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How E-Collars Work

Some people swear by electronic collars (also called “e collars,” “stim collars,” or “shock collars”),  and some would never even consider putting one on their dog. Recently several countries in Europe have begun banning them; the Humane Society of the United States and the American Veterinary Association have officially recommended against them, and the number of both professional trainers and pet dog owners who use them is greatly reduced.


So how do they work? And what makes some people such believers in them? And what makes some other people so against them?


The core function of the e-collar is to discourage unwanted behavior by providing an electrical shock whenever the dog does it. Once the dog learns that the behavior causes the shock, the idea is that he will avoid doing the behavior in order to avoid the shock. The electric shock consequence can be given for either something the dog does of its own volition, such as barking, or for failure to respond to the handler’s command.


More sophisticated uses of the e-collar involve some sort of “warning” tone or vibration so that the dog is aware that it needs to act immediately in order to avoid the shock. For example, the handler will cue “Sit” and if the dog fails to sit immediately, the warning sound or vibration will happen. The dog knows that if it doesn’t comply, it will receive the shock, so it complies.


E-collars do sound tempting for many owners – an option for off-leash control, an option that really lets your dog know you mean business when you issue a request. And some trainers really like them and use them for every dog.


The main danger with an E-collar is the chance that the dog will begin to associate the shock not with the digging, jumping, running away etc that you want him to associate it with, but instead will associate it with random other things that happen to be in the environment at the same time. For example, if you are using an E-collar to teach the dog not to jump up on people (the dog jumps up, you beep/correct him), he may definitely learn not to jump up on people. But if he associates the sound with the people instead (here’s some people!, you beep/correct him), he may become wary or even aggressive towards those people. This is actually really common, and is one of the main reasons that most trainers really avoid recommending E-collars – an aggression problem is much, much worse than an overly-friendly dog who jumps on people.


In the right situation, for the right dog, with the right handler, an E-collar can work without potential for side effects. There may also be a situation where the need for immediate suppression of the dog's behavior is so great that it outweighs the risk. (Things like chasing livestock and rattlesnake avoidance are still fairly common applications for the E-collar.) But to use an E-collar fairly and correctly, the handler’s skill and timing must be impeccable. Beginner handlers who are struggling to control their dogs are often the first to want to gain control by using an E-collar, but the more inexperienced you are, the worse of a choice it is. It is unfair and potentially inhumane to subject the dog to shocks as the handler figures out, through trial and error, how to use the system. So only a highly experienced trainer should even attempt this tool. And you know the saying, “If you’re a good enough trainer that you can use an E-collar correctly, you’re a good enough trainer not to need one!”


The thing that really bothers me, though, about e-collar training is that the majority of the time, people use them to achieve the appearance of a trained relationship with their dog, without the actual trained relationship with their dog. People can spend literally years working with their dog to achieve the true connection and friendship that ultimately results in off-leash freedom and reliability. It’s organic and natural and the bond runs deep. You know the ins and outs of your dog and your dog is almost an extension of you. It’s a beautiful relationship to have and a beautiful one to observe. Like any relationship, it takes a while to get it to that level, and it is worth the time. A dog who, no matter what the environment presents, will choose you instead. Every time. Contrast this with an “I want my dog to be off-leash so I’ll make it so he can’t get away by shocking him if he tries.” Yes, it will work; your dog will be off-leash maybe earlier and younger than my dog, but what you’ve got is just an empty shell of that great organic and natural relationship. I'm after the real stuff, and hopefully you are too.

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