Electronic Collars - Our Take On Them

Jan 11, 2023

What is an E-Collar?

An electric collar (or e-collar) is a type of dog training collar often utilized amongst a wide variety of dog training disciplines. E-collars have a remote, held by the trainer, and a receiver that is attached to a flat collar fitted onto the dog's neck. The receiver has a prong system with two or more prongs, which transmits either a vibration or a small electric pulse from the remote. The level of the pulse, or "shock", can be adjusted on the remote. Most e-collars have the ability to transmit a very quick pulse, often called a "nick", or a longer pulse (continuous). Some e-collars will also transmit a sound in the form of a "beep". E-collars are battery-operated and often have a range of well over 250 yards.

Over the last few decades, the technology of electronic collars has improved by leaps and bounds. While the older e-collars were known for being quite strong and "burning", newer technology has allowed e-collars to be toned down to a much lower level of stimulation, often resembling what we all felt as kids when we licked the end of a 9-volt battery. On the higher levels, the stimulation feels a lot like the popular game from the early 2000s, where you try to hold onto a set of handles while a small shock is sent through them.

It is also worth noting that some e-collars have a fixed remote that is connected to either a set of underground wires or a set of GPS coordinates. These are often called "electronic fences", used to keep family dogs contained in a specific area without having to build a physical fence.

How Are E-Collars Used in Retriever Training?

Retriever trainers often utilize e-collars, and there are two general ways in which they are used. One is "compulsion" training, which is negative reinforcement. Now, without getting into the weeds on the four quadrants of teaching, try not to think of "negative" and "positive" like you would in disciplining your own children. These terms are simply used to describe whether something is being added (positive) or taken away (negative).

Similarly, reinforcement and punishment must be understood without emotion. In dog training, reinforcement is what you do when you want to continue a behavior, and punishment is what you do when you want to discontinue a behavior.

So, for compulsion or "force training", negative reinforcement is the act of removing something the dog does not like in order to convince the dog to continue performing a behavior (reinforcement). The forms of pressure used here can vary, and this is not the philosophy of training taught at Cornerstone Gundog Academy. If you'd like to dive deeper into the "why" and "why not?" of force fetch, check out the videos inside our "How Your Dog Learns" module!

The other use of e-collars within gun dog training is for "positive punishment." This is the act of adding something the dog does not like in order to discourage a particular behavior. Think about a slip lead for a moment. If a dog is walking at heel, the slip lead is loose. If a dog moves away from the heel position, an undesirable behavior, the trainer will give an upward tug on the lead and if the dog understands the skill of "heel", he will move back to the heel position.

Similarly, the e-collar can be used to correct misbehavior. The advantage of the e-collar is that it reaches much further than the slip lead and can be utilized even when the dog is "out of reach" from his handler. Back in the days of Water Dog, dog trainers would resort to fairly barbaric methods to punish at a distance, such as shooting marbles from a slingshot. With the continued development of the e-collar, corrections can be given at long distances with consistency and with the least amount of stimulation as possible.

Teaching vs. Reinforcing/Correcting

A common misconception is that an e-collar can be used as a shortcut to duck dog training. While e-collars can be very helpful in reinforcing and correcting already-taught skills, they are not the "best" route for teaching new skills. This is one reason why our program focuses on a teach-first approach. Once a skill is taught, it can then be reinforced with an e-collar if you are using one. We believe the best way to teach skills to a dog is through positive reinforcement and negative punishment. We want to teach a dog to perform a skill in order to gain a reward, whether a treat or a retrieve.

Our program is designed to take advantage of a dog's natural drive and instincts, whether a Labrador retriever, Golden retriever, English Springer Spaniel, or any other type of retriever breed, and use that drive and instincts to build the skills needed to perform in the field. While we are certainly not a "positive-reinforcement-only" training program, we do believe that positive reinforcement should come first and should be the primary method of teaching new skills.

With that said, there are some dogs who may be a little more difficult than others. Not all dogs are the same! Some dogs will learn the skills and then still have a tough time performing them when faced with other stimulations or distractions in the field. Sometimes these misbehaviors take place when the dog is out of reach from his trainer. This may present itself in many ways, such as playing keep-away, refusing to stop on the whistle, refusing to recall, etc. In these instances, an e-collar can be a helpful tool to immediately punish the wrong behavior, so long as the proper behavior has already been taught.

That last sentence is key! If the dog has not been fully taught what it means to stop on a whistle, then punishing him for not stopping on the whistle will likely do the opposite of helping him make progress. Whether the punishment is a slip lead, verbal correction, or a correction from an e-collar, you should never punish a hunting dog for not performing a skill he hasn't already learned.

So When Should I Use an E-Collar and ?

The answer to this question varies! Some people, myself included, either never or very rarely have a need to use any electronic collar. My style of training focuses highly on obedience, and I generally am able to extend the obedience skills out to distances without much of an issue. Others, however, may have more independent gun dogs, or they may have some struggles getting their dog to comply at further distances than a check-cord will reach. In these instances, we may recommend using an e-collar to fine-tune the skills your dog knows how to perform but is not consistently performing. In other words, when the problem or issue continues in the generalization phase of learning (see our Four Phases of Learning video in the How Your Dog Learns module), an e-collar may be a helpful tool.

Keep in mind there are very important steps to properly introducing an electronic collar so that your hunting partner understandings precisely what is happening when you issue a correction. You cannot just put an e-collar on a dog and immediately begin issuing corrections!

For a better understanding of how to properly introduce and use an e-collar for duck hunting dogs, purchase our E-Collar module (coming soon!).