Updated: Feb 8
Electronic collars, e-collars, shock collars, remote collars, call them what you want, are a powerful dog training tool and will get you a powerful response from the animal industry and the public. (I'm a human parent too and electronics and children also tend to be a big hot button. Such is the case with new and evolving things. In our generation a lot of that is electronics.)
If you're training and using e-collars appropriately the dogs usually love them (they equal freedom, which is the top of most dogs reward hierarchy). And you almost never see stress, yelping, or other fear or pain responses during the training process. (Except for from the people who want it to go faster.)
So, I think normalizing their correct usage is a healthy thing for dogs and humans. Now nothing will get you hated on faster in the animal industry than supporting the use of e-collars. So trainers do it all the time, but it is kept more quiet and there is comparatively less information sharing than in other parts of our industry. And one of the primary ways dog trainers continue learning is each other. As such, e-collars aren't always used as well as they could be. So I thought I would be the change.
Not Your Mother's E-collar
In my nearly 20 years of experience the technology around e-collars has evolved tremendously as has training pedagogy (educational strategy) and our understanding of canine neurology and how that relates to their behavior and our relationship. But because things move fast, very few people actually understand them.
E-collars give many dogs a significantly better quality of life. I actually wish they had these good ones when my previous dogs were alive. It would have been a game changer. But the nuance in their use is profound. If you ask 5 different trainers how they use e-collars you will get 6 (at least) different answers. So let's break down when, why, and how we would use an e-collar. But let's start with what.
1. Minimum 0-100 stim levels
If you have an e-collar that has fewer than 100 stim levels I don't know a single trainer who will work with it. This is because you need very granular level increases to make sure you are at the lowest effective stim level. Some collars only have 1-15 and that means HUGE jumps between levels. Four may be too low and five may be painful to your dog. For me, I'm always trying to duplicate leash/collar pressure. No more. Think about it, you can stop just about anything if your dog is leashed. That is force, no question, but not typically pain.
There are only two models of e-collars geared towards pet dogs on the market at the time of this writing that meet the criteria. That is the Dogtra and the E-Technologies Educator. And of those two, at least in our area, the majority of trainers use E-technologies. Typically the mini educator (ET-300). They tend to favor the mini educator over the Dogtra because it is less "hot" and is overall an outstanding product with some key selling points.
2. Work with a professional trainer
To use an e-collar effectively and humanely there is a lot of detail and nuance in the dogs body language and in how you use it. For instance you need to mark the notch on the collar where you are buckling it so every person is doing it the exact same every time. If not, the stim level won't be consistent. Looser and the stim will be less (risking it not working at a critical moment) tighter and it will be hotter and we never use a higher stim than necessary. I've seen dogs get just fried because someone put it too loose, so they had to crank it way up for the dog to feel it. The next person put it on tighter and OUCH. This was not me by the way. But I've seen it happen out in the field.
There's a lot of little things like this to think about that a good trainer has covered but a pet owner wouldn't think of. Further you can watch ANY quality trainers YouTubes and they will make an abundant point of the fact that your dog doesn't understand things as well as they seem too. People tend to see some results, believe the dog has a generalized understanding when they don't, and it leads to confusion, failure, stress for the dog, and is not building a stronger relationship.
As far as the "when" and the "how" trainers will differ a lot. So I will tell you my answer.
An e-collar is a good answer when there will be a substantial improvement to the dogs quality of life, and to get it, you have to override a neurobiological force. And the e-collar is going to provide substantial benefit the alternatives can't or can't with reasonable time and effort.
The most common example by far is using an e-collar to ensure a reliable recall so the dog can have off leash freedom. Off leash freedom is something dogs want and need. And alternatives such as leashed exercise or even using long lines have drawbacks and/or don't provide the same level of exercise and enrichment. And to get a reliable recall you typically have to over ride predation (squirrel chasing) or other really tantalizing distractions. In my opinion I'd rather use e-collar pressure than leash or long line pressure. They all are force, even if they are not pain, and they all feel similar to the dog, but an e-collar gives a lot of benefits the others don't.
Below are some common scenarios where people consider e-collars. I will break down which ones it could be the right choice for.
💚Situations to consider an e-collar💚
💚Situation 1 - My dog needs more off leash exercise
Yes. Without off leash exercise many dogs quality of life and resulting behavior suffer greatly. Working with an experienced trainer to build a reliable recall with an e-collar is a great option to consider.
💚Situation 2 - My dog loves the dog park but we can't go due to poop eating or resource guarding balls
In this case your dogs quality of life could be greatly improved if they go to the dog park. Any you could work with an experienced professional trainer on teaching "Leave it" and enforcing with an e-collar.
💚Situation 3 - My dog is reactive on leash and other methods have been exhausted
IME e-collars aren't typically the best route for leash reactivity but sometimes they can be.
🚫 Situations where people think an e-collar would be great, but I wouldn't do it.🚫
🚫 Situation 4 - Counter Surfing
You have to be able to see your dog to use the e-collar. If you can see them you can stop them without it. Counter surfing is a PITA and by the grace of God my dogs don't do it, and I appreciate them for it every day. If your dog does counter surf a trainer can help, but it is a situation where to GET behavior change have to GIVE behavior change.
🚫 Situation 5 - Fighting at the dog park or at daycare
You might be able to suppress the fighting with an e-collar. But unless it is just resource guarding, your dog is not enjoying a multi dog environment. And forcing them to do it while suppressing their impulses is not at all kind. It is like being tied in a chair and forced to watch a movie that is too disturbing for you.
People tend to want to do it because dog/dog socialization is a fast track to exercise and a way the dog can get off leash running and playing in. But if they are getting in fights, your dog is not having a great experience. Either they are scared because of situations that have been building for a long time or they just genetically aren't that dog social after social maturity sets in. (9-24 months).
In these cases you could consider using an e-collar to get them off leash exercise somewhere other than the dog park. That is what I do with my personal dogs and what I frequently recommend to clients. But don't use an e-collar to suppress fighting. You are just letting your dog emotionally suffer.
🚫 Situation 6 - Leash pulling
This one is dicey and I have used e-collars to eliminate leash pulling on a couple of occasions. It certainly can be done. But typically leash pulling is a symptom of lack of off leash exercise or the dog just can't do any better with their neurology and developmental level. So forcing it is not something I generally favor. And if you have to force it, there are usually better ways. As it is, people struggle with leash training just handling the leash and their treats. Adding another complication for their hands and brain is typically unrealistic. In this case, you could use an e-collar to get your dog more off leash freedom. But usually not to control leash pulling.
🚫 Situation 7 - Barking
They do make bark collars and I can certainly bring plenty of success stories to the table with them. But you need to work with a professional and not use a human controlled remote collar. And even then, barking suppression isn't usually the right answer. Usually, like leash pulling, barking is a symptom of under stimulation, fear, or anxiety. And you need to deal with the cause, not just suppress the results.