Guard Dog Blog

on Livestock Guardian Dogs and small farm life…

Training Tools: The E Collar, An Introduction

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I’ve had a number of requests over the last while to detail exactly how I use the e collar (aka “shock” collar) when training LGDs.  As I have worked with dogs at different stages of their lives and at differing stages of training and levels of instinct, I’ve decided to concentrate on the most common uses for the collar as opposed to specific, more rare usages.  You are always welcome to contact me for clarification on any of the points I share, but please know that I hesitate to give broad suggestions when it comes working with the e collar and LGDs, especially with adult dogs.  In  my opinion, there are far too many variables in the dogs, their handlers/owners, and in life circumstances to do such a thing and still remain ethical.  While electronic (e) collars have come a long way in the last number of years in terms of quality and efficiency, I cannot caution enough against using them indiscriminately.  They are not a “magical” tool; slapping one on your dog and hitting the activation button will not automatically give you the results you are looking for, and may indeed cause more problems than the one(s) you intended to address.

My daughter works in a local pet store and tells me that a lot of people come in asking to buy an e collar to modify their dog’s behavior.  I’m not going to touch on pet dog behavior and e collars here, but I will say that unless you frequent an enlightened pet store that stocks high quality collars, it is a very bad idea to buy one there.  The vast majority of collars at retail stores are of low quality and do not have the range of levels or reliability needed to communicate effectively with your dog.  The exception to this may be at hunting/outdoor stores, although for the prices asked there, you will do better to order a versatile collar through a trainer/dealer or directly from the company itself.

I am a dealer for E Collar Technologies and use and recommend their products only.  I’ve found them to be reliable, rugged, effective and user friendly with a high level of customer service.   Their collars come with a minimum of 100 stimulation levels, from imperceptible (to me) to a high that I rarely use except in life threatening situations.  Robin MacFarlane, a noted low stimulation (stim) e collar trainer and the creator of the acclaimed “That’s My Dog!” video series, endorses Dogtra collars.  You can buy those collars and videos directly from her site as well as from Steve Snell at Gun Dog Supply. (Side note: Gun Dog Supply has the best, most cost effective biothane collars out there for LGDs.  I especially like the inclusion of the top “O” ring and the free engraved ID plate, as well as the wide range of colors.  On my dogs, I like the high visibility colors so that there can be no confusion as to the fact that they are owned dogs.  Not everyone collars their LGDs, but if you do, check them out.)  Linda Kaim, of Lionheart K9 in Westminster, Maryland, who also uses e collars as an integral part of her dog training programs, recommends both Dogtra and E Collar Technologies.  She has a preference for Dogtra collars for their “latitude and craftmanship”, but says that she recommends E Collar Technologies to clients who are more budget conscious.  It is of course important to remember that a good e collar is an investment that will pay dividends for years to come.  It is much better to pay for a reliable collar up front rather than to pay for multiple box store cheaper ones over the course of time or risk having your dog “shocked” randomly.  If you buy a used set from someone, approach the company that manufactured the collar to see if they will test and/or refurbish it for you to ensure that it is still in good working order.  Replacement parts are also typically easy to find through a dealer or manufacturer.

Whichever collar you choose, there are some important safety considerations to consider before it ever makes it on to your dog(s).  Most e collar trainers encourage their clients to try the collar on their forearms first in order to get a good picture of what the stim feels like.  I have done so myself, getting to level 16 of 100 levels before finding it aversive.  The levels below 16 were, for me, surprisingly pleasant.  It is really important to remember, however, that the reaction to the stimulation is extremely subjective.  Your dog(s) may not find certain stim levels bearable even though you did.  Conversely, your dog(s) may find moderate or mid ranging levels imperceptible or unimportant, and even higher levels insufficient to deter highly arousing behavior.  High levels of stimulation can imprint random information on the brains of dogs as well (the tree the dog was looking at when you hit the button now becomes the source of the pain in the dog’s mind), and should only be used with good timing in emergencies or a last resort.

Another thing to remember is that an e collar was not designed to wear for long periods of time.  Do not leave the collar on overnight, or all day.  The collar requires a snug fit for the nickel points to contact the skin around the neck, and can result in not only  what is called “pressure necrosis” but also allergic reactions in a portion of dogs.  Both of these are what typically show up in anti-e collar campaigns and other related propaganda in the form of pictures of extensive wounds that have been debrided by veterinarians.  There is no doubt that the claims these organizations make that this type of injury is commonplace are ludicrous, but it is crucial to understand that it does occur at times.   An allergy to the contact points can be hard to predict, but the dog will soon show a high level of discomfort with the collar, and frequent skin checks should be sufficient to identify it easily.  If an allergy is suspected, replacement hypoallergenic contact points are readily available from the same place where the collar was purchased.  Pressure necrosis is similar in terms of how it affects the skin, but  it develops due to prolonged contact with the skin and/or moisture in the environment and on the dog.  It can be avoided by moving the position of the collar each time it is used, frequent skin checks and reducing the amount of time the collar is in use, especially in wet weather.  The appropriate coat for a LGD should keep moisture away from the skin, but it is always wise to err on the side of caution.  The vast majority of pressure necrosis cases are superficial and heal well on their own, but it is crucial to access veterinary care if healing is delayed and to suspend use of the collar on affected areas.

Use the correct length of contact points for the dog you are working with.  Short points are appropriate for short coated dogs, long ones for long coated dogs.  Place the stim box with the contact points to the side of the dog’s trachea as shown in the picture below.  This ensures that the contact points are sitting over one of the major muscles; away from extremely sensitive parts of the dog’s neck and well away from the spinal cord.

Photo origin: E Collar Technologies

Photo origin: E Collar Technologies

Used properly, an electronic collar allows the handler to extend the reach of their control and allows the dog to move freely, untethered.  This makes it especially useful for training dogs who have learned to employ a certain set of behaviors while under direct supervision, on a leash or long line and another when out of reach.  It also allows the handler to convey information to the dog effectively in the moment.  In my opinion, and in the opinion of other trainers who use e collars humanely, it also allows the handler to train more thoughtfully in distracting environments.   The concern that control will be lost or that information won’t communicated well at a distance is greatly reduced.

In the next post, I’m going to go over a training session with a LGD pup I am training.  Before I wrap up this post, though, I’m just going to take a moment to reiterate this crucially important point:

An e collar is not a replacement for training, instead it is a helpful adjunct for some dogs in a training program.  

The training program we’re talking about here is the one that results in a mature, confident, effective Livestock Guardian Dog.

*** Important note:  Most high quality e collars come with a vibrate function.  This function is a vital part of my training approach.  I use it in different ways, depending on the dog’s response to it.  Some dogs find it more aversive and some find it less aversive than the stim function.

Author: westcoastdog

Writings about whatever the fuck strikes my fancy.

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