Today’s post covers a topic that’s become controversial in recent years: electric training collars. These tools, sometimes referred to as shock collars or remote collars, are often accompanied by a lot of debate. The bottom line, however, is that they’re incredibly useful tools. My company does a lot of great work with the e-collar.
The question I receive often about the e-collar is simple: “Why do you use it?” I usually get this question from two competing groups of people. The first of these groups is comprised of trainers who use treats and toys (and hugs) in order to get results. When they ask this question, it’s normally with the implication that I’m a monster. The second group that asks that question is just asking because they’re interested and wonder why I use one. In today’s post, I want to spend some time talking about why I love e-collars, why I believe that they’re the most humane way to train a dog, and why they’re so much misunderstood.
At the root of my love for this tool is the fact that any healthy and humane dog training program has to have some element of consequence, both negative and positive. A positive consequence might be a treat or a pat on the head. But a good training program also includes negative consequences. If you run into a dog trainer that says that isn’t the case, then leave! They’re not informed about the latest research into how dogs learn. Some sort of physical consequence has to exist for any living creature to learn.
If we understand that truth, then we want to use consequences that are easy on us and easy on the dog. We want something that is leveraged; in other words, that produces a great result for a little effort. We want something that is fundamentally humane and fair. When we put all these things together, we get the electric collar.
Back in the day when the electric collar was new—around 20 years ago—they had three levels: high, higher, and highest. They would blast the dog with a literal, and very painful, shock. But technology has changed a lot in the past two decades, and today’s e-collars have various levels of intensity. When I let people feel the e-collar, they’re often surprised because it doesn’t feel like a shock. People often assume that these collars produce the zap you’d get off a live wire or the fence around a cattle yard. But it’s not a big jolt. It feels more like a tickle or a pulse.
These tickles are annoying or itchy to the dog, though. For 99% of the time, that’s all the consequence that you need. At its best the e-collar is pleasant because it’s giving the dog attention, and at its worst it’s only slightly aggravating. Since we already know that we need a negative deterrent, why wouldn’t we make it the easiest one possible? That deterrent is the e-collar.
No emotion or anger or strong force is involved in the use of an e-collar. It’s just a small sensation. To me, that’s totally fair: it’s exactly what a correction should be. If my daughter refuses to leave her room, I don’t correct her with a beat-down. Instead, I might tell her that she can’t use her phone the next day. We want to be fair without being harsh, and that’s why the e-collar works.
But can you train without an e-collar? Do you really need one? Couldn’t you accomplish the same results in a another way? Of course. When I started training, the e-collar was very expensive and only worked on a very high level. The trained that I worked for had one or two of them, and we only used them on police dogs. For the average dog, the e-collar gave way too much pressure and pain. We were still able to achieve off-leash results, fix aggression, and get dogs over destructive tendencies? Yes! We could accomplish the same things we can accomplish now.
So why pay a bunch of money for this tool when you can get the same results through other means? Well, it really boils down to ease of use for the handler. When we use e-collars, we’re able to achieve results so much more quickly and put so much less pressure on our dogs. Getting to the off-leash level of training without an e-collar usually takes many more repetitions and therefore puts more cumulative stress on the dog. I’m frequently able to be more gentle with an e-collar than I am with a leash. The e-collar allows the trainer to use much less pressure over a lot less time.
Nevertheless, the e-collar certainly isn’t right for every dog or every situation. This is why it’s important to talk to a trainer who knows what they’re talking about. Don’t think of the e-collar as a cure-all that can fix everything. It’s just a tool that can help you get to your destination in a less stressful and more humane way.
Some people maintain that they can get their dogs to the same place using just treats and toys. Honestly, I’ve yet to see that. I have never seen a trainer get great results with a wide variety of dog without using some kind of negative consequence. It just doesn’t happen. They can talk about theories and studies and books all they want, but I care about what happens in the real world. I’ve trained thousands of dogs now, and I’ve seen what works. There is a big difference between a dog who understands consequence and a dog who doesn’t.
To summarize everything I’ve said: the e-collar is easier on both you and your dog. Imagine that someone asked you, “Hey, why are you using power steering on yourcar? Couldn’t you just steer it without it?” Of course you can steer a car without power steering, but it’s certainly not as fun. For that matter, why cut your steak with a sharp knife when you could use a dull knife instead? Because it’s not as easy!
The e-collar simplifies everything for me. But more importantly, it simplifies everything for the dog too. It allows them the freedom to learn with a lot less cumulative stress. If I can do that for dogs, why wouldn’t I? It’s kind of a no-brainer for us.
Can you make mistakes with the e-collar? Yes, you can. But you can make mistakes with any training tool, including treats. It’s easier to screw up a dog with an e-collar, so be sure to find someone who knows exactly what they’re doing to help you. Once you have that knowledge, however, you’ll be able to achieve so much more than you could with any other tool.