No one I know misses the very early days of electronic collars, when even the top-of-the-line models had just two levels: fry and weld.
Of course, we should remember those collars were originally developed primarily to provide instant — and rather drastic — correction for such sins as chasing deer or other unwanted critters, often referred to as "trash."
The collars were effective in that regard, and I like to think I'm a wiser man because of my experiences with them, as painful as they undoubtedly were to my poor pups. Today, even low-end collars have a broad — and safe — range of e-collar stimulation levels to choose from, which puts the burden of effective use precisely in the hands of the dog trainer himself.
In fact, the thrust of training with e-collars has swung 180 degrees in the last two decades, from punitive corrections at high stimulation levels to much lower, noticeable but not painful nicks that remind a dog that big brother is watching. It's been a welcome improvement.
Before I begin talking about training situations and appropriate levels of correction, let me toss out a few suggestions: You really don't need a whole bunch of bells and whistles on any e-collar; it's far better to have a hand-held transmitter that is designed in a way that makes access to critical functions quick and easy. There are tons of good collars out there to choose from.
For what it's worth, the ones I use on a regular basis are all several years old but going strong: a Dogtra, a SportDOG Brand and an ancient Tri-Tronics. You also don't need a gazillion levels of stimulation. But you should have at least 18-20 levels, and as a general rule, more is better. My Dogtra, for instance, goes up to something like 120.
The way I train bird dogs is the same way almost every pro I know trains dogs: with just enough stimulation to get the point across. But here's what you have to understand about that statement: that level will change over time. With some dogs, it can change from day to day.
Here's an example. When you're collar conditioning your dog, a process I've discussed in these pages before, you're introducing your pup to the collar and stimulation. A pup new to electrical stimulation is almost always scared and hyper sensitive. So let's say you finally arrive at a hypothetically appropriate level of 10.
Within a week or so, however, the stimulation he feels isn't such a big deal, and he may begin to ignore it. After all, there are all kinds of exciting things in the world to explore, and a little buzz against his neck isn't going to slow him down. You raise the level to 15.
"On a willful dog, bump up the intensity level substantially, but just once."
At 15, he pays attention. Things go smoothly for a couple months, and then he's ready for bird work. Suddenly, his entire universe has become much more focused. He's so focused on birds, in fact, that a level of 15 doesn't faze him. Time for another bump: you raise it to 25. Again, that does the trick.
But now you've painted yourself into a corner. When you're conducting basic obedience drills, 25 is now too high, and he yelps in pain. So you dial it back down to 15 for basic yard and obedience training, then raise it to 25 for bird work. You've hit the sweet spot, and he completes his summer training regimen more or less at those levels.
Finally, he's ready to hunt. Hunting is far more exciting than anything he's ever done in his young life, and if you're guessing that another bump in collar intensity is due, you're right. If he's disobeying commands at 25, then you raise it in 5 degree intervals (or whatever) until you again arrive at the sweet spot.
That's a thumbnail description of how I tailor stimulation levels to every dog I've ever trained. But there are some important exceptions to the rule of gradually raising the stimulation level to match the situation.
Raising Levels Gradually
A dog that has had at least four or five months of being trained by a competent handler knows what he's expected to do and — this is important — expects to get corrected if he disobeys. But some dogs, just like some people, ignore reminders (stimulation at low levels) and continue doing whatever pleases them.
In the past, my response was to gradually increase the stimulation intensity until I arrived at a level that worked. But that process could take days at a time. I now believe there's a better way: On a willful dog, bump up the intensity level substantially, but just once. For instance, if your dog's collar has been set at 30, dial it up to 45 or 50. Then use it just once and immediately drop it back down to 30 again.
This accomplishes two things: It will show your head-strong pup that you mean business, and it will incline him to respond in the future at a much lower level of stimulation. But it's very important that this procedure be done on dogs who have been through several months of ongoing training using an electronic collar, and who understand what the stimulation is for.
Do not try this on a dog who has not been trained with a collar or who is still new to the process. An experienced, collar-trained dog will take an occasional stiff correction in stride; a dog who is neither may freak out and manifest all kinds of unwanted problems. Don't take the risk.
As a general rule, modest increases are best, and if your dog is extra sensitive on some days, by all means lower the stimulation level. You really are trying to remind your dog of what you want it to do, rather than hammer him into submission for disobeying. But there is one situation where a hammer is the appropriate tool.
That situation is chasing "trash," as mentioned at the beginning of this column. Whether it's a deer, a bear or a porcupine, it's not something you want your dog to do, and it almost never ends up well for either of you. The solution to the problem is to hit him so hard with the collar that he never entertains the idea of chasing a deer (or whatever) the rest of his life.
This is essentially the same way most pro trainers snake-break dogs, and here's how it works. Your dog is chasing a (damn) deer (again). You can see the deer and you can see your dog. If you can't see both of them, stop. Put your transmitter away. Don't assume that he's chasing; you must have visual confirmation of the act in progress.
What follows is simple but critical. Don't command him to stop; don't say anything. Dial up the juice as high as you think, based on your experience, your dog can handle it. Then hit him hard and keep your finger on the button until he quits chasing.
If you've got the collar set high enough, I guarantee you this will take less than two seconds. As soon as he stops, hit him again, hard and quick.
He'll run back to you. Ignore him. Give no indication whatsoever that you were disciplining him; you want him to associate his pain with the act of chasing the deer, not with anything you did.
Nine times out of 10, it takes only one episode for a dog to be cured of chasing forever. Really hardheaded dogs may require a repeat.
That's my e-collar stimulation protocol in a nutshell. As a general rule of thumb, keep it low and appropriate to the sensitivity of your dog. But if a hard, quick kick in the pants is called for, don't be afraid to amp up the juice. Just use your head about it, and never, for any reason, use high intensity stimulation on a puppy.
The surprising thing about all this is that, over time, you'll find that as long as your dog is wearing his e-collar as a reminder, you'll rarely have to use it. That's a trained bird dog, and it's a happy place for both of you.