E-Collars: Just 'cause you can doesn't mean you should
E-collars... aka stim collars aka static correction collars aka impulse collars aka Dogtra collars aka remote training collars aka shock collars... I could go on. Why so many names for the same device? Well that would be because of the constant shifts in marketing trying to find a catchy way to sell these devices. This is because e-collars are one of the most hotly debated topics in dog training. If religion and politics are off the table, then so are e-collars. For the remainder of this article I will only refer to the devices as an e-collar, out of respect for the conversation and to be sympathetic to those still trying to navigate the most treacherous minefield in dog training.
(Note: I put some words in this section in quotes because these terms are what the e-collar community uses and I want you the reader to know that I am not agreeing nor disagreeing with them. Instead this is my attempt to neutrally present them to you. )
E-collars are a remote controlled collar with multiple levels of "electrical stimulation". The "electrical stimulation" is controlled by a remote control held by the owner/handler. The exception to this is "invisible" boundary containment systems, which I am saving for another article. E-collar trainers explain that the "electrical stimulation" is delivered in "continuous stimulation" and "momentary stimulation". During "continuous stimulation" the dog receives a "constant period of pulsating stimulation" until the owner releases the button or the automatic shut off kicks in - if the device has this feature. During "momentary stimulation" the button is pressed quickly on the remote and the dog receives a quick stimulation lasting less than a second. Some collars also have a vibration or tone setting that can also be used as a warning or reminder as well as to get the dogs attention.
So that is the nuts and bolts of the collar and I will tell you right now that you can definitely train a dog with one. But before you run out and buy one, let me explain how they actually work. During the "electrical stimulation" the dog is being shocked. Plain and simple, an electic shock is being delivered to the dog. How mild depends on the setting on the device and how kind the operator is feeling. The "continuous stimulation" is supposed to teach the dog that the shock will not stop until the dog does the right behavior. Success at this is dependent on the dog's previous training and the skills of the operator to explain to the dog what is being asked. Or in the case of poor training, the dog must, through some miracle, figure it out for themselves. The "momentary stimulation" is meant as a distractor or reminder to the dog that a "continuous stimulation" will occur if they do not perform correctly.
There are some trainers that use the tone/vibration exclusively without using either of the "stimulation" methods. Some dogs are so sensitive that the vibration is off putting enough to get the correct response. Also some dogs have been trained to respond to the tone/vibration as if it were a clicker. This can work well for deaf dogs.
How strong is the shock from an e-collar?
Source: Philips Testing Service (a division of Philips Consumer Electronics Company)
***Note: "remote trainer set on high level was not disclosed)
- A "remote trainer" set on a low level emits 0.000005 joules (5 microjoules). ***
- A "bark collar" set on a high level emits 0.0003 joules (300 microjoules).
- A "muscle stimulation machine" set on a "normal level" emits 2.0 joules.
- A "muscle stimulation machine" set on a "high level" it emits 6.0 joules.
- An electric fence energizer [a "charged fence" – not a pet containment system] emits 3.2 joules.
- A modern defibrillator can emit up to 360 joules.
Can of Worms
Ok, so we are talking about a collar that delivers a shock to an animal. It is important to remember that not everyone is horrified by this idea. In fact, there is a very passionate following of people willing to deliver such an expereince to an animal. Some are even willing to attach more than one collar to a single dog. Those who support the devices have their reasons and they are not invalid. Many claim that it has allowed their dogs to run freely, keep them safe away from busy roads, away from dangerous snakes and allows them to be trained for hunting. There are also e-collar detractors. Those who swear these devices are cruel and support banning them. These concerns are not unfounded either. As of writing this, there are many places around the world where e-collars are banned. So let me look at this as kindly as possible.
Full disclosure - before I made my transition into the trainer I am today and was just getting into understanding dog training in general, I let an e-collar trainer demonstrate this training method on one of my dogs. This was 9 years ago. It took my dog over 5 years to get over an anxiety problem that appeared shortly after this one training session. Coinicidence? I don't know, but I take it into consideration.
I could go on and on presenting every arguement for and against e-collars but I prefer to sum it up in one consideration... It is so easy for humans to assume how a dog percieves an experience. Yet as we learn from new study after new study (thank you SPARCS Initiative!) that we know so very little about how dogs percieve the world around them. Every e-collar website says the collar "tells the dog"... yet it can't actually tell the dog anything. The dog has to experience a strange sensation or muscle twitch and understand how that relates to everything going on around them. They then have to realize that it applies to something they are doing. That is a complicated set of instructions for a creature that does not speak any human tongue.
I wrote previously about a similar experience I had with of all things, my Apple Watch. But the result is the same. We can test and theorize these devices all we want, but in the end we can take them off, we can say stop. A dog can't. A dog has to figure out what is happening and why with almost zero input from the person assigned to guide them and teach them. Is that fair?
Let me break down the argument the way I look at it... You are chosing above all other training, to shock a dog. What has gone so horribly in your training to choose this tool/method? How long did you try all other training, because I promise, there is an alternative. When I see a dog with that box around it's neck, I am not judging the dog or the owner. Instead I am sad that all other training failed you somehow and you're left with this. I empathize with how deeply you needed a specific outcome and I hope someday you have it so that both you and your dog are happy. If you ever want to take that box off, I promise I can find someone to give you the same results without it. But until you can trust other methods again, I wish you good luck on your journey.