High tech dog training
This month’s column is a bit off of the normal beaten path since I’m not going to be writing about what is happening in the Blue Ridge in October like I normally do. I know most of you regular readers are familiar with the beauty this magnificent area of the Commonwealth offers during the fall so I am relying on you to dig into your memory banks and go ahead a plan a drive through the countryside.
Recently, a friend asked how I trained my dogs, since they’re reliably well behaved and calm in public. She was surprised when I said I used an electronic collar for training them. “You use a shock collar?” she asked in disbelief. She—and many people—seemed ready to believe that electronic collars are cruel and inhumane. Because I had the collar in my training bag in my truck, I pulled it out and to her surprise the dogs crowded around it, excitedly wagging their tails and nudging my hand as if to say, “Me, me! Put it on me!” To my dogs, who wear it for every training session whether or not it’s actually used, that collar means they get to train with me one on one; they’ll get retrieves and they might even get real birds. Now, granted they are all hunting retrievers, and most also compete at high levels in hunt tests and field trials, so they do get more, and more advanced training than the average house pet. But for many performance dogs that work or compete at advanced levels of training, the electronic collar is an important part of the trainer’s tool kit.
Just like with raising children, training dogs brings out strong opinions in people. Some believe in all positive training with no punishment (in dog training, these are called all-positive trainers) and some believe in a mix of praise and correction. Both normally hold strong opinions about the other’s methods. All positive trainers do not use training collars or any other aids except clickers and treats. Many family pets can be successfully trained using attrition and all positive methods. However, just as many dogs, especially those bred to hunt, learn faster using a mix of praise and corrections. There is no one size fits all way to train a dog, since their personalities and temperament can vary so much. But they are not humans, no matter how much we make them parts of our family—and indeed, many training problems stem from humans’ lack of ability to communicate with them. For instance, a dog learns nothing from being put in a time out nor do they learn from being told how much we love them. They learn best from repetition, coupled with praise when they get it right and correction when they ignore a taught command.
Dog training has evolved today to where our canine companions can be trained to do amazing things, from drug detection, to searching for escaped criminals or missing persons, to bomb, accelerant and explosive sniffing, to service dogs that aid people with disabilities. Today’s modern training collars have many features and are used to reinforce trained commands for many different types of behaviors, as well as extinguish undesired ones. Most also have a pager or beeper that can be used for positive reinforcement, or even warnings. And a word about the electronic stimulation—at low and medium levels, the dog feels an uncomfortable buzz much like static electricity. Even at the highest levels, the dog cannot be physically burned or shocked hard enough to cause any physical harm, but a higher level may save a dog’s life if it’s running toward a highway or chasing a crippled duck across rotten ice. Still, the adjustable levels do require a trainer to be well versed in the use and the sensitivity level of the particular dog he is working with before using any type of collar.
Electronic collars are not exactly new; they’ve been around as an aid to help people train dogs for over 40 years. Invisible fence and bark collars have become an invaluable aid to help people contain their dogs and keep them from barking when they might otherwise be forced by animal control to give up their dogs or worse. Electronic fences have helped owners keep their dogs in their own yards in areas where dog proof fencing might be prohibited by a property owners association; and bark collars have been a godsend to people with noisy dogs that only bark when the owner is absent prompting complaints from landlords or neighbors.
Hunters were probably the first group of people to use electronic collars regularly to train their hunting dogs when they first became available. The modern training collar, as well as training methodology, has a wide variety of aids for the trainer including tracking via GPS, knowing when and where a dog is on point, and communication/control at a distance. Training collars have been around for many years but today have evolved into the many useful functions of today’s modern electronic training collar. Most of them have variable settings for tone and/or vibration as well as electronic stimulation. Hunting retrievers, for example, are often called upon in both field trials and real hunting situations to obey their handler’ commands at a great distance, often over 300 yards. They may, for example, be called off a dead bird that lands in close, to retrieve a bird they did not see fall, called a blind retrieve. The handler must direct that dog past the close bird it sees to the one it did not see that landed out several hundred yards. In this case the dog is taught to take handler commands such as sit (or turn around and tread water) at a distance on a whistle until the handler gives hand signals to send the dog in the correct direction. This same skill set is taught to IED detection dogs used in war.
Often erroneously called shock collars by their detractors, these modern collars are not made to simply shock dogs with electricity. In fact they are not really used to train, they are simply a tool a trainer uses to reinforce commands the dog has already been taught. Animal rights crusaders try to paint them as cruel by calling them shock collars when the reality is, the real cruelty is the great numbers of dogs that end up in shelters because they weren’t trained at all. Lack of training is far more detrimental to the dog population in general than any use of electronic collar. While it is true that these collars might be able to receive a painful jolt if used on the highest setting, even this will not cause any physical damage. To my knowledge, there has never been a single case of animal cruelty involving use of an ecollar.
Is the electronic collar right for my dog?
For the average pet owner, an electronic training collar is probably not needed unless you are a student of training and/or desire to train your dog to a higher level than the basics of sit, stay and come when called. They’re expensive—good ones usually run over $300 when often an $80 training class is what Pooch needs, not an ecollar. If you can’t train your dog without the collar, you won’t be able to train him with one.
The collars are no panacea nor substitute for regular lessons on the journey to having a well trained dog. Dogs are situational learners. Just because he sits, stays and heels on and off lead at home does not mean he’ll do that in public. And if he hasn’t been properly socialized, he’ll get overexcited in the presence of other dogs and people. Training classes are the best way to socialize a puppy or young dog and offer ways to proof those commands while getting him accustomed to other dogs and strangers in a controlled environment. I take all my young dogs through training classes because we live on a farm, so they don’t see as many strange people and dogs as city and suburban dogs might.
Dogs that are good candidates for collar training are those that are solid on sit, stay and come at home and in public, and owners who are prepared to put the time in to learn how to properly use the collar for more advanced work, or who desire to train to participate in organized dog sports where remote control is essential. Many types of modern collars can be beneficial to the average pet owner, such as remote tracking collars, bark or invisible fence collars. Whenever contemplating the use of any electronic collar, be sure and educate yourself first on their use and first consult a professional.
Written by: Julie Reardon
Julie Reardon was born in Alexandria and grew up there but moved to the countryside beyond the beltway in her late 20s. She owns and operates Hope Springs Farm in Fauquier County where she boards horses and breeds, raises and trains Chesapeake Bay Retrievers.