The E-Collar Conundrum

The E-Collar Conundrum

Dog owners and trainers are divided into two camps regarding the use of electronic shock collars for bird dog training. The first group heavily employs e-collars to round out a dog’s education and send a reminder when obedience starts to slip. Many other trainers and hunters view e-collars as unnecessary and even cruel,  a canine equivalent of waterboarding.

E-collars might be overkill for everyday house pet dogs, where obedience standards are low and safety issues few. Hunting dogs have it different. Good obedience is mandatory in potentially dangerous situations, like waterfowl hunting around ice or flushing pheasants under shotgun fire.

The crux of the debate is really how e-collars are used on an individual level, and in that case, a lot of amateur trainers might be getting it wrong. Brian Lasley, marketing director for e-collar manufacturer DT Systems, reminds e-collar opponents that the electronics do more than just send shocks.

“E-collars are valuable training tools,” Lasley said. “But they are not a magic wand where you can wave it and the dog will know exactly what you want him to do. All dogs must be properly trained and introduced to e-collars before they can be used correctly. And you’ve got to understand that often the e-collar is used to simply get the dog’s attention so that you can deliver a command.

“There are times, like while hunting pheasants in the cattails on a windy day, where the dog can’t hear you very well. With the vibrate function on a collar, I can get his attention and let him know to check back, or I can rein him in if he’s getting too close to danger.”

While past generations may have used shock collars to force a dog to perform because of fear of punishment, today’s offerings boast features designed to simply get the dog’s attention and help keep it safe. Trainers focus on two uses: conditioning, which teaches the dog to turn the low-level electricity off by performing the desired task, and the correction shock.

When it comes to busy roadways, barbed-wire fences, porcupine encounters and a bevy of other potential dangers, being able to immediately get your dog’s attention at any distance and recall him or her can be useful. This goes for duck dogs, as well. A retriever who wants to follow a wounded diver into big water and big waves could get into a scary situation trying to do what he’s supposed to do. If he can’t hear you over the wind, a light jolt might help turn him.

Mike Botts, professional dog trainer and owner of Ringneck Kennels, echoed Lasley’s thoughts: “The ability to communicate with a bird dog effectively, efficiently and immediately when they are off-leash at 40 or 400 yards is so important. But amateur trainers need to remember that an e-collar is a tool, just like treats, whistles or leashes. You need to learn how to use it responsibly, and if you’re new to this tool, consider working with a pro first so that you’ll understand how to use it effectively.”

Both Lasley and Botts make a solid case for responsible e-collar usage, but not all trainers are dependent on them. Jeremy Moore, owner of Dog Bone and one of the top game recovery and shed dog trainers in the country, prefers to develop his dogs a different way. He thinks e-collars have become an unnecessary norm.

“The enormous impacts that e-collar companies have had on our American training culture is due to the equally enormous marketing budgets we have been exposed to,” Moore said. “This has had a heavy influence on generations of handlers to the point where some don’t know there are other ways to train a dog. In fact, I’ve asked trainers why they use one and a common answer is, ‘because that’s the way we’ve always done it.’ I’ve never thought that was good enough.

“In my opinion, the lack of patience in a pup’s development is the biggest struggle we face today when it comes to raising a good dog. E-collars are marketed as ‘problem fixers,’ but what isn’t taken into account is the ‘problem creation’ that comes from confusing dogs during training sessions through unfair pressure and timing.”

Moore says that ownership of an e-collar will not make you a good trainer or erase the bad habits that you and your dog have already formed. Problem fixing is often the genesis of e-collar purchases, which is misguided, he said.

Many professional trainers will tell you that e-collars should be reserved only for dogs that know all of their commands. Once the dog is aware of what it did wrong to generate a shock, then you can properly communicate with it. According to Moore, though, this argument is built on shaky ground.

“I’ve heard e-collars described by many as a tool to reinforce previously trained skills, but I’ve always thought if that were true, is there really a need for an e-collar?” Moore said. “I personally believe that the number of trainers using them inappropriately is way higher than those using them correctly. That’s scary to me, because it’s unfair to the dogs and to the amateur handlers who don’t know any better.

Great bird dogs were developed long before e-collars became popular, and while I’m not against technology in our lives, I think that it’s important to remember that the dogs haven’t changed a whole lot, even though the technology has. We may strive for immediate results more than ever, but developing a bird dog is something that still takes time and patience.”

There’s a chasm between the pro and anti-collar crowds, and it’s not likely to be spanned anytime soon. If you’re new to training and are sorting out your thoughts on e-collars, it’s important to consider your motivations. Is safety high on your list, or are you looking to force a dog into a certain type of behavior? Are you buying an e-collar out of frustration, or do you think of it as a small asset in a dog’s education?

Be honest and choose wisely. You owe it to your best friend.

Feature image via John Hafner.

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