Off-Leash Training & Progressive Use of Electronic Collar

 

Every new trainer desperately wants to know the secret to off-leash control. How one gets there

is not so apparent. In on-leash training, it is clear that the leash is there to enforce the commands,

but what happens if the leash comes off? The behavioral basis for off leash training, just like onleash

training, lies in conditioning. A dog's response to commands off-leash must become a habit.

If the behavior is a habit, then there should be no reason the dog performs the command any

differently in any different context. The question then becomes, how do you perfect the habit, or

condition these off-leash behaviors, without a leash?

Typically there are 2 approaches to off-leash training. The first is the long-line method. Once the

behaviors you want are conditioned with the dog on a short leash, switch to a long line, and let

the dog drag the long line. Then the line is there to grab, and enforce commands. It becomes part

of life, and the dog drags it everywhere. The problem is, if you live in a house with a landscaped

yard, the leash will get fouled in trees, or in the woods on a walk. It can be cumbersome. If the

dog gets 30 or more feet away, you will have to run to the leash to enforce commands. This

presents a bad-timing issue.

The second approach is to train the dog using an electronic training collar (E-Collar). The

electronic training collar is gaining more and more widespread use and acceptance in both pet

training circles and working dog training, with excellent results.

The e-collar often gets bad press, especially from pure-motivation dog trainers. I believe these

criticisms are based on false analogies and appeals to emotion and have no basis in fact. As with

any training device which is designed to administer an aversive stimulus, it can be misused. But

rather than condemn the device based on isolated misuse we should all learn and teach more

about its proper use. It is important to establish guidelines regarding how and when to employ it,

and with what kinds of canine temperaments. When it is an appropriate tool to achieve the goals

we have for our dogs, it is unsurpassed in its ease of use and efficiency in meeting those goals.

Some decry its use simply because it is a form of aversive stimulus. Their argument usually is

formulated on the grounds that aversive stimuli in training will "break the bond" between dog and

handler: cause the dog discomfort and he will associate you with that discomfort. I believe this

can be true, under certain circumstances, and especially when the collar is used as a teaching

tool, rather than a tool for administering positive punishment (corrections), for competing

motivations that interfere with positively reinforced learned behaviors.

The benefits to using the collar to deliver aversive stimuli are many. Primarily, it allows the trainer

to teach that unacceptable behaviors do have consequences; regardless of how close the dog is

to you, or whether the dog is wearing a leash and is tethered to the trainer. It allows for consistent

levels of correction in a wider variety of contexts. Dogs trained to off-leash control can go to the

beach, swimming, hiking in the woods, and still remain under control should some competing

motivation arise.

Further, one can administer the aversive without becoming physical with the dog. By necessity, a

leash correction requires the trainer to make hand and arm movements, which can cue behavior.

In addition, the e-collar allows unemotional delivery of corrections, and lessens the association

between the handler and dog with the negative stimulus, for dogs with temperaments that are soft

in nature. In fact, many people think that soft temperaments are poor candidates for e-collar

training, and in my opinion, just the opposite is true. Dogs that are sensitive to the handler can be

corrected on very low levels of stimulation, and the handler is not physically delivering the

correction. In this article we will explore how training is done with these devices.

Electrical Engineering 101

Electronic training collars (e-collars) are comprised of a collar receiver that goes around the neck

of the dog, and a transmitter that is held in the hand of the trainer. The trainer can choose how to

deliver the stimulation, either by pressing the "nick" button or the "continuous" button. In "nick"

mode, the transmitter delivers a pre-timed burst of stimulation on the order of a fraction of a

second. In continuous mode, the collar delivers a continuous string of these pre-timed bursts as

long as the button is held down. In this mode the collar usually has a fail-safe allowing only 10

seconds maximum stimulation.

The stimulation delivered is a very low amperage electrical charge, which stimulates the nerve

endings in the neck. It feels exactly like a static electricity shock you might get from wearing wool

socks on a carpet and then touching a doorknob. We have all done this, and felt startled, but we

know that it is impossible for it to hurt us. One feature of getting a static electric shock is that one

usually doesn't want to repeat it. This is the essential feature of low amperage stimulation that is

useful in training a dog - the dog learns to do what we want in order to avoid the unpleasant

sensation.

To understand how an e-collar provides an unpleasant stimulation, yet doesn't damage sensitive

tissue; one needs to understand a little about electricity and how it generates power. Electrical

current has two essential features: voltage and amperage. The power of an electrical current is

measured in Watts, and is the product of voltage multiplied by amperage.

If we think of an electrical circuit as a pipe with water flowing through it, voltage is the force of the

water pushing through the pipe, and amperage is the volume of electrical current flowing through

the pipe. E-collars have high force but ultra low volume. Thus if the amps are low, even if the

voltage is high, you can have high force behind the electrical current, but a very low output of

power. It's like being shot with a water pistol versus a fire hose. A water pistol has a large force

on a tiny volume of water. A fire hose has a high force on a high volume of water.

Many people make a false analogy between e-collars and getting "shocked" by the kind of

electricity one would find in a house. House electrical current, or that from a car battery for that

matter, is high amperage. High amperage means there is a high volume of electrical current,

which can actually do physical damage. E-collars do not carry high amperage, and thus are

unable to cause physical damage.

The manufacturers sell most modern electronic training collars as stand alone training systems.

Their instructions include procedures for employing the collar as a teaching tool, to teach the dog

new associations between command words and behaviors. This is done through using a

behavioral consequence known as negative reinforcement. Reinforcement is any consequence

that increases the likelihood of a behavior. Negative reinforcement requires removing an

unpleasant consequence to increase the likelihood of a behavior. To do this with an e-collar, one

puts the collar on a low setting and presses the continuous mode button, holding it down. The

trainer then guides the dog into the behavior (e.g. "Sit"), or waits for the dog to figure out what

behavior is required, and when the dog places his rear on the ground, the trainer releases the

button, thus removing the unpleasant stimulation. The dog makes an association: sit removes the

unpleasant feeling, thus increasing the likelihood of the sitting behavior.

There are, however, a few built in side effects to this approach. First, in order to remove the

unpleasant feeling when the dog achieves the intended behavior, we must first induce the

unpleasant feeling. This also provides an association: new learning can be unpleasant.

Depending on the temperament of the dog, this can have no impact whatsoever, or can have a

dramatic impact on the dog's behavior and desire to learn. Some of the trainers using this

approach tout the fast results, and resulting calmness of the dog. When in reality the dog is

stressed, and on the verge of shutting down, because he doesn't understand until he has had

many repetitions what he is to do to escape the unpleasant feelings. The result is he is afraid to

do anything that might bring on more unpleasant feeling.

All learning is stressful to a dog, but by a matter of degrees. When the dog has no idea of how to

escape the unpleasant stimulation, he likely will shift into a defensive mood. When in a defensive

mood, a dog has three options: to choose to fight against it, to choose an avoidance strategy, or

to displace (shut down). The goal of negative reinforcement training is to have the dog figure out

that he can avoid the unpleasant feeling by performing a very specific behavior, e.g. to sit. When

considering this particular behavior out of the myriad choices of behaviors, one can imagine that

the dog will go through a number of behaviors that don't work, since he hasn't been taught which

behavior actually will work. Some trainers call this "exploring behaviors." I see it as a hole in the

method. Why not teach the dog a set of behaviors that are likely to come into play, in a nonstressful

way, before applying unpleasant stimulation. In fact before using the collar at all, why not

train these behaviors motivationally, then use the collar as a form of positive punishment?

Punishment, in the animal behavior context, is any consequence that reduces the likelihood of a

behavior. Positive punishment means we apply an unpleasant consequence (e-collar stimulation)

to reduce the likelihood of a given behavior. In this sense, we will positively punish all unwanted

behaviors, and positively reinforce all trained behaviors. The e-collar then becomes a tool for

what we normally refer to as correction, rather than a teaching tool. This avoids the majority of the

stress of the old method of negative reinforcement training, and results in negative associations

only with unwanted behaviors, and positive associations with all trained behaviors.

There may be times when negative reinforcement is a valuable approach to teach a particular

behavior in a particular way. However I still believe that teaching the dog the route to escape the

negative consequence will make the training proceed in a less stressful way, and consequently it

is easier for the dog to choose an avoidance strategy that will work and end the stimulation.

One training concept often trained with negative reinforcement is the retrieve of the object

exercise in any of the protection sports: schutzhund, ring, or PSA for example. The reason we

train a retrieve with negative reinforcement is to obtain two important goals: First, the dog must

think of retrieving as work and not play. A dog that retrieves only out of play may have many other

competing motivations, especially dogs of this caliber that do protection sports. Let's say he likes

to bite the decoy more than retrieve. All the dog needs to think, then, is there is the promise of

bite work, and he may choose not retrieve at a crucial time. Second, play retrieving also brings

with it many characteristics that are judged negatively: fast to the object and slow to return,

mouthing and playing with the object, nosing it, pawing at it, etc. The force tends to make the dog

think of the exercise as more urgent and important than any possible competing motivation. The

force also makes it less of a game, and diminishes the likelihood that the dog will play with the

object or drop it like he may with a play toy.

Given that there may be valid reasons for using negative reinforcement training, then, why not

make the entire exercise more easy for the dog to learn, rather than more difficult. There must be

a better way than allowing the dog to "explore" random behaviors. Thankfully, there is a better

way. Teach the dog to hold and grab the object motivationally (it may not be possible with some

dogs that have no desire to retrieve, but this is a big minority) first, to give the dog a sense of the

exercise.

So, whether you are teaching new concepts by positive reinforcement or negative reinforcement,

there is ample reason to attempt to lay a motivational foundation to the required work. The next

issue is, how do we do it, and then how exactly do we add the e-collar into the training in a way

that it is very clear for the dog, and minimizes stress, and maximizes performance.

The Concept of Pairing Corrections

E-collar companies, and some of the e-collar trainers now teaching seminars on its use, often

begin their introduction to using the e-collar by saying that right from the beginning we can teach

your dog without ever using a leash, and standard on-leash training is out of date with the new ecollar

technology.

It is much easier to introduce positive punishment in the form of a leash correction. Leashes

attached to training collars have 2 components of interest: force and direction. A leash tugged

gently in the upward direction, after a dog is taught motivationally (positive reinforcement &

negative punishment) to sit, is a very easy way to deal with non-compliance to a learned

behavior. The leash provides a reason not to choose to ignore the command to sit, and it also

provides guidance on how to correct the inappropriate response. Each command has an

associated leash correction, on which we can vary the force, and provide feedback to the dog on

what exactly was required by the command. We teach what we refer to as guiding corrections to

introduce the dogs to leash corrections (their first introduction to positive punishment).

Guiding corrections have very little force but apply guidance to the dog about what he did wrong

and how to correct himself in the future. He learns therefore what each of the leash corrections

mean, before they become a truly aversive stimulus. Once this is complete we morph the guiding

corrections into standard leash corrections when commands are not properly executed. This is

just increasing the level of the force until it is enough to positively punish the unwanted behavior

in the given context.

Once the dog understands the meaning of leash corrections, we can introduce the e-collar as a

new correction. To do this we employ simple classical conditioning to teach the dog, in a given

context, that the e-collar stimulation (an aversive stimulus) means the same thing as the leash

correction. The problem is that e-collars employ only force and not direction, the stimulation

comes from the same direction all the time. Some trainers will move the collar box around the

dog, up on the top of the neck for the down correction, under for the sit correction, etc. I don't do

this either, as I believe it makes the dog wise to the placement of the collar.

Before I describe the procedure, I would like to mention that for me, the e-collar is best used as a

correction for the action commands of heel and come initially. In fact for any pet dogs we train,

those are the only corrections we give on the e-collar. This makes the context very easy for the

dog to process. And for the average pet dog owner, if a dog breaks a stay, the dog can be called

back to the handler and the come enforced with the e-collar, and then the dog is placed back in

the stay.

As working dogs progress through the heeling, we will introduce corrections in other contexts

using the collar, but they are few. Most other training can be managed without resort to e-collar

corrections. I do use the e-collar paired up with a verbal reprimand so that I can get more out of

my verbal corrections. But to understand this we must explore the concept of pairing corrections.

Classical or associative conditioning is what we rely on to switch the correction from a leash

correction to an e-collar correction. Classical conditioning relies on the research of Ivan Pavlov,

the Russian researcher who discovered that an initially neutral stimulus (ringing a bell) when

paired with an unconditioned stimulus (one we don't necessarily have to teach the dog - like

salivation in the presence of food in Pavlov's work) would elicit the same response as the

unconditioned stimulus. He discovered that the path to this result is that the conditioned stimulus

must closely precede the unconditioned stimulus in time.

We apply the same approach to the introduction of the new e-collar correction: The correction we

wish to condition, that of the e-collar, is placed in time closely preceding the existing leash

correction for heeling. The leash correction for heeling is a 180-degree turn with a jerk-andrelease

correction on the training collar (pinch or choke - I prefer the pinch). Thus what we do is

as follows: when the dog shows an undesirable behavior (say, forges out of heel position) the

trainer makes a 180-degree turn, nicks the dog on the e-collar, and follows that with the familiar

jerk-and-release correction on the leash and training collar. The dog will soon learn that if he

forges or goes wide, the e-collar will stimulate him, and that means get back in position.

Over a period of sessions we look for anticipation: the dog reacts to the e-collar correction after it

is administered, and before the trainer follows up with the jerk-and-release. This anticipation

clearly shows that the dog understands that the e-collar correction now means get back in

position. The trainer can now eliminate the leash correction and eventually just carries the leash

until the dog makes few if any errors. At that point the leash can be discarded, and the e-collar

correction controls any unwanted behavior we may get during heeling. Notice that the heeling

behavior itself is already well established before we go to the e-collar. Thus good associations

are made with correct behavior, and the only negative associations are associated with

inappropriate behaviors.

It is easy to extend this simple philosophy to any correction you make that involves a leash. The

come command is a natural extension. Further one can add the extra dimension of the verbal

reprimand into the heeling and come corrections. Just before the nick correction on the e-collar

for unwanted behaviors, use your "no" command - I usually make a nasty grunt, it doesn't matter

what it is, just that it precede the e-collar correction, making a further classical association. This

gives power to your verbal reprimand - it is backed by the compulsive power of the physical ecollar

correction.

I use this to deal with many other situations, such as stay commands, and corrections for sit and

down, but especially if I see the dog is about to make a mistake, the reprimand "nips it in the bud"

before a physical correction must be given. Correcting a dog before he makes a mistake is much

more effective than correcting him after the fact. But you must be a good trainer able to anticipate

the errors before they are full-blown errors.

Conclusion

E-collars offer us an efficient method of correction, for many behaviors, and especially for dealing

with competing motivations. The E-collar can be employed to teach a correction for inattention in

competition heeling, simply by pairing the "nick" prior to the familiar correction on the prong collar

for a "watch" command.

In my opinion, teaching using negative reinforcement is outdated. We must remember that stress

induced during the training process is cumulative, and by using the e-collar correction which is

very effective as an aversive stimulus for all commands, allows the accumulation of stress which

can affect performance. Make learning exciting and fun, by teaching new associations

motivationally. Then, after these good behaviors are established, demand compliance to these

trained behaviors by using thoughtful compulsion with an e-collar.