This is going to probably upset some people…
Okay, here goes…
I’ve started e-collar training Abe.
For those unaware, “e-collar” is another name for a “remote training collar” or “shock collar.” E-collars can be used for training and behavior modification and are a subject of heated debate in the dog training community.
I have no problems with the use of e-collars in principle as long as the person holding the remote knows what the hell they’re doing and has the correct intent. I am NOT okay with people using it as a taser-like device to shock the hell out of their dog when they make a mistake. I am, however, okay with using it as another cue for the dog that may be a little harder to ignore than a verbal cue. There is a ton of misinformation out there on both sides of the debate, and I’m going to leave it there. Do your research before jumping to any conclusions, please.
There is a HUGE difference between low-quality, low-cost e-collars and quality e-collars. Anything less than $150 is considered cheap, and they are usually not consistent in the level and intensity of the shock. The lower levels of the cheap collars can be much more intense than the lower levels of a quality collar. For example, a level 1 on a cheap collar can feel like a level 10 on a quality collar. This isn’t always the case, but you never know what you’re going to get with a cheap e-collar.
I bought a cheap $20 collar on Amazon. This particular collar has three modes: beep, vibrate, and stimulation. The vibrate and stim modes have a range of intensity from 1 to 100.
Now before anyone loses their minds, let me explain.
I have done an incredible amount of research on e-collar training and watched thousands of videos from professional, highly-acclaimed trainers. This is not something I just bought on a whim and decided to try. I want to make that clear. This is not something that you should do without doing research and being fully informed.
I bought this collar as an experiment. Abe’s recall is super solid, and in almost any situation, he will whip his head around to look at me when I call his name. No matter how far away he is, if he looks at me when I call his name, he will come sprinting toward me when I say “come.” Every time. Notice I said IF he looks at me when I say his name. That’s his only challenge. While he’s normally super reliable with looking at me when I call his name, when he’s off-leash in an open area, he gets fixated on a scent and starts following it, and no amount of yelling or calling his name will get his attention. He will keep his nose to the ground and follow that scent for literally twenty minutes at a time without picking up his head – I’ve seen him do it. When he’s fixated like this, I can’t bring him back to me if he’s off-leash. If he’s on a longline, I can reel him back in, but I live in the country with acres and acres of open space… Having him on a longline all the time is not realistic. If I go to the barn and want to hang out for a while, I could leave him on a longline tied up… Or I can let him off the leash to explore. But I can’t let him off leash if I can’t bring him back consistently! If only I could tap him on the shoulder to get him to pick his nose off the ground… Then he would come every time.
So that’s when I got the idea to use the vibrate function on an e-collar as a sort of pager. If he gets way out in the pasture and gets on a scent, and he doesn’t look up when I call his name, I can buzz (vibrate) the collar on a low level to get him to pick his head up to hear my recall cue. I just need to interrupt his fixation. It’s NOT a punishment for not responding to his name, and it is not intended as a recall cue in itself. It might turn out that way, but that’s okay.
Level 1 can literally be compared to the haptic feedback you get on your phone when you text. You can barely feel it. My smartwatch vibrates more than this collar on level 1. Level 100 is comparable to the highest vibration setting on your cell phone when it rings. Here’s a video of level 1 and 100 on my kitchen table.
I put the collar on Abe and turned the vibrate mode to level 1. I just wanted to see what his reaction would be. I pressed the button on the remote, and he just looked at me like “what’s that?” Perfect reaction. No fear, no bad association, just a quick look around to try to find what tapped him. Then I worked with him on the longline. I let him get out in front of me, buzzed the collar quickly (it vibrates for less than a second if I just tap the button), and immediately said “come” when he looked up. Because I knew he would look at me if I said his name on the longline, this wouldn’t be an accurate representation of the situation I would want to use the collar in. The buzz is supposed to replace the “Abey” cue, essentially, since he doesn’t respond to his name when he’s fixated. So when I practiced on the longline, I didn’t say his name; I just gave him a half-second buzz on level 1. I repeated this several times on our half-mile walk to the barn, and by the time we got there, he was almost ready to be off-leash. I took him out to the pasture on the line and let him explore on the end. I left him alone until he caught a scent and started following it. Said his name… Nothing. Gave him a quick buzz on level 1… He gave a quick look and went right back to sniffing. So I have him four or five quick, half-second buzzes in a row, and that was perfect. He looked up, I said “come,” and he sprinted back. That was it! A few more repetitions, and he was off-leash.
On level 1 of vibration, Abe is about 75% dependable off-leash in any situation. At the barn and in the front yard, level 1 vibration is all that is ever needed. However, on the walk to the barn, out in public parks, etc, level 1 vibration sometimes doesn’t cut it. It’s just not enough of a tap on the shoulder to get his focus back on me. I always start with level 1, but if he doesn’t look up, I bump it up to level 100 and give a quick half-second buzz. I jump from 1 to 100 for two reasons: 1. I can get from 1 to 100 and back with two button pushes by going through level 0, so it lets me adjust it super quickly rather than pushing the up button fifty times to jump up to 50 then fifty more times to get back to 1. And 2. Increasing immediately from level 1 to level 100 startles him. It does not cause him pain, but it does startle him, and that’s what I’m looking for. I want him to pay attention to level 1, and if he doesn’t, he gets a stronger buzz. If he wants to avoid the stronger buzz, he’d better pay attention to the low level first. I’ve used level 100 maybe 10 times total, and I rarely have to use it anymore. Level 1 gets his attention almost 100% consistently now. He’s also gotten much better about responding to his name in distracting environments, so I don’t have to use the collar as much. It’s basic conditioning: respond to your name, or get a little buzz. Respond to the the little buzz, or get a strong buzz. None of this causes him pain at all. I want to emphasize that! This in no way causes him pain or discomfort. It’s just a weird, “unnatural” feeling on his neck that gets his attention.
So now there’s the question… Why didn’t I just build gradually up to letting him explore off-leash far away from me, rather than just go directly from the longline to letting him sprint off into the sunset? Well, to answer that question, I did build up gradually, and I didn’t just let him sprint off into the sunset. At first, I only let him get about ten feet away from me before I called him back. This never needed e-collar reinforcement. When this was solid, then I let him go 20 feet. And so on. I never needed the e-collar until he I let him get about 150 feet away. Then he was far enough away to get distracted and ignore his name more easily. Because I had conditioned the buzz on the longline, he knew what it meant and was able to respond correctly. Once he was coming back consistently from over 200 feet away (to just his name or with the e-collar reinforcement), I let him go explore without calling him back every few minutes. Now he roams the pastures while I work around the barn, and I know that if I need him to come back, I can get him back with just his name or a light buzz on the e-collar.
Another question… Why do I need the e-collar? Can’t I just condition him to respond to his name even if he’s entranced in a scent? Yes, I could do that. I absolutely could. However, that would take a huge, HUGE amount of time, and thousands and thousands of repetitions. So I could take months to get him to the point where he can explore the pastures and come back with just his name, or I could take a few days and let him go free with the e-collar. At this point, it makes no sense for me to take months to get him somewhere that I can get him in a few days with an alternative, no-pain approach.
Up until this point, I had not used the shock option on the e-collar. As I said before, there’s a big difference between a cheap, low-quality e-collar shock and a high-quality collar’s stimulation. I did not buy this collar for the stim. However, I have recently decided that I am going to start to teach Abe with the stim function in addition to the vibrate.
There are several reasons for this decision, and I’m not going to get into them all here. I am not using the stim to address behavior issues, I’m not doing it because the vibrate isn’t working anymore, and I’m absolutely not doing it to “shock” or correct my dog when he does something wrong. I am simply expanding his repertoire of cues and venturing further into the training world.
Before I used the collar on Abe, I wanted to try it on myself first. Because the intensity of lower levels of a cheap e-collar is a crap shoot, I wanted to get a feel for it on my own skin. I put it on my hand, started at 1, and moved up level by level until I could feel it (about 10), until it was uncomfortable (26), and then finally, when I didn’t really want to continue (32). At 32 it still wasn’t really painful, but it was uncomfortable. I will not be using the stim on this collar; this was only for comparison to the upgraded collar that I have purchased.
Because I bought the original e-collar as an experiment and didn’t intend to use the stim function, I didn’t want to fork over the dough for an expensive, high-quality one. Now that I’ve decided to teach the stim, I need to upgrade. I wanted to go with a really high-quality e-collar with the following functions:
- Adjustable vibration intensity
- Momentary and continuous stim
- Small receiver (on collar)
- Programmable remote buttons
- Access to all functions on remote without clicking through screens
- Adjustable maximum stim limit
I landed on the Educator EZ-900 collar. It has all of the features I wanted and is really highly rated. I ordered it today; I will use it and give an update as I move from the cheapy collar to the nice one!
Please let me know if there are questions! I realize this is a touchy subject, and I’m more than willing to discuss it with anyone who wants to have a rational conversation about it!