Thoughts on collars: correct your bird dog the right way.
Few concepts in gun dog training generate as much controversy as the use of electronic collars. Many see the use of e-collars as a cheap "shortcut," a way to get results from a dog without building the foundation required for long-term success. There are those that see the use of e-collars as out-and-out animal cruelty, as indeed an e-collar in the wrong hands can do grave damage. Alternatively, there are many who see the e-collar as an invaluable training tool that affords a trainer both a "reach" and an instantaneous response that was simply not possible in the early days of check cords and leads.
Over the course of my- career as a dog trainer, I have come full-circle on my thinking about the use of electronic collars. I distinctly recall the first e-collars that I saw in use in the late 1960s, which bore little resemblance to the versatile and streamlined units we see today. These early collars were awkward, cumbersome, and very unreliable. They were fitted with car-like antennae, and a transmitter that featured a series of receptacles and manual plugs that determined the level of stimulation, which was delivered with a single button.
Once selected, that level could not be changed, and as I recall the stimulation levels were limited in range from "hot" to "hottest." To make matters worse, in wet conditions the collars often took on minds of their own; while working under other trainers I was more than once called upon to chase down a squealing dog and wrestle the collar off his neck. It's a darn good thing I was in pretty good shape back then.
By virtue of poor design and general misuse, early e-collars were not training devices in the way they are thought of now, but rather, punishment devices. I suppose that they were effective in teaching a dog that running deer or chasing cars would be met with a very unpleasant response, but they did little to. enhance the dog's field performance. As trainers and amateurs saw that the collar could deliver an intense correction at a distance with the push of a button, many of them skimmed over the necessary and time-consuming steps of developing an adequate foundation and boundaries to ensure the dog was 100 percent clear on the desired outcome.
The temptation early on was to assume that the heavy use of the collar would reinforce the intended behavior by strongly punishing the unintended behavior. Most often, e-collars were used with flushing dogs to enforce the HUP command or steadiness after a flush. Basically, a trainer would send the dog in to flush a bird, then shock the dog if he didn't sit at once.
Though this methodology could work, it became clear to me that the dog, insufficiently aware of the desired outcome and confused by the extreme response, would begin to go into flushes with less confidence and style. Occasionally, the dog would begin to "blink" on birds in anticipation of a response that he did not have the context to understand. On occasion, collars also misfired and delivered inadvertent, or overly strong, stimulation. Early e-collars, to my mind, posed the potential for more harm than good, and ruined more dogs than they trained.
My perceptions of e-collars began to shift when I met and subsequently worked some training seminars with Jim Dobbs, who was then primarily training Labs in California. Jim was an early advocate for Tri-Tronies collars, and I was intrigued by his practice of wrapping a handkerchief around the collar probes to deaden the stimulation level. Jim was also a great source of information on the technology front, and it was he who first demonstrated for me the ability on those early Tri-Tronics to dial through a range of stimulation levels.
As I watched Jim work, I also saw that his philosophy around collar use was far different than what I'd seen in the past. Rather than use a high level of stimulation as punishment, Jim ensured that the early foundation and boundaries were seated in place, then used low-level stimulation as a "tap on the shoulder." When a command was given, and the dog broke, low stimulation served as a virtual check-cord, and re-gained the dog's attention without diminishing his drive, style or intensity. Watching Jim, I began to think that the e-collar might be a highly effective tool, if used with appropriate caution.
After years of experimentation and much thought, I have come to use the e-collar sparingly as a training tool. Generally, I use it when finishing or fine-tuning a point of training, ensuring that the bulk of my work is done in the foundation/boundaries training discussed in previous issues. I also refuse to use the e-collar to try to rein in a big-running dog, as there are far more positive methods for building appropriate range, most notably by using rolled pigeons.
When I do use the e-collar, I am always sure to follow some guidelines and progressive steps, taking account of the individual dog's temperament and current development within the training process. My parameters are as follows.
By and large, I progress through the foundation training until I feel that a given command is 90 percent certain and consistent. It is critical that before turning to the collar for finishing I assess whether that 10 percent inconsistency is based on a decision/distraction on the part of the dog, or whether the foundation has yet to be fully cemented.
If foundation/boundaries are not clearly established, I move back to earlier training stages, and use the lead or check cord in conjunction with reward/praise. I also consider the dog's confidence level in performing the desired task. If the tail is high and the demeanor is happy as the command is being attempted, I generally assume that the dog may be a candidate for finishing with the collar.
The next step in the process is to introduce the actual collar. This should be done over several training sessions during which stimulation is not used, as we ideally want the dog to disassociate the collar from stimulation. Not only do I hope to ensure that the "dummy"' collar used in training without stimulation builds an association between the collar and a fun/positive experience, but I also want to guarantee the collar does not take on any kind of negative connection to anything unpleasant (though stimulation should never be terribly unpleasant, a soft dog can build a negative association between collar and stimulation, which casts a shadow on the positive tone of training).
Be sure the collar is snug, worn high on the neck, and positioned so that both probes contact the skin. Often collars come with short and long probes that can be changed depending on the length of the dog's hair. Once the dog is comfortable wearing the collar for a few sessions, I determine the optimal level of stimulation to begin training with. To do this, I get the attention of the dog by rewarding a sit/ stay, then attaining eye contact.
With the dog focused, I begin with the lowest possible setting, and give one pulse of instantaneous stimulation. I watch carefully to see whether the dog blinks, licks his lips or responds at all. I hope to see this low-level response, as I want to start as gently as possible; if there is a more substantial response, I may need to reconsider my use of the collar. More commonly, I need to progress up through a few levels to get the desired low-level response.
From there, I determine how the collar should most effectively be used. Modern collars have multiple features, and often the trainer can choose between continuous stimulation, instantaneous stimulation, vibration without electricity, or an audible tone.
Some commands, such as COME or recall, benefit from the use of continuous stimulation. Having built suitable foundation, I will place the dog on a sit-stay 10 yards away or so. I then deliver continuous low-level stimulation, followed by a recall command. Once the dog has gotten halfway to me on a straight line, I release stimulation and welcome him with praise/reward. The dog learns that he has the power to turn off stimulation by following the command.
Other skills require that aforementioned "tap on the shoulder." I often use a collar to fine-tune steadiness. When the dog flushes and I want him to HUP at once, he sometimes breaks a step or creeps, or simply doesn't fully sit. If he breaks fully and chases on a flushed bird, I have not done my foundation work sufficiently.
If he creeps, I can remind him with gentle instantaneous stimulation that his butt needs to be on the ground, and that he needs to stay put. His intensity won't break, and I often see in the dog's reaction a somewhat distracted realization of how the task was supposed to be accomplished. No style is lost.
In short, I see the e-collar as a valuable tool for the trainer, but one that requires forethought, skill and patience. Shortcuts in foundation/boundary training will not be solved by the collar, and the potential is there for the collar to ruin an otherwise promising dog.
Remember, though we all want a well-trained dog, we also need to have a happy and confident dog. A dog that is not happy hunting is a problem; don't let poor collar use be the reason behind it.
By Jerry Cacchio
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|Date:||Sep 30, 2017|
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