Does a “remote trainer” or e-collar have any place in a dog trainers toolbox? Are there any new techniques, that can be used with this tool, that enable a trainer to work more effectively and efficiently with a dog? These were just a couple questions I hoped to get answers to when early in April of this year I took the opportunity to attend a three day “No Limitations,” seminar on “remote collar training.” Two of my students (one with many years training experience and one with very little training experience) came with me to observe and learn.
The seminar was held just outside Toronto in a spacious horse riding arena. Despite the freezing rain on the first day, it was well attended with participants coming from many parts of southern Ontario and quite a large number from the USA as well. The featured speakers were Fred Hassen and Behesha Grist.
As the participants arrived, I noticed it was a very typical group of dogs and their owners. A few dogs had some training already and were well behaved while some were clearly not trained at all. Some dogs were lunging at other dogs and were needing to be restrained by their struggling owners. Some dogs were wearing remote trainers, some regular collars and some had head-halters on. There were at least two dogs present that had very serious aggression issues and both were muzzled and crated.
Before collering any of the dogs all participants were given the experience of feeling the collar. It was set at the lowest setting and the levels were gradually increased until the participant first noticed it and then increased a couple levels above that. Everyone agreed that the “stim” (stimulation) was not untoward and felt rather like the “TENS” unit one might experience at a chiropractors or physiotherapists office.
Any dogs started on the collar were put through a similar process. The collar was set at the lowest level and gradually increased until the dog first noticed it (usually evidenced by an ear twitch or sideways glance in the direction of the collar). This process was used to establish the working range/levels for each dog.
What was most fascinating was the application of the “stim” and the role it played. It was not used, as some might suppose, as an aversive (though, as was explained, it could be if necessary). The approach was not corrective or punishing but rather motivational and the first thing the dog learned was “the language of the collar.” The dog (guided by a long line) learned to move toward the handler at the “touch” of the collar. Once the dog learned to move with the touch, the commands were given at the same time as the stim. The command/stim combination could be repeated, if the behavior was not performed, until it was performed. Sometimes the stim was applied in the midst of the performance in a prodding or encouraging manner (similar to “motivational leash pops”) that seemed to increase alertness and desire. At this point there was no evidence of any distress noted, indeed the dogs seemed quite relaxed.
What blew everyone away was when Fred worked with the aggressive dogs that I referred to earlier. The first aggressive dog was a mature GSD male. I had talked to the owner who confirmed this dog was very aggressive toward people as well as other dogs. Even with the muzzle on, the fiery temperament of the dog was evident. Fred couldn’t get close enough to the dog to put on the collar and therefore had the owner put it on. In addition to the long line, he had a second leash dragging from the collar in case the owner had to assist.
Fred got the dog moving with him using the collar (as described above) and praised the dog when ever he was in close. Within two minutes he had the dog walking calmly with him and after another five minutes or so, everyone was shocked to see Fred reach down and remove the muzzle. The dog performed perfectly and acted like Fred was his best friend. The dog was worked in this way for quite some time and then remuzzled and worked closely around the other dogs and people. He performed flawlessly and by the second day he no longer required a muzzle and worked all the exercises in the group along side everyone else.
Almost an identical story with the second dog - a two year old male Rotti. This dog had several bites under his belt and this was to be his last chance - the vet had been contacted to put the dog down if Fred couldn’t help. The dog had to be managed on two leashes and was also muzzled. The work was much the same but it took abit longer - somewhere between 15 minutes and a half hour. The dog also had to be kept muzzled longer and wasn’t working in close proximity with the other dogs until midway through the second day and for parts of the third day.
Both Fred and Behesha worked these dogs and have worked literally hundreds of dogs just like them. The results are a matter of public record - both work with all kinds of dogs in the local pounds and shelters. Both have ample references from these places of the results they have achieved. Aside from the astonishing results that everyone saw for themselves, was the fact that even the pure novice trainer was able to quickly catch onto the technique and work confidently and well with their own dogs.
What follows is the experience as reported by one of the participants and reprinted with his permission:
“Aside from the awful location and increment weather the seminar was an immeasurable success for both me ___ and my dog ______. If you recall, our dog was the Yellow Lab who jumped, mouthed and whined the first day (I was COVERED in sand!) and was running through the mini-agility course (on command) by the third (day of seminar). <snip>
“This was not ______ first class. As a puppy he went to
(socialization et. al) and then basic obedience (non e-collar,
leash and cookie training). He was top-of-the-class, learning
other dog; that is, UNTIL he turned about 5-6 months old at
“As he grew, he became both much stronger and much more bold in his rebellion. As a result, he lost our trust and slowly began to lose “freedoms” he previously had. Because we could not trust him and could not devote every waking moment to him, he began to spend more and more time confined to his crate. His walks also became less regular as my mother became fearful of walking him. As a full-time student I do not always have time to accompany my mother on the walks and I thought it absurd to have to act as a “strong arm insurance policy,” during what were supposed to be “leisurely strolls” for both human and canine. One time, when my mother walked without me, my mother lost grip of the dog. ______ jumped up (with all his might) to kiss a child and ended up hurting him (long story short - he needed an emergency dental appointment).
“It was never a matter of a bad attitude, it was just a fact that ______ was a very energetic, loving and naturally dominant dog. This is what made confining him troublesome to everyone in our household. We wanted him to be a part of the family. We wanted the crate to be his bed and den during the working day, not a tool to keep him from running around with the kitchen knife in his mouth (something he loved to do, he would grab the biggest, baddest knife from the counter and then encouraged us to play “catch me if you can” with him).
“In just three days, _____ has rejoined our household. My sister and mother can now supervise and even walk him without my accompaniment. We can watch a movie with _____ at our feet rather than having to drag him to the crate. <snip>
“I am now equipped with an answer to anyone who might frown at the e-collar: IN 3 DAYS THE COLLAR RAISED THE QUALITY OF LIFE OF THIS DOG IMMEASURABLY. Whereas he was once crate-bound, constantly scolded and always followed by an apprehensive eye he now has freedom in the house, will enjoy longer, more free walks and will even be allowed to resume swimming in the water he once loved as a tiny (harmless) 2 month old (another privilege he lost after I had to “swim in” to retrieve my unruly retriever). Most importantly: This was NOT a dog that was neglected or left unsocialized as a puppy. He DID get properly socialized, he DID do obedience training, he DID get A LOT of practice using the leash and cookie method. The bottom line was that he was smart enough to figure out that he was faster and stronger than most and knew what he could get away with. As soon as the leash was in the hands of a weak individual or as soon as he was within distance to escape, he would. The e-collar puts control BACK in our hands.
“I’ve met a whole bunch of other people with dogs in the neighborhood who have failed the e-collar. I walked into this guy that had a pretty well behaved brown lab; I quote: “we tried the e-collars but they did not work for her” Compared to our pre-e-collar dog his dog was almost well-trained when well anchored by a leash. I know this would have been our experience had we not been taught how to use it first. I shudder thinking the many people who have purchased these off-shelf, without training, to use as a strictly punishment device (+ the people like us, who would have given-in to our dogs manipulative nature).”
Bottom line is this piece of equipment, like any piece of equipment, must be used properly. When it is used properly, the results are very impressive. Is there a place for it in a dog trainers toolbox? I leave that question for you to decide - I found room in my toolbox for mine.