Let's Talk About E-Collars
If you’ve stepped into the world of dog training and taken a look around, even briefly, you’ve probably noticed that there is a great deal of controversy surrounding the various training methods. Perhaps one of the most controversial of these methods is the E-collar, also known as a shock collar or remote collar.
This device would fall into the category of aversive/punishment-based training methods. Essentially, the dog learns to be obedient in an effort to avoid something unpleasant. This method of training relies on corrections to train the dog – decrease the number of unwanted behaviors in order to achieve the desired result. Alternatively, reinforcement-based methods are centered around teaching the dog what behaviors are wanted – increasing the number of wanted behaviors in order to achieve the desired result.
E-collars are a very popular tool among dog trainers in my area, and though I personally choose not to use them in my practice, I do agree that they can be effective when teaching off-leash commands, such as recall. I’ve heard it said, in fact, that the only way to teach a solid off-leash recall is by using a remote collar, however studies have shown that reinforcement-based methods are just as effective – and don’t pose any threat to the well-being of the animal. Despite their effectiveness in off-leash, remote training, E-collars are not without their consequences. I would say that there is currently a severe lack of research regarding the use of E-collars for dog training, though one of the leading studies that has been conducted “did find behavioral evidence that use of e-collars negatively impacted on the welfare of some dogs during training even when training was conducted by professional trainers using relatively benign training programs advised by e-collar advocates.”
My purpose here is not to eschew trainers who use E-collars. It is really a decision on the part of the trainer and owner based on what is viewed as ethical practice. There is no black or white, it is a subjective decision. I simply want to keep the conversation going as I have had an influx of clients who have been told by previous trainers that the E-collar was completely safe and without risks for their dog. Needless to say, that was not the case and now those owners are seeking help from another source to resolve the problems caused by the use of remote collars. As dog trainers, and dog lovers, we need to be honest and open in discussing which dogs are appropriate candidates for e-collar training, and which are not.
An appropriate dog is one with an already solid and confident temperament who simply needs work on off-leash obedience, and maybe a simple behavioral issue such as chasing. Most likely, few corrections will need to be made to achieve these goals, and the dog is not likely to suffer much, if any, as a result of the training method. It is worth noting here that the efficacy of training is a direct result of the proficiency of the trainer. Training with remote collars, or ANY aversive method, requires precision in timing of the correction, restraint in the use of force and a lot of patience. I would not encourage dog owners to use aversive methods on their own. If you are going this route, please seek the help of an experienced, knowledgeable trainer.
So which dogs are inappropriate candidates? Any dog that does not fall into the above category is probably not an appropriate candidate for remote collar training. Dog’s that have an unstable temperament can be easily made worse through the use of aversive training. Dogs with fear, anxiety, reactivity or aggression issues should not be treated with an E-collar. If an E-collar is to be used, it should be used strictly for the purpose of obedience training (with an appropriate dog). Under no circumstances would I ever recommend attempting behavior modification with a remote collar. There is way too much risk involved, and chances are it is going to exacerbate the existing behavior.
For example, one of my current clients took her reactive dog to an E-collar trainer last year, hoping to correct her dog’s extreme reactivity. The reactive behavior was undoubtedly terrifying to passersby and it appeared that the dog was truly aggressive (she wasn’t). Despite the owner’s discomfort with using such a device, the previous trainer assured her that the e-collar was totally harmless and would be the solution she had been looking for. Long story short…it wasn’t. The reactivity worsened and the dog ended up biting.
When we use aversives for behavior modification, we essentially pair an already triggering stimulus with a physical sensation - a sensation that many dogs find unpleasant. Does the dog know where that sensation came from? No. But what he does know, as an animal that learns through association, is that it occurred at the same time as the trigger. The physical sensation and the trigger are now linked. This often causes the fear, anxiety, aggression, etc. to actually increase, rather than go away. I truly wish that this was an isolated incident, however, I have taken many cases just like this one.
If you are considering using E-collar training for your dog, please take the time to first consider if your dog is an appropriate candidate for this method. If so, your best bet is to seek out an experienced trainer who can guide you through the process and help you achieve the best possible results. If the idea of using E-collars for training is not appealing to you, then rest assured that you have plenty of other training options in the realm of reinforcement-based methods.
Christine Fasan is the head trainer and canine behaviorist at K9H. She specializes in German Shepherd Dogs and healing reactivity in dogs of all breeds. K9 Holistics offers dog training and behavior modification in St. Petersburg and throughout Pinellas County and Tampa Bay. We also offer pet care services including dog walking and pet sitting. Please contact Christine at firstname.lastname@example.org.