On E-collars

There have been many inquiries of late about Koehler and e-collars.  I’d like to clear some things up for those curious.  Electronics have been part of the Koehler Method of Dog Training since the beginning; to stop barking, poison proofing, and to stop predatory killing.  But those early devices were crude, complicated and often required some experience building a safe electrical circuit suitable for the intended use.


Later, in the mid-70’s, Tri-Tronics introduced a series of collars called the “AI” series.  Included were e-collars that could be used for teaching the principles of punishment training, escape/avoidance training and avoidance/relaxation training.  Because the Koehler method employs all three of these principles these innovative e-collars marriage nicely.  Bill Koehler commented favourably on Tri-Tronics’ innovative progress and development of their product line.  These comments were published on the back cover of the book “Understanding Electronic Dog Training” by Dr. Daniel Tortora.  


It wasn’t long after that that Tri-Tronics introduced the ability to vary the intensity of the stimulation.  And by the mid 80’s, a MAJOR improvement was made ...  the Model 100; featuring the ability to vary the stim intensity and duration from the transmitter. I  commented favourably on the reliability and performance of this collar.  These comments were published within the pages of “Remote Trainer” vol.1 no.1. Now called the Pro 100 xl, this collar remains as my favourite e-collar.    


Let me describe how I was taught to use e-collars (by Bill and Dick Koehler).  The first 6 weeks of the training is straight out of the book (lessons 1 thru 14).  At week seven, we introduce the e-collar by repeating the previous week’s work (lesson 14) but using the e-collar instead of the throw chain.  Basically, we’re doing “e-collar recalls” in place of throw chain recalls.


At week eight we start lesson 15 (the Light Line) alternating between e-collar and throw chain.  The dog, thus, may be corrected from the sky or from the device worn around his neck ... but he is never sure which.  Therefore, the only way to remain in a sure state of comfort is right action.


The concept of the diminishing line is followed for the next 3-5 weeks.  If you’ve done the first 14 chapters correctly, then diminishing the e-collar from the equation will occur along the same timeline.  At this point the dog will work as reliably with or without the e-collar. 


On the other hand ...

If you were less than effective on lessons 1-15, don’t expect the e-collar to bail you out of a basic training requirement ... that of bringing the dog beyond the point of contention.  If you fail to get this done, then you will likely fall into the habit of keeping the e-collar on the dog.  The inherent problem, of course, is that the dog is now subordinate to the e-collar and not to right action.   This effect will fail you when the dog is at liberty.  A dog that can not be trusted at liberty, within reasonable perimeters, is not in keeping with the spirit nor practice of the Koehler Method of Dog Training. 


I once brought this up for discussion with several trainers (including other Koehler instructors).  Some were of the opinion that the dog’s good behaviour is not predicated on him wearing the e-collar ... even if he is to wear it all of the time.


I then set up a scenario and asked a simple question, a question that none of these trainers, not even those Koehler trainers, wanted to answer:  “A dog that is well conditioned to the art of silence (a Tri-Tronics training protocol for use with their bark collars), is in the kennel barking ... I put a dead bark collar around his neck and he shuts up.  Why?”  


The answer of course is that the e-collar itself becomes an “event marker” for the act of staying quiet.  Further evidence, in my opinion, that the dog’s good behaviour (staying quiet) has become subordinate, not to right action, but to the e-collar itself.


That said, do I support those pursuing the development of an e-collar based method that can be made affordable, attainable and accessible to the general dog owning public?  In a word, Yes; and there are some long time Koehler trainers that are doing some things with the e-collar that need to be acknowledged.


Margot Woods of Maryland, Mary Mazzeri of Illinois and Pam Green of Arizona.  Each of these ladies are not only developing programs along the philosophical lines of Koehler but they are proving their programs on the field of AKC obedience competition.  Each have students that have earned Companion Dog titles.  Additionally, Margot has earned an Open title on her Dobe, Wrap, and at the time of this writing they are readying to go into Utility.  Mary Mazzeri’s efforts have earned her a Front & Finish Award for obtaining all three titles (CD, CDX and UD) in under a year ... on a Border Terrier!


Collecting titles is nothing new for Koehler students, there are many Koehler students with multiple OTCh’s.  Typically, though, it takes the Koehler trainer about 40 weeks of dedicated training to ready a dog for competitive performance (low to mid 90’s), and then another 10 to 20 weeks to polish up a serious contender for multiple HIT’s.  Can the e-collar cut those numbers?  Not only do I think it possible, I’m predicting at least a 30% savings.


Wait a minute, Tony, there are plenty of folks that have titled their dogs in less time ... what’s the deal?         


True ... but, most of those folks have titled with breeds and/or carefully selected dogs that you would expect to get faster results with.  I am sure that were Margot, Pam and Mary to work with select Border Collies, Poodles, and Goldens ... then they too could drastically reduce the training time.  But let’s look at the breeds they’ve titled ... Mary with a UD on a Champion Irish Wolfhound, Pam with a UD on a Champion Std. Schnauzer, and Margot with a UD on a Chow.  In keeping with Koehler tradition ... they accept all breeds and make no excuses for failures to get their students to the level of obedience they expect.  I expect that they will pursue their e-collar work in the very same light.


Why use AKC obedience as a goal?  Most folks don’t trial their dogs anyway.


The reason AKC obedience is used as a goal is because as a comparative standard it makes sense to do so.  They are well organized, well documented, and well recorded.  They also provide established minimum performance standards that are fair and applicable across the board ... without regard to breed or physical attribute.  Logistically, the AKC obedience rings just make sense.


There are other people that are doing good things with the e-collar, what makes these three people special?


There are many folks from many different camps that are moving toward the e-collar as their tool of choice ... why I am excited to watch Pam, Mary and Margot is because they all understand how to get the dogs beyond the point of contention with or without the e-collar AND they accept all dogs into their program.  Put another way, they all know how to train a dog that will work unrestrained (off the collar).  More importantly, if they find that their e-collar program is not producing a result - each of them know how to switch gears to get the job done.


Tony, you wrote of the program you use with the e-collar.  It appears to follow the same timeline (13 weeks) as the book ... where is the time savings?  Also, if you cut 30% of the training time out of the program ... will it still produce the same result?


Margot, Pam and Mary have each taken some additional instruction from a trainer, Fred Hassen; he professes the use of the e-collar exclusively.  Fred piqued our interest (mine and Dick’s) back in 1998 when he was able to beat one of my Open students on the field of NAPD competition.


Dick and I (along with Pam Green) later appeared as guests on his radio talk show.  Sometime after that Pam organized a seminar for him which drew some interest from other Koehler students and trainers.  Within the year I was getting some very positive feedback from these attendees.  They seem to have the opinion that using the e-collar can indeed shorten the program.  I think it a real possibility and applaud those willing to take it into the ring and allow us to compare the result against those that are using traditional training methods. 


Another area where today’s e-collar is very useful is as a management tool, especially for those folks who lack the physical attributes to deliver a timely correction.   And as Pat Smith (Ontario, Ca) just reminded me: “There are some dogs that, no matter what the skill of the owner, will forever be in need of being managed; for those dogs the e-collar seems a practical choice.”

It should be noted here that neither Pat nor myself use e-collars in our classes.


Dick Russell (Baton Rouge, Louisiana) and I were guest speakers at a recent IACP (International Association of Canine Professionals) conference at the Triple Crown facility in Hutto, Texas.  Also on the card was Fred Hassen.  Mr. Russell commented during his presentation that the e-collar is “the wave of the future.” 


I am not of the same opinion, but I do believe that there is a place for them and that with proper instruction a good many dogs will be able to keep their homes through their effective use.  For this reason, and I don’t think that Bill or Dick would disagree, I can get behind the current trend in e-collar training.  That it can move beyond “trend” status to take its place along side the Koehler Method of Dog Training as a training standard ... well that’s yet to be seen.


I guess I remain one of those old fogy’s that want to see a dog motivated to work from  want and desire.  But as Pat Smith points out: “There will be those ‘wise-guys’ that need a little extra push.”   


Perhaps in this day of high tech everything ... getting a dog beyond the point of contention is just no longer necessary.  Just get them to the point where they respond to the “e-stim” and call the job done.  That then raises my question: “Is the dog truly at liberty if his behaviour is held in check by a machine?”