Friday, August 26, 2011

The Limits and Strengths of E-Collars

Too often, sheep-chasing is self-reinforcing until the dog is shot.

I am always amused by the folks who prattle on about the evils of e-collars as if their sole function is to juice a dog with electricity until sparks shoot out of the animal's toes.

When I hear this kind of stuff, it's always a sure sign the person has NO IDEA of what they are talking about.

But, of course, there's no shortage of that in the world of dogs is there?

The good new is that ignorance is a treatable disease, and over at Outdoor Life, Brian Lynn delivers a little therapy in the form of an article which details the "misinformation, mistruths and ignorance" so commonly parroted when it comes to the use of e-collars.

Read the whole thing, but his basic points are these:

  • Electronic collars are simply a tool
    Far more dogs are abused by boots, belts, fists, hands, and rolled up newspapers than by e-collars. Abuse has little or nothing to do with the tools, and everything to do with how a tool is used.
  • Electronic collars are NOT designed to teach the basics of obedience.
    E-collars are designed to reinforce behavior at a distance. Their primary purpose is to signal a dog through a negative tone "warning" which can be followed by a corrective nick if needed.  The corrective nick does not have to be very strong provided basic obedience has already been taught and the dog really knows what it is supposed to do.  The nick is more of an attention-getter than anything else, and because it makes the process of learning easier and faster, it also makes it ultimately more enjoyable for the dog because it will make fewer mistakes and get positive rewards more often for its actions.
  • Treats Aren’t Enough:
    A great deal of canine misbehavior is self-reinforcing, and food is often a great deal less interesting to a dog than a squirrel or a running deer. While simple positive food rewards do work to teach neutral behaviors, they are a weak reed when trying to get a dog to stop engaging in negative self-reinforcing behavior such as chasing a spooked horse or going out too far on point.

Most dog owners have little need for an e-collar for the simple reason that most dog owners never have dogs off leash in field or forest. 

In addition, most dog owners do not have animals with 200 years of selective hunting and herding genetics curled up tightly inside them.

Do I think an expensive e-collar is needed to get an over-fed Labrador Retriever off the couch, or to keep a pet Poodle out of the trash can?  No, probably not.

But do I think an e-collar may be needed to get a Jack Russell Terrier or Fox Hound from running deer?   That's another matter entirely!

Do I use an e-collar on my own dogs?  

Yes and no.

I own an e-collar, and I have used them on my dogs, but for very limited purposes.  Specifically, I have used it to dissuade one dog from starting down the road of deer chasing. It did not take long for the collar to do the job, and I never clicked the setting past #3 (I cannot feel setting #1).  A few practice sessions with the collar in a local forest full of deer scent, and I have never had need to use the collar again. 

Want to know more about proper use of e-collars?


Job One is to stop listening to people who do not own one, have never used one, and whose sole expertise is in teaching their dogs to run weave poles. God bless them, but they do not have the knowledge you seek.

Someone who is an expert on e-collars is bird dog trainer Martin Deeley.  His web site has two excellent articles which I recommend:

Remember, whether you use an E-collar or not, you are going to have to take time with your dog, and your are going to have to teach your dog basic obedience FIRST.  

In the video below, notice that an E-collar is not being used at all for basic initial obedience instruction. The reason for this is simple, and I will repeat it again for the slow learners:  E-collars do NOT train a behavior -- they refocus a dog when its attention wanders, and they can provide an aversive consequence for an otherwise self-reinforcing behavior that is not wanted. 

See Part Two for introduction to E-collar work.

Electricity, for the record, is no big thing. My dogs (and millions of others) are contained by an "invisible fence" which simply puts out a tone and then shocks the dogs if they cross a certain line. A host of dogs at this house have been contained by this system for more than 15 years. There are no fence climbing and digging issues with an invisible fence -- and no torture either. The dogs quickly learn where the line is located, and they learn to respect it and not to test it.  Even when the electricity is temporarily out, the dogs do not stray.

Where an invisible fence electronic collar system does differ from a shock collar is that a properly constructed electronic fence is ALWAYS fair and ALWAYS has perfect timing.

The dog only gets a jolt when it challenges the fence, and that jolt occurs only at the exact moment when it has gone too far. Machines, as I have noted, are far better animal trainers than most people because they are consistent and predictable.

Of course, people are not consistent and and they are not predictable. Too often they are willfully ignorant and inconsistent, and sometimes they are also lazy, hazy and stupid. In very rare cases they are deliberately cruel.

So what's that mean for e-collars? It means they are subject to abuse, the same as doggy tie-outs and runner cable containment systems, guns, cars, sharp scissors, and baseball bats.

But if we banned everything that the stupid, cruel and ignorant might abuse, would we have anything at all?

How many dogs die every year because owners leave medicine and Tic-tac bottles lying about, and the dog overdosed on digitalis, viagra, or breath mints? Are we to ban health care and breath mints?

How many dogs are killed every year because their owners leave socks on the floor and tennis balls to be chewed up and swallowed? Are we to ban socks and tennis balls?

You want systematic cruelty? There is far more of it generated by kennel fencing than there is by e-collars.

That said, e-collars are the kind of thing that, like Sudafed, should probably be sold from behind the counter, requiring the purchaser to have a conversation with the sales person, and perhaps even sign a register and give his or her driver's license as a sign of seriousness. 

Every time I buy cold medicine now, I have to go through this little dance because some speed freak somewhere figured out how to cook up dope from pseudoephedrine.

But we did not ban Sudafed, did we? Nor do we require a prescription.

This is the thing that so many people miss: just because some criminal idiot has abused good medicine, does not mean we ban it.

But, of course, the "ban everything" crowd only knows one thing, which is why they need to be dragged kicking away from the public policy table.


Ruth said...

I have to admit to not being a fan of efences (and the GSDs across the street from me are a perfect example of why) but I have to agree, that with the right kind of dog, properly trained, efences and shock collars can be very useful tools when used properly.

PBurns said...

Donald McCaig tried to post this but the Blogger program failed him (and us), so I am putting it up for him. Perfect sense from Donald, as usual:

---------- Forwarded message ----------
From: Donald McCaig
Date: Sat, Aug 27, 2011 at 5:51 AM
Subject: ecollars

Dear Patrick,

The ecollar/shock collar can be a useful tool. In some circumstances it is the tool of choice. Detractors forget that before ecollars hunters' preferred tool to break dogs of running "trash" was "The #9 correction":Number nine shot, four hundred yards, open choke. Whatever you think about ecollars, they don't blind dogs.

I own two ecollars, have used them, and, in special circumstances would use them again.

That said: Letting a dog ignorant owner buy them one off the shelf is like giving a teenage boy a Ferrari - it isn't exactly illegal but nothing good is likely to come of it.

The ecollar trainers I know (and admire) have studied its use, attended seminars and/or been mentored. Most (not all) are superb dog trainers without the device. They know how to read dogs and have excellent timing. Their pupils are carefully instructed in ecollar use and many ecollar trainers don't even take the collar out of the box until the second or third training session.

But put that ecollar into the hands of someone who thinks his dog is a FUR PERSON or (next time he looks) BAD WOLF; has no timing and expects his dog to deconstruct his muddled commands to a meaning he couldn't articulate himself: ("You son of a bitch" may mean "Don't poop in the house", "Come here now" "Get off the driveway" or....or . . .

That muddle is reinforced with a powerful shock administered by a dog ignorant, technophiliac owner who believes that if a setting of #1 works, #6 will REALLY get the dog's attention.

Unlike the rolled newspaper and the abusing boot, the ecollar has no other purpose. It delivers a shock: mild or severe, to a dog some distance from the transmitter. It is a sophisticated tool whose employment unfortunately, seems simple and even self-evident: viz: "Shep screwed up! By God he's gonna get shocked until he howls!"

I would guess that of every 100 collars PetSmart sells, 85 are misused and do in fact abuse dogs. That can't be said of 100 newspapers or 100 pairs of boots.

We trained dogs before BJ Skinner and Karen Pryor. We may have trained them better before behaviorists came on the scene. We trained dogs - even trash chasing hunting dogs - before the ecollar.

If the behaviorists were to expire in a flurry of MA's and PHD's, and ecollars were to be banned, we would still train our dogs.

But we would lose some useful tools. (Yes, even behaviorists have some useful tools.)

If we were rational, we would license ecollar use like other powerful, potentially harmful technologies: the automobile, toxic chemicals, C4, the airplane . . .

But there is a substrate of the pro and anti ecollar argument that quelches rational discourse. How dog trainers see themselves and how they make their living underpins pro and anti ecollar argument.

The most vocal "positive" trainers see all corrections as cruel. They regularly denounce "traditional" and "ecollar" trainers . They claim that "reward based" training is both scientific and kinder. "What would you rather do, hurt your dog or give it a treat?" one writes.

Since very few Americans (Rick Perry?) want to be thought "Unscientific" and nobody wants to be "cruel", this is a powerful marketing tool in a crowded business whose prominent practitioners earn six figures.

Ecollar defenders not only defend the tool and their training methods but their reputations as dog kindly decent individuals. Not to mention their ability to pay their bills.

The argument is too hot for reason to prevail. If reason did, we'd license ecollars and get back to training our dogs.

Donald McCaig

Anonymous said...

Amazing comment. Permission to repost?

PBurns said...

Sure. Please post the link too.


workem hard treatem like heroes said...

I use e-collars on my JRT'S. There are a great tool if used properly!!! My dogs are almost always off lead as it is necessary to give the dogs the exercise they need. I have 2 collars and 2 remotes because there is no way you turn a switch from dog to dog and have a different correction level for each dog. They only receive a low tickle to break their concentration when necessary which is rare. My dogs jump up and down with excitement when I turn the collars on!! My thinking is that if you are not willing to try the correction on YOURSELF you should not be using it on your dog!!!

PBurns said...

Well said!