I am a 99% positive dog trainer and I believe that a properly used E-Collar is an appropriate, helpful and humane training aid for many dogs and owners. Positive trainers, hear me out!
E-Collars are greatly misunderstood! People believe they are a tool of corrections, punishment and force…and we are ready to change that narrative.
If you are unsure what the difference is between an E-Collar and a Shock collar, click here to read our article about it. You may be surprised to learn that there is a HUGE difference!
The truth is that I’ve spent YEARS cringing at any kind of electronic collar, judging people for using them, and paying close attention to the unfortunate behavioral problems that were resulting from their use.
Aggression, fear, confusion and aloof behavior seemed common. It really bothered me. Like many positive leaning dog trainers, I was alarmed, frustrated and sad.
Shock collars are a dated tool that relies on fear, pain, punishment and force.
-A long leash
-A no-pull or front-clip harness
-A head collar or Gentle Leader/Halti
-Running off and being lost, hurt or killed
-Needless restrictions to freedom and choice done in the name of ‘positive only’ learning
What I had not yet realized at the time was that there was a growing movement of ethical, positive dog trainers who were using electronic collars in a different more dog-focused way. I was also unaware that an E-Collar is a very different device than a shock collar!
These trainers were actively speaking out against shock collars and inhumane training methods that relied on sharp static corrections and punishment.
I noticed that their E-Collar trained dogs were happy, engaged, confident, and enjoyed freedoms that my dogs could only dream of. They were not aggressive, edgy, anxious or aloof as the dogs I had seen trained with shock collars and there was no shouting, chasing, frustration or constant management.
Basically put, a properly used E-Collar is no more aversive than a collar, leash or crate. Read on!
Proper E-Collar training relies heavily on the dog having a POSITIVE association with the sensation. Modern E-Collars have 100 levels to choose from (like the Mini-Educator) so the communication for each dog is completely custom.
E-Collars produce a muscle stimulation, not a static shock. Most dogs enthusiastically work at stimulation levels that most humans cannot feel when they try it on themselves.
A lot of people say the sensation, when it’s turned up enough for them to feel it, is similar to marching ants or a small tingle.
The dog is taught to associate that feeling with treats and praise. When this is done correctly they become extremely engaged with and excited about the sensation and the training!
(It’s actually really fun to put a proper E-Collar into the hands of somebody who is expecting to be shocked! They are always nervous because they do not yet understand and are anticipating being very uncomfortable. Once they feel it, their minds quickly change and they are laughing, curious and asking questions!)
When the dog has been conditioned to their E-Collar as above, they learn that the stimulation means to turn and come back. redirect and try something different. It becomes a game for them where they are in control of the stimulation, including turning it down and off by enthusiastically returning (recall).
This is a very different approach than ‘shock and startle’, and allows for the handler to communicate clearly with the dog from a larger distance than with any of the other similar options listed above.
Think of an E-Collar like a walkie-talkie for your dog!
MORE AVERSIVE THAN AN E-COLLAR
Now that we understand the basic concept behind how E-Collars feel to the dog are meant to be used, we can look at training tools and methods that are actually aversive:
- Vibration. Many people rely on the ‘vibration’ button because they don’t want to shock their dog.That’s fair, shock collars SUCK. The truth however is that most dogs find a vibration to be MUCH more aversive than the stim (stimulation) from an E-Collar. Subtle signs of stress include lip licking, scratching, head shaking, cowering, hunched posture, stiffness, shaking off, pinned ears and avoidance.
- Shock Collars. Shock collars deliver a sharp static correction that is painful and has been scientifically proven to increase stress, fear and anxiety. We do NOT recommend shock collars, especially cheap ones from Amazon or pet stores. Shock collar training is a completely different practice and product than E-Collars and E-Collar training.
- Head Collars. These provide constant pressure/stimulation to the head and may cause an over-excited or frightful dog to whip their head around and potentially damage their spine. Head collars also require proper conditioning. Many dogs find them extremely aversive to wear and will pant, paw, become frantic or shut down without proper slow early introductions and desensitization. They work because they are extremely aversive.
- No-Pull Harnesses. These harnesses rely on obstructing the way that the dogs front limbs and shoulders move. They put constant pressure on the chest and impede natural movement, especially if the dog pulls. They are often seen as a ‘positive’ tool, despite this. We do not support the use of no-pull harnesses, nor the notion that they are ‘gentle’ and ‘positive’.
- Electric Invisible Fences. Most (not all) invisible fences rely on automated shock corrections. Shock-based invisible fences are known to increase reactivity and barrier frustration in the yard. The shock correction is typically very harsh and many dogs yelp or cower when they experience it. This includes the HALO GPS fence collar, which unlike an E-Collar, does not teach your dog enthusiastic recall – only avoidance.
- Long Leashes. Long leashes are necessary before a dog has a reliable recall and in areas where being off-leash is illegal or unsafe. Ultimately, however, off-leash freedom (and the gentle stim from an E-Collar that can become the cue to return from a distance) is MUCH less aversive than always being on a long leash, or having the long leash used as a ‘fishing lure’ to drag the dog back. Dogs on a long leash cannot move the same way as a dog off-leash, and freedom from physical restrictions is wonderful for a dogs mental and physical health and condition.
- Collars and Harnesses. Dogs that pull or lunge against any kind of harness or collar may feel pressure and tension on their neck, chest, armpits, stomach and throat. Leash reactivity is often directly related to the built-in physical restrictions and tension of the leash and collar, a sensation that makes many dogs anxious and uncomfortable. On the flip side, a dog that is trained with gentle stim to recall or redirect is more likely able to enjoy off-leash freedom and outdoor exploration, activities which will always be more enriching and less stressful to most dogs than a restrictive walk on pavement.
- Squirt Bottle. Squirt bottles, like shock collars, teach dogs to fear the circumstance and may even teach them to fear water and being sprayed. Many dog owners rely on the squirt bottle as a threat and the dog never really learns right from wrong, which is aversive in and of itself. Unlike E-Collars, no positive association is ever made to being squirted in the face.
- Errorless Learning/Behavior Management. Management is an important and necessary part of dog training! However, when management is used as a supposed ‘positive’ alternative to communication (and yes, appropriate corrections), it may be inhumane and unfair. Read on…
The common response from trainers who wish to avoid any kind of stimulus that could be seen as aversive (including the E-Collar on a low level, used on a dog taught to associate the tingle with treats) will be to advocate for strict behavior management and a positive only approach.
Behavior management includes leashes, escape-proof harnesses, martingale collars, withholding access, gates and crates which can all be used to make sure that the dog cannot make a mistake (such as slipping a collar or jumping a fence).
These are all tools and techniques that can be aversive in and of themselves.
Management is an important part of proper training, however, many overlook how aversive many management techniques can be for the dog.
Dogs need us to communicate with them, and that includes establishing boundaries and giving them the ‘full picture’ of the world they live in. Dogs that live restricted lives with no freedom to make mistakes can become confused and often become needlessly shut down, frantic, anxious, frustrated or reactive.
Isolating a dog from experiences in the name of the long haul ‘positive only/errorless learning’ approach may actually be inhumane and will almost definitely be more aversive to a dog than communication from an E-Collar paired with positive reinforcement.
Endless restrictions to freedom and experiences sucks.
FIGARO, THE FENCE JUMPER
We have a friendly, confident, positively trained (clicker + treats) Great Dane with great recall and polite manners. He’s young, full of life, athletic and awesome. I BELIEVE in positive training!
One day he learned that he could get over the fence, into the neighbors yard to play with their terrier. The neighbor was NOT amused.
To address this, Figaro spent the next three weeks on a long leash in the yard while I taught him new fence boundaries and prevented the behavior. I used a clicker and taught him to redirect away from the fence and to ignore the neighbor dog. IT WORKED!
But the entire time my sweet Dane baby was heartbroken. He HATED being on a leash in the yard. He hunched his head, walked slowly and wouldn’t stay outside with me for long. For most of the three weeks, he moped around the house. This was despite the fact that I did everything I could to make it positive and fun, and despite the fact that anywhere else in the world he was perfectly happy to be on a leash.
If all you’ve ever known was freedom to explore the backyard, how crappy would it be to suddenly have no freedom at all?
The long haul positive approach rooted in strict management and behavior prevention ended up being aversive to him, and he’s not alone!
I now know that a highly-positive approach paired with conditioning to the E-Collar (so he could be off-leash while learning and have the stim available to redirect him if needed) would have been less aversive, faster, more humane and more appropriate for him.
Do not buy into the marketing that tells you a long leash and strict management are better for a dog than an E-Collar! Modern technology and education is changing this narrative.
OH, BUT WHAT ABOUT THE STUDIES?
For every study out there claiming that shock collars and E-Collars are bad, there is another study claiming that they are a perfectly acceptable.
These studies are often flawed. No distinction is made between a shock collar and the E-Collar (they often lump the two devices into the same, which is a massive fault in the origins of the study), and no practice is made of making sure the Electric collar trained dogs in the study had been properly and positively conditioned to the collar in the first place.
Most studies that indicate elevated stress levels associated with electronic collars were done on dogs where the ‘Easy button’ method was used, and training only took place over the course of days or at best, weeks.
In other words, the training method being ‘studied’ often involved asking a dog for a recall, offering very little positive reinforcement, required a lot of dogs in a short period of time and used the stim or shock to ‘punish’ them for not coming when called.
Of course that is going to elevate stress levels, especially in the context of the unusual environment of a study! The stim is not meant to be used as a punishment, and shock collars will never be an appropriate training tool. So comparing those studies to the way modern, positive trainers are using E-Collars isn’t fair.
The correct approach to E-Collar training a recall involves creating a positive association including happy, engaged body language to the stim (R+), developing a foundation in recall using treats and praise (R+), using a long leash to prevent errors, and then teaching the dog that stim + come = come back (R+, again).
Many E-Collar trainers then strengthen the recall by also teaching the dog that the feeling of the stim (marching ants) becomes weaker the closer the dog gets to the handler (making recall even MORE rewarding through a very gentle version of ‘negative reinforcement’ where the dog is completely in control of the stim, not the handler).
Is the stimulation annoying? At some levels, yes, it can be. But as above, so is a long leash. The difference here is that the E-Collar provides freedom and choice, while the long leash does not.
THINK OF IT LIKE A CLICKER, TREATS OR BRAIN GAMES.
E-Collars do not have to be aversive, painful or punishing. As a matter of fact, it is a huge mistake to use them that way.
We think there is space for E-Collars in the positive trainers toolbox, especially with the knowledge that the stim is less aversive to most dogs than many traditional techniques and tools. Many owners and trainers report that after just a few weeks of E-Collar conditioning, their dogs are happier, calmer, easier to live with and much, much more confident!
E-Collars can lead to more freedom; natural movement, unobstructed by collars and harnesses, and well-trained dogs that understand how to play the stim AND the treat game.
Communication, not corrections.
Ready to get started with E-Collars? Interested in learning more about how to use them the RIGHT way?
Use code ECOLLARMAGIC for $10 off, and we are here to help!