Electric Collars: A Forthright Discussion

It’s time for forthright discussion about the use and misuse of electric collars (e-collars). The general public has accepted and embraced their use with underground fence systems, and pet owners are picking them up at pet supply stores to attempt to eliminate a variety of unwanted behaviors. The use of e-collars is commonplace in some venues, for example, retriever trainers doing field work. Yet in other venues the attitude toward the e-collar is one of complete disdain.

I am not advocating for or against the use of an e-collar. However, some of you are using it, wishing you understood it better. Some are using it secretly, as if ashamed. Others are rallying against it, convinced it’s cruel and abusive. Everyone benefits from the knowledge available when discussions are open and honest. 

My own experiences with e-collars goes back 40 years to a time when they were starting to be used in the retriever field trial game. The rudimentary design was not nearly as sophisticated as the tools we have available today. I purchased my first field trial dog in 1995. Since then I have trained and earned Field and/or Amateur Field Championships on five retrievers that have also earned Obedience Championships. I have never advocated that an e-collar is necessary to train a competitive obedience dog. However, I would not attempt to train a Field Champion without one. 

My husband, Pat Nolan, trained competitive field trial retrievers for 30 years. Now he uses those skills as well as his knowledge of e-collars, to do research and consulting, primarily for the Department of Defense. The dogs working with our military must have impeccable off-leash control in highly distracting situations. 

What is an Electric Collar?
Electric collar is a term used to describe a training collar that delivers electrical stimulation of varying intensity and duration to the dog via a radio-controlled electronic device. This article is about e-collars that are operated by the trainer, using a transmitter. The trainer controls when the dog feels the electric stimulation by pushing a button on the transmitter.  

Why would you use an E-Collar?
If your goal is to have a well-mannered pet, or a good obedience or agility dog, you may never have a reason to use an e-collar. However, if your lifestyle demands completely reliable off-leash control, or if you have a dog that is frequently unreliable off-leash, the e-collar may be the right tool for you.  

Should you use the E-collar to enforce known commands or stop unwanted behavior? 
I had been helping someone in obedience classes for 4-months when she shyly approached me with her problem. Her 9-month-old Labrador was eating his own feces. He would do so immediately, as soon as he finished defecating. Hoping to break the habit, she had been walking him on leash for seven months. She had tried all the food additives her veterinarian recommended. The behavior appeared to be compulsive and she was ready to re-home the dog.

I suggested we use the e-collar to enforce two commands that the puppy was learning; “Come” and “Sit.” My thought was that if we could enforce the command “Come,” we could call the dog away from the feces, even when off-leash. 

We took the time needed to teach the dog to respond to “Come” and “Sit” with e-collar stimulation. With those skills in place, we took the dog out in the yard to exercise. As soon as he defecated and turned around to eat his feces, we called him and used the e-collar to enforce his slow, distracted response.

Within a few days, the dog would anticipate a “Come” command as soon as he had relieved himself. The next step was to put the dog out in the yard by himself. As expected, when alone, the dog turned around to eat his feces and his owner, watching through the window would call “Come” as she used the e-collar to enforce the command. She adopted the attitude “You were done, so you should be ready to come in the house!”  She used praise, treats and toys to positively reward him when he came to her. The problem was quickly under control and soon solved.   

There was another benefit to our training. Because we had used the e-collar to enforce “Sit,” the owner could now stop her rambunctious puppy from jumping on guests with a quiet “Sit” command. She could also get him off counters with a quiet “Sit.” Her enthusiasm for training grew, and ultimately she not only kept the dog, but went on to get her CDX degree. 

The Labrador’s owner was willing to use the e-collar to enforce commands, not just eliminate unwanted behavior. Sadly, uneducated owners only consider the tool as a way stop unwanted behavior. Had the Labrador’s owner simply put the collar on the dog and corrected him for eating his feces, a lot of strange behaviors could have been created. For example, the dog may have become afraid of being in the yard. Likewise, he may have assumed that picking anything up was bad, and stopped retrieving.  

Instead, teaching the puppy to come not only stopped his unwanted behavior, it proved incredibly useful in a multitude of situations. The owner was soon able to turn her puppy loose at her parent’s farm and call him when he chased the barn cats or the horses. She was soon enjoying hiking and trail riding, activities she had only dreamed she would be able to do with him some day- when he was much older.  

Should you use the E-collar to enforce more than one command?
If you only use the e-collar to enforce one command, it is not uncommon for your dog to stop performing the opposite command. In the previous example, if the owner had used the e-collar to enforce “Come,” she may have found that her dog started to fail to sit and stay.  

We know two things about reinforcement -
Science shows that reinforcement history will determine where the dog will put his effort. Her dog had now been repeatedly and consistently reinforced. The e-collar is negative reinforcement, and the praise, treats and toys she was using when he came to her are positive reinforcement. Therefore, “Come” had been heavily reinforced and has become very important! 

When an owner has previously struggled to get a dog to come on command, my observation is that the dog has grown accustomed to seeing the owner perform work to make him come. The owner calls, runs to the end of the long line, picks it up, and then makes the dog obey. When “Come” is enforced with an e-collar, the dog believes that the owner’s ability to enforce come is rather magical, so “Come” becomes the most important command he knows. Therefore, no amount of returning him to a sit and rewarding him for sitting will convince him that sitting is as important as coming when called. 

If you hit this snag the solution will probably involve enforcing the opposite behavior with the e-collar. In the case of the aforementioned Labrador, both “Sit” and “Come” now have the same importance. 

The E-Collar must become part of your training program, it is not a “quick fix.”
During the training period, the Labrador’s owner was willing to use the e-collar every time she took him outside. Likewise, she would put it on him any time she went hiking or trail riding. She also put it on him when she was expecting a visitor. The surest way to be unsuccessful with an e-collar is to put it on the dog, correct him in a particular circumstance, and then take it off and not use it regularly. This is guaranteed to teach your dog to be “collar wise,” that is, to only perform when wearing the collar. 

Several years ago an exhibitor came to me for help with her obedience dog.  In the ring, this dog would go out on the flat retrieve, grab the dumbbell, play bow, and then run around while the crowd laughed and the exasperated handler tried to catch him. After a few training sessions, I had a reason to go over to her training bag to get something for her. When I opened her bag I saw an electric collar. Bewildered, I asked her when she used it. She said she enforced “Come” when her dog ran away on the agility field but thought I would not approve. 

Sadly, her technique had taught her dog to become situational (See How Dogs Learn).  This dog now believed he had to come on the agility field, but not in any other situation. 

Instead, this dog needed to be wearing her electric collar while doing agility, obedience, in the yard, and on walks, so that every time he failed to come his owner could use it to enforce a “Come” command. In this way, the dog would believe he had to respond to “Come” in every situation, and coming when called would become his habit. 

In the retriever field trial venue, puppies start wearing their e-collars at a very young age and are never trained unless wearing the e-collar. From the dog’s point of view, putting on the collar is simply part of a routine that leads to what he loves, retrieving birds. Why do these dogs perform at the field trials (and at national events that last 8 days) without any collar on at all? Because performing correctly has become their habit, separate from and unassociated with the equipment the dog is wearing. 

In order for the collar to be effective as part of your training, you need to be comfortable with your dog wearing the e-collar everywhere and any time that you think there is a chance that disobedience might occur. Eventually, just like a good retriever trainer, you will not have reason to use your e-collar in the majority of your training sessions. However, if disobedience occurs, your dog will be wearing his collar and it will be available to you. It is only by consistently using the tool that you will create the habit of performing correctly. 

Please, if you are considering using an e-collar, but you are not committed to using it consistently, don’t use it at all. Your results will be mixed, at best, and your temptation will be to blame the tool instead of your inconsistent use.  

How do you teach a dog to respond to the stimulation from the E-collar?
A dog must be systematically taught how to respond to the stimulation that the e-collar delivers. Just as your dog can learn how to elicit positive reinforcement such as rewards and praise, he can learn how to stop and prevent the negative reinforcement delivered by the e-collar. 

One of the ways dogs learn is by being shown what direction we want them to move. You can teach a dog to sit by pulling up on the leash and pushing down on his rear end. You can teach a dog to come by pulling him toward you with a long line. E-collars do not offer the dog any information about what direction you want him to move. Therefore, it is up to you to pair the e-collar stimulation with the direction he should move to make the stimulation stop. 

Be intentional about learning how to use an e-collar. Find someone that has done it before, and become a thoughtful student. Step one is to guide your dog into the correct position or in the correct direction whenever the stimulation occurs. Soon, your dog will realize he can stop the stimulation by offering the correct behavior. Finally, you will see your dog become committed to performing in order to prevent the stimulation from happening at all.

My husband and I have recently put a guide together to help people understand the steps of guidance, decision, and commitment. More information is available about that guide here.  

I have seen the lives saved of many dogs because of the owner’s willingness to use an e-collar. I know a St. Bernard that was so out of control that he dislocated his owner’s arm pulling on the leash. I know a Papillion that would slither out the door, and refuse to come as he ran down a busy street. I know a Basenji that jumped the fence. The stories are countless and certainly speak favorably for the e-collar’s use. However, for every dog that was saved, I can also recall dogs that were trained thoughtlessly and carelessly. The dog did not understand how to control the stimulation, and suffered because of it. 

Our unwillingness to discuss the proper way to use an e-collar is the primary reason that dog’s suffer through incorrect use. It is certainly not the tool needed for every dog or by every trainer. However, let us not cringe at its mention or pretend it is not around, but learn what it’s strengths and weaknesses are and if and when it is needed, learn how to use it properly. 

I have made my living solving problems. I have solved problems using an e-collar and I have solved problems caused by the e-collar. I believe that the best service I can offer is to disseminate as much logical information as possible. If you found this information helpful, please pass it on. If you have questions, please don’t hesitate to send them to me.