog in top competition. Top working dogs are dogs that when we hide a ball and let them go they have so much prey drive that when they can’t find the ball, they become aggressive. These are extremely good dogs in the right hands!   

Methods of Electronic Training There are basically four different methods used in modern dog e-collar dog training.   

1.   Cut the drive of the dog 

This method is used for high drive dogs. In order for this system to work, the dog needs to be obedient in low-drive situations. When in high drive situation the dog becomes disobedient (the external stimulant becomes to powerful) the dogs get a correction. A correction is always stimulation after the action of being disobedient. In a perfect situation this correction is given half a second after the faulty behavior. And after the correction the dog should show the wanted behavior. My advice is when you used this method is also put a very long line on the dog so you can always control the situation, incase the dog wants to avoid the correction or runs away, you can always bring him back. Some dogs learn to switch off the stimulation by running away outside the reach of the transmitter.   This is the most common problem to solve is that dogs that are disobedient by external attraction.   

2.   Reinforcement of the command 

This method if often used in IPO/Schutzhund training to increase drive, power and responsiveness on behavior already in place. Simultaneously with the audible command giving a short stimulation on the lowest levels is given. Every command is reinforced by stimulation. The advantage here is that when working off leash I make every command “serious”. Successful trainers are able to make the dog respond much quicker to a command what results in better points in IPO. My advice is to work with a double reward system, the first reward is to extinguish the electro – stimulation and the second reward can be food, a toy or a bite. Another advantage of this method is that the e-collar becomes a motivator. Stimulation, reward, stimulation, rewards, (remember lowest levels!!!!) Stimulation reward. Now stimulation becomes motivating and increases drive. Another mistake that trainers make when using this method is that they forget to fade out the collar. To be effective you will eventually need to randomize stimulation, like in positive operant training you randomize the reward.   I personally do not believe in this method of training, I believe positive marker training is much stronger and more effective. The only reason I mentioned it here it is because it is used and you should be aware of its existence.  

3.   Avoidance training 

This method uses continues stimulation until the dog shows the correct behavior, then the stimulation stops. For example, we put the dog on a leash and we want to heel. We give the dog stimulation until he is close to us, then the stimulation stops. We put the dog on a leash we give him stimulation and ask for a sit. Only when the dogs sit the stimulation stops. This method is used by more famous e-collar trainers and is a very slow method. The idea is that the dog after a while will respond quicker to avoid the stimulation, and that you can ask for the behavior without stimulation. I personally do not believe in this method of training, I believe positive marker training is much stronger and more effective. The only reason I mentioned it here it is because it is used and you should be aware of its existence.   

4.   Aversive training In aversive training a higher stimulation is used so much that the dog will stop the unwanted behavior. When the dog show unwanted behavior stimulation is given until the dogs stops and shows the corrected behavior. The idea behind it is that the dog will think that the unwanted behavior is reinforced by something he does not like.    

I hope by now you have a little more understanding about the e-collar. There is a place for every tool when used in the right hands and used correctly. There is no place, for abusing a dog or conflicting pain.    

What differentiates us is our innovative, fair, motivating and sophisticated approach to this process. We believe that our Relationship based Motivational methods are the most effective in use today for enriching, empowering, and promoting long-term learning over the career of our and your dogs. If you would like to know more about our Relationship Based Training Program, contact us today!