Wednesday, April 6, 2016

A Completely Different Way to Use a Shock Collar

When I wrote about shock collars over a year ago, I knew they could be used to punish a dog with pain, and that seemed to be their entire purpose. More recently, several of my internet dog trainer friends began using them on their sensitive and reactive dogs. I was forced to conclude that either these friends were misguided and horrible people, or that there was something I didn't know about shock collars.
dog wearing shock collar
This is a photo prop and not a working e collar.
Photo by Erin Koski

Keeping an Open Mind

Most of my knowledge of shock collars, largely referred to as e collar, electronic collars, or remote collars by their users, comes from reading internet forums for hunting dog handlers. This is a world from which I am very far removed. Over here on the coast of California nobody owns scenthounds, and I don't know anyone who knows anyone who hunts anything. Reading forums discussions by people who train and work scenthounds is a fascinating glimpse into an alien world.

So far, I have learned that scenthound training is extremely negative. Though I occasionally hear about positive training, most of the controversy on the forums appears to center around whether handlers should be beating their dogs with sticks or shocking them with e collars when they hunt the wrong prey. 

Even the instruction manuals for remote collars seem to describe very negative training methods. First teach the dog to sit, then tell him to sit and shock him if he doesn't do it right away. I personally feel that a dog not responding to my command means I need to do more training, I definitely don't put the blame on the dog for their lack of ability to do what I say. That's the whole purpose of an e collar, right? To punish the dog for not obeying?

Still Skeptical

The people I admire and respect for their training ability aren't hunting dog trainers, though. These people do dog sports like agility and disc with their dogs. They train fun tricks. Where did the remote zap collar fit in? It turns out that there is an entirely different way to use a remote collar as a training device. The idea is to use very low-level shocks to signal to the dog that it is time to listen and pay attention because a command is coming. 

But low-level shocks are still bad, right? I mean, even mild discomfort might make a dog less at ease in their environment. I imagined it was like getting a static shock from touching a doorknob, or licking a 9-volt battery. I'm a very accident-prone person and have had a variety of learning experiences involving electricity, all of them highly aversive.

The Obvious Answer

Not long after hearing this simplified explanation, I had a chance to actually play with a shock collar at a dog event. Obviously, the first thing you do when handed a shock collar is to shock yourself to see what it's like. It can't be any worse than trying to pull a broken bulb on a lit strand of Christmas lights out with your teeth, right? (Never do that. It sucks.) 

This particular collar had 18 different levels of shock, or "static stimulus". I strapped it onto my arm and started zapping. At level one I had to hit the button a few times to be sure anything was actually happening, and feeling it took some concentration. At level 5 it started making my arm muscles twitch, which was more fascinating than anything else. A friend tried it on his arm while I shocked him, and though he was focusing on it, he felt nothing until level 6. At level 18 it made his whole arm jump, but more in a "that's so weird!" fashion rather than "oh god make it stop!"

The Right Tools

I've since learned that the remote collars my trainer friends are using have something like 100 different levels of shock, starting well below the level of the simple one I played with. Their dogs are trained with a stimulus they just barely notice, and this functions as sort of a tap on the shoulder. Sort of like getting someone's attention when they're engrossed in a project, they might not hear you if you just talk so you have to tap them on the shoulder to get their attention first.

The stimulus in this sort of training acts as an antecedent, an alert that important information is coming. It's sort of like when I jiggle the leash or softly and quickly whisper my dog's name, but more consistent. I guess I could call it an attention cue. So zap, command, treats and party time. To get there, the stimulus is first paired with food so the dog learns that it means cookie time. So then it's like whispering "cookies!" before telling the dog to sit.

But How Can Electric Shock Ever Be Positive?

I was way less accepting of low level stimulus remote collar training until I played with a modern, high-quality e-collar and found out exactly what it feels like. Knowing that I can barely feel it when I'm really trying hard to feel it, I finally understand how that could be used as a cue instead of a punishment. It really does feel like a tap and not at all like a shock. I was shocked to learn that it doesn't feel like a static shock.

The end goal of low level stimulus training, as I understand it, is to have the dog go into listening mode whenever they hear their handler. This at least seems like a plausible training method, and I'm now pretty sure that my trainer friends aren't horrible people after all. I'm fortunate that Sisci exists in listening mode, as does Brisbane most of the time. For less hyper-biddable dogs, this could be a reasonable training tool. 

I'm not planning on zapping my dogs anytime soon, but I'm pleased that I kept an open mind about e collars because I learned a whole new way that they can be used. 

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