Electronic Collar Training for the Schutzhund Dog--Part I
By Jim and Phyllis Dobbs and Alice Woodyard
The Electronic Training Collar
Is this the piece of training equipment that is too difficult for anyone but the pros to master? Abusively inhumane? Useful only on the super high drive dog? A sneaky little secret training ingredient that the public mustn't know about?
Far from being "inherently inhumane," hopelessly complex or "best-left-to-the-pro's," the electronic collar, when used correctly, is an extremely humane and effective tool for training any dog that is expected to perform commands off leash.
Proven training techniques developed at the Tri-Tronics Training Center in Marysville, California, show how the electronic collar enables the dog to make the transition from on leash to off leash work, from close to distance work.
The electronic collar allows for precisely timed corrections which produce a reliable and confident working dog. It does this by enabling the trainer to communicate with the dog in a way that is easy for the dog to understand and does not interrupt the flow of training.
Learning to use the electronic collar also trains the trainer. The electronic collar is not a shortcut to success, and learning its correct use discourages shortcut solutions. The bad effects of some shortcut attempts are magnified with collar usage.
This series of articles will take the Schutzhund trainer step by step through the process of applying proper techniques of electronic collar usage. By following these procedures, every trainer can maximize a working dog's potential for high spirited, stylish performances in all phases of Schutzhund work--tracking, obedience and protection.
Collar Training Theory
The purpose of our methods is to have a dog with "collar understanding." A dog with this understanding knows that its response to a known command turns off the electronic stimulation, and that its prompt response to a known command avoids the stimulation altogether.
You can apply this concept to all of the commands you will utilize in Schutzhund training. Or, you can utilize collar understanding only to reinforce a few commands.
This work is the foundation for the dog's future understanding of how to react properly to its collar when you really need it--such as when the dog is at a distance from you and/or is in a high drive situation. Having precisely timed, perfectly understood off-leash control is the pay-off for the time you invest in the foundation of collar understanding.
Teach the command first.
You must teach collar understanding to the dog for each command only after the dog has a basic understanding of the command itself. Do not overlook this sequence. If the dog does not really know what to do in a situation, you cannot expect it to know it any better because you use an electronic collar.
As a trainer, you must be able to determine whether the dog failed to respond because it did not know what it should have done, or because it thought it had a choice of not responding. The role of the collar is to address the second problem, not the first.
We have some methods we prefer for teaching commands, and will include some of these in this series of articles. However, in general, the effectiveness of your training in collar understanding does not depend on which method you have used to teach a command.
Just one word of caution--if the methods you use to teach your dog new things are harsh and severe, your dog's spirit and confidence will suffer, and this poor attitude will show up in all of its work whenever it is put into a training mode. This poor attitude won't be the fault of the electronic collar. Avoid harsh or severe teaching methods if you want a spirited, confident worker.
The "bilingual" dog.
Let's now assume that the dog has a basic understanding of what a command means. You now want to follow a carefully structured method of teaching the dog that it can turn off low level electrical stimulation itself--by performing the command you have given it.
Dogs don't automatically know this when presented with electrical stimulation, no matter how well they know their basic commands.
Try thinking of this part of your training process as teaching your dog to be "bilingual." It is "bilingual" because it understands corrections in "two languages"-- mechanical and electrical. The dog will be "bilingual" because it will know, in either case, how to stop the correction (by complying) and how to prevent it in the future (by complying quickly).
After a dog has good collar understanding of several commands, it will tend to generalize from its experience, and its collar understanding of additional commands will tend to come much more naturally for it.
Keeping the dog in behavioral balance.
The first commands we recommend to introduce your dog to collar understanding are selected from the basic obedience ones it already knows. The particular selection of commands is significant. They represent three distinct movements.
"Here" and "Heel" require the dog to come to or stay with the handler on command for success. "Sit" requires the dog to stay in one place on command for success. "Kennel" requires the dog to go away from the handler on command to achieve success.
Learning to perform each of these motions, on command, and thereby turn off electrical stimulation helps the dog develop a strategy for success.
Therefore, you should teach your dog to do each of these in order to turn off the collar, even if the dog is already very good at them. This will keep the dog in behavioral balance.
If you simply drill the dog on, say, "Here," with the collar (on the theory that this dog's "main problem" is failing to come quickly), you will end up with a dog that thinks that every time it feels the collar turn on it should respond by coming to the handler, regardless of the command. This sort of training can produce a controllable pet or companion, but does not lay the foundation for a working dog with proper collar understanding.
Lack of collar understanding can catch up with you later. For example, you might try to use the collar for "Out" in protection work. The dog without proper collar understanding will "Out" and then leave the helper entirely to return to you, simply because it thinks that this is what it is supposed to do whenever it feels electrical stimulation. At this stage, you will have a hard time convincing the dog otherwise.
Escape training--the first step.
"Escape training" is the first step we take in teaching the dog to be "bilingual." During escape training, the dog learns to turn off low level electrical stimulation ("escape" from it) by performing the command.
As with anything else you teach the dog, you introduce escape training step-by-step, progressing from a simple distraction-free situation to one that is full of distractions and excitement. Your goal will be to have a dog that has learned that it can control the stimulation by "escaping" from it.
The next step--let the dog win.
After it understands escape training, the dog is then ready to make the transition to understanding how to prevent the correction altogether through prompt compliance.
Here at the Training Center, we call this step "avoidance training." "Avoidance training" is a technical term used to refer to the fact that the dog has learned to avoid the correction entirely by prompt compliance. It has nothing to do with undesirable avoidance behavior on the protection field.
During this phase of the training in collar understanding, you can build speed and style into the dog's performance.
When to quit--progress toward a goal.
Keep the session for the dog short, and quit when you see the dog make definite progress (which is not necessarily all the progress you ever want to see!)
When the dog has clearly learned something, it has gained all the benefit that it will from that particular session, so quit at this point. You can start another session later in the day.
Fitting the collar on the dog.
To fit the collar on the dog, select contact points that will reach through the dog's undercoat so that they will be in contact with the dog's skin. The contact points will be on the underside of the dog's neck. Position the collar so that the external flexible antenna is on the left side of the dog's head.
Buckle the collar snugly on the dog. A snug fit ensures consistent contact which is essential for consistent training.
Finding the dog's sensitivity level.
After the collar is fitted on the dog, you will need to learn what level of intensity to use when you start training.
The dog's early escape training is done with low level stimulation. This means a level that is high enough to induce the dog to act in a distraction free environment, but not high enough to produce pain or fear.
Individual dogs have different sensitivity levels. Our discovery through experience with many dogs may come as a surprise to you. The sensitivity level of a dog for purposes of doing escape training does not depend on that dog's particular breed or on its courage and hardness, or on its level of desire to work.
To find your dog's sensitivity level start with the number 1 intensity plug. This is the lowest level. Allow the dog to move around naturally while not under any training command.
When the dog is relaxed and ignoring you and the collar, press and hold the button for the lowest level of stimulation. Observe the dog's expression for a reaction. You want to see it cock its ears, turn its head away or flinch.
This level will represent the level of electrical stimulation that will get the dog's attention with mild discomfort that the dog would like to turn off. If you do not see this reaction, change the plug in the collar to the next highest one, and try again with the transmitter "low" button. If the dog vocalizes, you have probably tried too high of an intensity level.
No benefit is gained by trying to teach the dog escape training with a level that is too high. Later, you may need a higher level to work the dog while it is in full drive. But do not introduce electricity to the dog at this level. With nothing distracting the dog, the stimulation will cause discomfort that will interfere with the dog's learning process.
Teaching Collar Understanding of "Here"
Teaching the dog to make the initial connection.
Start with the dog on a long line and allow it to move around naturally until it is 15-20 feet away and facing away from you. (Do not put it on any kind of stay.) When it is looking or walking away from you, press the low button on the control unit just before you give the command "Here."
Continue to hold the button down until the dog to turns towards you. Release the button the moment that the dog has turned and begun to move towards you.
If necessary, repeat the command to get the dog's attention, and help guide it with the long line and/or some "body English" (drop to one knee, back away from the dog, etc.).
Praise the dog when it begins to move towards you, and do not require that it do any kind of sit in front or return to heel at this stage of training.
If the dog runs past you.
Press the button again the moment it passes you, then immediately repeat your command, and encourage the dog back to you. Release the button when the dog is close enough to touch. Praise.
If the dog deviates while coming.
If the dog starts to come, but then decides to go somewhere else, immediately press the button. Repeat the "Here" command. Help the dog if necessary with body English. Release the button immediately when the dog heads toward you, and praise the dog.
Phase out the help.
As soon as you can, start to put the responsibility on the dog to figure out what it needs to do in order to turn off the stimulation.
Stop guiding the dog with the long line (although the dog should still wear the long line at this stage). Phase out the body English, and start to delay your praise from the time of the dog's first movement to you until the dog is halfway to you. Then delay the praise until the dog has almost reached you. Otherwise, with repetition the dog may start to rely on the praise as a crutch.
When the dog shows you by its willingness to comply that it understands that turning towards you is what shuts off the stimulation, start introducing mild distractions. (Keep the dog on a long line for now; you may still need it.)
As an initial distraction, allow the dog to investigate an interesting smell. Repeat the sequence described above--
Repeat the lessons on "Here" with distractions in at least four different locations over a period of several sessions, so that the dog can generalize from its experience.
When to use higher buttons.
If your dog is ready for work with distractions, and it fails to respond to the "Here" command, repeat the command and push the medium button. If it still does not respond, repeat the command and press the high buttons.
The general rule of thumb is this--after the dog has made the initial connection that it can turn off the stimulation by moving its body, if you find that you must repeat the command, you should increase the intensity level by using the next button up on the transmitter control.
If you find it necessary to use the high buttons very often, you should change to the next higher intensity plug.
All "rules of thumb" are modified by what you "read" in your own dog. If you see your dog becoming apprehensive, do not increase the level. Rather, give this dog more repetitions at low levels and more simple successes with lots of praise.
Dealing with anticipation.
At some point, usually within one or two sessions, your dog will begin to anticipate the sequence, and come even before it is called. Do not try to correct it for anticipating at this point.
This anticipation is positive. It demonstrates that the dog has developed comprehension of what it did that "worked." You should actually praise the learning dog for anticipation at this point in order to help it understand.
Introduce the avoidance training transition.
One of your objectives in every training session will be to give the dog the opportunity to make the avoidance training transition. The dog makes this transition by making a comparison and discovering that if it responds promptly, the electrical stimulation doesn't turn on at all.
Once your dog's initial response to the command is confident, introduce the avoidance training transition by giving the dog some "Here" commands with no electrical stimulation at all.
If, however, it fails to come on the first command, push the button and repeat the command "Here." The dog will quickly learn not to wait for a second command.
A Note About Timing
When you introduce escape training to the dog, it is important that the electrical stimulation not start after the dog has heard and is trying to respond to the command. If this happens, the dog will believe that trying to comply with the command leads to displeasure, instead of just the opposite. Therefore, during the escape training phase, concentrate on pressing the control unit button just before you give a command. Timing will become second nature to you after a little experience.
It will seem odd to you to use the collar to "correct" the dog even before you give the command, and especially if you know perfectly well that the dog is going to try to comply.
However, in escape training you are not "correcting" the dog. By using low level stimulation that the dog does not perceive as pain, you are teaching it how to control the unpleasant sensation through its own responses. These "escape trials" are an essential which you cannot skip, if future corrections are to be understood by the dog and not upset it while it is working.
In each session, you should follow up successful escape trials with some avoidance transitions, as described above. In this way, the dog will come to feel that it is in control of the stimulation, and its confidence will be enhanced.
Features of the Basic Trainer.
The procedures described for escape training assume that you are using an electronic collar with certain features. These features are as follows.
(1) Variable intensity--The electrical intensity is varied by plugging various intensity plugs into the dog's collar,
(2) Continuous stimulation--The handler has the ability to decide when to turn the electrical stimulation off by releasing the button(s) on the transmitter, and
(3) Selectable intensity at the control unit--Once an intensity plug has been inserted into the collar, there are different levels of stimulation within that intensity range which the handler selects using buttons on the control transmitter, without changing the plug that is in the collar.
All three of these features are available on the Tri-Tronics 100A Basic Trainer and the Tri-Tronics 500/LR series Basic/Field Trainers (described below). The 100A and the 500/LR series are the models that we recommend for all basic training procedures. They are the models we recommend for any trainer who plans to own only one collar.
The LR Correction Trainer.
The first two features, but not the third, are also available on collars such as the Tri-Tronics A1-70LR and A1-80LR Correction Trainers.
You can do basic escape training with these collars, but their disadvantage will appear when you seek to apply the dog's basic collar training in the working situation. These models do not allow you to increase or decrease the level of electrical stimulation when need arises without first catching the dog and making the intensity adjustment at its collar.
This interruption severely interferes with--usually destroys--the flow of your training effort. Therefore, models without selectable intensity at the control unit are not as useful for dogs--such as Schutzhund dogs--which are subject to widely varying levels of drive and excitement in their work.
The pre-set duration models for the advanced dog.
The Tri-Tronics model 300 Attention Getter produces very brief stimulation of preset durations. This type of stimulation is referred to as "momentary" stimulation by Tri-Tronics. The model 300 Attention Getter is a small unit designed to be inconspicuous, and has no external flex antenna.
The Tri-Tronics model 200 Field Trainer is similar to the model 300 in that it produces momentary stimulation. However, this unit is a full size, field-type unit, which also features a "reserve high" button to give the handler the option of high level continuous stimulation.
Both the Attention Getter and the Field Trainer offer selectable intensity at the control unit, although not with continuous stimulation. It is impossible to do effective escape training with these models. However, they both are excellent for reinforcing a quick response in the dog that already knows, through escape training, the commands that you plan to reinforce with your collar.
The type of higher level, but very brief, stimulation they produce is superior to continuous stimulation for eliciting a quick response without upsetting the dog. Momentary stimulation can help you produce the quickest, most spirited response that your dog can achieve.
The combination model for maximum flexibility.
The Model 500/LR and 500T/LR Basic/Field Trainers are combination units. They combine the features of the 100A Basic Trainer and the 200/LR Field Trainer by offering both continuous and momentary types of stimulation. The type of stimulation is selectable at the transmitter with a switch. The five variable intensity plugs work in either mode, a feature not otherwise available in any Tri-Tronics momentary type collar. The 500/LR Series also has selectable intensity at the transmitter.
The Model 500/LR and 500T/LR are the most complete and versatile remote trainers Tri-Tronics currently offers. They give the trainer the ability to use either mode as need be throughout a training session.
The difference between the 500/LR and the 500T/LR is a praise tone. With the 500T/LR, the dog can be conditioned to understand this tone as the same as praise, so you can signal him at a distance when his actions are correct.
Coming in Future Articles...
In Part II, we will describe how to build speed in the dog's recall after the foundation for it has been laid by following the procedures described in Part I. We will also describe how to capitalize on the dog's understanding of the escape trained "Here" command and improve its performance of the heel command. We will cover the introduction to the sit and the "kennel" ("go away from me") commands, and discuss answers to some common questions.
Future articles will cover procedures for other obedience commands such as the down, stand, send out, retrieve and retrieve combined with the brush jump and the wall. We also will discuss when and how to use the collar properly during protection work, including the "Out" and the blind search, and when to use the collar during tracking.
Dobbs Training Center