—By Tom Davis
Today, a half century or more after some version of the electronic training collar first became widely available, the device remains a flash point for controversy. At one end of the spectrum are those who think it should be used only as a last resort. At the other end are those who believe it's a magic bullet capable of curing every behavioral problem under the sun.
Professional trainer Chris Akin, of Webb Footed Kennel in Bono, Arkansas, is all too familiar with these misconceptions. "I think of the e-collar the way a cabinetmaker thinks of polyurethane or shellac," he explains. "To me it's not a training collar. It's a polishing collar. It's the final coat you apply to your rough lumber to give it that sheen and shine.
"When a lot of us were growing up we never heard the term 'e-collar.' We heard the term 'shock collar,'" he adds. "And that's really what it was. Because of the limitations of the technology, it was more a form of punishment training than the way we train now, which I call progressive repetition. The evolution of the technology is what made this possible. For example, the unit I use has three levels—low, medium, and high—on the collar's receiver, and seven levels on the handheld transmitter, plus vibration. So I have a choice of 24 levels of stimulation that I can customize to the demands of the training situation and the temperament of the individual dog. Back in the shock collar days, you couldn't do that."
To underscore this point, Akin notes that when he's giving a training seminar the attendees typically can't tell when, or even if, he's made a correction. It's that subtle. "It just doesn't take that much pressure," he says. "You can break the heart of a sensitive dog with a verbal rebuke, but a properly timed e-collar correction won't affect him at all. He'll just happily go about his business." By the same token, if you need to elicit a sudden, dramatic response—if, say, you need to stop your dog right now from chasing a cat across a street—that option is available to you.
It all loops back to how the e-collar is used and where and when you introduce it into the training progression. "I look at it as a leash with unlimited range," Akin explains. "You're really not doing anything different with the e-collar than you would do with a lead and choke chain. In either case the dog learns that the desired behavior will relieve the pressure."
A classic example of this, Akin notes, is the heel command, and in fact this is his usual point of entry for effecting the transition from conventional training to e-collar training. Once the dog is reliably walking at heel, he replaces the lead and chain with the e-collar. When the dog begins to stray, Akin gives the verbal command heel and applies just enough stimulation to bring the dog back to his side. Within a very few repetitions the light goes on, the connection is made in the dog's mind, and the world of possibilities that the e-collar makes available are within reach.
Embedded in the preceding paragraph is the cardinal rule of successful e-collar training: Use just enough stimulation. "Not every infraction merits the same level of stimulation—but too little is always preferable to too much," Akin says. "You can always go higher if you need to. That's one of the beauties of today's e-collars. Plus—and this is the really amazing part—they're less expensive than they were 25 years ago!"
Summing up, Akin says, "I ran 26 dogs on water blinds today, and there's no way I could have done what I did without an e-collar. When it's used at the right time, in the right setting, on a dog that's received the right training foundation, it's crazy how much better it can make him. Because it allows you to time your corrections very precisely, it ultimately enhances your level of communication with the dog."