Bob West is one of the most decorated bird dog trainers of our time, having finished over 70 field champions in both pointing and retriever trials during a career that has spanned five decades. In addition to his competitive success, West has trained hundreds of gun dogs, and he also served as Director of Sporting Dog Field Programs for Purina.
He has produced videos and books on dog training, and has been a frequent GUN DOG contributor since this magazine’s inception.
Over the course of his career, West has also witnessed the evolution of today’s most popular gun dog training tool: the e-collar.
“I’ve been using e-collars since the late 1970s,” West says. “In the early days, they were primarily used for trash-breaking dogs.”
According to West, e-collars became more advanced over time, offering a broad range of corrective measures that include vibration, tone, and electric feedback. Instead of simply delivering a high-voltage correction to stop dogs from harassing off-limits game, the e-collars of today offer trainers a way to apply varying levels of pressure to elicit a response, and that level of pressure can be tailored to meet the needs of the individual dog. To use e-collars effectively, West says, trainers need to know what e-collars are for, and when and how to apply that pressure.
The Truth About Training Collars
West says the first step to properly using an e-collar is understanding its limitations.
“Many people think that ‘training’ collars train dogs, but that’s not true,” West says. “A training collar is simply a tool to reinforce basic commands at a distance. If the dog doesn’t know the command, the collar can’t teach them what they’re supposed to do.”
There are no shortcuts to bypass this training, and West says that the responsibility remains on the dog trainer to effectively communicate to the dog what each command means.
“First, you get the dog to do the command, and then you add the verbal cue,” West says. He uses the “heel” command as an example. Using a check cord, the dog must learn to walk alongside the handler. When the verbal command is added, the dog should already understand what it’s being asked to do. The e-collar serves as a tool to reinforce heel and every other command. Electronic collars are a supplement to basic training principles, not a substitute.
“E-collars act like a check cord or a heel stick. They’re a tool. They’re not a magic wand,” West says.
Understanding Basic Commands
According to West, there are three commands that are critical and form the foundation of all gun dog training: come, go, and stay. The majority of commands in the field, no matter how complex, are rooted in these three basic concepts.
Teaching a dog to understand these primary commands begins with yard work. For example, West uses kenneling to teach and reinforce the command to “go.” It’s a simple means to communicate to your dog that you want it to move forward into the kennel, and it can be reinforced daily, or even multiple times a day. These small lessons, delivered consistently, become the foundation for open-field commands while hunting, and once the dog understands those basic commands, the e-collar can then be employed to reinforce those principles.
Introducing the E-Collar
“When you are confident that the dog understands the command, you can add collar pressure,” West says. Modern e-collars offer trainers a wide range of correction options, and West says it’s essential to match the level of corrective pressure to the dog.
“Today’s collars are so sophisticated, that you can correct a dog almost as gently as with a check cord,” West says. He says avoidance training is the primary principle that drives all e-collar training, and that initial pressure should be mild. When the dog learns to avoid pressure without a harsh correction, it will perform better. The collar doesn’t become a distraction to the dog, and it doesn’t cause them to lose focus. Rather, it becomes a way to apply pressure at a distance to reinforce a command using only as much pressure as is necessary.
A dog that understands basic commands and obeys those commands to avoid pressure has the tools required to perform well in the field. An example of this, West says, is teaching a dog to pattern while hunting. Using commands and e-collar reinforcement, the trainer can teach a dog to maintain a reasonable range while hunting, move as directed, and recall when commanded. As these lessons compound over the years, the dog becomes more competent and confident — just the type of finished dog all hunters want.
Reaching Full Potential
When used as a tool to reinforce basic commands, West says that e-collars allow trainers to accomplish more now than ever before.
“We have dogs doing things now at 18 months old that we could never get them to do before we used e-collars,” West says. “Now I can ask a dog to move two feet when it’s 400 yards away.”
By following West’s timeline (training basic commands, introducing the collar, teaching avoidance), trainers can speed up their dog’s education.
E-collars aren’t shortcuts to training your dog, but when used correctly, they serve as a sophisticated training tool that allows handlers and dogs to communicate more effectively than ever before.
SportDOG SportTrainer 1275: The new SportTrainer from SportDOG offers an impressive three-quarter mile range, and the easy-to-read OLED screen displays the selected dog, static-stimulation level, mode, and battery level. Large plus and minus buttons make adjusting static-stimulation levels fast and easy, and the SportDOG Add-A-Dog Collar Receiver allows trainers to control up to six dogs at one time. With 10 available static-stimulation levels, as well as vibration and tone options, trainers can customize the system to fit the needs of each individual dog. Additionally, the DryTek construction makes the unit waterproof and submersible to 25 feet. $219.95 | sportdog.com
Garmin PRO 550 Plus: The new PRO 550 Plus from Garmin is an intuitive, multifunction tracking and training unit built with the serious trainer in mind. The tube-style training remote comes with a simplified GPS tracking system that displays the direction to the dog and distance (up to two miles). The PRO 550 Plus is also compatible with Garmin’s DriveTrack, which shows the location of up to 20 dogs from your vehicle on a 6.95" touchscreen display. The PRO 550 Plus also pairs with Garmin’s Fenix 3, Fenix 5, Tactix Bravo, and Tactix Charlie smartwatches, allowing you to see your dog’s whereabouts on your watch at any time. The PRO 550 Plus is extraordinarily versatile and user-friendly, and it features too many high-tech tools to list here. You can purchase the new PRO 550 Plus bundled with a TT 15 dog device, but if you already have a TT 15 or T 5 series collar, you can simply purchase the PRO 550 Plus remote separately. PRO 550 Plus/TT 15 Bundle: $649.99, PRO 550 Plus remote only: $399.99, DriveTrack 71: $399.99 | garmin.com
Dogtra T&B Dual: Designed with trainers in mind, the T&B Dual from Dogtra allows handlers to manage two different collars with a single handheld unit. There’s no need to adjust stimulation levels since each collar is pre-set, and with an effective range of 1.5 miles, the T&B Dual allows you to effectively control big-running dogs. The DUAL DIAL system and OLED screen (which shows stimulation level settings) makes it easy to manage two dogs simultaneously, and a pair of 127-level rheostat dials allow handlers to quickly and easily set the stimulation level, or adjust as needed. Other features include a run/point beeper mode, single button nick/constant stimulation (tap for nick, hold for CS), HPP vibration, and a locate beeper with adjustable pitch. The T&B Dual can be purchased as a one-dog system, and expanded later if desired. $379.99 (one dog set), $549.99 (two dog set) | dogtra.com
D.T. Systems K9 700 Obedience Trainer: The new K9 700 from D.T. Systems is a versatile e-collar that provides all the features trainers need, without added weight or cost. This e-collar offers three separate programable training modes with a selector, and 16 levels of e-stimulation. Stimulation levels are adjusted using a numbered dial with positive clicks, and there’s a no-shock vibration option as well. And, there are also options for nick, continuous, and jump e-stimulation. With a maximum range of 700 yards, the K9 700 covers most obedience-training scenarios, and its waterproof construction means it will stand up to any training conditions. It’s also backed by a lifetime warranty. $179.99 | dtsystems.com