*A quick note before we begin- This article in no way is a suggestion, recommendation, or instruction for using e-collars with your dog, or a suggestion that e-collars are a good choice for all dogs. Training tools are a personal choice, and should always be a decision between you and a trainer you trust. We are not professional dog trainers. We understand not everyone will like the use of e-collars, and we aren’t here to change your mind. This is only a conversation with a professional who uses these tools every day and has studied them thoroughly.
In two years of having Cooper, we have trained a lot. We did over a year of positive-only training in which we were told not even to say “no” to our dog. While Cooper learned basic commands well this way, we struggled with some of the more complex behavioral training we wanted to accomplish. You can imagine our frustration when after so much time and effort, and so many treats, we still couldn’t get our dog out of bratty behaviors like determining when a walk was over, whining incessantly, and barking at every delivery man we saw. After a lot of research and asking around, we were recommended our trainer Jason of Canine Cohen Dog Training, who was our saving grace in teaching us the ways of balanced training.
After seeing how much progress we made in 6 months with Jason, we had one last goal: Cementing Off-leash recall. The one thing we hadn’t yet been able to accomplish was breaking the deafness Cooper seemed to gain when she caught sight of a squirrel or bird off leash. We had tried recall scenarios on a long lead and were close- but not reliable. The answer, it seemed, was to condition Cooper to an E-Collar.
We had already planned on working with Jason to condition Cooper to the tool when we were presented with a unique opportunity: Jason would be attending Tyler Muto’s Mastering the E-Collar workshop for a week, and he needed a green dog to attend with him. The timing was right, and we couldn’t turn down the chance. In the 9 months since Cooper has returned from the seminar, we’ve learned so much about the E-Collar’s potential gentleness, effectiveness and overall capabilities. It’s been an amazing tool to add to our toolkit, but not one that hasn’t been met with controversy. We’ve gotten so many questions on the “why” of the tool, and because we are not certified professional trainers, we thought the best way to answer those questions was to ask the expert himself. We sat down with Tyler Muto, owner of K9 Connection in Buffalo and President of the Board of Directors of the IACP to chat all things E-Collar.
We started by asking the first thing that most people ask us when we tell them that we use E-Collar with our dog, and it’s by far the most complex topic to broach
How is an E-Collar humane? Doesn’t it hurt the dog?
Tyler has an educational background in Philosophy and breaks down what it means to be humane in several steps. He wanted to start with an overarching fact about the tool: “Just because a remote collar CAN be painful, does not mean it needs to be, or should be, to be effective.” Most dogs, in fact, have a working level (the lowest level a dog can feel and respond to) much lower than a level humans can feel. For example, Cooper’s working level is a 4. I can’t feel even the tiniest sensation until a 15.
“For people who need to understand whether it hurts or not, I generally take a collar and put it on their hand. Most people laugh when they realize how low what their dog is feeling actually is” says Tyler, which perfectly demonstrates our experience when we had our first session with Jason, and he had us, the humans, find our working levels. It’s now become something we do at get-togethers with friends when they ask questions about the tool. When we dial up the remote until a level our friend or family member can feel, which usually lands somewhere between 12 and 20, they almost always look at us and say that’s it?”. It’s far more of a tingle than a shock, despite the common name for the collar.
As far as how is it humane? We look at a few things. “In many contexts the E-Collar is gentler and safer than other training tools”, even haltis and easy-walk style harnesses. The biggest risk for injury with an E-Collar is superficial skin abrasion from prolonged wearing of the tool or an allergy to the type of metal use. There is no risk of structural damage with the collar itself, unlike most other collars and harnesses.
Tyler says, “When you talk about what is humane when it comes to training a dog it’s not black and white.” We also look at the objective stress of using an E-Collar, which can be measured through cortisol in the saliva. We have to objectively look at the dog’s life with the E-Collar, and life without the E-Collar. Does a reactive dog experience more stress from barking and lunging at a passing dog than it does receiving a low-level stim from the E-Collar? Proper use of E-Collar can help dogs have a reduced feeling of stress in situations that would normally cause them greater emotional distress. Understanding that all learning causes stress, even positive reinforcement, if the tool is fundamentally helping the dog in a way that it overall reduces stress in their lives, it’s a positive addition to the training toolkit.
“There are people who are at risk of euthanizing their dog or giving them up to a rescue”, says Tyler, “So even if the collar is causing some stress, is that stress, in comparison to the dog losing its home justified, especially if other solutions have been exhausted?”. Part of the Hippocratic oath states do no harm, which includes doing harm by the lack of effective treatment. "If a person doesn’t utilize every tool or technique available to them, is that not more inhumane than the proper use of an aversive tool?”, Tyler considers.
By no means is this to say that an E-Collar is not considered an aversive tool, but a major consideration in the overall humanity of the tool is that “aversive” is a broad spectrum. Even the technique of withholding a reward from a dog when they don’t perform the desired task is an aversive technique. “Purely positive training does use punishment. Punishment simply means making a behavior weaker. Reinforcement means to make a behavior stronger. In Positive Only training negative punishment, which means removing a reward, or the opportunity for a reward, is used for a behavior we don’t like.” Tyler talks about considering the effectiveness of this treatment. Several studies have shown that negative punishment is not an effective treatment because it is imprecise. It’s hard for a dog to know why they didn’t get a reward. This causes stress because they’re not getting clear communication and don’t know what’s expected of them. In contrast, with proper use of an E-Collar, it’s much easier to communicate why the dog is experiencing a stim, and to train them how to “turn it off”.
The dog’s stress isn’t the only thing at play here. Human stress and wellness is another factor in the equation. “There’s an unhealthy and dangerous trend in the dog training world of putting the care and consideration of the dog’s well being over the care and consideration of the human’s well being”, says Tyler. “Many of the clients that come to me are under an extreme amount of stress. We have people who spend years living a life that is restricted, that is stressed, that is frustrated, and that even causes marital distress. If you want to talk about ethics, it’s important to think about the human well being as well as the dog’s.”
The last thing we have to consider, says Tyler, is the quality of life for the dog. If a dog has to live its entire life on a short leash, or in a small apartment, and has the chance to live a life of more freedom with the occasional use of an E-Collar, it’s a better life for the dog. Tyler compares the use of E-Collar in this context to getting a speeding ticket as a driver.
“As someone with a driver’s license, I know that at some point I’m likely to get a speeding ticket. When that happens, it’ll be unpleasant. But to me, I’ll take that tradeoff for the freedom driving a vehicle gives me”. The point of training isn’t creating a robotic dog, it’s giving them more freedom.
In that vein, the natural next question we had?
How do you address the negative stereotype most Positive Only trainers have about E-Collars?
This is a questions that is deeply personal to us, as we have not been met without criticism to our choice to use E-Collar. We’ve been a little shocked at how quickly we’ve been branded as lazy (despite the year and more we spent working with R+ only training, and working hard) , or inept (despite the months of deep research we did before using an E-Collar) for choosing to use an aversive tool or balanced dog training in general.
There’s a couple groups who fit into this category. First are the people who don’t understand, know they don’t understand, and want to learn. The best thing to do with these people? Educate, educate, educate. This is what we try to do when we’re met with genuinely curious people.
The other group of people tend to be professionals, dog enthusiasts, or rescue groups. “When it comes to people who come with a negative and hateful energy, and they’re not willing to have a dialogue that’s constructive, it’s best to ignore them. I’m more concerned with the well being of the dog and client in front of me”, says Tyler.
Interestingly, Positive Only training has been around for over 30 years and is one of the older methods of training. Balanced training has evolved greatly in the last 10 years, and often includes much of the same principles of positive training- the only difference being that reward is used in conjunction with corrections.
“Now, many balanced trainers are doing everything Positive Only trainers do, they just employ the other side of the spectrum as well. The most modern form of training is understanding and implementing reward-based techniques, but also understanding and implementing very skilled and careful techniques involving positive punishment or negative reinforcement. Interestingly, there’s no modern science testing the stress of positive only training versus balanced training.” To Tyler, at the end of the day it’s about being able to say he’s exhausted all possibilities when it comes to improving a dog’s (and their humans’) life.
When is the right time to use an E-Collar for your dog? Are there dogs you would not use E-Collar for?
As far as timing, a lot relies on what someone’s goals or standards are. In Tyler’s opinion, “Any dog who could spend time off leash could benefit from an E-Collar. It’s a matter of responsibility and safety.” Tyler’s dogs still wear their E-Collars on hikes in the woods to act as a “seat belt”. They’re rarely needed, but important to have when they are. The only dogs Tyler doesn’t recommend for E-Collar are dogs under 6 months.
When can my dog stop wearing their E-Collar? Is it for life, or just for training?
The short answer is, it depends on the situation.
Most dogs get to a point where around the home and in comfortable situations, they don’t need an E-Collar after a certain point. That can depend on the maturity of the dog- just like kids, dogs go through phases where they want to test boundaries and will go on and off E-Collar periodically. It also depends on how consistent you were in training the dog on E-Collar to being with. If you never got to the point where you got to stop pressing the button to get your dog to respond, you’ll likely have a harder time going off the E-Collar. In any case, you’ll likely need to brush up on training with the collar from time to time- even for a well-trained dog. In new situations, or less comfortable situations, it’s more likely you’ll want to keep the E-Collar on and brush up on their expectations.
“I personally advocate for any time a dog will be off leash in an unenclosed environment that they wear an E-Collar for their entire life.” You never know when will be the day that your dog chases after a squirrel into traffic for the first time, and it’s not worth the risk, Tyler says. “It’s a matter of safety and responsibility”.
This closely mirrors our relationship with the E-Collar and our dog. We’ve been using the tool since April, and for the most part? We don’t really need to use it. But we put it on her every single time we intend for her to be off-leash. It’s a backup for the 1 time in 1000 when Cooper decides that squirrel is the one she has to chase, or that delivery guy is the one she has to bark at. We have recently been taking her hiking off-leash for the first time ( as shown in the videos in this article), and I haven’t had to press the button more than 3 or 4 times. But, because I had the tool as a safety net I was much calmer, and because of that, so was Cooper.
What are some myths about E-Collar?
1. They’re bad for fearful dogs.
“This idea comes from a good place, and I agree that we want to be compassionate to dogs that are dealing with fear. But this is a myth with E-Collar. E-Collars can be extremely precise and extremely subtle. The modern E-Collar has at least 100 levels. Most people don’t feel between a 10-20, whereas most dogs respond under a 10. This allows us to be incredibly subtle and use a level that’s just enough to get a dog’s attention. Because it’s a digital system, it’s easy to monitor that intensity and be precise with that level. With fearful dogs, there are very few tools that allow you to be as consistently and accurately subtle as an E-Collar. “
The other thing is that, for fearful dogs, an E-Collar is extremely non-confrontational.
“When I use a leash, the dog understands that I am a larger animal exerting tension on that dog. There’s an aspect of that that, to the dog, becomes more than just the pressure itself and can seem intimidating to them. The E-Collar is just a sensation, and the dog doesn’t so much perceive it as being done to them by humans. We teach them that the sensation activates, and the humans are the ones who teach them how to make it go away. You become an advocate for the dog, and a person the dog feels secure with that has valuable information for them.”
This is unique to modern E-Collars with multiple levels. Tylers says, “It would be absurd to use older models of E-Collars with fewer levels and higher intensities with fearful dogs”
2. They’re painful. If they weren’t, why would a dog care when they feel it?
E-Collars can be painful- but they don’t have to, and shouldn’t be. Using an E-Collar properly should be subtle, but effective. “If I throw a teddy bear at your face, you’ll flinch. It won’t hurt but it’ll get your attention.” Aversive doesn’t necessarily equate to pain- and neither do E-Collars.
3. E-Collars are banned in other countries, so they must be inherently dangerous.
It’s challenging to fund favorable studies for E-Collars. Because they’re a taboo topic in the dog training world, it’s hard to get studies peer-reviewed or funded to be conducted in a fair way.
“There’s no modern research into the effects of punishment done in the proper way”, Tyler says. Most studies done on E-Collar are done in such a way that they don’t warrant results worth looking at. For example, there have been tests done where beagles were randomly shocked at an arbitrary level by an E-Collar by someone who wasn’t a trainer (super humane to prove a tool isn’t humane, right?). There’s more documentation on the camera used than the E-Collar, level of stimulation, frequency of stimulation etc.
These studies are then used to perpetuate the idea that E-Collars are painful and inhumane. It’s a lot easier to agree to ban something with studies like that than it is to understand the struggles of owning a difficult dog and the proper use of the tool. “Imaging being the average consumer in that situation. It’s difficult to imagine why E-Collars might be valuable without the education on how and why they’re used. We have a much harder task to convince the general public than the people saying nasty shock collars are harmful.”
What is something you wish the general public knew about E-Collars?
.It’s just a tool, it’s not a magic fix all.
It’s imperative to take the time to learn how your dog thinks and understands the world. If you don’t understand how to communicate with your dog, you’re not ready to use an E-Collar yet.
Using E-Collar is not without risk.
“I’m not going to pretend that E-Collars can’t ever cause a problem.” They can cause pain if you dial it up. It is an artificial sensation, so it can be confusing if the dog doesn’t understand why they’re feeling it or how to turn it off. It’s our job as humans to teach our dogs that part.
Don’t just go to the pet store and buy an E-Collar and start pressing buttons.
Not all E-Collars are created equally, and there are some bad systems that are not humane to use. Make sure you get ample education on proper use, whether through books and videos or hands-on work with a professional, including how to safely introduce the tool, and what situations you should be using it for. “If you ever meet a trainer who wants to slap an E-Collar on your dog and start right away, run in the other direction”, Tyler says.
Speaking of older systems and types of E-Collar, how have E-Collars changed over the years?
E-Collars used to have one level, which for most dogs WAS shocking, and was too much intensity. That’s where the negative term “shock collar” and misuse comes from.
Even when multi-level tools came about, they were extremely cumbersome to change levels so it wasn’t a handy tool. Additionally, the animal training world in general didn’t have a clear understanding of how to use E-Collars yet- the tool was new, and the methodologies hadn’t been developed. The continued development of the tool has lead to tools with at least 100 levels of stimulation. Dogs are conditioned to the collar in most cases on levels humans can’t feel- we’re looking for a level that’s more of a tickle than a shock. We teach the dogs how to turn on and off that sensation, and allow the dog to clearly learn in a setting that’s not scary or stressful. As the technology improved, so did our understanding of how to use it. There’s always more research and more techniques coming about that help us understand how our dogs process information. The average professional who uses E-Collar now is doing so in a very careful and thought-out manner, and keeping the dog in the lowest possible level with lots of repetition before expecting the dog to succeed in challenging situations. Modern low-level E-Collar training has only gotten popular in the last 10 years.
What is the benefit of using an E-Collar
There are 6 main benefits, in Tyler’s view:
Freedom. Letting your dog be a dog.
Timing. From a technical standpoint, it’s so easy to have precise timing with an E-Collar, which creates less stress and faster learning for your dog.
Distance. There’s no other tool that allows you to effectively communicate from a distance.
Less confrontation. It’s a less confrontational tool, which is especially helpful for fearful dogs.
Consistency. It’s easier for the owner to be consistent with their dog, which again creates less stress ins the training experience (for both dogs, and humans).
Precision of intensity. Being able to find a level that’s just right for your dog. “It’s like a scalpel instead of a hand grenade for your dog”.
There’s a lot to consider when it comes to deciding on the right tools to use with your dog, and every dog’s needs are different. Our goal with this post is not to convince you to use an E-Collar, but to inform on why it may be the right choice for some people and their dogs. We have a dog that, a year ago, we thought would never be able to be off-leash. What we have now is a dog that recalls perfectly, heels off-leash, and can safely enjoy more of life with us wherever we go. So, for us, this was the right choice.
Of course, we are not certified trainers, so we can’t give you instructions on how to use an E-Collar with your dog, but if you’re interested in the tool and think it could add value to your training relationship with your dog, we highly recommend you check out Tyler’s Mastering The Remote Collar Seminar for a comprehensive video on how to condition your dog to the tool. We’ve benefited immensely from having Cooper go through this seminar live (you may see her at some point in the video, even!) and have experienced the benefits of careful, proper E-Collar conditioning first hand. You can register for the seminar at ConsiderTheDog where you can also get dozens of free training resources by many professional trainers.