I have been training dogs for many years now and I was first introduced to the e-collar back when I was in dog trainer school. Basically, an e-collar has a remote control and a receiver unit. The receiver unit is attached to a collar that the dog will be wearing, and the handler activates it by tapping a button on the remote control. Depending on the model and manufacturer, the e-collar can emit a loud tone, a vibration or a static stimulus in order to get a response from the dog.
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Initially developed and widely used with hunting dogs and gun dogs as a means of having control over the animals while out on the field, the e-collar has been adapted for use in pet dogs as a way of providing some form of correction for nuisance behaviors such as counter surfing, excessive barking and not responding when called. Old school techniques would use a high level correction to stop the dog from doing a certain unwanted behavior or just to get the dog to follow commands. Dogs would yelp and show signs of stress as a response to the correction.
Critics of this tool claim using an e-collar on a dog can cause high levels of stress and anxiety and affect the dog’s behavior even more. I can see how the improper use of an e-collar by a dog owner with no previous experience using this tool, or even the use of an e-collar by an inexperienced trainer, can have such effects. Simply slapping the collar on the dog and turning it on high then giving corrections that make the dog yelp and scream, is very wrong and will have negative impacts. We have come a long way since the time this was standard practice.
Many years ago, I heard a Buddhist monk share a piece of wisdom I will never forget (stick with me, it will make sense!). He said, “A man was given the key to open the doors of heaven. But the same key can also open the doors of hell. We must not blame the key for it – the man must know what to do with it.” Any dog training tool can be wonderful or cause irreversible damage – we must know what to do with them, we need to know how to use them properly. We are dealing with human error more than with a good or bad tool here. It is easy to see how poor use of an e-collar can give this tool a bad reputation and it is easy to point fingers at it and label it as a “negative” tool.
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Over the past several years, e-collar training has taken dramatic leaps towards being more gentle and humane and as subtle as possible. Technology has allowed e-collars to evolve from a medieval-looking tool from hell to delivering precise, low-level medical grade stimulation that is just enough to get the dog’s attention. When proper training protocols and gentle techniques are employed, dogs can learn fast and improve their relationship with their owner, as nuisance behaviors are replaced by a well-mannered demeanor.
Proper e-collar training should not cause the dog to yelp or show any signs of stress. Proper e-collar training should not even cause the dog to act like the stimulus bothers him/her (I don’t want to see the dog shaking his head, being suddenly startled or acting stressed out in any way). And with the latest technology in e-collars, it is possible to adjust the collar to the lowest level a dog will respond to, so that the only reaction we get from a dog receiving an e-collar stimulation is a “oh, what’s that?” type look. It should correspond to a tap on your shoulder rather than a slap on the back of your head.
Critics argue that dogs previously trained on an e-collar will become anxious, nervous and start shaking at the mere sight of the e-collar being placed on their necks. I agree that this might happen if the dog was subject to improper use of the collar on previous occasions. Again, human error. And I can say this confidently because in all the years I have been using low-level e-collar training, I have not seen such response in any of the dogs I helped train with the e-collar.
In fact, when a prospective client comes to my dog training studio for the first time, he/she gets to feel what the e-collar static stimulation is like. But very few e-collar brands pass the test in terms of being gentle, user-friendly and dog-friendly. Cheap electronic collars and knock-offs can be very harmful, use painful shock-like stimulations and cause all kinds of problem. I use a top-notch brand called the Mini Educator by E-collar technologies (www.ecollar.com). Developed by dog trainers, this particular model delivers a static stimulation that is exactly the same as that of a tens unit used by many chiropractors. It causes a “tingle” sensation much like when someone is sitting down for too long and their foot falls asleep, for example. Not once have I seen somebody jump out of their chair and scream in pain when feeling the stimulation! And the same goes for the dogs training with this tool. If a dog is yelping and screaming when being trained on the e-collar, something is VERY wrong, because that’s not the way it should be.
Improper use of the e-collar has also generated some myths such as “the e-collar burned my dog’s neck”. Okay, hold on a second here. Let’s go back to our Physics lessons here on electricity. The one thing that determines whether an electric charge is harmful to a living creature or not is a little something called amperage. Amperage and not voltage is the factor that causes damage and burns. (You can read more about this here: http://electrical.about.com/od/electricalsafety/a/amperagekills.htm) An e-collar unit does not have the physical capability of delivering a “shock” with high amperage enough to cause damage to the dog’s neck. I will say this again, an e-collar does not have hardly any amperage high enough to cause damage. What will cause sores and irritations is improper fit and use of the collar. Owners must not leave the e-collar on the dog for more than 12h in a row, and must rotate the spot where the e-collar is placed (either side of the neck) or the dog will have pressure sores caused by the contact points. In rare cases, some dogs are allergic to the metal on the contact points, but there are hypo-allergenic contacts that can be used if that’s the case.
The second key point I want to note here is that an e-collar is not right for every dog and for every handler. No dog training tool is right for ALL dogs and for ALL handlers. Treats, clicker, prong collar, chain collar, not one of these tools can be seen as THE dog training tool, because all dogs are very different. Breed, background, size, temperament, drive and genetics all should play a role in deciding which tool and which dog training method is appropriate for that one dog and owner. Dogs learn in different ways, just like children have different learning styles. When a dog is forcefully trained with a tool or method that is not right for him, the outcome will not be favorable. A professional must be able to make the appropriate assessment as far as choosing the best way to train the dog they have in front of them.
So in the end, it all comes down to our responsibility in being fully informed and educated about the proper use of all training tools, e-collar included. We cannot blame a tool for the adverse effects caused by human error when employing it. A high quality e-collar, when used properly, is a valuable tool for dog owners to help their best friends improve their behavior and should only be used with the help of an experienced dog training professional. Your best friend will thank you for it!
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