No matter how much we wish it would or pretend it is so, the tools debate shows no sign of slowing down. A study was published recently that on the surface seems to back up the claims from the anti-e collar group that even best practice use of the collar is more stressful than the alternative. The Vice President of the AKC, Gina DiNardo, threw her hat in the ring recently, appearing on the Fox Network to say that she, and by extension the AKC, didn’t believe that “shock” collar use was humane. Even the Washington Post got in on the conversation with a scathing review of the study’s findings, saying, “Though the collars are efficient, the study concluded that there was no consistent benefit to using electronic shock collars that would outweigh the negative effect on the welfare of any misbehaving mutt.”
Online, the study caused barely a ripple, but DiNardo’s comments created an uproar. Competitors and trainers who have long used e collars and supported the AKC by paying high fees to enter their trials were justifiably outraged over her comments and the AKC’s subsequent refusal to retract them. Anti-collar advocates cheered at the prospect that the AKC would indeed enact an e collar ban. Despite what long time e collar trainers are telling us about their necessity and efficacy, it looks like public opinion is being weighted heavily in this direction:
The ongoing drama surrounding this topic got me to thinking.
Why would any young, thoughtful and caring trainer choose to use an e collar in such a contentious climate?
Because I only qualify for two out of those three characteristics any more (is that the unmentionable milestone I see in my near future?) and because I don’t currently use e collars routinely, I went to a good friend, trainer Emily Hilgenberg, who not only meets all of the criteria, but also owns a high drive working bred Malinois who is currently participating in competitions, AKC and otherwise. Emily also recently worked with a client dog who was firmly in the “highly reactive” group.
Since Emily’s dog typically looks like this (and yes, this is her and yes, she has been e collar trained):
I thought we’d talk about Odin, the recent client dog. Emily chose to use an e collar with this dog, despite the fact that he was already putting teeth to his reactions. Odin was a dog who had been failed badly from the get go. His current owner had found the litter posted for sale at 3 weeks old on a local advertising website. The breeder lived in a rural trailer park and wanted $30 for the entire litter of seven pups. The dam was a black, mixed breed dog the breeder called a “Lab/Pit bull mix.”and the sire was a Belgian Malinois that he was looking to get rid of because, in his words, the dog was “crazy.” Odin’s owner raised the entire litter and placed all the puppies excepting Odin through a local rescue.
What follows is our conversation.
C: What did you see in Odin when you evaluated him?
E: Odin shook up “what I knew to be true.” He could volley between “very aggressive” and “very social” and didn’t have very much in the way of in between behaviors, those fear behaviors that say, “I’m looking for my out right now.”
I saw a really frustrated dog, a dog who couldn’t cope with arousal and it just bled into aggression.
When I met him through the puppy class he attended, which was being taught by my co-worker, Odin was around 14-15 weeks. He had gotten very rough during some play and my co-worker tried to move him away by the collar. As soon as she attempted to restrain him, he responded by biting the puppy in front of him and giving a minor head shake. He left a single, very small puncture and no other injuries. (He was permanently removed from puppy class.)
That behavior and variations of it were proven to be his basic mode of operation. Arousal plus frustration (restraint or barrier) equaled aggression. He also matured into a seriously territorial dog and thusly a formidable natural property guardian.
We made the decision to move Odin to the adult group, as his manners and obedience were excellent and indeed he did progress very quickly. However, his obedience was always punctuated by explosive outbursts at various exciting things. His owner said his behavior at home was even worse and he often lost interest in food rewards in favor of waiting for triggers and reacting. It was obvious she worked with him frequently and diligently, and took pains to manage him well, but still the problems persisted and were in fact escalating. We both agreed he needed private work. Due to holidays and other restrictions on time, we had to wait until he was 9 months old before we started individual lessons. Unfortunately, by that time he had bit one person who entered his backyard without warning. Although the bite was very inhibited and no injury occurred, it reinforced the fact that Odin was a young dog on the free-way to becoming very dangerous.
C: Some would say this dog needed to be kept under threshold and worked with DS/CC protocols only. Why didn’t you do that?
E: Ha, yes. If only, right? There are few issues, in my experience, with dogs this explosive and determined in terms of threshold. The first is that this dog had almost no “grey area” when we began. He was perfectly under threshold until he was completely over threshold. Having a dog who can “change gears” that fast and is reactive to common place things means maintaining him under threshold in suburbia was a fairy tale to this dog and owner unless we wanted to completely upend the dog’s entire life and way of being, which was not possible for the owner. Bottom line, if we’re speaking practically and not in theory, it wasn’t possible.
We had to come up with a solution that was going to work while he still lived in an urban environment. Meanwhile, he was spinning out of control, trying to climb their 6ft fence, breaking leashes, developing an obsessive guarding routine, attacking their TV….
The second issue that dogs like this tend to have is that these serious, frustrated, adrenalin junky dogs, find their reactive episodes extremely self-reinforcing. We know that owners have slip-ups, and that we cannot always control when and how our dog’s triggers appear – this is a fact. Real life is not a training set up. When you have a dog who is this reactive to a large number of stimuli, he’s going to experience those slip-ups and they’re going to reinforce the behavior. I didn’t think we could afford to let that happen at this point in his life and with his behavior escalating. We needed to “answer” his reactions. I didn’t set him up to react deliberately, but when it happened, we at least had a way to give him information.
E: The owner wasn’t interested, and frankly neither was I. This is why I bring up bite work. When a dog acts like this on the street, we call it a mental illness. Yet when we provoke and promote this response selectively, we call it training.
I don’t think Odin was mentally ill. I don’t think his aggression was a pathology. I think he was a strong dog with a temperament that made him a poor pet, but nevertheless, he wasn’t “sick.” He was like a kid with super powers who couldn’t use them responsibly. Potentially dangerous and desperately in need of guidance, but not ill.
Ultimately, I felt the remote electronic collar allowed us to apply pressure to those areas where he needed it, without the potential for overall suppression. I can’t control what behaviors a medication affects – it may help the aggressive behaviors but it may also dull the dog down in the areas that bring him the most joy; I certainly can’t control or even account for all the side effects. With the remote collar, at least I am accountable for all those things.
I saw another path for him and I saw it clearly. It wasn’t bravado on my part; I was very cautious as I respect what a dog like that is capable of. I did see a clear path for him that wouldn’t aversely affect the rest of his life, though, so we took it.
C: Some other people might say that this dog needed to be corrected heavily, that it needed harsh punishment to understand that this behavior was not appropriate. What would you say to that?
E: I’d say, good luck to them as that dog’s neck is made of steel! He had clotheslined himself on the end of the a long line enough times for me to know. But seriously? His owner is a slight young woman. Neither she nor I have the physical power to deliver a correction that is going to deter him. Odin already had such issues with backward pressure (on the collar or lead) that I worried ineffective leash jerking would eventually only serve to spin him up further.
There’s also a second, related issue. Dog training is a not contest between handler and dog (well not to me). And you know, this dog? I did not want to be in conflict with him. I did not want his owner to be in conflict with him, simply because we probably won’t win. So I had to find a route that would reach him and create fast control without depending on physical strength and a contest of power.
C: So what approach did you decide to take?
E: The big focus for Odin was teaching emotional control; obviously for a dog like this, that’s the biggest issue. We went about it in a sort of multi-pronged way. First, we decided on and introduced a remote collar. I used the Mini Educator from E Collar Technologies, the collar with the lowest available output on the market and with 100 levels to choose from. It’s very important to use a dependable and well made E Collar as you don’t want to take the risk of output that is too high or that happens sporadically. The point is not to hurt the dog for doing something we don’t want, but to add just enough pressure to interrupt or deter the behavior before it happens.
We did two weeks of nothing but obedience (heel, place, recall, and down-stay) with the collar, using modern methods, following a pressure/release model. We also did a lot of drive building – Odin was focused on all the wrong things in life! So we built up his interest in healthy things, like the flirt pole, fetch, and tugging. We used food rewards throughout as well, as standard practice dictates.
We then did a ton of exercises to help him gain self-control and developing his coping skills: lots of long downs and shaping relaxation around triggers. Plenty of structured walks – I’m not a “pack walker” typically, but in this case, we made it very clear to Odin that his job was to hold heel position, not fly off the handle. We never tried to “deter” him using the collar, but we focused on using it to remind of what he should be doing instead, whether that was heeling or staying on his place board. We did lots LAT (Look At That) during his obedience, once he was self controlled enough to look at triggers without reacting.
C: Was there stress involved?
E: Stress? Yes, of course. It is stressful to blow up like a maniac at everything you see. Stress is life. Was the training more stressful than Odin’s current state? Did it add to his stress? I don’t believe so, no – not from what I could see. In fact, with someone helping him check his own adrenaline levels, he became more “open” and less “shut down” than ever before. He wanted food while outside. He could engage with me or his owner. He would play with toys.
I suppose, in the end it depends on if you measure stress by the moment or by the long run. Being perfectly truthful, I do not remember significant stress signals from Odin specifically related to training. Were there some at times? Likely so, as learning is stressful. By our fourth lesson it became abundantly clear that, globally speaking, his stress levels were falling. His ability to cope with his emotions grew exponentially, in fact, and he extended that ability even in new situations.
C: How long did you work with Odin and what were the results?
E: Ultimately, he began to make better decisions without needing strict obedience. The last time I handled him, he was able to enjoy 30 ft of long line and make good choices around bikers, scooters, other dogs, and prey animals. Some dogs invited him to a fence fight and he chose to engage with me instead. That was pretty cool!
C: Thanks so much for sharing about Odin and the great work you did with him. One last question: what do you think is the problem with the current war on tools, from your experience and perspective?
E: Oh the war on tools… It’s just so short sighted! I understand that people have preferences. That’s alright. But the assumptions that people let fly upon sighting certain tools are just crazy! There’s a picture of me with a dog I worked with – a dog wearing a head halter. Wonder how many people wrote me off as a cookie pusher because of that? They might be confused if they end up talking to the clients I’ve chosen remote collars for.
The bottom line, for me, is that a tool is a tiny piece of information regarding how a trainer operates. There is so much more to an approach or method than what the dog is wearing. I’ve seen dogs abused at AKC events where dogs cannot wear prong collars or remote collars. And I’ve had the pleasure of showing at a PSA trial where we were permitted to warm up using those tools, but the judge sternly advised us that if she heard dogs yelping or saw anything out of line, she’d see us out personally.
I never saw a moment of unkindness towards the dogs at the PSA trial. Yes, maybe the handlers used pressure on a prong collar, but it never was done with the kind of vengeance with which I’ve seen people “come down” on dogs at AKC events. To be honest, the contrast was both delightful and alarming.
For another blog post about choosing to use an e collar thoughtfully, click here.
**Coming up next**
I talk with three trainers about the effect the current tool debates are having on their approach to training, on dogs and owners in general, and why dog professionals need to learn to work together.