Tuesday, September 22, 2015

The E-Collar Revolution is Over 30 Years Old

In "Four Ways to Walk a Dog," written nearly 30 years ago for Atlantic magazine, author Michael Lenehan describes the work of one of the very first modern e-collar trainers.

[Daniel] Tortora began working with dogs again after he complet­ed his doctorate, in 1973. Within about a year he had hung out his shingle as an animal psychologist in Spring Valley, New York, not far from his present home. But he did not immediately understand how relevant his academic train­ing was to the problems that pet owners were bringing him. When he first encountered the electronic dog-train­ing collar, he didn’t even see the connection between it and the shock grids that he had worked with in grad school....

...Tortora began talking with the collar’s manufacturers, who were in the process of transforming their product from a dirty little secret into a rather sophisticated behavior-modification tool. The original Tri-Tronics collar was fairly simple: pushing a button on a hand-held, battery-powered transmitter sent a radio signal to a box on the dog’s collar; two pronglike contacts protruding from the box conducted an electrical charge to the skin of the dog’s neck. The charge was supposed to hurt, just as a jerk on a leash is supposed to hurt; the purpose was punishment, and no one pretended otherwise.

Present models are different. Now the user can set the electrical stimulation at one of five levels, the highest of which corresponds to the single level available previously.

Tortora, who helped the com­pany determine which levels would work best, believes that the change allows the collar to be used as a motivation rather than a punishment. At a low level, he says, the elec­tricity may stimulate the dog’s neck muscles, causing them to tense, without activating the pain nerves, whose re­sponse threshhold is higher. Thus the stimulation may be felt not as pain but as a “pressure to perform,” similar per­haps to the pressure that a dog feels when a choke collar binds it in a heeling position. Tortora has some reason to believe that when a dog is naturally motivated to per­form—for example, when a retriever is fetching, indulging the instincts bred into it over centuries—the stimulation may even be felt as a form of arousal....

...Two of the three remote-control trainers now available from Tri-Tronics are designed explicitly to serve as escape-avoidance teaching devices. In these models each burst of electrical stimulation is preceded by a conditioning tone audible to the dog—a brief buzz that predicts the onset of stimulation, just as the light does for the rat in the shock box. Like the rat, the dog can learn to avoid the shock by responding quickly to the buzz. A button on the transmit­ter allows the handler to send the buzz only, without any accompanying electrical stimulation.

In addition, the top-­of-the-line Tri-Tronics trainer also produces a second tone, a beep that follows the electrical stimulation. This feature, added at Tortora’s instigation, is based on “relaxation the­ory,” a concept developed at Michigan State by Tortora’s major professor, M. Ray Denny. The beep serves as a “safety tone,” an indication that the shock is over. It too can be decoupled from the electrical stimulation, and can therefore be used to signal the dog that it has performed well and has avoided the aversive stimulus.

“From half a block away,” Tortora says, “I can say ‘Good dog’ by pushing a button.” Eventually, if the training goes according to plan, the electricity drops out of the system and the dog can be trained entirely through the use of the conditioning tones.

This was written 30 years ago.  
Today's collars do not come with five levels of stimulation, but 100, and not just with simple tone, but vibration as well.

As I said at the IACP conference
 last weekend, "Anyone who is using the old 'BUSTER' FRAME to talk about MODERN collars is OUT OF DATE, uninformed, and therefore NOT A GOOD TRAINER."

 Read the whole thing

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