There are few topics more likely to cause argument among dog owners than the e-collar, or electric training collar as it was originally known. It?s an emotive issue that everyone has an opinion on.

Raise the subject with members of your local shoot and you?re likely to hear ?absolutely disgraceful?, ?totally unnecessary?, ?cruel?, ?another stupid American idea?, and so on.Now ask the same people what they know about levels of stimulation, collar conditioning, force-fetch or pre-bolting and you will be met with a solid wall of silence. I was of the same mind until 1998, when a friend invited me to attend an e-collar clinic in the US.

?Jim Dobbs is running it,? she told me, ?he?s one of the founders of electric collar training.?I didn?t care if it was Thomas Edison, I wasn?t going. ?Why not?? my friend enquired. ?Because e-collars are stupid,? I snapped. ?So, you?ve been involved with e-collar training before?? ?Well, er? no, not exactly.? ?Ignorance isn?t going to train your dogs.?That did it. No-one was going to call me an ignorant trainer.

Jim Dobbs was accustomed to dealing with non-believers and upon arrival asked me to wear an e-collar around my arm. I waited in trepidation for a shock that never came.Unlike the old-fashioned shock collar of 30 years ago, today?s sophisticated e-collars have an infinite number of settings.

?Did you feel that?? Jim asked.?No, nothing.? ?That?s the level of stimulation we use on most young dogs. How about this?? I felt a tingle on my arm. ?That?s the normal training level.? ?And what?s the top level?? I enquired stupidly. That one I did feel. ?We use that for snake-breaking,? said Jim, something I was to observe later.

Over the next few days, Jim emphasised the importance of collar conditioning. The initial reaction of any dog to collar stimulation is to bolt until it learns how to turn off the collar. Jim taught the dogs that three basic actions avoid stimulation: one ? come when called;two ? go when sent; three ? stop on command.

Dogs that looked fearful on the first day were a lot more confident by the end of the week and, most impressive of all, there had been no need for shouting and screaming, only gentle guidance. I began to realise why American dogs handle so precisely on water ? the e-collar works anywhere.

On the last day, Jim brought with him a collection of assorted snakes, all of which (I was assured) had their venom removed. Snakebites are a major problem in the US, causing serious canine injuries, so dogs must learn to stay clear.

The snakes were released into an open area and as each dog approached to investigate, Jim zapped it with the e-collar. Within a couple of hours we had a dozen young dogs determined never to go near another snake. ?How could you achieve that result more humanely?? my friend asked. I had no answer.

On home territory On returning home, I was determined to put my new knowledge to the test and began collar conditioning two young Labradors that I intended to use for picking-up. I?d already done obedience work, so both dogs understood the basics.

Recall was the first action I taught, and spent a solid week whistling them back from cover, water, rabbit holes and all the tempting places where a refusal was likely. It didn?t take long for the dogs to realise that compliance was the best policy.

We moved on to casting, where the dogs learned to go when sent ? this prevents dogs in training from freezing or quitting. To get the message across, I took the dog box from my truck, placed it on the grass and cast them to it with a mild buzz. They soon realised that if they darted to the box on my signal, the stimulation ceased.

The third week was a lot more difficult and I needed the help of an assistant to teach the dogs to stop on command, as both wanted to come to me rather than stop on the spot. We finally conveyed what was required and my assistant ran with the dog on a lead, stopping abruptly whenever I blew the whistle. The stimulation stopped the moment the dog sat. The quicker the stop, the shorter the stimulation.

The final week was one of consolidation until the dogs knew exactly what response was required to prevent collar correction. Over the summer, I transferred their training to water with amazing ease, finding I could cast in any direction with the minimum of correction. Occasionally I?d get a refusal, but, whatever the circumstances, I could correct the dog and insist on compliance.

After four months, the results were astonishing and I still hadn?t raised my voice. More importantly, the need for e-collar correction reduced to the point where an entire week would pass without using it at all. Then it happened. As the season approached, I removed the collar, convinced my summer training would hold good, and it did ? for a while. Once the dogs had learned the difference between collar-on and collar-off, however, their behaviour changed again. I had started training two dogs and ended up with four. The two

who worked on the collar were totally reliable, while the two without were not. My dogs had become collar-smart.

There is no doubt that, in the hands of an experienced trainer, the e-collar is an excellent training aid. I don?t know of an easier way to break a chasing habit or teach recall to a stubborn dog. Perhaps most impressive of all, the e-collar has enabled thousands of disabled American handlers to train and compete with their dogs at the highest level.

Unfortunately, early impressions created by the crude shock-collar created a resistance from British trainers that has never been redressed. E-collars have moved on dramatically in the past 20 years, providing an amazing variance in stimulation, enabling trainers to set a level appropriate to the situation.

On test Recently, the owner of a Border terrier telephoned me. Her dog had developed the habit of attacking other animals. He?d trot along by her side then, without warning, fly at any animal in sight. She was scared to take him off the lead and at her wits? end with worry. I told her to leave him with me and within 24 hours he?d attempted to attack every animal in our paddock. This was definitely a case for the e-collar. Over the next month I conditioned him to expect an adverse reaction any time he got close to sheep, cows, pigs and so on. I walked him every day on a lead, through fields of cattle, correcting him with the collar whenever he showed too much interest. He soon learned and began to turn his head away from any animal we approached.

I needed something to replace the excitement created by his errant ways, so I taught him to retrieve. He showed little interest at first, but two months down the line was hurtling out at the speed of sound. He?d even retrieve in the paddock, totally ignoring the livestock. Fortunately, his owner was a farmer?s daughter and understood the importance of maintaining his new routine. She bought an e-collar, which the dog wears when off the lead.However, six months down the line, I?m told it?s only been used once.

The mass marketing of e-collars in the US has done dogs no favours. The electric collar is not for the uninitiated and anyone using one without attending an e-collar clinic is likely to do more harm than good. Zapping an unconditioned dog in the vain hope that it will understand and obey is sheer stupidity, yet in the hands of an experienced trainer the collar can and does produce excellent results.

For more details, email Vic Barlow,