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32 Tips For Choosing and Using Modern E-Collars

Practical advice from professional gun dog trainers and experienced hunters

32 Tips For Choosing and Using Modern E-Collars

"What a nightmare," Randy admitted after finally finding Ben, his 18-month-old Labrador. Two hours earlier, the "well-trained" dog had gone out to retrieve a wounded mallard that was swimming for the fast-flowing river, 200 yards from the decoy rig set up in a backwater bay.

"You better stop him," someone said when the duck had beat the dog to the rushing water. But no loud voice command or shrill whistle would get the dedicated dog to turn and come in. In a couple of seconds, the duck and dog disappeared down the river.

"Found him two miles from here," Randy said after a long and lucky search that pretty much ended the hunt for that day.

"Hey, Curt, your dog is chasing a deer--and both of them just ran across the highway!" one of Curt's hunting partners reported.

Two days later, the three-year-old German shorthaired pointer walked into a farmer's yard 10 miles from where Curt and his buddies had been hunting. "Your dog has a big gash on his chest and he's limping," the landowner said when he called Curt. "You better take him to a vet after you come to get him."

In both of these situations, each dog created a hunt-wrecking situation and had a life-threatening experience. Neither dog was wearing an e-collar. Draw your own conclusion.

Many years ago, e-collars were correctly called "shock collars" because the technology at the time resulted in a heavy dose of electrical stimulation being applied as shocking and often painful electrical charges to train and control their wearers.

Today, thanks to major advancements in technology, electrical stimulation levels are more precisely set at the transmitter so impulses sent to the collar-receiver can be calibrated as forms of gentle persuasion, more like a mild insect bite than a blast of lightning-like punishment. As a result, modern e-collars intelligently operated are much more efficient, effective and humane than the remote training devices previously available.

As a result of this technological progress, many gun dog owners now have accepted the modern e-collar as an essential training tool. Less frequently than ever is the question "Should I have one?" asked. Rather, the questions now are, "Which one should I get, and how can I best use it to teach and control my canine?"

The 32 guidelines, tips and observations offered here for choosing and using an e-collar are based on information gathered from dozens of professional dog trainers and experienced upland game bird and waterfowl hunters. These people successfully use e-collars every day and have practical advice that gun dog owners should find helpful in improving any canine's performance around home, during training sessions or while hunting.

These suggestions can help hunters with a new puppy just entering into a training program that will include the use of an e-collar. Likewise, these tips are useful to give more confidence to gun dog owners who already own an e-collar but need more information and insight to use this training tool for better family dogs and gamebird hunters.

Determine whether your gun dog needs an e-collar.

Ask any of your hunting partners if they think your dog is obedient and under control all the time at home, in a training session, or on a hunt--and tell them to be brutally honest. Then ask them how often in one minute you call your dog's name or blow your whistle (in excess, this is referred to as "hacking" or "nagging" at a dog) in an effort to get your pooch to accept commands for basic obedience such as "come," "stay" or "kennel." But brace yourself, as you may be in for a shock when you hear their answers.

Without an e-collar, a wide-quartering dog is harder to control--and often harder to see.

Once you've heard their responses, you'll be in a much better position to honestly decide if you need an e-collar.

Understand that an e-collar performs two critical functions.

An e-collar is one of the most effective, efficient and humane tools to enforce learned behavior. This includes lessons in basic obedience, such as the common commands "here," "stay," "sit," "kennel," "no" and "quiet."

An e-collar is also used to control impulsive behavior. For example, the collar aids in controlling the canine's instinctive desire to chase animals like cats, rabbits and deer; to fight furred creatures such as raccoons and coyotes; and to confront and possibly attack poisonous snakes such as prairie rattlers.

When choosing an e-collar, you should:

Read the instructions; carefully introduce any dog to the unit; acclimate the dog to wearing the e-collar; determine a dog's most positive response to the lowest level of electrical stimulation; use low-power, short-term stimulation to enforce lessons in basic obedience; and save high-power, longer-term stimulation to control a canine's potentially dangerous behavior.

Improve your gun dog's overall performance.

Make a list of all trained obedience commands your dog has been taught, as well as a list of all types of your dog's impulsive behavior.

Learned Behavior to Enforce

  • "Here": ("Come") Given by voice whistle or hand-signal.
  • "Stay": ("Whoa" or "Hup") Stop and don't move until further notice.
  • "Kennel": Go through an opening such as a dog crate door, house door or vehicle door, or into something such as a boat or blind.
  • "No": Stop whatever it is the dog is doing.
  • "Down": Lie down, get down off from furniture or don't jump up on anyone.
  • "Quiet": Stop persistent whining or unwanted barking.
  • "Heel": Walk beside the handler on leash or without restraint.
  • "Sit": Butt on the ground.
  • "Fetch": Pick up a training dummy or a bird.
  • "Over" and "Back": Command by voice, whistle or hand signal.
  • "Give" or "Out": Release a training dummy or a real bird.
  • "Okay": Relieve a dog from compliance to an obeyed command.

Impulsive Behavior To Control

  • Chasing domestic animals and undesirable wild game.
  • Fighting furred creatures (skunks, raccoons and porcupines).
  • Confronting dangerous creatures (rattlesnakes and cottonmouths).
  • Jumping up (on other dogs or people, for example).
  • Urinating
  • Running off (when released from confinement at home, out of a vehicle or on a hunt).
  • Aggressive posturing (snarling and growling, or use of body language as a challenge to another dog or handler prior to a fight--but not when one has already started).

E-collars deliver an electrical stimulation as a "nick" (split-second) impulse or as a longer-duration (up to six seconds) "constant" impulse.

These stimulations have adjustable power levels set from low to high on a handheld transmitter by turning a dial or knob or pushing numbers on a keyboard. Stimulation range, depending on e-collar model, can be from a few hundred yards up to more than one mile.

A modern e-collar can be regarded as an invisible long-distance check cord.

But e-collars are operated more efficiently and more effectively than holding and pulling on a rope. One main function of an e-collar is to gently persuade a dog to obey learned commands, not to punish a canine for misbehaving. An intelligently used e-collar can help a dog owner avoid embarrassment, disappointment and anger.

This is a harmless way to understand what a typical gun dog feels when a low-power stimulation is delivered as a nick or constant electrical impulse. Compare your degree of sensitivity to that of other people to know how every person and canine has unique physiological and psychological responses to the same level of stimulation.

Determine each dog's unique degree of sensitivity to electrical stimulation.

While the dog is wearing the collar, starting at the lowest level of power, push the nick- or momentary-stimulation button, looking for a reaction that may be a turn of the head, a twitch of an ear or some other physical expression that indicates a mild electrical force being felt. No dog should vocalize when being stimulated to enforce obedience commands.

Teach any gun dog basic obedience by using traditional hands-on training methods before using an e-collar.

Use stimulation from an e-collar to overlay commands for those previously learned lessons in obedience. For example, if a check cord is pulled to teach a dog to turn and come in when the "here" command is given by voice or whistle, then mild nick stimulation can be sent to contribute to the pressure of the check cord to remotely ensure the command is obeyed.

Make sure the metal probes on the e-collar firmly and directly touch the skin on your dog's neck.

A too-loose collar is one of the main causes for inconsistent stimulation. For an electrical impulse to be consistently effective, the collar should be snug enough so that only two fingers can slip between the collar and the dog's neck. The collar should not be so tight that a dog will choke, but should fit close enough so that the metal probe tips effectively contact the skin.

Before putting an e-collar on your dog...

You should read the instructions; see the handbooks that come with the products. Also, study the principles of e-collar use (see magazine articles, books and videos on this subject) and get professional help when necessary. Look for the many seminars and short courses conducted by professional trainers on e-collar usage.

When beginning e-collar training collar, don't wean your dog off a lead immediately. Try using both in combination to ease your dog into the idea that he's still under your control.

Who should operate an e-collar?

Anyone who can run a television remote can be taught to operate an e-collar on a gun dog. However, before using an e-collar for the first time, users should receive thorough lessons in their operation and training usage to ensure the dog is in responsible hands.

Always have an e-collar on a dog when training, hunting or doing anything when obedient and controlled behavior is the objective.

Having your dog without an e-collar is like driving your vehicle without brakes: You can do it, but why would you want to? This is a common concept among those gun dog trainers who see all experiences with their canines as a teaching opportunity.

The positive cost benefit of modern e-collars is easy to calculate.

Many manufacturers of these remote training tools offer basic units at under $200. There is an obvious value in using an e-collar to persuade any dog to come in when called the first time and every time. Stopping a dog from chasing a squirrel across a busy street and saving a dog's life just once is worth the price of any collar.

Can an e-collar hurt my dog and maybe do permanent damage?

As with any training tool, including traditional choke chains and check cords, an e-collar can be used abusively. But when correctly used, an e-collar can be as effective and efficient as any other device for humanely teaching and controlling any canine. In fact, some argue that an e-collar cannot afflict physical damage to a dog in the way that choke chains and check cords can. This is because the electrical stimulation of an e-collar is less physically invasive than the harsh tug of a choke chain or the violent pull of a check cord. In addition, the range of an e-collar is much greater than the relatively short distance of a check cord.

Will an e-collar used long term cover up a dog's genetic flaws, such as a lack of natural cooperation or a sharp temperament?

While use of an e-collar can help curb and control some of those tendencies, the e-collar will not completely eliminate inherited aggressiveness, nor can it instill a cooperative attitude in dogs that don't already possess that attitude. Responsible and competent breeders will not use an e-collar to try to mask any flaws in their dogs' genetic make-up.

Consider an e-collar with a combination of stimulation and a remotely activated beeper locator.

The locator will help you find a dog in the field and around home. Plus, the sound of the beeper can be used to communicate instructions to the dog at great distances as a substitute for voice and whistle commands, especially when a canine is beyond normal hearing range.

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If your dog is far ahead or behind of you in the field, a beeper collar still fills you in on his proximity based on the audible tone.

Choose an e-collar transmitter with power level controls (knobs, dials or keypads) that are quick and easy to set without even looking.

If stimulation delivery requires looking at the control mechanisms on the transmitter, the timing of electrical impulses might be delayed, and training opportunities and behavior control cannot be effectively completed. Likewise, look for a transmitter with stimulation buttons big enough to be operated by a gloved hand.

When shopping for a new e-collar, look for a unit with batteries designed to recharge quickly in under a day.

Also consider a vehicle-powered battery charger for those times when a 110-volt electrical system is not available. An extra set of batteries charged and ready for installation is a good insurance policy and a quick fix to be sure an e-collar is always operational. If the e-collar you select has non-rechargeable, replaceable batteries, then you should always carry extra batteries on you.

Carefully time any form of stimulation from an e-collar to ensure that the dog makes the connection between the behavior and the communicated signal.

"A nick in time saves nine" is a play on an old aphorism that applies to timing with an e-collar. For example, when teaching a barking dog to stop on the "quiet" command, a low-power nick can be delivered just as the quiet command is given. In a short time, the canine can learn to stop barking without the nick.

Keep it simple when choosing an e-collar by avoiding complicated controls that require difficult adjustments and complex manipulation.

The most practical transmitters could be operated by anyone with their eyes closed for prompt delivery of stimulation. This means that power levels can be precisely set and immediately delivered without extra time spent fumbling around.

Most modern e-collars are weather-proof and waterproof, meaning they can endure various environment conditions.

Look for an e-collar with a wide range of features to meet individual needs in different gun dogs.

If a particular canine requires low-level stimulation as a way to consistently come in when given the "here" command, an e-collar unit with a few selective levels of power on the transmitter may be enough to be effective. If an e-collar is used to enforce lessons in force fetching or other more complex training sessions, however, a transmitter with more levels of adjustable stimulation might be best for setting more subtle power choices.

Pager functions in the form of remotely activated audible tone or physical vibration can be valuable options found on select e-collar units.

The pager can be used in several ways: as a warning of a potential stimulation for ignoring a command, or as a praise feature for compliance with a command. Choose one or the other function. The tone and vibration can also be used as a subtler alternative to an electrical impulse for dogs that are more sensitive.

As a gun dog owner develops expertise with an e-collar, it will be used less frequently because the dog will habitually comply with commands as a learned behavior.

For example, the "here" command, whether given by voice or whistle, will eventually be obeyed the first time it is given because the dog learns that ignoring it will be followed by a low-level but uncomfortable nick. Obey the command and no nick will follow.

Get professional help if you have any doubts about your ability to correctly use an e-collar.

Many professional dog trainers have e-collar training experience and can teach how to best use them. Most professionals charge by the hour and will use a customer's own dog to demonstrate usage.

A collar-shy dog is a sensitive and wary dog that refuses to cooperate in a training session or participate on a hunting trip.

The collar-shy condition for most canines is caused by a poor introduction to the training device. The collar-shy dog can be cured of this affliction with patience and time, but you may need the help of an experienced trainer. Because most collar shyness is caused by over-stimulation, an e-collar with a tone or vibration type pager or with a beeper-locator can be used as a substitute for an electrical stimulation.

When choosing an e-collar, match the unit's main features to the type of gun dog that will wear the product.

A naturally close-working Labrador, for example, might do well with a maximum stimulation range of 400 yards. A big-running pointer, on the other hand, would probably be better off with nick and constant power that reaches out a mile or more. In determining power range, however, the general rule among most dog handlers is that "more is better if less is not enough." This is especially true if that usually close-ranging Labrador decides to chase a deer a half-mile across a busy highway, or swim 600 yards after a wounded duck in an icy river.

If a gun dog owner follows the guidelines provided here, will his or her dog turn into a robot, mindless and machine-like?

Though this may be a concern of some gun dog owners, no experienced trainer, whether a full-time professional or a veteran hunter, has ever seen this happen. All dogs will be dogs, with some more disciplined than others because of behavior enforcement and control.

Create reasonable standards for your dog to learn commands enforced with an e-collar.

Think realistically. In other words, no dog will be perfect, nor needs to be, so do not use an e-collar to pursue a goal that is unachievable. An e-collar cannot alter a dog's personality or change what it is genetically inclined to do.

The two greatest forces causing dog owners' reluctance to use e-collars are ignorance and fear.

Because people don't often understand how remote-training devices work, many are afraid to buy them. However, most dog trainers are supportive of them and help people understand their benefits. Do not be apprehensive of e-collars simply because of unfamiliarity; educate yourself and others will do the same.

The use of an e-collar for dog training is humane.

Some dog owners, however, still think that the use of an e-collar subjects dogs to cruel punishment. Not so, most gun dog trainers say, and argue that the e-collar is the most humane way to train any canine. An e-collar in the hands of a competent dog handler is less physically invasive than the abuse capable of being produced with a chock chain and a check cord. Those who disagree probably have not seen an e-collar effectively used to enforce lessons.

And finally…what an e-collar is not.

An e-collar is not a substitute for training a canine with traditional and conventional hands-on training methods that include chain collars, leads and check cords; rather, it is a reinforcement tool.

It is not a replacement for common sense and emotional intelligence. E-collars are simple to operate, but operating them with a temper is a dangerous move. Anger and frustration are unwise; so is carelessness and stupidity.

It is not to be operated without a precise sense of timing that includes anticipating and predicting what a dog will do in a variety of circumstances.

It is not a substitute for spending lots of quality time with a dog to establish the owner's status as pack leader and to establish bonding.

It is not for every dog owner, especially those types of people who feel intimidated by modern technology and maybe cannot operate a computer or cell phone because these technological devices are too complicated and threatening. Likewise, those who do not have patience, insight and respect for animals should not own an e-collar. And anyone who experiences road rage behind the steering wheel of an automobile probably should not use an e-collar.


"Though there have been some great technological advancements in the development of the e-collar as a fundamental and now essential tool for training gun dogs, there is more important progress to come," according to one field representative of a major manufacturer of these remote training devices. "The development and refinement of the adjustable power level on the transmitter along with remotely activated beeper/locator were two significant points of progress for the modern e-collar for both the manufacturers and gun dog handlers."

In the near future, look for new e-collars with more built-in features. Anticipate an e-collar unit that allows the transmitter operator to actually talk from the transmitter to a dog through a speaker mounted on the collar receiver so verbal commands can be given at great distances. And look for remote training tools that will someday automatically adapt selective impulses to the exact level of a dog's tolerance for persuasion, thus eliminating over-stimulation. The technology is in the works, and a range of imaginative innovations will continue to improve the way gun dogs are taught and managed.

Along with these advancements, also anticipate a wider acceptance of this tool for training and controlling all breeds of dogs, from little six-pound lap dogs to 100-pound working dogs. Currently, a majority of dog owners still doesn't understand what e-collars are.

"About five percent of dog owners worldwide own and use e-collars--and that is a conservative estimate," according to one maker of these products. That gun dog owners own most of this small percentage of these remote-training tools is good evidence that gun dog people are at the forefront of dog training.

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