An Introduction to Dog Training with E-Collars

Scott Linden • March 03, 2023

Your dog’s best friend or worst enemy … and you get to decide. It’s an awesome responsibility, and you don’t want to booger it up.

An electronic training collar is the best thing since sliced bread, sometimes. You can find your dog in heavy cover, amp up his training, give commands beyond screaming distance, oh, and maybe even forestall a rabbit chase. This “thousand-yard check cord” can reach out and touch your dog when you can’t run fast or far enough to reinforce a command. But before you get to that point, you have a lot of work to do. E-collars are the last step in a training process that starts in the house, progresses to the yard, on a leash, check cord and training table.

The number-one rule of e-collars is simple: don’t touch the red button unless you’re confident your dog completely understands the command … and can hear you. Only when you’re absolutely sure both conditions are met, should you power up your hand-held controller.

The Red Button
Don't touch the red button unless you’re confident your dog completely understands the command!

Okay then. You train hard; your dog is on the road to excellence. You’ve taught a command (let’s use “here”). He went from short leash to long check cord, then unclipped. He’s executing flawlessly in the front yard, backyard, park, everywhere. Now, go back to Square One because you’ve got to introduce the electronic “leash.”

There are as many methods for using e-collars as there are dog trainers. Some use constant stimulation until compliance. Others teach aversion to unwanted behaviors. I like this one best … see if it works for you. Here’s the skinny:

The static-electricity-like “stimulation” can, in the wrong hands, be a brutal punishment. But adjusted to the lightest level it is merely a tap on the shoulder, so to speak. Dogs seldom need punishment but often during the mastery phase will need a reminder … an electronic interruption in the thought process that is tempting them from the appointed task. Put yourself in your dog’s collar: you’re focused on mowing the lawn, cutting nice straight lines and covering all the corners. Then your buddy arrives with a cold six-pack. Tempting, right? But if I bump you with a little electronic reminder at the very moment you’re reaching to turn off the lawnmower, you’ll probably continue mowing. Same with your dog – if you are watching carefully, you can pre-empt his going off the rails. (You can also try to teach your dog to mow the lawn and avoid this problem altogether!)

Dogs seldom need punishment
Dogs seldom need punishment!

So, how do you get that collar to the right intensity for a gentle nudge? Experiment. Get your dog used to wearing it, adjusted to fit according to manufacturer’s instructions. Let him wear it for a few days before you break out the hand-held control. Then set intensity to the lowest level and when you can see him, tap the button. (If your collar has a vibrate capability, you might consider it the lowest intensity if he’s a sensitive guy.) Indications he’s felt it include cocking his head, a little nod, scratching his neck, stopping briefly, or a head shake. Give him a few chances before taking intensity up a notch at a time until you see a reaction like one of those. Make sure it’s fit well, with the prongs in constant contact with his skin, but not too tight.

Once you have the intensity level right, start overlaying collar work with leash work. Our goal, believe it or not, is tempting the dog to disregard your command, usually by using a distraction. Use another person, dog, traffic, something that will draw his attention as you give the command. Got one? If you’re like me, you have dozens (seldom is it friends bringing beer).

While he’s distracted and you’re laser-focused on him, call him with a “here.” If he hesitates, looks away or moves any direction but right to you, tap the red button. That’s the nudge drawing him away from the distraction before he has time to yield to temptation. With practice, you’ll be able to read your dog, know when he’s thinking about that temptation, and pre-empt his crime. Don’t forget to praise for compliance. Progress to checkcord, no cord in the yard, add more distractions, and ultimately in a hunting situation. The same drill should work for most commands and training skills.

Sounds simple, right? Uh-uh. But it’s not as complicated as it could be, if you adhere to a few simple rules:

  • There are few instances when you should use the collar when your dog is around birds. There’s simply too much chance to goof and put him off prey.
  • Never use the collar for revenge, or out of anger.
  • A dog must have the command mastered before you start using the collar.
  • If you can’t see your dog, put the hand-held in your pocket.
  • Make sure the collar fits well and prongs are in gentle contact with the dog’s skin. If he’s not responding, check fit before amping up the intensity. Check fit again after a few minutes in the field.
  • Always use the lowest setting possible.
  • Watch him like a hawk when you’re about to give a command so you can pre-empt his action before he’s physically and mentally committed to an infraction.
More collar models
More e-collar models

E-collars can help you train, locate your dog, deliver more stealthy commands, and even find him with GPS. They are a quantum leap beyond yelling and screaming … and who has a 1,000-yard check cord handy, anyway?

--Scott Linden