Integrating the E-Collar into your Police Dog’s Training
Written by Jerry Bradshaw-
Published in Canine Courier Mar-Apr-May 2017 Magazine Vol. 30, NO 1
Train within a system
The Electronic training collar (e-collar) is not a problem solver device. There was once a time when trainers slapped on the e-collar before certification and meted out hard corrections to “clean up” a dirty dog. Those days should be long past. That only creates behavior that is short lived at best. The dog knows when it is on and when it’s not and what set of his behaviors apply in both situations. Dogs are contextual learners and opportunists and will immediately outsmart this prehistoric approach.
Properly used, it is meant as a tool that is integrated into training. Just as you continue to reward your dog throughout his career for giving you proper behaviors, you must have the ability and option to correct your dog when necessary. If the e-collar goes on after the dog starts misbehaving, and comes of immediately, you will create a collar-wise dog that learns to behave when the collar is on only. If you take it off, to “see how he behaves,” and he takes advantage of it being off you will also teach him to behave only when it is on.
Training in a system means that you have to understand how the e-collar can be used in the behavioral sense. You must understand operant and classical conditioning, reward systems, and the different variables that affect canine learning. (See my article Bradshaw, G.W. “A Simple Lure-Reward Training System.” K9 Cop Magazine, Issue 41, 2016). An e-collar can be used as positive punishment or negative reinforcement, or both depending on the context of the training. The simplest use of the e-collar is as an electronic replacement for leash and collar corrections (positive punishment). Your dog is conditioned to understand leash and collar corrections for sit, down, come, heel, and various other commands. The e-collar can be integrated into your training to replace the majority of the physical corrections you give with the leash and collar in obedience and controlled aggression. However, the dog needs to learn these “new” corrections and their context. The e-collar isn’t used to teach the dog the commands but rather to enforce his compliance to commands he already understands. But remember, leashes and collars have both force (how hard you correct) and direction (up, down, toward your body, into the grip). E-collars only have force (level of stimulation) and no direction unless you manipulate the collar receiver around the dog’s neck or body, which is cumbersome. This is why each correction must be understood by the dog in its proper context, so he understands exactly to what the correction applies.
An e-collar can also be used as negative reinforcement. In this method the collar is used to teach the dog concepts. The system generally is one where the dog learns to “shut off ’ the stimulation of the collar by performing a behavior. Just as we used to teach a dog to sit by pulling up in his choke chain and guiding his rear end on the ground in the sit position, and when he does it, the pressure from the choke chain is relieved, the e-collar performs a similar function when being used as negative reinforcement. The e-collar is set on a relatively low setting compared to when we use the collar for positive punishment. The dog learns the stimulation is turned o when the behavior is completed. I teach my dog to “go climb” on a place board, with negative reinforcement.
First I teach the dog to go to the place board to get some food, a few times to give him the idea. Then I set the collar on a low setting, and starting close to the place board, and using a leash to help guide the dog, I tap the continuous button on a low setting and guide the dog onto the place board with the leash. The tapping stops when the dog is on the place board, and I mark the behavior with a verbal marker “yes” and give him some food. This is using a combination of negative reinforcement and positive reinforcement. The stim which is largely ‘annoying” is shut off by performing the behavior, which the dog is pleased about (negative reinforcement) and the food is used as further positive reinforcement, for completing the correct action.
Now I can start moving further back from the place board. The stim is started and the command given, and the dog trots to the board and gets on, and the stim stops and I mark with a “yes” and go to him and give him food. Then I can continue moving further back, varying distance. When I want to change the object to which he is sent, I move closer again. I generalize the behavior to wire spools, couch cushions, open vehicle doors, or any other object. When I change the object, I start close again, use the e-stim and the dog shuts it off when he goes to the new object like before. He quickly learns to generalize the behavior. Teaching the “go out” in this way, if the dog refuses, I now have a means to make him go to it. If he refuses, the e-stim is used until he complies and then it shuts off after compliance. If I see non-compliance due to confusion I may put the leash back on and help guide the dog to the new object.
Once a dog understands heeling, for example, if the dog floats out of position, a similar “tap, tap, tap” of negative reinforcement can be used to get the dog to rush back to heel position, turning off the e-collar when he returns to position, followed by a reward from the handler of a ball or a tug for being in position. In controlled aggression training, dogs that fight against out commands and pressure from the handler in the form of leash and collar corrections, can often be taught to out with negative reinforcement on an e-collar with very little fighting. When the dog is on the grip, the e-stim begins with tapping the continuous button on the e-collar at a low level, and the handler commands “out.” As soon as the dog lets go, the e-stim is stopped and the decoy gives another grip in the guard position as a positive reinforcement. In this way the out command is “double teamed” with negative reinforcement and positive reinforcement simultaneously.
There are many trainers who are very skilled in using the e-collar. Seek out professionals who have a track record of using the e-collar to get high levels of performance, and at least take a seminar, before using the e-collar on any dog. Learn the system, so you understand what you are asking your dog to do. The e-collar is not a tool to start using blindly and without fully understanding how it works both functionally and behaviorally.
Fit your E-collar properly
One of the most difficult parts of the e-collar training is getting handlers to have a good t of their e-collar. The way an e-collar works, both contact points must make good contact with the skin in order to allow the stim to travel across the skin between the probes. The dog’s coat, especially a thick undercoat, can make contact difficult. As the dog works and moves in training, the collar can rotate, and you can lose contact. When exerting themselves, the dog’s neck will swell up, and often become too tight not allowing proper breathing. For this reason many of us have gone to a bungee style e-collar. The e-collar strap includes a bungee O-ring to allow for a snug fit, yet also allow for comfortable expansion of the dog’s neck during heavy exercise.
Remember, lack of proper fit leads to lack of contact, and when handlers see that the e-collar is not “working” they will sometimes assume the level is too low for the dog to feel, and thus start increasing the level. Then suddenly the e-collar seats on the skin, and the dog receives an over-correction. This results in the dog being incorrectly punished. We want to avoid this mistake at all costs. Rather than making incorrect assumptions about the dog’s hardness instead of the simpler likelihood that the collar is just not properly fitted.
The e-collar receiver must be moved around the neck, so the contact points do not cause compression sores during extended wear. Always examine your dog’s neck to ensure that the collar is not staying in the same spot for too long. Many people mistakenly say the dog is being “burned” by the stimulation. This is not the case. The amperage of these collars is not nearly high enough to cause electrical burns, but the sores caused by compression can happen without diligent observation by the handler. In wet weather, or high humidity, if the collar is tight, these compression sores can occur, so be diligent in your care for his skin.
Some dogs’ skin is sensitive not just to compression, but also to the metal composition of the contact points. All the e-collar companies make contact points of varying lengths to help penetrate the dense undercoat, and of varying metal alloys. Some dogs are allergic to the nickel plating, and a titanium or stainless steel contact point is preferred as more hypo-allergenic. There are also contact points that are designed to lessen the effects of compression sores with flatter tips. With some dogs you will need to experiment to find the best combination of collar and contact point, to get the most optimal fit so that you are using the least stimulation for the type of training you are doing.
This is often the next most challenging part of introducing the e-collar. Every dog feels the stimulation differently. If you take a room full of people and have them put the e-collar on their wrists and make the contact points flush with the skin, and go up from 0 to say 20 on the e-collar, some people will feel the stimulation (which feels like a tingle sensation) at a relatively low level, and some may not even feel it until the collar gets north of 10 or even 15. It has to do with the conduction properties of our individual skin. In my experience, whenever I do this experiment, everyone in the room is different in terms of what level they start to feel the stimulation. Dogs are no different. While e-collar companies attempt to design an optimal and efficient system that works on a wide range of dogs, in my experience every dog is going to start to feel stimulation at different levels. Even with solid contact, some dogs are naturally “harder” and some “softer” to electrical stimulation. You may find that a dog that is “hard” to leash and collar corrections will be softer to electrical stimulation and vice versa.
You will need to find working level for positive punishment, as well as for negative reinforcement training. The number you discover for each will be different across different brands of collars as well as dogs. A 10 on a Dogtra ARCTM is not the same as a 10 on an E-Collar technologies BossTM. If you use a Garmin Pro 500TM the stim levels go from 1-6 on the dial on the collar, with low-medium-high for each level, so you have somewhat fewer options for working levels with 18 choices. Further you must take into account the fact that adrenaline blocks pain receptors, so the more in drive your dog may be, the higher the working level. It is taken as a given that in obedience with little distraction the dog will generally have a lower working level, and in controlled aggression work, a higher level, as the adrenaline causes the dog to feel the stimulation less. When using the e-collar for negative reinforcement training, often my otherwise “hard” dogs are only on a level 4-7 on my E-Collar Technologies BossTM system.
As a handler and trainer, you must always be conscious of whether you are teaching new concepts (in a low distraction environment), training for fluency (adding some distractions as training becomes more complex), or generalizing the behavior. In each case the dog will likely require a different level of stimulation. The stimulation should never be causing stress to the point where the dog becomes more and more adrenalized, resulting in a vicious circle of increasing levels. This is usually a signal of conflict. The dog is not understanding something. Therefore it is incumbent on you as the trainer to adapt the environment to the dog’s level of learning (whether you are using the e-collar to teach as in negative reinforcement or you are using it to set limits as in positive punishment).
When finding a working level for positive punishment, you will be preferably on an open grass field away from objects of any kind. You will start low at zero and move up the dial, level by level, checking to see of the dog notices the stimulation. Positive punishment only re- quires a level of stimulation the dog wants to avoid. In training with negative reinforcement the level will be so low you may not even notice any discernible reaction from the dog.
It is an annoyance that is turned off by proper performance of the command we are teaching. Just like the beeping on your vehicle’s seatbelt system, dings over and over until you click your seatbelt on, the stimulation is just an annoyance. The dinging of your seatbelt system is not painful to you, but you do wish to turn it off, so you comply by putting on your seatbelt.
Beware of creating phobias when finding your levels in training. Imagine you are on a field with a big traffic cone, and you are searching for your working level, and properly starting low at zero and moving up the dial to see where the dog shows an inquisitive, mild reaction, to the stimulation. If the stimulation occurs near the object, the dog may make a classical association between the stimulation and the object near to where it occurred. If the dog then doesn’t want to approach the cone after that, you have created a phobia. The dog thinks the cone made the aversive stimulation. This is also why we introduce the e-collar along with leash corrections or guidance to help the dog understand the context with familiar leash guidance, and not introduce phobias.
Understand power and stimulation quality Power
In talking about electricity there are a few physics concepts you need to understand. The first three are: Voltage (measured in volts), Resistance (measured in ohms), and Current (measured in amps). Ohm’s law states that Voltage = Current x Resistance. As an example a “carpet shock” of static electricity has about 20,000 volts, but is merely an annoyance, because the current associated with a carpet shock is small and of short duration so the energy transfer is tiny. To understand the strength of electricity we also have to factor in the amount of available charge. Your household electricity is only about 110 volts, but has an unlimited supply coming to each socket, and an amperage around 15 or 20 amps so therefore it is much more dangerous than a static electricity charge that is dissipated in a fraction of a second. The actual power produced by electrical current is the product of volts and amps, or “watts” (Watts = volts x Amps). High voltage and low amperage can produce a lot of power, as in a carpet shock, but there is little energy transferred to your body. Total energy transferred is measured in Joules, Joules = watts x time. The longer the stimulation is applied the more energy is transferred. If that same carpet shock went on for a period of time, it could kill you. Don’t throw away your wool socks just yet though! Relatively low voltage that is a continuous stream like house current can kill you, especially if you remove the resistance by being wet when receiving a shock. Typical canine electronic collar current is measured in milliamps, thus the current is very low, and the voltage is pulsed in waves to reduce the total energy transfer, and thus is not physically damaging to the dog.
E-collars have two key variables which we trainers control, voltage and duration of the pulse waves. The batteries put out the current (Amperage). Some units have 1 amp batteries, and some have 2.5 amp batteries. The harder the dog, the more current you will need to get a reaction from the dog if you are using it as punishment. Note also that resistance plays a role, if the undercoat is thick, and the contact points don’t make good contact that increases resistance and lowers the energy transfer.
If the weather is dry and cold, versus humid and warm, all else equal, there is more resistance at the point of contact and less energy transfer.
The dial on the collar that controls the “level” controls the voltage. The duration is controlled by either setting the collar on “nick” which is a pre-timed fraction of a second duration of stimulation, or continuous, which is a continuous pulsing of the stimulation for a period up to a maximum of about 10 seconds. As the trainer, delivering more duration of the same level of stimulation can be the attention getter you need for positive punishment. Instead of a fraction of a second with the nick function you can tap the collar for a half-second or second. Most good collars have a fail-safe of shutting off after 10 seconds in continuous mode. The collar being charged up properly keeps the amperage fairly constant (drained batteries put out less amperage so you may notice that when your collar is about to go dead, the normal effect of the collar on your dog’s usual working level is no longer as effective). Therefore we are basically applying a voltage and duration to achieve the desired effect of an aversive stimulus (positive punishment) or using low level stimulation, or an annoyance the dog wants to turn off (negative reinforcement). The level of the “low-level” stimulation has to be bothersome enough that the dog wants to turn it off , so again we must choose an appropriate level of voltage that is annoying but not punishing.
Some units are made with two e-collar receivers on one strap, both controlled by the remote. The purpose for this configuration is to have 2 deliveries of stimulation simultaneously for relatively hard dogs. The dog receives two pulses of stimulation at the same time when a correction is delivered. Often if you double the receivers you can go lower on the voltage to keep from the big problem of level creep. Level creep is when the dog starts to get immune to a level of correction and the handler goes up a couple of levels to get compliance. The dog soon gets immune to this level. This small incremental increase each time simply acts as a systematic desensitization to higher and higher levels of stimulation. The proper way is to find a level that is aversive enough, and actually as the dog complies to avoid correction, go down in level of stimulation. If you need to make an impression, go up about 10-15% in level for a series of corrections, then dial it back when the dog shows respect for the command again. Don’t desensitize him to the corrections by nagging and going up in too small increments.
Some collars are out fitted with a “boost” function that increases the stimulation by a set factor (up a level 5 for example). Other collars can literally be programmed by the user so that every button is customized. The vibrate button could be programmed to be a 10 level boost for example. E-collars are like cell phones, many of them have features that the users don’t even know that have, so get familiar with your collar!
You will hear e-collar stimulation described as either sharp stimulation or blunt stimulation. This refers to the power wave form seen on an oscilloscope. Blunt stimulation is a “wide-pulse” shaped wave and causes a slower muscle contraction response. Sharp stimulation is “narrow pulse” shaped and causes a fast muscle contraction.
In my experience police dogs with a propensity to reactivity or handler aggression may aggress more to the sharp stimulation. Some dogs work better on the blunt stimulation and some work better on sharper stimulation. As a trainer I’m not peddling any particular brand, however just like any equipment you may have to try a few different models to find the best fit for your dog’s temperament. For years I used a Garmin TriTronics Pro 500TM until my current dog Raptor came along. Even at fairly low levels he was reactive to the stimulation when corrected. The blunt stimulation of the E-Collar Technologies BossTM completely removed that reactivity. However another one of the dogs in our training group was fighting through the blunt stimulation and so I gave him my Pro 500 and it worked like a charm for corrections on a fairly low level. The dog respected the sharper stimulation. You may need to switch up the brand of collar to get the best result. Before you buy, get with a professional and try different models. When I see whole departments order 5 collars all the same model for their dogs, without checking how the dogs react to particular models of varying amperage and stimulation quality, it shows me a lack of understanding of e-collar training variables.
Develop consistency, timing and understand canine temperament
I cannot stress enough that you must learn the techniques of integrating the e-collar into your training before you start working with the e-collar. Don’t go out and start pressing buttons. This should only be done with a seasoned professional guiding you. If your dog is al- ready trained with leash and collar you can learn how to give properly timed corrections by conditioning the e-collar as a replacement for the leash and collar corrections. At Tarheel Canine we refer to this as the “nick-pop” system we’ve been using since 1996. See my article (Bradshaw, G.W. “Basic E-Collar Training for the Police K9,” K9 Cop Magazine, March/April 2009) for an in-depth explanation of this method. You can move your dog from leash and collar to exclusively electronic collar quickly with very little stress on the dog.
If you are using it to teach new behaviors with negative reinforcement, the timing of when you begin the stim and when you stop is critical to the task being learned. Further to enhance the result of success, a reward is layered upon the negative reinforcement. This method has been patented in name recently, but it has been around for decades, and many of us have used it with success for many years. We may not use it exclusively to teach all behaviors yet it is very important to know how to use negative reinforcement in obedience and in controlled aggression work with e-collars to have a fully rounded education. E-collars remove some of the personal nature of correction and pressure, and as such when you are dealing with dogs of certain temperaments, e-collars can be the preferred method for teaching many behaviors, and/or delivering positive punishment.
Dogs with soft temperaments often learn better with electronics. The corrections are not personal (the dog is corrected by “the hand of God.”), and as such the dog can tolerate them better. Many handler aggressive dogs take the cue to be aggressive from the body posture of the handler about to deliver a physical leash correction, and the e-collar can often remove this cue, and the dog be corrected without risk of retaliation that may have been learned from previous bad training. Some dogs that are hard to physical leash corrections will react more sensitively to the different quality of an electronic correction.
It is also very important if you work with a seasoned e-collar trainer to understand how they are teaching you to mesh rewards in with your corrections, or with the negative reinforcement teaching process. Often people forget to reward their dogs when they move to a system of e-collar training because suddenly correction becomes more efficient, better timed, and more fluid.
If you are using the collar for positive punishment, remember that compulsion sets limits on behaviors, but rewards make behavior repeatable. Your goal should be to use the e-collar less and less over time until it is just there to allow you to intervene if needed, but you are always rewarding your dog for performing properly. Rewards can become more spread out, but they never go away. You don’t stop rewarding your detection dog for finding target odor, so you shouldn’t stop rewarding your dog in obedience for performing behaviors properly nor controlled aggression. If you are teaching with the e-collar using low level stimulation and negative reinforcement, you still must reward your dog on top of the negative reinforcement process, for correct responses. As you phase out the stimulation that induces the dog to do something, you must reward the dog for performing properly. Just removing unpleasant stimulation isn’t enough. It is the reward layered on top of that which makes the behaviors repeatable and pleasant for the dog, wanting to engage in them more and more.
The E-Collar can open up another world of training for you. Suddenly you can achieve the same corrections at a distance as you could close up with leash and collar. Corrections are timed perfectly and don’t depend on your strength or hand-eye coordination. You can physically remove your influence from the dog’s work, and become less overbearing. Soft dogs can perform more confidently. That is, if you learn the techniques and methods from expert trainers who use the e-collar on a daily basis for complex precision work. The five keys in this article should help you better understand electronic training, and how to make it successful.