If you have never questioned the reliability of what happens when you use an e-collar, imagine being convinced you are correcting your dog when it doesn't obey a command, only to find out you are only correcting it some of the time because the e-collar isn't working as consistently as you think. Whatever the reason, your corrections have been sporadic, non-existent or at a lower intensity level than you intended.
You did your job, but it just didn't happen on the dog's end and you didn't even realize it. Taking some steps to prevent problems on the front end will help ensure the dog receives your messages every time.
Check the Output
Start out by confirming the e-collar is producing stimulation. This is easy enough and can be done a couple of different ways, either with a tester or you can feel it yourself.
For obvious reasons, most people prefer the former method. Some collars are supplied with a simple tester in the form of a small light bulb attached to two lead wires. Simply contact each collar probe with one of the leads and the light shines when the collar produces stimulation. The big advantage with this method is you can easily verify the batteries are strong enough to produce stimulation on the higher intensity settings without the fear of being shocked.
While I wouldn't recommend strapping one around your neck and asking someone to hit the hot button, you can also hold the receiver in one hand, with the probes against your palm and control the stimulation. But exercise extreme caution, and if you have any medical conditions or concerns of injury, please adhere to the first method. Start out on the lowest setting and work your way up until it gets uncomfortable or you're satisfied it's working correctly.
The benefit of testing e-collars in this manner is that it allows you to compare the stimulation levels between different receivers. E-collar stimulation scales aren't standardized, so a particular level on one collar receiver may not feel the same as that same level on another — even if they are from the same manufacturer.
Some collars are just hotter than others, and it's a mistake to assume any two of them are alike. If you use more than one system or buy a new one, it's good to know how they compare before you put one on your dog and start pushing the buttons!
Test the Signal
The changing landscapes through which we hunt make e-collar signal failures sporadic and hard to recognize when they do happen. It takes an alert handler to conclusively determine an unseen radio signal didn't connect and their correction failed to take place. Stay attentive to your dog's reactions or lack thereof, as the real lesson here is that pushing a button does not necessarily guarantee your dog received the message. It's up to you to be sure!
I used to think my setters were the most hard-headed hounds in the pack. When we were in hilly or wooded terrain, they were often slow to respond when I called them in to hunt a little closer or change directions, despite my e-collar reminders. Noting some similar situations where this occurred led me to suspect my transmitter signals weren't consistently reaching my dogs under many of the conditions we regularly encountered.
To test my signal reception, I put the e-collar receiver beside a Garmin Astro tracking collar on the tailgate of my pickup and walked around our neighborhood with the transmitter in one hand and the GPS unit in the other. I tried turning the remote beeper on and off to determine if the signal was reaching the receiver and noted the distances using the Garmin. In one case, I had problems getting the signal to the receiver at only 154 yards.
You'll be amazed at what you can learn about how distance, terrain features and other obstacles affect e-collar transmitter signals and how much it will help in understanding what is happening or not happening in the field.
If your unit isn't equipped with a beeper, try enlisting the help of a partner in conjunction with a tone or vibrate mode. Use hand signals or cell phones to communicate when your signal connects and when it doesn't.
I used to shy away from the more expensive, long-range e-collar systems because I never planned to correct a dog from the distances they advertise. But the 1-mile transmitter I'm currently using delivers its signal much more reliably under normal operating distances and conditions than the ½-mile transmitter I used to carry. Purchasing a system with more range than you think you'll ever need will greatly reduce any instances when obstacles or terrain block your signal.
Replace Your Batteries
One summer evening I was out with my young dog in a neighbor's hay field. Joy had been responding well behind our house, but the change in location was full of new distractions. She refused to turn and come toward me, continuing farther and farther away. I tried to cue her with a low nick but she still refused, so I started turning up the knob to get her attention. She showed no reaction at all, even on the highest level the dial could offer.
I placed a call to the manufacturer, who shed a little light on the situation. My collar was six years old and I had never replaced the rechargeable receiver battery. I assumed the batteries would eventually just die and then I would replace them. Wrong!
Battery life is not indefinite and over time they will become weak. In this weakened state, they can still have enough energy to power up and work on the lowest settings, but lack enough power to work at all on higher intensity settings, making this a particularly hard problem to diagnose. Just when you need it most, your battery may not have the strength to stimulate your dog, or the stimulation at all levels can be greatly diminished.
Replacing the batteries before this happens is the best insurance policy. The manufacturer will know what to expect from your unit's batteries and suggest appropriate replacement intervals accordingly.
Just remember, failure to regularly replace or correctly maintain the rechargeable battery packs that power both e-collar receivers and transmitters will eventually lead to problems. It will happen if you don't prevent it. Batteries do not last forever!
It may be an extreme example, but I once watched a guy open his never-before-used e-collar at the preserve where we were planning to shoot birds. Neither the transmitter nor the receiver had any charge and the dog wasâ€¦let's say untrained. It turned into a fiasco.
Charging your e-collar and transmitter batteries according to the manufacturer's recommendations shouldn't be overlooked. Consult the owner's manual for the proper procedures, and then follow them. The best procedure for one set-up isn't necessarily the best for all of them. Charge wisely to get the best performance and most longevity from your unit.
The manufacturers of these modern e-collars have performed minor miracles, bringing us useful and dependable tools to help us efficiently and effectively train our dogs to top levels. Even so, they aren't foolproof. It's a good practice to regularly test the operation of your units, stay aware and learn all you can about signal limitations, replace the batteries periodically and also charge them regularly.
Most of all, we should constantly be thinking about what is or what should be happening after we push the button on our transmitters. If your dog doesn't respond appropriately there is a reason for that behavior. It's our job as trainers and handlers to figure out those reasons.
Understanding and maintaining your e-collars for optimum performance will remove one variable from the equation and help guarantee that what happens on the dog's end is what you intend to happen, every time you push the button.