Electric collars for dogs: punishment or positive reinforcement?
Nick Ridley delves into the controversial use of electronic training collars in gundog training
I neither condone nor condemn the use of electric collars (e-collars) being used for training. However, that said, I have found the whole debate about their use most interesting. I can remember many years ago attending a gundog training course and one handler had an Irish setter that took very little notice of any command, but especially the stop whistle, and would disappear into the next county at the first opportunity. (Read more on the stop whistle here.)
After the first day and many miles covered by both the dog and handler, it was noticed that the owner had put an e-collar on it, and it was quickly pointed out to him that if he wanted to remain on the course, he would not be allowed to run his dog wearing his ‘invisible lead’. Nowadays, I see many dogs wearing electric collars and nobody seems to bat an eye.
Electric collar usage
If you take a look at some American methods of gundog training, they use the e-collars as a standard piece of training kit that is introduced to young pups from the age of six months or so, and herein lies the major difference in the way we use them in the UK. If you were to take a survey from UK advocates of the e-collar and you asked them why they used them, I would suggest you would get a fairly unanimous result. Most handlers will be using them to stop the dog doing something. I bet the most common reasons for using them will be to stop the dog chasing game or livestock.
Importance of basic training
If the dog’s basic training had been completed properly and the groundwork had been done thoroughly, then the dog should respond to the stop command. I know in the heat of the moment it can all go wrong, and when hunting a hard-going dog and a rabbit, hare or deer pops up in front of them, it can be the devil’s own job to stop them, but it all comes back to a good level of the basics. Now, this is the crux of the perceived problem with the use of e-collars; generally, we use them as a punishment. In simple terms, we use them to reprimand the dog, and it is this fact that we, the handler, are administering a static electric shock to the dog that many people find distasteful. But what are the alternatives? Every single one of us involved in the gundog world knows the various methods that are employed to “give a dog a good telling off”, and some of those methods are, shall we say, at best questionable. And yet, when the use of e-collars is mentioned, we are quite vocal in our views saying they are cruel to use. Well, let’s take a look at it logically. (Read David Tomlinson on electric training collars for dogs.)
Adjustable discomfort levels
First of all, the level of discomfort can be adjusted. I have worn an e-collar and I couldn’t feel anything until it had reached the fourth setting, bearing in mind the contacts were placed directly on my skin. Secondly, there is no after-effect; once the button is released, the feeling stops. One of the main benefits of the e-collar as a training aid is that it is always consistent, unlike the way your voice changes depending on your mood, the way you blow your whistle and so on.
We all know that old piece of gundog training advice that says “if you feel yourself getting wound up, it is better to call it a day and put the dog away”, but how many of us keep going until the dog just pushes us over the edge? It has happened to the best of us. If you are using a collar, no matter how wound up you are, if the dog keeps disobeying its commands, you cannot press that button any harder. Most good collars will have a limiter so at worst, the dog’s correction will be measured and limited. I know of a number of dog trainers who have successfully used them to help stop dogs from behaviour such as livestock worrying and even chasing cars, and this has potentially saved the dog’s life. American training methods So far, I have fallen into the trap of talking about e-collars as a tool for reprimanding a dog, but over the pond the Americans use them in a totally different way. I think the best way to explain it is to give an example of a training session. Generally, the collars are first used when the pups are around six months old, and they are used in a way that someone described to me as the negative/ positive method.
If you were teaching a dog to sit, you would apply the discomfort (electric stimulation) as you gave the command to sit, and when its backside hit the floor you would release the button – the negative being the discomfort, the positive being the removal of the discomfort. In effect, the dog is being rewarded by the removal of the e-stimulation, and this logic is employed throughout the dog’s training. This is the total opposite of how we in the UK not only use but also think about the use of e-collars; we very rarely use them in a positive manner.
However, all the above points are now a bit irrelevant as the Government has just laid legislation which will completely ban the use of handheld remote-controlled electric shock collars in England, as of 1 February 2024. (Electric dog training collars are already banned in Scotland and Wales.)
Interestingly, as I write this piece, I can’t find any reference to the actual banning of the sale of the collars, and I can’t find reference to automatic anti-bark e-collars. However, from what I found, the use of invisible boundary fences, which of course work by a cable being buried in the ground and the dogs wearing an e-collar, will be permitted, provided certain conditions are followed. The full statute isn’t currently on the Government website, but perhaps these questions will be answered in due course.