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E-Collar Considerations for New Trainers

Rich Carpenter
2005 Charro Ave • Longmont CO 80504

For many who are about to get their first pup to train, use of the e-collar in training comes up. Some are sure they do not want to use an e-collar. Some are positive they will use an e-collar. Some are not sure. It’s surely not for me to influence that decision. I’ll only say that e-collars are not, by definition, instruments of the Devil, but they can be. Neither are they a miracle tool of training, though at times it might seem some try to use them that way. For those thinking about an e-collar, or planning to use one, here are a few things to contemplate.

Those who have decided to use an e-collar have just gotten a start. Which e-collar brand and model? Will it be one level or multiple levels of stimulation? Will the stimulation be continuous? Or momentary? Or both? If multiple levels of either, or an e-collar having both continuous and momentary modes, how will levels or modes be selected? Can either or both be done instantly and by feel? Or will it be necessary to look at the e-collar control to make the change? Some say, when it comes to training, timing is everything. To me there is a lot of truth to that notion when it comes to the e-collar. And depending on the method of use, ability to make changes instantly can be important.

Which leads to the question that really should come before any purchase decisions are made by a trainer who will be using an e-collar for the first time: what training program will be used for the retriever? There are several out there to choose from, and not all approach e-collar use in the same way. So it’s important that the new trainer find a suitable beginning to advanced training program they are comfortable with and are willing to pretty much follow religiously.

There are a number of good ones out there that use the e-collar. I’m not going to suggest what program should be used. It is probably a good idea for the new trainer to be sure they have hooked up with a local HRC club before they get the pup and get active enough to get an idea of which trainers are good role models and which might offer advice they’d do well to run away from. Going to a licensed HRC Finished test and seeing which local members are running dogs, and then watching to see which dogs perform well and run with the style desired, may be helpful. These handlers may be good people to ask some questions about which training program and e-collar to consider. Also, it can be productive to ask in the gallery about who some of the experienced local members are, who are good trainers and handlers, and are open to getting their brains picked by new members. One of the greatest helps to a new trainer is being able to become a part of a regular training group that has some helpful, experienced members whose approach matches the philosophy of the new trainer.

Having decided on the program, getting it in video or printed form right away is good, as is taking the time to get familiar with it. In the process, if it is a complete program, there should be information on how the e-collar is used, and what the e-collar conditioning program used is. From there, researching what’s available on the market can be more productive, as the decision is being made of which e-collar will do what’s asked of it and fit the needs and budget of the buyer. Some are really basic. For example, if the program to be used in e-collar conditioning used continuous mode, the new trainer will be in a bind if the e-collar purchased produces only momentary stimulation. While it’s possible to manually produce momentary stimulation from a continuous-only e-collar, it’s far from ideal. It’s best to start with what is needed.

If the training program to be followed defines the use of the e-collar, but does not have a detailed process for introduction of the e-collar, a new trainer would likely be well advised to purchase a separate e-collar conditioning instruction program. There are likely more out there, but Mike Lardy and Evan Graham both have separate e-collar conditioning instructions available.

As a new trainer learns about the e-collar, it’s important to learn about direct pressure and indirect pressure, see how they are properly used, and understand the difference. If the conditioning process uses primarily direct pressure, then it will be important for the new trainer to pay attention to how indirect pressure is introduced in the conditioning or training program.

Almost all retriever training begins in the yard and then is shifted to the field. It’s no different with the use of the e-collar, but for the inexperienced trainer, transitioning the e-collar use to the field from the yard, the path is often not very smooth and can be quite bumpy. When and where the e-collar is initially introduced, then used in the yard, and finally used in the field, can vary significantly. And different programs make use of corrections differently.

Not only that, but skills are taught and proofed in the yard, and e-collar use or corrections may well be a part of that. But (there’s that word again) skills demonstrated reliably in the yard may not transition to the field without a whole new learning curve, and corrections with an e-collar for early field errors can create problems no one needs. So it’s important the new trainer study the heck out of the training program and how it uses the e-collar in the yard and in the field, and try to gain an understanding of the philosophy involved.

Then it becomes important that the new trainer has been attentive to the dog in the yard to be better able to read attitude, confusion, total lack of understanding, lack of trying, etc., so that this new trainer can begin to learn to read those same things in the dog in the field. This can be very important in achieving positive e-collar use in the field and avoiding the negative effects of improper field use of the e-collar.

One of the strengths of the e-collar in training is that the timing can be essentially instantaneous, with almost no lag. It can also be quite dramatic to the dog. And without good judgement being used by the trainer, more correction can be applied than might be intended, and certainly more than would be optimal. Unlike the riding crop, where there is a clear different tactile feel to the trainer in administering a little positioning tap compared to a sharp corrective swat on the rear, the e-collar trainer must know what level to use or quickly change to. So, back in the e-collar introduction and conditioning, proper levels need paid attention to.

Similarly, how much, if any, step up in level is needed in an exciting field training situation, compared to yard work, is important. And even if the level needs to be higher, it might not need to be in certain field situations. Rocking the boat with the young, learning dog is just counterproductive, so appropriate stimulation levels and application is very important.

Timing can be everything, and sometimes it is in training, and that can be in a highly positive way or a lasting and highly negative way. There are times when e-collar stimulation is applied and creates problems, even when the level is entirely appropriate. Why is this? Because the immediate and dramatic effect of the e-collar, applied at the wrong time or in the wrong circumstance, can introduce confusion. Confusion (often misidentified as refusal or defiance) corrected with the e-collar, is just about a perfect recipe for disaster if done very much.

It is just really important that the dog understand what is expected of it. If correction with the e-collar is applied, the dog must clearly understand why it is corrected. The e-collar is pressure, and for a dog to be productive and not counterproductively stressed, it must know how to get out of that pressure. Then a slight error in e-collar level may not matter as much as otherwise.

For example, one method of e-collar conditioning is where the stimulation is applied before a command, and the dog turns that stimulation off by doing or not doing something. That is fine in a yard setting and in a conditioning setting, but fast forward to a dog in the field running a blind, and the dog is at distance in cover and starting to go off line. Handler applies e-collar, then whistle, but instead of stopping, the dog goes pedal to the metal. Why? Maybe it’s thinking of “Back Nick Back” in pile work in the yard. Maybe the cover was such it never heard the whistle and it’s guessing the next command will be “Back”. Will more e-collar and whistle application get a stop or more speed and/or more confusion? No doubt, this kind of situation was at least one reason for more indirect pressure being used in the field.

Key in the use of pressure/correction, and not only e-collar pressure, is whether the dog understands what the pressure/correction is for. If not, then the new trainer is apt to be faced with such by-products of confusion as No Goes, Spinning, Popping, and Bugging (explained later). If much time is spent around others training retrievers to run blind retrieves, one will see that one or more of these problems rears its ugly head more often than not, with a far greater number of trainers than might be expected. And some of these trainers are not training their first retriever.

I suspect it is hard for us to crawl inside the dog’s fuzzy skull and see what a complicated, difficult and daunting task learning to line, cast and handle on blind retrieves is to the dog. We humans can fairly easily watch our video or read our book and understand the process and sequence, and away we go. It doesn’t work that way with the dog and how its mind processes information. We ignore that at our peril. Ask anybody who has a dog that is going thru No Goes, Spinning, Popping or Bugging, and they will tell you they are having no fun, are frustrated, and often not very optimistic of working their way out of it.

If you are brand new, these terms probably don’t mean anything yet. Best you understand what they are and avoid any firsthand familiarity when it comes to you and your first dog. A No Go is when a dog does not go when it is commanded (or released in the case of a mark) to leave the handler’s side when cast for a blind, or refuses to go when given a cast while running the blind, after having been stopped by the whistle (or after popping). Spinning is where a dog, often immediately after leaving the handler’s side when sent on a blind, just spins around once or more, before proceeding on the line to the blind. The dog may also spin as it takes subsequent casts on the way to the blind. Popping is where a dog is sent on a blind and suddenly stops and faces the handler, even though no whistle has been blown. This may occur within a few feet or anywhere on the path to the blind. Bugging is where a dog at heel will not look where the handler wants the dog to go, or just looks away to signal it’s not engaging. Another version can appear when the dog is whistled to a sit remotely. Then the dog intentionally looks away from the handler to avoid being cast.

These problems can be caused without use of an e-collar, but it is much easier and faster to cause them with an e-collar because of the immediate and dramatic nature of its use. The problem is the trainer/handler, not the tool used to cause it. For example, it probably won’t take me very long to create a No Go problem with most any dog that is just beginning to run cold blinds in the field. And I don’t ever have to lay a hand on the dog or apply the e-collar. I can do it by expecting the dog to take a better initial line than it is capable of, and as soon as it leaves the line in the wrong direction, I sit the dog with the whistle and recall, or interrupt the dog’s run, by hollering “NO! Here!” After either, I resend the dog. It doesn’t take too many times of this, and the pressure mounts.

The pressure is the confusion. The young dog’s aiming device has very, very coarse clicks to start with, and only gradually develops the ability to differentiate smaller changes in the direction it is aimed. That’s why a number of programs encourage the handler to not mess very long with the young dog on the line to get a good initial line, but rather to recognize quickly about as close as the dog can be aimed, and kick it off and handle. To quickly and repeatedly recall and resend can easily end up in a No Go, as the dog begins to think the problem was going, since the dog has no clue about the notion of going the wrong direction.

A new trainer can help themselves by convincing themselves that with 99 percent of retrievers, early cold blinds will be ugly and only very gradually and slowly become more beautiful. Then they need to remind themselves of it daily. A big help can be videoing blinds frequently as the process is started and continued. What seems like maddeningly slow or no progress can then be graphically observed to have improved more than we have thought. Add to that a little scheming and conniving and incorporating the old notion of catching more flies with honey than vinegar, and we can march off on our pursuit of good solid blind retrieves with more patience and understanding. By this I mean it should not be above us to manipulate things to set the dog up for success in the field.

At the same time we are being patient and helping the dog succeed in the field, we are working on yard drills that fine tune the skills and help the dog understand some concepts. For example, we can work on finer initial lines and finer casting by proper set-up and use of Wagon Wheel drills that increase the number of bumpers and levels of bumpers. We can help the dog understand it may be called back for a poor initial line and resent, and that being stopped and recalled has to do with going the wrong way, not going when it shouldn’t have. There are various “No-No” drills to help do this. Perhaps the most common one is the Chair Drill. Very briefly described, a pile would be established like in pile work. Then in front of the pile we place a couple folding lawn chairs the dog will run between on the way to the pile. We’ll start the dog going to the pile close to the pile and not as far back as the chairs. Then gradually back up to and through the chairs. If we back up far enough, the chairs look more like a barrier, and the dog will try to go around. We whistle to stop the dog, call back and resend. If a couple attempts don’t get success, then we move closer, all the way though the chairs, if necessary. By now the dog clearly knows it is to go and where to go, so we’ve dialed the stress level way back and moved the thinking to “how” to go, not “if” to go.

We want errors, so if we get way back and dog still beautifully shoots the gap between chairs, for this dog they are spaced to widely. We’ll close the gaps or get an area we can back off further to get the errors to get the learning accomplished. There is no e-collar used in this drill, unless the dog should refuse to sit or come, but like all yard work, this new skill will not fully and quickly translate to the field, though it should help prepare the dog for when a call back and resend is appropriate. Even with this learning, recalling on cold blinds for a dog just learning the ropes is very risky business.

Bugging is probably the least common of this category of things you don’t want to develop in your young dog. Again, confusion and lack of confidence is center stage. Work with the development level of the dog. Clarify or simplify, rather than trying again and again to get the dog to look the right direction for an initial line. Set cold blinds so that factors such as terrain, suction, obstacles, distractions, etc., are minimal and only very gradually increased.

Realize much of the time early on we won’t have a perfect line. Kick the dog off and handle. If, on first attempt we can’t even get an initial line in the ballpark, perhaps it’s smart to heel the dogs a few steps in the desired direction and have it sit and see if then it’s lined up better. At times we may not know why, but we are smart in recognizing sooner, rather than later, that this isn’t the blind to run with this dog yet. Trying early and constantly to make communications clear, understandable and doable for the young dog can go a long way to avoiding you ever having to deal with bugging as well as the other problems listed.

Spinning and Popping are different manifestations of the dog saying “I’m confused”. Sometimes Spinning is the stage after Popping, as Popping is gradually reduced, but sometimes it can start there. Again, somehow the dog is confused about where it’s going, whether it is not sure of the initial line or where to go when cast. Popping commonly results from too much stopping and casting on early blinds, especially close to the line. This is usually accelerated and made worse by inappropriate collar corrections the young dog is not ready for.

Here we are likely again dealing with the lack of fine clicks in the young dog’s aiming device, and expecting finer adjustments in the path to the blind than they are capable of. Again here our scheming to help the dog succeed can help us avoid this problem cropping up. A dog needs to develop confidence as it learns to run blinds. And that is confidence that it can lay its ears back and go Mach 10, as well as that it can take an adjusting cast and then fire off at warp speed again.

As trainers, we can help this young dog just beginning to learn blinds succeed in a couple ways. One is when we stop the dog and give a cast, and the dog blasts off with enthusiasm, we let it carry the cast for a significant distance even if the path the dog takes is less than we’d hoped for. Chances are the dog will understand a 90-degree “over” cast at the distance of the blind better than it can understand a three-degree left angle back cast at 20 yards. If the dog is so far off that it’s not going to take that big an over, we may have let it roll too long. On the other hand, it is not illegal to set out and put up orange stakes at half a dozen bumpers to run one blind. With a number of potential targets spread out, then when we have the dog rolling with gusto at distance, we’ve got an alternate target at a convenient and doable location. The young dog never knows it’s been set up. It just thinks, “These blinds are sort of fun.”

Who knows how a dog’s thought process works? I’m convinced for new trainers, as well as most of us amateur trainers who start a young dog as our old hunting dog begins to show signs of age, we do best if we can teach in a way that makes the dog really enjoy running blinds. If we can do our job of training such that the retriever is as excited about running blinds as running marks, and sees whistles and casts as helping rather than punishment, we’ve succeeded. If you look around, you’ll see dogs that run good solid blinds, and as they are lined up, it’s as if they are thinking, “This is great. I can just aim at a spot on the horizon, lay my ears back and GO! If I’m off a little, my handler will let me know and adjust my path. I just get to roll and my handler does all the work.”

Training for blinds can really be fun for handler and dog, but some days it’s hard to remember that. Another thing best kept in mind right from the start is that it will be far easier and less time-consuming to avoid these kinds of problems than to cure them. And some can be more difficult to solve than most first-time trainers have the skill to tackle. Have fun training - both you and your retriever!

This article originally appeared in the August/September 2015 issue of HUNTING RETRIEVER.

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