Introduction To Remote Training

By Jim & Phyllis Dobbs and Alice Woodyard

At the Tri-Tronics Training Center we are frequently asked about using the electronic collar for the competition obedience dog. Is it useful? Is it appropriate? What exercises would it help? How does the trainer avoid mistakes? And, since it is basically a corrective tool, how do you use it and still make sure you keep the "up" and happy attitude that's so important in a winning obedience dog?

There are many ways to use the electronic collar in a training program, and the one we'll present in these articles is hardly the "only one," of course. It's also not static. Like all dog trainers, we're constantly adding and improving things. However, one thing doesn't change. Our program has always been based on the use of very low level stimulation. A low-level program gives the dog gentle comparisons, and teaches it that it is in control of the collar. We've found over the years that this approach makes it possible to take advantage of the powerful benefits of remote training collars (consistency, perfect timing and impersonality), while not sacrificing the dog's good attitude or enthusiasm for training.

In fact, the remote trainer helps maintain a dog's happy attitude because corrections given with it can be perfectly timed. It is therefore much easier for the dog to learn, and the time needed for developing reliability is greatly reduced. A dog associates perfectly-timed corrections with its own actions -- rather than thinking the trainer "got me." Its attitude stays confident because it also believes that it can avoid corrections through its own actions.

What's the Difference Between a Remote Trainer and a "Shock Collar"?

There can be a lot of misunderstanding about the use of electronic collars, based on their history and images from the old "shock collar" days, and the way collars were used by some trainers in the field dog sports. But comparing a remote trainer to a shock collar is like comparing apples and oranges. A remote trainer and a shock collar are both "electronic collars," but they are quite different in the way they function and in their intended use. Therefore, this first article will be a quick overview of the history of electronic collars. Our goal is to help clear up misunderstanding about the functional design of the equipment and its application in today's progressive training techniques.

The History of Electronic Collars

Electronic training collars have come a long way since the early devices of the 1950's. These "shock collars" were designed to break dogs of unwanted behaviors such as chasing deer or livestock, and they were used to force dogs to come in when hunters wanted to go home and the dogs didn't. When a dog wearing one of these collars chased the wrong thing or refused to come when called, "lightning struck."

The collars were so effective at delivering powerful remote punishment that trainers began exploring how the collars could be used to simplify other lessons. Unfortunately, the electronic collars of that time were too strong to be used very effectively to reinforce trained responses. Most dogs that had been jolted too often lost spirit and became afraid to work for fear of doing something wrong, or they reacted to corrections with panic and lost the clear mind needed for learning.

It became clear that different electronic collars were needed before they could be used in a positive manner to motivate desired responses. Tri-Tronics launched a major research effort to determine how both electrical and sound stimulation could be used humanely to motivate correct behavior in dogs rather than just as a tool for punishment when dogs acted undesirably.

Understanding that dogs are individuals with different temperaments and sensitivities, Tri-Tronics developed a new generation of remote training collars that can be used to deliver very low levels of electrical stimulation. These modern collars can be adjusted to suit each individual dog's sensitivity level, giving the trainer the opportunity to create what the dog perceives as mild discomfort rather than a shock. (The type of electrical stimulation they deliver is similar to the mild stimulation produced by the medical devices that are worn by people to distract them from chronic pain.)

These modern electronic collars gave trainers the ability to make it easier for dogs to learn by enabling the trainer to make perfectly timed corrections that were mild yet motivating. The new, adjustable intensity collars greatly increased the number of training situations in which the electronic collar could be used.

At the same time, the new generation of adjustable collars made it possible to use powerful training systems which were based on "escape" and "avoidance" principles rather than on punishment principles. To utilize the escape and avoidance method for training dogs, it was essential to have low-level electrical stimulation available while training the dog to turn off the collar in response to a command or cue.

A Step-By-Step System

The low-level stimulation method of dog training is a step-by-step system. This system starts by teaching the dog to understand the basic commands you plan to use. Then, utilizing the principle of escape training, the dog is taught to turn off low-level electrical stimulation by performing commands it already knows. Through repetition, the dog becomes quick at performing commands, because it learns that, not only can it turn off stimulation by performing, but it can beat it altogether when it performs quickly.

Dogs introduced to the remote trainer this way feel that they can control mild stimulation by their own performance. They do not see control as being "forced" to do something by their trainers. Rather, they see it as something they want to do. They come to see "beating the correction" as sort of a game. When a dog has this attitude toward electrical stimulation, the number of situations in which stimulation can be used to guide the dog's choices becomes very great.

Basic Principles for Remote Training:

When you introduce remote training to a dog using the low-level system, there are several principles to remember.

  1. Train to develop willingness to obey. Use a technique that relies primarily on the avoidance training technique rather than on punishment.
  2. Make training enjoyable for the dog. After putting the collar on the dog, start off with a play session before beginning any collar work. Then keep collar lessons short, and include plenty of praise and play throughout the session. Quit when you see some progress, and don't ask for more progress in the same session. This helps the dog come to believe in itself. Don't "grind on" your dog.
  3. Teach the command first. The dog should have a basic understanding of a command before you use a remote trainer for reinforcement.
  4. Guide the dog while its a beginner. Teach the dog how to respond to stimulation correctly before you use the collar in an exercise. Even though the dog knows the meaning of a command, it will not immediately understand what to do to turn off stimulation. Give the dog physical or verbal guidance during this stage so that it can easily make the connection as to "what works."
  5. Select the correct intensity level. When you begin training with the remote trainer, tailor the strength of electrical stimulation to match your individual dog's physical sensitivity. (If the level is too high, the dog may lose the clear mind it needs to be able to "turn off" the collar.) The proper level for beginning training is just enough to give the dog a comparison. It is the setting which causes the dog to move its head as if from a flea bite, often with a quizzical expression on its face. If the dog vocalizes, the setting is probably too high. If your dog doesn't react correctly to stimulation, don't assume that the level is too low. The dog may not be refusing to obey -- it just may not know how to react to turn off the collar. It is better to give a dog more repetitions at turning off the collar while you guide it into compliance (see No. 4) than it is to increase stimulation during early lessons.
  6. Start with the Three-Action Introduction. To properly prepare a dog to understand electrical stimulation in training, it is best to teach it that it can turn off the collar by performing three different motions -- Come, Go, and Stop/Remain Stationary. This keeps the dog in balance. It is good preparation because most commands you will reinforce with the remote trainer are extensions of one of these actions.
  7. Give the dog a comparison -- simplify right away. The dog will learn more quickly when it finds out what does work, not just what doesn't work. Right after correcting the dog with the remote trainer, try to simplify the task to the degree that the dog can't help but perform correctly in its next repetition. Then increase the degree of difficulty again. Using an "immediate comparison" technique is far more effective than letting the dog get in trouble several times in a row before you simplify. Remember, a bewildered dog is a stressed dog, and a stressed dog is an unhappy dog.
  8. Don't create a "collarwise" dog. The role of the collar is to help create good habits and it can't do this if the dog's not wearing it! The dog should be so used to wearing the collar that it doesn't think about whether the collar's on or off. It just accepts wearing it as a part of training--training which it always views as fun. Training with the collar sometimes on and sometimes off will teach the dog to be collarwise. Then it will behave differently depending on whether or not it's wearing the collar. When this happens, you can lose much of the benefit of the time you invested in training.

The dog should continue to wear the collar during training until you have observed that it has developed permanence of habit, and you no longer need to press the button. This includes having the collar on the dog when you first start taking it to fun matches, so that you can make a correction if you need to. It's not unlikely, in a match environment, that the dog will regress a little, and make mistakes that it seemed to have gotten past.

Coming in Our Next Article

Our next article will be a "nuts and bolts" discussion of how to introduce your dog to the remote trainer.

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Marysville, CA 95901
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