Dog collars of generations past were essentially nylon circles to frantically grab as your loose dog whizzed past. Fortunately, today’s electronic collars are full-on training devices, no leash required. They’re indispensable to gun dog owners and fixtures in the toolboxes of trainers such as Tom Dokken, owner of Dokken’s Oak Ridge Kennels and Dokken’s Dog Supply.
An e-collar is not designed to zap your retriever as punishment, but rather to reinforce normal training commands — sit, stay, heel, down, come.
“Whether it’s steady to shot, coming when called or a blind retrieve, it really does require having that kind of control, and nothing else is going to give you that more than the e-collar can,” Dokken said.
While e-collars are adaptable for training just about any dog, Dokken recommends waiting until a pup is about 7 months old before introducing the device to your retriever’s regimen. The dog should know basic commands before e-collar use.
“It’s not a teaching tool,” he said. “It’s a reinforcement tool.”
To get a pup acquainted with the e-collar, Dokken lets the dog wear the remote collar for a month or two prior to turning it on. When the collar is secured around the pup’s neck during the break-in period, Dokken engages in a fun activity with the dog to create a positive association with the tool.
“You never want to introduce him to the collar by just putting it on and then using it,” he said. “The dog’s going to get collar-wise and think, ‘Well, when you get this thing on, I’m going to listen. When you take it off, I’m not going to listen.’”
After the collar becomes familiar, it can be used as more than a dummy. Set the collar’s stimulation to the mildest level. Stimulation should not increase past the point when you see a dog’s first reaction. You will likely see a response like a blink, scratch at the ear or ear twitch, Dokken said.
Never use more stimulation than necessary. Let the dog dictate which level you operate on. Start with a movement command such as “heel.”
“I don’t like to start out with the sit command,” Dokken said. “You’re basically teaching the dog that you’ll shut off the pressure by sitting. What happens is when you start to get the dog to move, the dog resists because he’s learned that just sitting still takes care of the problem.”
Following a movement command, try a stationary command, Dokken suggests. Another early instruction to reinforce with the collar’s aid is “kennel.”
Use With Care
Like all training tools, e-collars have potential for misuse.
Although some trainers might be wary of using an electrical impulse on their dog, e-collars need not be assigned the label “shock collar.” The lowest stimulation level on a collar produces a vibration that cannot even be detected by a human. Always start at the lowest level of stimulation. From there, a command that a dog already knows, such as sit, can be reinforced with a signal from the trainer’s hand-held transmitter.
“One rule is if two dogs are in the field together, squared up and nose-to-nose like they’re going to fight, I’d never use it then,” Dokken said. “The dog that gets the correction thinks the other dog did something to him that provoked it.”
If used as a communication tool that strengthens responses to commands — and not as a punishing tool — then an e-collar should work for any dog.
“People have to remember that such a good tool is also an impressionable tool,” Dokken said. “You don’t want to be making a lot of mistakes when you’re using the collar.”
An especially important role the e-collar can play in the blind is one of safety. A jumpy retriever is not only inconvenient, but also dangerous. A hunter can reinforce the “stay” command with an electronic signal, or even a simple tone signal, an option available on most e-collars. Subtle reinforcement is ideal during a waterfowl hunt.
When shopping for an e-collar, prioritize certain features. Effective range is one factor to consider. If your training or hunts take place in hilly areas with trees and vegetation, the functioning range of an e-collar decreases. Still, for most working retrievers, a half-mile range should be more than enough.
Dokken recommends checking that the contact points on the collar are sufficiently long enough to connect with the dog’s skin, no matter how long its coat is. It should fit snugly just behind the ears to function best.
Convenient features such as rechargeable batteries, water resistance and an option of tone-only stimulation might factor into your purchase.
“Some of these units can expand an existin
g unit to multiple dogs, too, which is a real plus,” Dokken said. “There are a lot of cost savings there.”