E-Collar Introduction Part 1

Paul Fuller is the gun dog columnist for Northwoods Sporting Journal. The Journal has granted permission to re-print Paul’s articles. Thank you Northwoods Sporting Journal

June 2011

Over the centuries, man has used some pretty cruel methods to correct unwanted dog behavior. Shooting dogs with bird shot, whipping and early vintage “shock” collars were all rather barbaric forms of correction for poor manners. Fortunately, we’ve come a long way in developing more compassionate methods of correction.

The most significant contribution to modern dog training is the e-collar. If understood by the trainer and introduced and used correctly, it’s about as foolproof a training system as you’ll find. If, however, it’s not understood and used incorrectly, it’s a vicious tool that can quickly ruin a dog for life. For regular readers of this column, you know that it’s the “ruin a dog for life” part that really concerns me. Too often the amateur dog owner will simply buy an e-collar and put it to use in the field before any proper introduction to the dog. Also, the amateur dog owner almost always overly stimulates. The result is disastrous. Through cause and effect, the dog associates the unpleasant stimulus with birds and hunting. He’s suddenly been taught that the field, birds and hunting are to be avoided because he associates those activities with an unpleasant experience.

A basic understanding of the purpose and function of an e-collar will help avoid many of the problems associated with improper e-collar use.

There are many ways of communicating with our dog. We use voice commands, whistles, clickers, hand directions and then we have the e-collar. The e-collar is the only tool, if introduced properly, which gives you immediate correction at a distance. The key word here is “immediate.” A dog has no connection to delayed correction. And, a “cause and effect” connection is important or the correction has no value.

Introduction to the e-collar is always done during yard training…it’s never introduced in the field. Also, it’s never used to teach a command. After a dog understands a command, it’s used to correct non-compliance with that command. Once a dog learns that he can get away with non-compliance, he’ll continue to test you and then be much harder to correct. More pressure does not lead to a more stylish dog. Early correction is important.

E-collar training is negative reinforcement. We’ve covered negative and positive reinforcement in earlier columns, however, in simple terms, negative reinforcement means that for the dog to stop an unpleasant stimulus (cause), he must perform a certain act or stop a certain act (effect). Positive reinforcement means that for performing an act (cause), the dog receives praise or a treat (effect).

The first step is buying an e-collar. All the major manufacturers make good collars. If you’re a first time buyer, start with a basic unit that will allow you to add a beeper. Begin with a unit that has both stimulus and a tone or vibration. For stimulus, you’ll want several levels of stimulation. An important note here is that not all manufacturers deliver the same stimulation for the same level. After buying your first e-collar, actually hold the collar stimulus prongs and feel the charge for levels 1 through 3 so you understand what you’re delivering to your dog. The Tri-Tronics Sport Upland G3 is a good starter e-collar. 

Some pro-trainers begin cause and effect yard training with the clicker. I may yet be convinced but I’m not a big believer in clicker training for field dogs. I already have a whistle around my neck and an e-collar transmitter on my belt…do I need yet another tool on my pocket?

Remember that we said earlier that the e-collar is not used to teach a command; it’s used to correct non-compliance with a command already learned. So, where do we begin e-collar training? We begin by introducing the e-collar to a command that typically has compliance at least 60 to 80% without use of the e-collar. This is very important. We’re introducing the e-collar in the yard to insure 100% compliance in the field.

Most pro-trainers pick a command for e-collar introduction that will never be used in the field. The reason is to avoid association with the field, birds and hunting. The “kennel” command is a good example for introduction to the e-collar. We typically begin kennel training by leading a puppy to his crate, putting him in and then rewarding with a treat. Famous trainer Delmar Smith taught us that dogs learn in sets of three or seven. For puppies, I recommend three repetitions done twice daily. For the first week, don’t use a verbal command. Simply lead to the kennel, place in the kennel and deliver treat. After one week, introduce the verbal command “kennel”. Continue with the verbal command until the dog displays full understanding of the command.

At six to eight months, you may introduce the e-collar. The first step is to find the lowest level of stimulation, which will trigger recognition by the dog. Do this by starting with Level 1. Work your way up the levels of stimulation slowly and watch for recognition. The dog is suddenly looking around for something that caused the tickle and will display recognition. They’ll often look at the ground for the intruder. They display somewhat of a puzzled look. Identifying the point where you’re dog initially recognizes stimulation is important…all e-collar training begins at this point. No matter what brand you bought, you’ll seldom need to go beyond the three levels for first stimulus recognition.

Now that we have a dog that understands a command (kennel), we introduce the e-collar. Here’s how we associate a command with stimulus. Apply the lowest level of stimulation and then give the command “kennel” When the dog is fully in the kennel, release the stimulus button and treat. This learning process is usually very quick. The dog learns that by following the command, the stimulus is turned-off. It’s now time to reverse the process, which will help teach the dog that the verbal command and stimulation are the same. Give the command “kennel” and follow immediately with low stimulation. Again, turn-off the stimulus as soon as the dog has entered the kennel. Now, go back to just using the verbal “kennel” command. Repeat until you have 100% compliance. The dog has made a connection and now learns that by obeying the verbal command, he’s turned off the stimulus.

We now have a dog that associates a command with stimulus. We’ve laid the foundation for all future e-collar training. Next month we’ll cover why we introduce the e-collar to already obedient students and introducing the e-collar for several additional commands.