I took a few minutes yesterday to switch out the batteries in the Invisible Fence collars (the three red collars at left, top to bottom) and the Petsafe bark collars (the black collars in the middle, top to bottom). On the far right is a round E-Collar Technologies remote control, with two E-Collar Technologies collars below.
Ten quick points about modern electronic collars:
- Invisible fence collars are a kind of "buster" collar, and they work very well to contain most dogs using a radio-frequency-sending wire running around a perimeter. Invisible fence systems can contain multiple dogs inside a very large area for an affordable cost. After an initial period of training with a flagged perimeter, and the owner working the dog on a leash, most dogs respect the line and rarely challenge it. Invisible Fence collars are nothing more than an electric fence for dogs, mechanically different from what we use for cows, but operationally about the same. Just as you rarely see an electric fence correcting a cow, so you rarely see an Invisible Fence correct a dog after the first few weeks. My working terriers have been behind an Invisible Fence for over 17 years. To be clear, my dogs are on a perimeter wire. I have no experience with the wireless "base transmitter" models, distrust them, and would not install one.
- Bark collars operate only when a dog barks, and only when the dog wearing the collar is barking, as the collar needs both noise and vibration to correct. I have three dogs, and one dog cannot set off the collar of the other dogs. Bark collars save a lot of canine lives, as more dogs are sent to death at the pound for barking than any other reason. These things work like new money. The three collars, above, are small Petsafe Elite bark collars. Do not be stupid and get a collar with citronella spray.
- E-collars are not Invisible Fence collars or bark collars or "trash buster" collars (not shown), but something entirely different -- a true dog training aid that is capable of sending small "taps" a great distance with perfect timing. These taps can break through a dog's natural attention deficit disorder, remind a dog of what it knows, and mildly "correct" a dog starting a bad, or unwanted, behavior. E-collars do not train a dog; they are simply a powerful and near-perfect signaling tool which, if used at low-stimulation, can dramatically speed up and help "proof" a recall, a long down-stay, and dozens of other common commands. As always, you have to use the tool to train the dog. But does an e-collar, when coupled with a treat bag, make this training quicker, easier, and more assured? Yes!
- A modern e-collar is going to cost you over $180, and should have 100 stimulation levels. Do not get a collar that has 5-10 levels of stimulation, or one that is being sold as a "trash buster" collar at a local pet or hunting store. If you have, in the past, used an e-collar with 5-10 levels of stimulation, be advised that these collars are NOT the same as a modern e-collar. Do not get a collar and transmitter being sold for the remarkably price of $50-$60 on Ebay or Amazon. These are Chinese-made collars based on a 30-year old off-patent design, and they are too course and too inconsistent for real dog training. I would recommend looking at an E-Collar Technologies or Dogtra collar, both of which will cost you about $200, and which are worth it.
- Do not expect one collar to do it all. E-collars are a bit like dogs themselves; anyone who is selling you one that can "do it all," is selling you one that can do it all poorly. Spend money to get the right equipment for the job, and learn how to use the equipment.
- Collars should be tight with the contact points on the sensors placed on the side, or on top of the dog's neck. Electronic collars only work when the stimulus prongs are consistently in contact with the dog's neck. This means that the collar should be tight, and if the sensors are places on top or on the side, they are less likely to lose contact than if they are on the bottom.
- Different contacts are needed for different coats and dogs. Some very long-coated dogs may need some fur trimming, but long and short contacts are sold that work well on most coats. Some dogs may need a contact point made of a hypoallergenic metal -- these are available.
- Modern collars come with vibration, as well as electronic stimulation, and many come with a tone feature as well. It is a common mistake to think vibration is less intrusive to the dog than a low-level stim (it's not), or to think a tone feature is absolutely necessary (you will mostly be working your dog within sound of your voice). In fact, a low-level stim given to a dog that knows what it means is so effective and gentle that a change in direction or activity is all the notice a dog may give that it has received any signal at all.
- It's a TAP, not a Zap. While an Invisible Fence collar gives a powerful and very aversive ZAP, and a bark collar will send a much less-strong static correction, a training e-collar set at the correct level is giving no more than a one-finger tap. Though there is a "boost" feature, which can send a stronger corrective signal, actual dog training is done with the collar set so low it merely taps the dog -- it's no more aversive than a single finger lightly touching the dog on the neck or on top of the head.
- Any tool can be abused, and too often are. When it comes to dogs, leashes are probably abused more than any other device, as dogs spend a lifetime getting "yanked and cranked" by owners who never embrace a training regime based on good timing and consistency. Can e-collars be abused? Absolutely. In fact, if you insist on not reading directions, not going to YouTube to watch competent professionals instruct on modern e-collar use, do not take a dog training class, do not spend a few hours with someone who has trained a dog with an e-collar, and refuse to read a book or get on an e-collar training list-serv or Facebook group, you are probably going to do more harm than good with your e-collar, at least initially. But, of course, the same can be said about a leash. The good news is that most humans who spend $200 on a modern training collar actually want to train a dog. Step One in that training is to understand that not all collars are the same, and that getting good tools for the right job is essential.
I am told that Karen Pryor, the great maven of pure treats-based clicker training, keeps her own Border Terrier behind an Invisible Fence. It seems she has figured out that they are quite humane. And yet Ms. Pryor looks down her nose on modern e-collars, even though she herself admits she cannot take her own terrier off-lead in the woods for fear of it running away! Indeed, her earlier Border Terrier ran away from her in the woods and was killed by a coyote. All I can say is that she should have used an e-collar, and she should have asked a real dog trainer how to use it.