Warning: I strongly believe that E-collar training should never be taught without in-person coaching. Therefore, nothing I share regarding E-collars is intended to be used as a D.I.Y. training program. It is only intended to be food for thought or supplementary to in-person training with Thriving Canine. 


Prerequisite: Before reading this, or any other article that I share on E-collars, please watch this video to get a foundational idea of my E-collar philosophy.  Chad's E-collar on Vimeo


Invention of “Shock Collars” 


In the early days (1950s-60s) when the remote electric collar was being invented, it was truly a “shock” collar. It was a high level shock which was meant to stop unwanted behavior at a distance. That’s it, one level, one purpose, pretty simple really. I personally hadn’t even heard of shock collars until the 1990s, but I have seen one that was from the 1970’s. It had 3 levels of shock but you had to open it up to change the setting, so it wasn’t adjustable on the fly. Even the lowest setting on this thing was still very high by today's standards, so there was nothing subtle about it. 


In case you have never felt one of these devices, it’s just a shock, it’s not electrocution or anything that will physically harm the dog. It is painful though, that is without question, so there are legitimate concerns regarding psychological harm. 


The early shock collars were also bulky, expensive and unreliable. They would break, get water damaged and could be set off accidentally by nearby radio signals. 


Now, you may think the whole thing sounds barbaric but, to keep things in perspective, it was a  technological leap from throwing projectiles at the dog. It could also stop dogs from running after wildlife from distances far beyond the reach of projectiles. In other words, it provided something that was not even possible before. Looking at it that way, the shock collar was much more accurate and less harmful than throw chains, beebee guns, sling shots or whatever else people might have tried back then. 


It’s important to have perspective when studying the history of anything and E-collars are no exception. Also keep in mind, this was not a tool that was being marketed to pet owners. Adjusted for inflation, the early models would cost over $2000 today, so it was mostly just for hunting dog enthusiasts back then. 


Evolution of the Modern E-collar


The old days are decades in the rear view and advances in technology, such as the invention of the microchip, have brought about the modern remote controlled electronic collar or “E-collar.” Modern E-collars give us the ability to fine tune the electric stimulation (shock) from painful all the way down to what literally feels like a tickle or is not even perceptible. They are small, lightweight, water proof, have vibration and tone settings and thousands of frequencies so accidental triggering from another unit or radio signals is pretty much unheard of today. All of this allows for a much wider range of possibilities and accuracy for communicating with dogs remotely. 


The advances in E-collar technology brought about much more gentle and refined training practices. Early adopters believed this would be embraced as a modern miracle. Some even believed that, in the future, all dogs would be trained via “remote control.” 


The Rise of Controversy 


The problem with the modern E-collar technology is that it didn’t start until the 1980s and didn’t really get good until the 1990s. In other words, it was too little, too late because there was something else that started in the 1980s and gained popularity in the 1990s. It is called “positive” dog training and it is the sworn enemy of the E-collar. 


As positive dog training started to grow in popularity, groups began to form and many of them became politicized, eventually taking on an activist mentality. What started as small groups of dog trainers with the honorable mission of exploring ways to make dog training more gentle and reward-based somehow spun off into groups of crusaders that would proclaim that all dog training must be based purely on rewards. Basically, they condemned all the traditional dog training tools and methods that had been around forever. They promoted “modern” ideas such as “hands-off” or “force-free” dog training with “never say no” policies and were essentially leading people to believe that the only tool you need is a bag of treats to train a dog. 


So, needless to say, unless all it did was spit out cookies, they were not going to be ok with E-collars. Many positive training and animal welfare groups would promote the horrors of E-collars and lobby to get them banned. 


In a nutshell, I think it’s fair to say that they meant well and raised very valid concerns regarding the potential misuse of the tool. However, I think it’s also fair to say that they oversold the demonization angle because they failed to provide an effective alternative and, therefore, failed to keep things in perspective


Perspective…It’s a Thing. 


E-collars In Perspective: Is a microsecond of “shock” better than your dog getting hit by a car, bitten by a rattlesnake, running after wildlife, killing the cat, etc.? Assuming the E-collar works for stopping such things, it sounds like a no-brainer, however, it’s not that simple. Here’s the reality; E-collars can stop those things but they can also  backfire by triggering a dog fight rather than stopping one, causing a dog to panic and run into the street rather than come back to you, etc. The secret to E-collar success is proper use which, unfortunately, is not as common as it could be. (see: Common Mistakes) 


Positive Training In Perspective: Using positive (reward-based) training whenever and wherever it is effective should be a no-brainer and many E-collar trainers could stand to use more of it. That said, there are many issues that simply cannot be remedied with positive methods alone. I know some will want to argue with that statement, which they are welcome to do, but this is not a theoretical concept, it is simply a fact. 


The Word “Positive” In Perspective: It is often used as an abbreviation of the operant conditioning term positive reinforcement, which means to strengthen a behavior by giving the dog a reward. “Positive” is also used in classical conditioning terms when rewards are used to create positive associations. Please notice that neither of those definitions have anything to do with stopping unwanted behaviors or enforcing commands. 


What about positive results? Could an E-collar trainer call themselves “positive” because they get results that give the dog and owner a more “positive” life together? No. An E-collar trainer is not considered “positive” because they are using electric shock as a form of punishment and negative reinforcement. 


Fact Check: Many E-collar trainers claim they “don’t shock dogs'' because they use “low level stim” but that is misleading because the low levels are only used to introduce the E-collar without any distractions. Once you advance to working around distractions, you will need to dial up and it will be a shock. This is not my opinion, this is simply a fact. 


Can negative results be positive? Could you train with positive reinforcement but get poor results and still call yourself a positive trainer? Yes. The terms “Positive” or “Positive Dog Training” are based on the techniques regardless of the results. This is a critical piece of information for keeping things in perspective. 


Please understand, I love positive reinforcement, it is a fundamental part of any truly balanced dog training program. However, the mass marketing of positive dog training gave birth to the mythology that E-collars, and traditional methods in general, can be completely replaced with nothing but reward-based training. This is untrue. This is not just my opinion, some of the biggest names in the positive dog training industry have admitted publicly that they often cannot resolve issues that have been easily remedied by more traditional means for centuries and are resolved even faster and easier today due to the advent of modern E-collar training. 


Perspective…it’s a thing. 


The Banning of E-collars


By the 2000’s most trainers were already moving to a more “balanced” approach by combining positive training with traditional training. This all dovetailed very well with the advancements in  E-collar technology. Early adopters were finding that by layering the E-collar into a balanced training system they could achieve great results without all the heavy-handed leash jerks. It seemed like a no-brainer that this was a positive evolution in dog training. 


All these advancements would not satisfy the positive movement, which was growing in numbers and influence rapidly. Activist groups began lobbying governments to get aversive dog training tools banned, the E-collar being at the top of the list, along with prong collars and choke chains. This was an uphill battle, due to the lack of results mentioned above, but nonetheless, they were successful in banning E-collars in certain places around the world and continue to push for more. 


I can’t say for sure but this is my perspective on what happened: I think E-collar trainers were asleep at the wheel while positive trainers were busy dominating the internet and these legal actions made them wake up. They began to realize the power of social media and the influence the positive trainers were having and decided to mobilize. Don’t quote me on the exact timeline, but starting around 2010, E-collar trainers seemed to start coming out of the woodwork. Apparently it was time to grab some of the limelight for themselves. It was time to become “Influencers” and show the world how safe and effective the E-collar could be.  


These marketing campaigns seem to be working because, for better or worse, the E-collar is more popular now than ever. And, the Influencer Wars wage on. 


The Future of the E-collar


While being banned in a few places, the E-collar is simultaneously experiencing a height in popularity. I find that very interesting. I also find that both sides have valid arguments. There is no question that the E-collar has a very high potential for misuse and abuse. There is also no question that the E-collar can provide a level of off-leash control and safety that simply cannot be provided by anything else. How will this play out? 


My Prediction: I predict that there will be tool bans here and there but, for the most part, E-collars are here to stay. The technology will continue to advance and the controversy will go on. 


My Hope: I hope that people will learn to respect the E-collar as a valuable but potentially dangerous tool that should only be used with care and caution. 


My Concern: I have watched hundreds of YouTube videos on E-collar training and all of them were bad, wrong or misleading. Even if the info was good, a video can’t coach you, it can’t let you know if you are doing it right or not. This is a huge problem! Yet, due to what I call the “Influencer Crisis”, the danger of people getting it wrong seems to be overshadowed by the obsession with having them “smash the like button.” This concerns me greatly. 


My Advise: If you are considering using an E-collar, proceed with caution. Beware of misinformation, keep your mind open, think critically and ask lots of questions. Start with the question, “Why are you interested in E-collar training in the first place?” Are you struggling with training your dog and hoping the E-collar will be a quick fix? If so, my advice would be to forget about the E-collar and learn how to train your dog without it first. The E-collar is a powerful and advanced tool. It is dangerous to put high level tools in hands with low level skills. The E-collar won’t make an amateur dog trainer better, it will only make them worse. It will only give them more power to make greater mistakes. 


You can’t control the future of the E-collar but you can control when, how and if you decide to use one.


Go wisely into the future my friends and may the force be with you.


-Chad Culp, Certified Dog Trainer, Canine Behavior Consultant and Owner of Thriving Canine. 

© Thriving Canine 2021

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