Monday, September 17, 2012

Pushing Buttons; An E-Collar Primer

     The new Lion Country Supply catalogue greeted me at the front door when I returned home yesterday. I could see it sticking out of the mail box from the driveway, and I eagerly thumbed through it in the hallway before I'd even taken off my hat and shoes. I always get straight into any outdoors type catalogue that makes it's way to my home hoping that one day I'll find some new must have miracle dog training device in it's pages. I didn't find any. I did see a few items I would like to need someday, and a few things I should buy to replace old or missing items. Hey, who couldn't use a few more retrieving dummies? But Miracles of dog training were not to be had.

     Judging from the first dozen or so pages of the catalogue I think I know what item a lot of dog owners believe to hold miracle like powers. The e-collar. The catalogue had 13 pages of various kinds of electronic training collars. And that isn't including the bark collars, or invisible fence collars. Wow. I know a lot of people use e-collars. I know a lot of people that use them, and I even have one which has seen use as a training tool from time to time. The e-collar is indeed a very effective training tool, and has no doubt allowed may dogs, and trainers to reach levels they probably never would have without the existence of such a tool. But this carries with it one caveat; it must be used properly. Something I'm not sure many people know how to do. Something I wonder, now in my 20th season of training, and handling my own dogs, if even I fully understand how to do. Which is probably why I've placed my e-collar in a reserve status, to be used only when conventional means of training have not worked. It is probably also the reason why I get annoyed with what seems like a trend in people picking a model of e-collar before they've even decided on a breed of gundog, and an urgency to get an  e-collar on the pup.So let's look at what an e-collar is, and isn't, what it does, and doesn't do, and what I think are some myths about the e-collar, and how to use it.

       First, and I'll be very clear about this; an e-collar will not train your dog. You must do this. Training is best achieved in the traditional ways, using checkcords, treats, and positive reinforcement. An e-collar can only be used to reinforce a command the dog already has been taught, but for some reason needs a little extra reminder. In short, an e-collar is an extension of arm/leash/checkcord. If your dog doesn't know what to do at arm length, on a leash, or on a checkcord, it certainly isn't going to understand the command when a jolt courses through it's neck. And this is just one of the many training theories.

     A dog must be conditioned to the collar. What exactly is this? Unlike many people think, it's not a time period where the dog wears the collar, and gets used to the feel of it's weight, but a training period where the dog learns that the collar is responsible for the uncomfortable stimulation, and not some arbitrary environmental feature near it when it gets shocked. This is when the dog starts to learn that there is a relationship between the collar, and it's unwanted behavior that cause the shock. This is important if you want a dog that (for example) comes to you when you call it, rather than avoiding tree stumps, which it will reasonable understand to have been the cause of the shock if it was near a stump when first corrected.

     This leads me to what I believe to be a myth of e-collar training. I've heard some people say they don't want their dog to become collar wise. You can't train it properly if it doesn't know what the collar is, what it does, and it's connection to you. The collar is how you get the correct behavior out of the dog with a few well timed corrections. So how do you get the training to stick when the collar isn't on the dog? Simple, once the training is understood by the dog you stop pushing the button, and let that training become a habit. The dog may initially be responding to avoid a shock, but after a couple weeks of performing properly the behavior becomes a habit, regardless of the motivation.

     Of course all dogs are different, and respond differently, so each trainer needs to make a judgement on how far to go, but I feel firmly that most, if not all training can be achieved without the use of an e-collar, and that in many cases it is best left in a glass box that labeled "break glass in case of emergency".

     In this world of bigger, better, and faster, I doubt very much I'll actually convince anyone to give up the use of an e-collar, and it's fine if you use one. But don't forsake the many traditional training methods just because you've got technology strapped to your dogs neck. And if you are going to train electronically, please spend some money on a couple of DVDs, and books on e-collar training. Yes, I said "some". There are several methods out there, and you owe it to your dog to understand the tools you are about to employ.

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