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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.