Some people unfamiliar with remote training collars view them as inhumane. When used correctly, nothing could be further from the truth.
Electronic training collars, or remote training collars, have been around a long time. Trainers of working dogs enforcing commands from a distance embraced the earliest models. Those early collars had limited stimulation settings, and it was not very friendly for the dog wearing it. Their utility as a training tool, however, could not be denied.
About 20 years ago, a shift happened in the training community that brought on a gentler way of training. The brand leaders of remote training collars responded, and today’s collars are a product of that gentle evolution.
Are Training Collars ‘Shock Collars’?
People ask me this all of the time. In person, it’s easy to take the collar off of my BFF, ask the person to hold it in their hand and depress a continuous stimulation button. At level 1, where most of my canines are, the sensation is barely perceivable. Plus, nerve tissue in a human hand is likely much more sensitive than in a canine’s neck.
The reality is that the stimulation — when properly adjusted — annoys the dog, but it doesn’t hurt it. I know this because I test the collars before they go on my canines every day by holding the contact points in the palm of my hand and hitting the stimulation button. The sensation might be similar to an insect crawling on your skin.
For perspective, the vibrate feature on my Garmin ForeRunner HRM watch is more of an annoyance to me than level 1 on any of my remote training collars. When I am doing my physical training and go outside of my target training zone, my watch starts buzzing. It is annoying. I adjust my pace to turn the annoyance off, which is the same principle behind remote training collars.
As pro trainer Bill Grimmer pointed out, a remote training collar is analogous to the seat belt beeper in your car. You get in, turn on the ignition, and if you don’t buckle up, the beeper goes off. It’s irritating, so you buckle up to turn it off. For most of us, we now buckle up without thought. That beeper has trained us.
Why Use a Remote Training Collar?
The basis for canine training is the basis for motivating and changing behavior for humans as well – from toddlers to corporate managers. You have to establish expectations and communicate them in a way that the subject will understand. You also have to have the ability to correct behavior.
Let’s say that your furry friend responds nearly 100 percent of the time when they are on a lead. Off-lead, the response isn’t as dependable. If you don’t have a way to reinforce the command, you are training them that it’s okay to ignore you when off-lead. If you have to ask more than once, you’re training them that this is a request that they may obey at their convenience. In that instance, you have zero ability to enforce the command.
Some may think using a remote collar is an authoritarian approach, and that ego is involved. Nothing could be further from the truth. What it comes down to is safety. Say, for example, you’re on an outing when your dog scents and sights a deer. It takes off after the deer. There may be a busy highway a few hundred yards away, a couple of hundred feet of loose talus with huge exposure, or another person nearby may have an aggressive and dangerous canine. Suddenly, the need for a command that is obeyed 100 percent of the time becomes very real.
Martin Deeley, a professional trainer and executive director of the International Association of Canine Professionals, provided us with very rich commentary on this subject. He nicely summarized off-lead situations.
“In off leash environments, e-collars provide the ability to communicate with your dog, guiding and helping them to avoid potentially dangerous situations,” Deeley said.
“Dogs in training are often over-talked, over-touched and over-excited by a trainer,” Deeley added. “The e-collar allows us and the dog to be calmer, and it creates a less intrusive way to help the dog learn and make the right decisions.”
With a remote training collar, you are always in the position to gently enforce a command. Getting to that point is not plug and play. There is a process that takes months of work that must be carefully followed to fully realize. It is called collar conditioning.
Remote Dog Training Collars: Get Started
Before you start collar conditioning, your pup must know its basic obedience commands. I cannot stress how important this is.
In my canine’s vocabulary, there is “sit,” “come,” and “heel.” There is no “stay.” The canine is trained to “sit,” for example, until told to do otherwise. These commands and the canine’s response are not negotiable. I issue commands once, and if not obeyed, I enforce them. You do not ask three times.
This level of obedience allows me to take them wherever I go – from hikes in Colorado’s Weminuchee Wilderness to remote camps in Alaska, where really big bears are encountered every day. If my dog bolts after a bear in Alaska, it will be a really, really bad day for everyone.
Allow me to state, again: If your canine does not know its basic commands, it is not ready for a remote training collar. If you do not know how to train those basic commands, you should enlist the services of a professional trainer – one who trains working dogs for things like search and rescue, explosives detection, and hunting.
Collar conditioning starts well before you will ever use the collar. The first step is for your four-legged companion to recognize that at the beginning of their day, the collar goes on. It is part of their bling – nothing more. You want them to associate the collar with walks, going out, and playing. They should be used to the collar as a part of everyday life.
Remote training collars are our BFF’s everyday collar. They rock a name tag, and we’ve marked the collars up with our contact info. I like redundancy in any critical system. The collar’s power stays off unless we are training, or if we are in a situation where I might need to enforce a command.
The most important part of using a remote training collar is selecting the stimulation level. Every collar will have a variety of levels. They start at barely perceptible to the human hand and go up from there. According to Deeley, “The sensation produced should be adjusted to a level that the dog understands and accepts as part of the training communication.”
When training, I adjust my dog’s collar a notch tighter than usual. For the collar to work, the contact points need to be touching skin. If your canine has a long coat, your collar brand of choice will come with longer contact points that will help. My guideline for short- to medium-hair dogs is how many fingers I can slip underneath their collar. Two is good. Three fingers underneath the collar probably means that it is too loose, and the contact points are not touching the skin. It is important not to over-tighten, as the constriction can lead to muscular strain.
Sit your pup in front of you. Set the stimulation level to its lowest setting. Then, depress the continuous stimulation button on your transmitter. Work up from the lowest stimulation level, until your furry friend seems annoyed by something.
The response that you are looking for is not a yelp or pain. It will be a vibe of confusion. It will be like a fly buzzing around your BFF’s head, an annoyance – nothing more. That’s your baseline.
If your BFF vocalizes, if their ears go down, or if they tuck their tail underneath their body, that means the stimulation is too high. According to DVM Katie Barrowclough, canines have more muscles in their neck compared to humans. As far as nerve tissue, Dr. Barrowclough said, “[Canines] feel pain but their reactions to it are much different than humans. Dog’s evolutionary tool to survival is to hide pain and act stoic to protect themselves from vulnerability, which can make it hard for us to identify their pain.”
Dr. Barrowclough’s last statement is important to remember when training with a remote training collar or anytime you suspect that your BFF may have sustained an injury. If you see an overt reaction, it is probably a level of discomfort that would be very unacceptable to humans. That makes it most definitely unacceptable for man’s best friend.
Coming When Called
The basis of collar conditioning is that the annoyance goes away when your dog obeys you. The best way to do this is to reinforce the “come” command. As we said before, your companion must already know this command.
Grab a 20 to 30-foot piece of cord or rope. My favorite is half-inch climbing webbing. Tie a small loop in one end with a figure of eight knot, and form a noose collar at one end. This device is known as a check cord. You don’t want to attach it to the remote collar. That may compromise the contact points from doing their job.
Give your BFF the “sit” command. It will be natural for your BFF to fidget. If they will not reliably sit when told, then take a giant step back in your training. You, the trainer with a superior intellect, have not fully trained your canine to sit. This is on you, not your dog.
Once the animal is sitting, back off 10 to 20 feet. Stimulate them with the continuous button at their baseline setting, while simultaneously giving the “come” command with great enthusiasm. Then, gently guide them toward you with the check cord. When they are within arm’s reach, release the button. This is a time for big praise. Tell them what an awesome canine they are. Let them know, in no uncertain terms, that this is exactly the behavior that you want. As I tell people, canine training is a lot of theatrics.
The process of the canine learning to turn the annoyance off by obeying is the entire principle behind obedience training with a remote collar.
The trainer must do this process over and over in different settings. After you’ve done it in your yard, take them to a place with more distractions (like a playground) and repeat. Every time you give the “come” command, be prepared to issue stimulation if they do not obey. Furthermore, treat every time you issue the “come” command as a learning opportunity for your dog. As the party with superior intellect, you need to look for and anticipate these situations. Those situations are not a pain in the butt; they are awesome training opportunities.
Note that some dogs will bolt when stimulated. That is the result of the trainer teaching their pet that they can outrun the distance of the signal. This is why you work with a check cord until the only way that your dog knows to turn the annoyance off is by obeying – not bolting.
How You Should (and Should NOT) Use a Training Collar
A remote training collar is a super powerful tool because it enables you to enforce commands at a distance. This buys your BFF freedom to be off-lead– knowing that if a deer, skunk, other human, or a fast-moving dump truck come into your space, you have complete control. You have the ability to enforce a command at any distance.
Deeley nicely summarized it by saying, “The e-collar is a training tool that enhances communication, provides consistent reliable feedback even at increasing distance, and it creates a positive relationship with reduced stress between the dog and handler to help accomplish training goals.”
As it is a powerful tool for good, it can also be abused. Too often, I have seen handlers and owners turn stimulation up past the place where it is an annoyance. Don’t be that dog-ruining d-bag. If your canine is not responding, it’s likely that your training progression has failed somewhere along the way. Take a step or two back in that progression. If you’re having a bad day, don’t even turn your pup’s collar on. Don’t let your problems tempt you to take out your frustrations on that living, breathing being that adores you.
This is your starting point. It’s simply a basic tutorial for utilizing a remote training collar.
From this point, I highly recommend that you work with a trainer in your area who trains working dogs, and who trains your breed. The nuances and timing for a retriever – which has been bred to work with the handler – can be totally different for canines that were bred to work independently from the handler (like a pointer). A remote training collar will run a few hundred dollars, so budget to spend around $100 more to enlist a trainer to help you truly understand the process.
And, as a follow up to this piece, here are three mid-level e-collars that I recommend.