Electronic is an interesting adjective that Webster’s defines as: 1. of or having to do with electrons; 2.operating, produced, or done by the action of electrons or other carriers of semiconductors, vacuum tubes, etc.; or 3. carried on by or making use of electronic equipment.

Tri-Tronics is a well respected e-collar manufacturer.The word “electronic” conjures up a variety of associations for us — electronic banking, electronic mail, and electronic journalism, for example. However, when we pair up the word with collar… well, the thoughts and associations usually turn interesting, to say the least.

Electronic collars have been in existence for nearly 50 years. However, their use is still surrounded in myth and mystery for many people. On one hand, we recognize that technology has advanced significantly over the years and the tool could be a valuable asset, particularly for off-leash control. On the other hand, often we are still trapped in hesitation due to early conditioning and a learned fear of electricity.

The only bridge over that gap is expanding our education and understanding of the tool. Learning how e-collars work and how they can be used as a communication device (rather than a high-level punishment tool) can enhance the relationship between handler and dog significantly.

In this article I will break down the beginning components for those considering incorporating e-collars into their programs or novice users who recently started using an e-collar. Building a solid foundation from the start will increase the likelihood of success and pave the road to higher levels of comprehension for dog and handler alike.

Equipment

Having the proper equipment enhances the ability to obtain good results with the training. There are a few high-quality manufacturers in the market and a variety of model choices. Select an ecollar that gives you a wide variety of stimulation levels.

Canine sensitivity to estimulation can vary greatly, just as human sensitivity to water temperature. Some dogs can handle significant pressure, while others are responsive to even the lowest settings. If your dog requires a hard physical correction, don’t assume that he will also need a high level of stimulation on an e-collar. Because the sensation is unique, many dogs respond very well to low or moderate levels of pressure. A collar with both momentary (or “nick”) and continuous stimulation options allows you greater versatility of use.

A collar that has rechargeable batteries will be an advantage, and it’s wise to add a car charger to make sure you are always prepared. Some units offer rapid recharge (two hours) features. A waterproof receiver (collar) is a must but a waterproof transmitter (remote) may also be advisable depending on the conditions in which you are working your dog. A unit with no less than a half-mile range will give you reliable distance control, even with challenging terrain or complex interior use.

You may want additional features; some collar systems offer tone, vibration, or pager options. These bonuses will allow you to teach a warning cue, silent recall, or “yes marker,” depending on your training preferences.

Spend time getting familiar with the equipment. Don’t pay the price for strapping the unit on your dog and just pushing buttons. Read the accompanying manual so you know proper charging techniques, various options of operation, battery replacement protocol, etc. Then put the collar in your palm or on your wrist and become familiar with the differences in the type of stimulation, and feel the duration of the stimulation when you use N (nick) vs. C (continuous). Find out how slowly or quickly the stim levels ramp up as you increase intensity.

No, you don’t have to test your nerve and go “all the way to the top” of the stimulation range, but if you become familiar with the sensation and the increases between levels, you will be more educated. The more educated you become, the more you will take that into your training. Without adequate knowledge your e-collar use will be that of ineffectual hesitancy or unnecessary bravado. In either case, your training will be affected and the relationship with your dog will not achieve the full potential it could.

Proper use of an e-collar can ease the training for dog and handler.Proper Fit

Fitting the e-collar on your dog properly is the first step in successful training. The receiver must fit snugly on the dog’s neck so that both contact points are touching skin. Without good contact, the electricity cannot cross the arc from one point to the other, thus the circuit remains open and the dog will feel nothing.

If you have a dog with a particularly thick or long coat you may need to switch to contact points of greater length to ensure good contact with the skin. With thick coats, take time to wiggle the contact points through the hair before securing the snap.

The receiver box can be positioned anywhere on the neck (front, side or back), but be aware that in general, sensitivity to stimulation increases as the receiver moves toward the back of the neck. Make sure that any additional collars are not trapped under the receiver box or ecollar strap. Do not position the collar so high behind the ears that the strap crosses the atlas-axis bones of the spinal column. This conjunction of the bones feels like large butterfly wings just behind and below the dog’s ears. Due to the snugness of fit required, you do not want to limit natural motion of those vertebrae for prolonged periods of time each day. I recommend keeping the collar an inch or two below that point of reference.

You should just be able to slide a finger under the collar strap when the collar is on correctly. There no need to snug the collar down so restrictively that the contact points are actually distinctly jutting into the skin. This will increase the possibility of pressure necrosis (aka hot spots or collar sores).

A collar sore is caused by the repeated friction of rubbing contact points (if the collar is fit too loose) or constant pressure of contact points that are snugged too tightly (jutting into the skin) for a prolonged period of time. The remote collar does not generate heat and cannot burn your dog. However, a collar sore may resemble a burn wound, which is the reason for the myth that the e-collar can burn dogs.

A dog’s skin will grow more accustomed to wearing the e-collar after a few weeks.

However, you can aid prevention of any possible sores by following a few key protocols:

  • Fit the collar snugly enough to minimize friction and collar movement when the dog moves his head up and down (sniffing to upright head position)
  • Reposition the receiver box to a different spot on the dog’s neck when he wears the e-collar for extended periods of time (rotate it three to four times/day)
  • Remove the collar and allow the skin to dry thoroughly if the dog gets wet. E-collars are safe to use in the water, but moisture trapped under the plastic casing of the receiver will decrease the skin’s ability to resist the effects of friction and wear (similar, in a human, to the effects of walking around in wet socks)
  • If possible, replace the receiver’s plastic strap with a nylon, leather, or cotton strap to allow easier moisture wicking
  • Never leave the e-collar on your dog for more than 8–10 consecutive hours.

Getting Started

Now the fun begins. And I do mean that, because training with the addition of an e-collar can make the training much more enjoyable. Proper use reduces both dog and handler frustration because the communication about which behaviors are desirable and which behaviors are undesirable becomes very black and white. The key, however, lies entirely in how educated you become about incorporating this tool into your dog’s repertoire of understanding.

If we break down e-collar training into three component parts we can keep it pretty simple:

  1. What is the appropriate stimulation level?
  2. When do you push the button?
  3. How do you help the dog understand what is expected?

The question about levels is simple to understand if we regard an e-collar as having only three levels to choose from. I realize there is a wide selection of settings and numbers on the equipment, but in terms of working with the dog, the e-collar is always set at only one of three levels. The level is either too low, too high or just right — the numeral does not matter.

Too low of a setting is one that does not cause the dog to show any regard for the sensation. If we are tapping the button and the dog continues to sniff the ground, play with a toy, or go about his agenda without seeming to notice the stimulation, the level is too low.

The opposite setting is too high. When the level of stimulation is too high, the dog will become quickly overwhelmed or frustrated by the sensation. There may be yelps or repeated startle responses accompanying the collar stimulation. This is not conducive to most learning situations. Too high a level may be appropriate when teaching an avoidance response to a particular trigger, but overall it hinders achieving our training goals.

Somewhere between the two extremes is a level that is considered just right, or what many refer to as a “working level.” This means the sensation is significant enough that the dog will pay attention to it and work to make it stop, but it is not so overwhelming that it actually detracts from the dog’s ability to problem-solve.

The level considered “just right” is variable. It will not be the same in every situation and will need adjustment in proportion to the amount of distraction or excitement the dog is presented with. As a dog becomes more and more familiar with the e-collar there is less need to adjust the dial when training, but in the early days think of the setting dial similar to the volume control on a radio. Go up in volume when there is a lot of “noise” present and go down when the distractions and intensity of the situation subside.

The Finer Points of Use

Understand that there are also other ways to increase pressure besides just turning up the number. Learn a variety of ways to use the e-collar to regain your dog’s attention besides cranking the number up to too high a level. A rapid cadence tap to the stimulation button or slight drag on the continuous button will also make the sensation more urgent and may work equally well in keeping the dog’s focus.

The finesse of learning to use an e-collar (the timing, tapping, and adjusting the levels) comes through practice. Hold the receiver in your palm or strap it to your forearm and familiarize yourself with the various techniques, rather than experimenting with your dog. Just use a level you can feel; you don’t need to turn it to painful, just as you don’t need to do this with your dog. It will make you a better trainer and will help in overcoming any stigma or hesitation that surrounds e-collar use.

I caution everyone not to assume that how it feels to you is how it will feel to the dog. Each person and each dog has an individual level of sensitivity. Describing how strong it feels is like describing how warm water is. The sensation is different for everyone; one person’s “hot” is another person’s “lukewarm.” Remember that concept when working with your dogs — they are individuals as well, and a “hard” dog may be very sensitive to e-collar pressure, so don’t assume. Start at the bottom until you have a handle on what is just right for your dog; then you will know where to keep that level tuned for average use.

One of the most versatile and simplistic ways to introduce a dog to collar stimulation is to pair the sensation with obedience commands. I understand this may go against conventional thinking about how to use correction, but by tapping the button simultaneously as you give a command, you can teach the dog that the sensation goes away as soon as he complies with the expected behavior. This use of negative reinforcement is one of the most commonly used e-collar techniques among dog professionals. By pairing the sensation with the command and teaching the dog how to turn off the sensation, you will achieve greater versatility in use as opposed to waiting and correcting (applying positive punishment) the dog for non-compliance with your command.

One advantage of teaching the dog to understand the stimulation in this way is that you will then be able to use the tap to assist your dog in remaining attentive to command when higher levels of distraction are present. For instance, once the dog has learned a down/stay command paired with stimulation, you can tap the button while verbally reminding the dog to down when he is presented with a distraction that would normally cause him to break. By being able to use the e-collar proactively while the dog is still down but thinking of breaking, your timing will be far more effective in fixing problems.

This timing of proactively correcting the dog’s mind rather than reactively correcting his body’s break of position will dramatically improve performance. Your dog will learn much faster and be set up for success rather than failure. As the dog gains greater competency, you will be able to ease off on the use of the e-collar.

Understand that when I use the word “correction” I am implying the meaning of “to make correct” as opposed to punishing the dog for a mistake. When driving a car we make subtle corrections at the wheel as soon as the vehicle begins to veer slightly. By doing so, we avoid the necessity to make large compensations after the car is completely off course. Proactive use of the e-collar atlower levels of stimulation rather than reactive punishment at higher levels will allow the handler greater finesse in training as well as decreased frustration and increased focus in the dog.

Make sure your e-collar has a snug fit, but not so tight as to cause sores on your dog.One of the most frequent mistakes made in beginning e-collar training is handler assumption that the dog will understand what the stimulation means when they first feel it. Too often, an e-collar is incorporated by strapping the receiver on the dog and using the correction as a replacement for previous forms of correction. The handler gets no response or the incorrect response from the dog, frustration sets in due to assuming the dog is disobeying, the level of stimulation gets turned up and the cycle of problems continues.

When we start using an e-collar it is critical to remember that the stimulation is an entirely new sensation to the dog. They do not automatically know it is meant to be a replacement for other forms of correction.

Therefore, it is something they need to be trained to understand. This is the process of collar conditioning; you are helping the dog understand what stimulation means.

Through proper collar conditioning you will find that the sensation need not be painful in order to be effective. However, the level needs to be just annoying enough that the dog will work to make the sensation go away. At first, this may be distracting or slightly confusing to the dog. For this reason, a leash is essential during the early learning phase. When you begin, have a leash or long line attached to a separate slip or flat buckle collar that the dog is wearing, not the e-collar. If the dog shows any confusion or hesitation in following through with a command when e-collar stimulation is added, use the leash to assist the dog in performing the desired behavior. A few repetitions “helping” the dog understand and he will quickly learn he can control how to turn off the sensation by complying with the command.

Moving Forward

A core principle is to train through successive approximation and build up to the scenarios in which you will want to use the e-collar. Don’t start your e-collar introduction in the most challenging situations (outing off the helper or call offs from pursuit). Start your training by incorporating the e-collar into obedience first. Use the e-collar to reinforce sits, downs, recalls, etc. Then begin adding it to outs on a toy or tug — use a toy or tug that has a handle so you can maintain equal possession and help the dog get it right. Start recalls from pursuit off a toy; call off early in the pursuit and use a long line to assist. Gradually build up the levels of difficulty.

When proofing your dog’s reliability to create solid understanding, incorporate the three Ds: duration (check how long your dog will maintain command), distraction (incorporate all possible noises, movements, etc. that your dog may encounter), and distance (determine how far you can be from your dog while he remains accountable to command). Move toward more and more realistic training situations as your dog gains understanding of this new tool (the e-collar). Practicing repetitions of success will rapidly move you toward the greater communication and control you want to have on the street.

Build the use of the electronic collar into your training wisely. Don’t treat it as a separate entity to be put on the dog only for training. Have your dog wear the e-collar daily, similar to the way you wear your gear. It becomes part of the dress code. If your dog wears the receiver while eating, napping, playing, and training, you will not see the problems often referred to as the dog being “collar-wise.” A dog that is “collar-wise” is more appropriately described as “enforcement-wise.” Dogs are intelligent creatures; they read your body language to a T and they know when you do and don’t follow through with your commands. Be consistent, set up for success rather than failure and follow the simple training rule of only giving commands that you are prepared to enforce.

By having the dog wear the e-collar routinely, you are always prepared. You need not always use the collar, but at least it is an insurance policy on your dog if you get in a situation where you need it. Remember to rotate the receiver box several times throughout the day to avoid the problem of collar sores.

E-collars can be an excellent addition to your training toolbox. The collar does not replace the need for practice and handlers must remember that the use of reward and praise are equally essential for maintaining balance. As the technology has advanced, so has the training finesse that e-collars offer. They are no longer a tool to be feared. The e-collar won’t mess up your dog. However, uneducated use of an e-collar can mess up your dog, so if you need help, find someone experienced to guide you.

By the same token, the e-collar is not a tool to be revered. It is not magic and it won’t make your dog perfect. Don’t let a piece of equipment replace the best tool you have to bring to the training table — the one between your ears. Think, learn, and evaluate each message you are sending your dog. Working to create clear communication is the way to become a dynamic team.

Editor’s Note: Many top brands of e-collars can be purchased through the Ray Allen website if you would like to begin e-collar training for your K9. Click here to browse e-collars online.

Authored by: Robin MacFarlane
Photo credit: Photos courtesy of Tri-Tronics
Police K-9 Magazine is a contributor to K9Handler.com. This article was republished with permission, courtesy of Jeff Meyer.

Robin MacFarlane is the owner and training director of That’s My Dog! Inc. in Dubuque, IA. She has been training dogs professionally since 1994 and is known for her specialization in the use and applications of remote training collars. She travels extensively as an instructor and as a consultant for Dogtra Company and Radio Systems Inc. She also blogs at TheTruthAboutShockCollars.com.

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4 Comments

  1. Ishkabible says:

    This is just PURE BS. Only Non professionals or ‘cheaters’ will need an E collar. And when I was certified by the USAF 40 yrs ago THEY DID NOT EXIST ! try to get your facts right at least. This is an example of piss poor info for piss poor training! PERIOD !!!!

    • Crazy Dog Lady says:

      ISHKABIBLE it is one-dimensional thinking like this that creates such mis-information in the general public. Ecollars work! They are a great tool when used correctly. I have a very stubborn Catahoula mix that has been through obedience training. Listens like a peach while on leash. It’s off-leash that his troubles start. He does not listen, has no recall and quite frankly I don’t want him hit by a car because of this. I am very excited to try his new collar and I can tell you that he, himself, will be very happy once he can be off leash safely. I know this because we have also implemented the underground fence and just the fact that he does not have to be tethered while out front has made worlds of difference for him. Just because
      something worked so well for you does not mean it still works, or is a “one size fits all” scenario. Don’t bash it until you’ve tried it, because frankly, you have no idea at all unless you have.

    • pocketcollie says:

      Electronic collars were primarily used in gun dog training in the beginning. Her facts are correct. Just because you were not aware of them doesn’t mean they did not exist. Eyes wide shut?

  2. pocketcollie says:

    “On the other hand, often we are still trapped in hesitation due to early conditioning and a learned fear of electricity. (paragraph) The only bridge over that gap is expanding our education and understanding of the tool.”

    Boy, this describes how I started out. What pushed me to lay the foundation for that bridge was so many people bashing them who had never used them and wanted to ban them.

    Excellent article. Too bad there are still people with their minds slammed shut.

Leave a Reply to Ishkabible