I’m not old, but I’m old enough to remember the years before e-collars. In truth, there were hundreds of them, years in which spaniels were trained to a high level using nothing but birds, check cords, and probably some pretty unhealthy tactics on the part of trainers. E-collars are not a necessary training tool for the flushing spaniel trainer. Tens of thousands of dogs have been trained for hunting and trials without them, and trained very well. That said, e-collars do have their place, and when used correctly, and wisely, they can help streamline the training process.
These days, e-collars serve not only as training tools, but as exceptional tracking and locating tools, especially for pointing dogs in big country. It is still safe to say, however, that technology alone does not make them safe, or effective. In the hands of a trainer or handler who is not careful, an e-collar can flat-out ruin a dog beyond the point of recovery. Trust me. I’ve seen it happen all too many times.
E-Collars In The Spaniel World
So, what is their place in spaniel training? Well, it is first important to understand that flushing spaniels are fundamentally different than retrievers or pointing dogs. I know that each dog is an individual, but I firmly believe that spaniels, on average, are “softer” than retrievers or pointers. They simply can’t endure a heavy correction in the way those other dogs can. Additionally, a working spaniel is designed to stay close, and to work in very steady contact with a handler. The whole point of spaniel training is to incorporate their prey drive with their natural tendency to “check back in,” making their interaction with the handler far more regular than that of a big-running setter. The handler should not need a remote hand that can reach out over the horizon to correct a dog; good foundation training coupled with good breeding should keep that dog near enough to see and hear a handler, and understand what is being asked of him.
Where e-collars come in very handy in spaniel training is in the fine-tuning—the refining of skills that should be nearly perfect after basic training is complete. Specifically, this means during the recall, and more importantly in the delivery of a retrieve.
It is vital, though, that the collar is set and placed on the dog correctly. When starting a dog out on the collar, place it at the lowest level of intensity and test it on your hand, making sure both probes are touching the skin and working up the dial until you feel only the slightest tingle, then dial it back to the lowest level. Place the collar on the dog high up on the neck with the probes slightly off to one side of the throat, and then secure it tight enough that both probes are touching the skin. With the dog at heel, apply one pulse of instant stimulation. The dog will indicate that he feels the stim with a blink of the eyes, or a slight twitch of the ears. Move up through the levels until you get this response, and then STOP! This should be sufficient intensity to begin training.
Most often, issues with a retrieve are actually issues with recall. If a spaniel fails to come back to the handler on a straight line, a collar can be used to establish focus. In this case, the trick is to teach a dog to “turn off” stimulation by remembering that a recall is supposed to be executed directly, without deviation. To reinforce this, the drilling is simple. As the trainer, put the collar on the dog, and put the dog at heel. Have an assistant place a check cord on the dog and stand off to one side, keeping the check cord loose. With the trainer 20 or 30 yards away, have the trainer issue the recall command. At the same exact moment as the command is given, the trainer should turn on continuous stimulation, keeping it on until the dog has completed half to three-quarters of the recall. The concept here is that the dog will learn to focus on the command and the desired behavior and will learn that the quicker and straighter he returns to the trainer, the sooner the irritating feeling goes away. The assistant with the check cord is simply there to help steer the dog back to straight if he starts to deviate.
The only other common application for the e-collar in spaniel training is to correct the dog thats steadiness isn’t perfect. Remember, if your dog is breaking on birds, the collar is not the tool to resort to. Rather, you need to back up a step and go through the steadiness progression with a check cord, dead birds, wing-clipped birds, etc. But if the dog is simply twitchy and doesn’t seem rock-solid on the hup when a bird flushes, an instantaneous nick on the collar can get him focused on the behavior that has been trained.
Foundation Training And Its Key To Success
These uses of the e-collar with spaniels only come into play after significant groundwork has been done. The real secret lies in the foundation training, and the steady progression. Only then does a collar help refine the training, and only then can you be certain that collar work does not simply serve to confuse the dog.
Think of the collar like a burner on a stove. If the burner is low and your hand touches it, it will get your attention but give you time enough to compute what is going on. If you touch a blazing-hot burner, you will recoil in pain and confusion. The intensity must be sufficient to get the dog’s attention, but not so much as to scare or punish. It is a steering tool, not a scaring tool.
Which leads me to my final point. As noted above, most of our training is done with the check cord, the lead, and live birds as the tools of motivation and correction. I’m a believer that these tools in the wrong hands can bungle the training, but will almost never ruin a dog. E-collars are a different beast. In the wrong hands, misapplied corrections or overly intensive corrections can and will break a dog in a way that is not fixable. For the sake of the dog, and your future together, seek professional advice when taking on e-collar training.