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Like many, I once believed that e-collar training was cruel. I thought positive reinforcement was the only right way to train a dog, until I had Laila. As much as I learned and worked with her, she just wasn’t as responsive to the training as I needed her to be.
As a result, I happened upon balanced training methods, thanks to friends who had faced similar difficulties with their own dogs. The more I learned, the more I saw how incredible this tool could be, when used correctly.
There are a lot of myths and assumptions out there about e-collars, and many of the claims and beliefs simply are not true. This post breaks down those myths and explains the truth behind proper use of an e-collar.
Remember that I am not a dog trainer, rather am an eager student who has worked with an awesome trainer to use an e-collar with Sitka.
Modern Day E-Collars vs Shock Collars
You’ve probably heard the terms e-collar and shock collar used interchangeably when referring to such tools. More often than not, the term “shock collar” is used today as a way of intentionally creating a reaction in people to associate pain and harm with its use.
The first electronic collars were introduced during the 70s, based on the psychology of shock treatment. The tools were designed to shock dogs using three different settings.
Modern e-collars use TENS technology (Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation), which delivers a mild pulse that stimulates muscle contraction (the same thing your PT or Chiropractor uses on you when you are in for treatment).
They are also designed to safely and humanely deliver the stimulation to dogs as small as 5 lbs.
Not all E-Collars are the Same!
While the archaic shock collars of the 70s are no longer produced today, there are still a number of low quality, inhumane e-collars on the market. Nearly every trainer I have met or follow on social media use the E-Collar Technologies Mini Educator, which has a stimulation level range from 0 to 100.
Do not buy an e-collar from a chain pet store or some off-brand from Amazon (which also includes any ads you might see in this post. I wish I had better control of the ads, but I don’t always have the choice!).
How E-Collars Work
This stimulation interrupts the dog’s thought process through an unpleasant, but not painful sensation.
As I will mention several times in this article, the stimulation reinforces commands the dog already knows. With proper conditioning, the dog learns how to stop the sensation by responding correctly to a command.
The e-collar can also be used to deter undesirable behaviors like digging, counter surfing, “popcorning” in the car, jumping, and more. In this instance, your dog learns to associate the unpleasant feeling with its own behavior.
Think of the e-collar as an extension of the leash. Just as your dog feels a tug on their collar when they reach the end of the leash, the e-collar is sort of like a tap on their shoulder, only does not cause damage to the larynx or spinal cord like a jerk of the collar can.
Now let’s get into those myths about e-collar training!
Myth #1: E-Collars Hurt Dogs
Used incorrectly, yes, e-collars can hurt a dog.
So can a flat collar.
So can your hand.
So can a leash.
Think about your kitchen knife, a tool you probably use every day, multiple times a day.
Have you ever used that same knife to kill someone? I sure hope not.
When used correctly, a sharp knife can create delicious meals for your family. Used incorrectly, it can be a murder weapon.
Catch my drift?
Any tool can be misused. When an e-collar is used correctly, under the guidance of a professional trainer, then they are incredible tools that make life safer for your dog and give them more freedom.
Hold up. Safer? More freedom?
I have 100% confidence that Sitka will respond when I recall him back to me. Even if there is a squirrel, a dog, something tasty, a bear, you name it. I can call him off anything because of the e-collar.
Sitka’s working level ranges from 4 to 10 in low distraction zones. If I have to call him off something especially exciting, I might have to dial up to 30.
What this means is that I can give Sitka more freedom when we hike and trail run with full confidence that he will obey commands.
Low quality, cheap collars and poor training methods are often used to demonstrate the abusive side of the tool.
Myth #2: E-Collars are for Lazy People
If e-collars are for lazy people, then I’ve been doing this all wrong.
I have worked with Sitka on a daily basis since the day I brought him home in December 2019. I worked harder once I started working with my trainer and had homework on a regular basis.
Those who oppose e-collars claim that having to use a tool equals laziness. What they don’t proceed to recognize is that the following items are also tools:
- Halti’s/Gentle Leader
Everything mentioned above is a tool. Everything mentioned above are tools that most trainers use.
Efficiency does not Equal Laziness
What some claim as “lazy,” I call efficient. E-collars allow me to communicate with my dog in a way that they understand. They learn more quickly because the tool is more effective.
Since I love to bake, let’s use a baking example.
Let’s say I’m making a lemon meringue pie. I can use a whisk and whip those egg whites for 20-30 minutes (or longer, trust me, I’ve tried it), or, I can use egg beaters for 5 minutes and save my arm strength for the gym.
Does it make me lazy to use an egg beater over a whisk? Nope. It makes me efficient. Now, I have an extra 15-25 minutes of my life back, my arm isn’t wiped out, and I’ve got perfect peaks.
Here’s a great personal example of a tool used by R+ advocates (positive reinforcement) that I consider lazy: the Halti or Gentle Leader (you can see in the name that it’s all about marketing: This tool is gentle!)
We used one on Sora because she pulled on walks. Inspired by halters used for horses, the design allows the handler to control the dog’s head position and helps reduce pulling. Magic!
Sora would also run away and hide every. single. time. we got out the Gentle Leader. She fought and turned her head when we’d put it on.
We didn’t have to teach her how to walk without pulling because we just used the Gentle Leader.
After reading this great Instagram post from @flashdogtraining, I understood why she resisted so much. A dog’s nose is it’s most sensitive organ, and the straps on this tool place pressure directly on the snout.
Guess what? Sitka wags his tail when I bust out the e-collar. He knows it means we’re going on an adventure.
E-Collar Training Goes an Extra Step
E-collar training actually requires an extra step than positive only.
Larry Krohn, one of the most well known balanced dog trainers explains his method in this Facebook post.
First, he teaches a dog a command using food and marker words. Once the dog knows that command, he introduces the e-collar, pairing it with the food and marker words.
Only when the dog understands a command is the e-collar used to both reinforce behavior or correct for non-compliance.
Myth #3: E-Collars Cause Confusion in Dogs
I found the exact opposite to be true once I began using tools like prong collars and e-collars.
When I relied on treats alone, I was only as valuable as the treats I had or I used them as a bribe. It didn’t matter how much I squealed, engaged in play, walked back and forth along the same street, if I wasn’t constantly shoveling food down my dog’s throat, my dog would find something else more enticing.
I had no idea how to engage my dog otherwise and they had no idea what I wanted from them.
Good trainers don’t just slap an e-collar on a dog and start pushing buttons believing that it will magically change a dog’s behavior. An e-collar won’t be introduced until a dog is fluent in a command, as explained above in #2.
What does cause confusion in dogs is asking for commands before they understand what it means, and then getting mad at them for not doing as they’re told.
This is exactly what happened with Laila and I didn’t understand the disconnect in our communication. I was just always frustrated with her and neither of us were in a place to work together successfully.
Myth #4: E-Collars are Used to Punish Dogs
E-collars are used to both reinforce behaviors the dog already knows, and correct when the dog does not obey or engages in an undesirable behavior using low level stimulation.
By first teaching the dog the commands, we can then use the e-collar to get the dog’s attention, similar to your phone’s vibration when someone is calling you.
As an example: During a hike, I call for Sitka to come using his base stimulation level (about 6 out of 100). At that same moment, he’s caught wind of a squirrel in the vicinity and wants to find that critter.
He hesitates on my first call, so I dial up to 10 and use the continuous button until he decides to release that pressure, and sprints back toward me so that I can re-release him to go find that squirrel (of course, I never allow him to chase our animal friends!)
You know that R+ training uses punishment as well, right?
What? Egad! It can’t be true!
Indeed, my friends.
- Ignoring a dog that jumps on you is negative punishment. (it also doesn’t really work, see this Instagram post)
- Withholding a treat for breaking or not performing a command is negative punishment.
- Removing access to your dog’s favorite window spot because they bark at everything that goes by is negative punishment.
But, that has the word “negative” in it! That can’t be right!
Negative doesn’t mean “good” or “bad.” Negative means “the removal of something” to discourage a behavior.
Myth #5: E-Collar Training is not Science-Based
Here’s the thing with science. It changes constantly. One year scientists prove one concept, the next, they show different results. “Scientific” studies can and do have biased results, depending on the subject.
The fact is that there are not enough quality studies on dog training that support this claim. Research shows that punishment can be effective, particularly when paired with positive reinforcement. Further, there is no evidence that shows that reinforcement is more effective and punishment can result in adverse effects.
This Instagram post by @itshenrythebully does a great job of explaining how science-based claims are not always what they seem and require more studies. And here’s another from university professor who focuses on scientific literacy.
Myth #6: You Can’t Use E-Collars on Small Dogs
Um, why not?
I’ve seen trainers use e-collars with all kinds of dogs, ranging from chihuahuas and dachshunds to Great Pyrenese. Smaller dogs require more delicacy and size-appropriate tools, yes, but there’s no reason one can’t use an e-collar on a small dog.
In fact, e-collars are great tools for highly reactive small dogs who can’t handle a leash correction. The e-collar lets them know that the behavior is not appropriate.
Myth #7: E-Collars Will Make Your Dog Afraid of You
The misconception is that e-collars use intimidation tactics in order to get the dog to do a behavior, but that couldn’t be more incorrect.
Used incorrectly, sure. So can “non-aversive” tools.
I worked with a trainer for Laila who used a Martingale collar. When we wanted Laila to turn, we’d do a sort of snap that, when performed correctly didn’t hurt, but was tricky to get right without yanking. Soon after implementing this tactic, I’d notice Laila flinching and cowering every time I went to make the snap motion.
Case in point. Improper use of any tool can make your dog afraid of you.
With proper conditioning, e-collars are wonderful tools that teach dogs how to make decisions and control the stimulation they receive.
Here’s a great post with several examples comparing appropriate and inappropriate methods of using the e-collar to curb undesirable behaviors.
Myth #8: E-Collars Burn Dogs’ Necks
If you’ve ever read an article discussing the abusive traits of e-collars, then surely you’ve come across horrific images of dogs with “burn marks” on their necks.
These aren’t burn marks. They’re caused by allergies and improper use. Some dogs, including Sitka, have allergies to nickel, the metal used in the contact points on my e-collar. The manufacturer suggested I switch to the hypo-allergenic titanium contact points, and he continued to have allergies.This resulted in scabs.
I’ve since switched to plastic contact points and have had no issues.
The second reason you see photos of “burn marks” is a result of leaving the collar on for too long. The e-collar position must be switched every 2-4 hours, otherwise pressure sores will occur (just as humans experience bed sores when they’re stuck in bed for long periods of time). A properly-fitted collar that is rotated regularly will prevent these sores.
See this Instagram post by my pal @falcothedog for more explanation.
Myth #9: E-Collars Should only be used as a Last Resort
I don’t know about you, but if I learned of a tool that expedited the learning process, bridged the bond between my dog and me, built confidence in my dog, and provided off leash reliability, I wouldn’t wait to try everything else before using this tool.
I get it, it seems like a last ditch effort because you want to try positive reinforcement to see if it will work. Truth be told, not all dogs need to use an e-collar. It depends on your dog’s personality and your lifestyle.
But if you enjoy hiking and trail running and going on other adventures with your dog, then why wait until you’re frustrated and can’t stand your dog?
Think of it like this:
You always wear your seatbelt in the car.
You purchase car, health, and home insurance, just in case.
If you live in the Northwest, you always bring a raincoat, even if the forecast shows sunny skies ahead.
I didn’t get the chance to use the e-collar with Laila and we were both miserable and frustrated. I chose to use it right away after I got Sitka and we’ve been able to enjoy our time together nearly every day since day one.