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Electronic Training Collars - The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

Call it a shock collar and good trainers want to steer away from the device. Even if you call it an electronic training collar, we know what it really is, or do we? Shock collars or electronic training collars have fit into three different roles, the good, the bad and the ugly. Which role this training device takes depends upon the skills of the user and if they are using a one level shock collar or a multi-level electronic training collar. The original purpose of a shock collar was ugly. Although a little work with the electronic collar was toyed with in the fifties, the collar had its first solid usage in the sixties. Coonhound trainers, desperate to stop their dogs from chasing deer, found they could fit the dog with a collar and with the push of a button, literally hammer the dog to the ground with an electric shock. Although the dog stopped chasing the deer, the humanity of these first collars could be questioned. The idea of a remote way of training dogs quickly attracted Retriever trainers and they bought collars to facilitate their training. TritronicsTM, a collar manufacturer, tried to convince the Retriever trainers not to use these devices for training, because they weren't designed for that. Since the Retriever owners persisted, TritronicsTM hired some engineers to design a collar that better met dog trainer's needs. The result was a collar that had the ability to vary how much stimulation was received, and a transmitter that had several levels of stimulus available at the touch of a finger. Other manufacturers that got into the business developed a cheaper version to sell to the general public. This type of collar only offered one level of electrical shock.

With two different kinds of collars available, training took two different directions. Cheap collars appeared in catalogs and came with video on how to zap unwanted behavior in dogs. This kind of device was quickly snatched up by people who either didn't want to take the time to train, or who were frustrated with their training failures. These one-level shock collars can be set at light, medium, or heavy zapping power. You get a transmitter with one button. You push that button to deliver an electric shock. With these less expensive devices, you can only deliver one level of electric stimulation. This device is meant to punish any unwanted behavior. For dogs that quickly connect the difference between wearing the device and wearing a regular collar, a dummy collar can be used for times you don't have the shock collar on.

The other kind of training collar is often called an electronic training collar. This device offers variable intensity of electrical stimulation, and is often used by accomplished trainers to reward desired behavior, or correct misbehavior with no more force than a jerk on a choke collar. Like the shock collar, a receiver collar is fitted onto the dog and a handheld transmitter is used. Unlike the shock collar, the sensitivity of the electronic training collar ranges from extremely light to a stronger intensity that can be more accurately matched to the sensitivity of the dog. Also, the handheld transmitter has three different levels of stimulation available at the trainer's fingertips. This is necessary because when the dog is highly distracted, the stimulation level may need to go up.

There are several advantages to using an electronic training collar. The first advantage is time, because the best way to reward a dog, or correct it, is immediately. With the exception of clicker training, when a dog does something right, there is a time lapse between the action and your reward. When correcting a dog for unwanted behavior, there is always a time lapse between the action and the correction. The electronic collar eliminates the time lapse. The more immediate the correction is to the wrong deed, the more likely the dog will associate the two.

Another advantage allowed by the electronic training collar is that if a dog displays misbehavior, you don't have to run and catch the dog to punish it. The electronic connector can span the distance you would otherwise have to by foot. Yet another advantage is dissociation of a negative event with the owner or trainer. Since the dog doesn't realize who is causing an unpleasant feeling, the trainer gets to assume a positive position while training. This allows a trainer to provide solutions and praise.

I watched a demonstration by a dog trainer named Jay Blanchard who used this collar to train the come command. He worked with an eight month old Golden Retriever who had found that ignoring the come command had more reward than obeying the command. The female, "Goldy," loved people. When her owners had her out in a crowd, she'd ignore their command to come and often get petted for the offence. After Jay fitted the dog with a collar and tested the dog's sensitivity, he then attached a dragline to the Goldy, and let her happily bound over to some nearby people. Jay turned on the transmitter, which caused an uncomfortable feeling through the collar'a kind of itching irritation, but not a painful one. Seconds later, Jay called for Goldy to come. He tugged on her rope to turn her around. The moment Goldy faced him, Jay stopped the electrical stimulation. He reeled her in and praised her. Once he was done praising her, she again bounded off to some other strangers for attention. Jay waited until Goldy was a few feet from the strangers to repeat the stimulus. After he gave the "come" command, her positive response of turning back toward him brought her immediate reward, because the irritating feeling that made her want to scratch at her collar disappeared when she responded to the "come" command. After a few more practices, Goldy started coming right away when called, without having to be pulled in by the rope. Before the lesson was completed, Goldy was returning when called without electrical stimulation.

At no time did Goldy jump, yip, or freeze because there was too    much current in the collar. Goldy found doing what she was told to do gave her a good feeling, whereas ignoring the "come" command didn't feel as good. This is how an electronic training collar is used for immediate reward when the dog obeys. The trainer also has the opportunity to offer the dog a solution to escaping the irritation of the collar by pulling the dog in his direction. When the dog obeys, the trainer can offer praise both physically with pats and verbally with pleasant, encouraging tones of voice.

After the demonstration Jay explained that Goldy wasn't trained yet. Although Goldy had a good start towards coming when called, she would need more work to completely develop the habit. Jay quit the lesson after Goldy started to obey because he has found it is better to quit when the dog is still enthusiastic and not persist until the dog is bored.

I watched Jay at another clinic where he used the training collar to curb aggression in a dog. He fitted a collar onto a female Jack Russell Terrier named Cookie. The owner led the dog by her brother (whom Cookie seriously disliked). When Cookie raised her hackles, Jay applied stimulation. When she tried to snap, he increased the stimulation to the collar to the highest level. The moment Cookie retreated, the discomfort stopped. No verbal reprimands were given because Jay wanted the dog to feel the action was wrong in itself, and not because the owner said so. Having a transmitter that had more than one level of stimulation at his fingertips helped Jay to increase the level immediately when he needed. In situations like this, the adrenaline levels of the dog can rise quickly, and different stimulation levels may be required. Cookie was again led by her unfavorite brother. This time she stopped her misbehavior after she raised her hackles because Jay applied the light stimulation. Using the electronic collar allowed Jay to curb misbehavior at the thought process, before it became an action.

Electronic training collars do not change the rules of training. Training is the act of teaching a dog to do a new task. Most training takes very little time. For example, a puppy can usually be trained to sit in just one five-minute session. However, what most people are really after is habit production. Habit production is when the dog does the desired task on a consistent basis. What dog owners want is to create the habit of obeying a command. Although there are advantages in using electronic training collars, these collars don't create a habit any faster. Repetition is still needed to cement a habit.

Training collars do not change a dog's learning curve. These collars may appear to teach a dog quicker because they facilitate communication, and when used more positively don't introduce high stress conditions. Still, training is a team sport, and like any sport the skills must be practiced.

Both the shock collar and the electronic training collar can be used to get results in training or retraining a dog. However, the shock collar has several disadvantages not seen in the electronic training collar. If you start using a shock collar for punishment, then after awhile you will not be able to use the electronic training collars for a more positive type of training. You become locked into only using a collar for negative reinforcement.

Since shock collars use negative reinforcement, stress is introduced into the lesson. The more stressed the dog becomes, the lower the learning curve. Some dogs are so sensitive, that they immediately become stressed with the shock collar and can't be trained with a shock collar at all.

Another limitation with a shock collar is that there are only a few collar setting and one setting on the transmitter. Although you may initially set the collar at one level, and get a good response from the dog, that level won't be adequate when the dog's adrenaline goes up. For instance, you can adjust the collar for the dog to respond when it wanders away and doesn't return when called. However, calling a dog away from chasing a cat will need a higher level of stimulation. For the owner to adjust the level of stimulation, the dog collar needs taken apart and the level reset. This may take too much time as far as the cat is concerned.

An electronic training collar is no magic wand that anyone can use. Although it is a valuable tool, the dog owner must learn how to read their dog to use this tool effectively. Owners need to determine if the dog is ignoring the stimulation and needs a higher intensity, or if the dog has become stressed and the lesson needs to be stopped.

Electronic training collars can't substitute for training a dog or for knowing good training techniques. All dogs need to be trained in the basics. The easiest way to train the basics is start when the dog is a puppy and keeps your training positive. Don't use these collars on puppies; they need more of a positive training environment. However, these type devices do well for the adolescent years (any time after five or six months) and for mature dogs, especially when working to modify unwanted behavior.

There are a few variations in electronic training collars. One is the bark collar. These collars are triggered by vibrations when the dog barks. Another type of electronic collar used for training gives an audio beep, followed shortly by a shock. Originally this kind of collar was thought to be more humane. However, this collar often results in the dog becoming so anxious between the time the sound is heard and the shock is experienced, that the lesson is ruined. We see people respond in a similar way to the "hot seat" on the program "Want to be a Millionaire." Suddenly, when the pressure is on, the contestants can't recall the correct answers to the questions or start doubting things they really know.

Yet another type of training collar only emits audio beeps. These are used for positive reinforcement much like a clicker is used. You teach the dog to associate the sound with doing something right. This collar can be used for hunting dogs that are uncertain about a field decision. The encouraging beep can be used for the dog to continue, whereas offering praise may be too distracting.

In the hands of a good trainer an electronic training collar can be a valuable tool. In the hands of someone who doesn't know how to train, it is no more than a shock collar that deserves any negative concept the name creates.

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