Using the Electronic Collar in Stockdog Training, Part I

"People have trained stockdogs for hundreds of years without an electronic collar."

"You'll ruin the dog."

"If a stockdog can't be handled without an electric collar, I'd rather not have that dog."

Typical reasons stockmen give not to use an electronic collar. Meanwhile, a well-known trainer of stockdogs with many years experience and a winner of numerous trials says, "I've seen lots of dog enhanced with the electronic collar. I find with an electronic collar I can train a stockdog in half the time it would take me without a collar."

Here at the Tri-Tronics Training Center in Marysville, California, we know why some experts are making the second statement with confidence, while the critics are still saying the first things. In this series of articles we'd like to share some of the methods we've developed over the years in training stockdogs with the electronic collar. Our program is based on our many years of experience with working dogs of various types and breeds, including stockdogs, bird dogs, retrievers and police dogs. We'd like to explain some of the do's and don'ts we've found to be true with collar work for any dog. We'll also guide the reader with the specially tailored methods we use for incorporating the electronic collar in training stockdogs.

First, let's cover some fundamentals. For starters and let's be frank about it if you can't train a dog very well, your training won't get any better using an electronic collar. Most of stockdog training is starting with a good dog and enhancing his natural interest in working stock. You're there to maintain some tactful control which the dog respects. If you're not doing well at reading your dog when he's on stock, or if your dog isn't showing much interest in stock, get some instruction for the first problem, and give the dog more confidence­building experience (or get a different dog) for the second problem. Don't get an electronic collar.

Also remember this: the collar does give you a very effective way to control a dog at a distance or in situations of high excitement, but don't overdo control (whether by using a collar or any other method) on a young dog. Match the amount of control to the pup's temperament. He could be a dog that's best off being allowed to work on his own and gain confidence before you come along and try to tell him what his moves should be.

Second, your dog really has to know a command, and know it well, before you can start enforcing it at a distance with an electronic collar. Adding distance makes everything very different to a dog, because at a distance he no longer feels influenced by your presence. This is why a dog that doesn't know his commands too well can still be worked up close by the force of your presence namely, body language and maybe a little intimidation from you. But don't mistake a dog that feels subdued when he's near the boss for one that can give a true trained response. A dog is capable of a true trained response when he really knows which physical movement on his part should follow each familiar word or whistle from his handler. So after you've covered the "three­action introduction" to the collar that we'll get into shortly, build distance gradually while always consistently enforcing the rules of the game for your dog.

Third, teach the dog how to turn the collar off by performing basic commands away from stock before working around stock with the collar. Use low level stimulation for these lessons; we'll tell you how in these articles. Remember, you are teaching the dog a mental skill (Obedience to a familiar command turns off that sensation on my neck); you are not forcing him to do something. Remember, any time you use the collar and the dog feels helpless to turn off the stimulation, you are just teaching the dog to dislike stock, because that's the only association he'll make from your use of the collar.

From the dog's point of view, the electronic collar won't be felt as a negative experience overall if you structure his training so that the dog always feels in control of the electrical sensation. (Dog thinks: "If I Down when I hear the Down command, I can turn off that sensation.")

In fact, he'll feel his collar training sessions as positive, because you'll be able to give him more freedom and not be physical or intimidating with him. Any corrections will be timed to come at the exact moment that the dog can learn the most from them by making an immediate association with a particular action of his own. Precise timing gives you less confusion in training and a more confident dog…and fewer wrecks.

The Tri­Tronics Remote Trainers

The procedures described in this article, and all our procedures for the beginning dog, are designed for use with an electronic collar with the following features:

  1. Variable intensity: This means that the electrical intensity is varied by plugging various intensity plugs into the dog's collar,
  2. Continuous stimulation: This means that the trainer has the ability to keep the electrical stimulation on until he releases the button(s) on the transmitter, and
  3. Selectable intensity at the transmitter. This means that once an intensity plug has been inserted into the collar, there are different levels of stimulation within that intensity range which the trainer 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 Tri­Tronics 100A Basic Trainer and the Model 500/LR and 500T/LR Trainers. These are the models that we recommend for all basic training procedures.

The first two features, but not the third, are also available on collars such as the Tri­Tronics A1­70LR and A1­80LR Correction Trainers. You can start your dog's basic training with these Correction Trainers, but their disadvantage will show up when you go 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 to match excitement without first catching the dog and making the intensity adjustment at the dog's collar a serious disadvantage! Also, the warning buzz on the A1-80 is very upsetting to some stock dogs.

Tri­Tronics also makes two models that produce only "momentary stimulus." They produce momentary stimulation of very brief preset durations (for example, the low button produces a burst only a 100th of a second long no matter how long you hold down the button). Momentary stimulation is better than continuous stimulation for getting a quick response from the dog that already understands the electronic collar. Momentary stimulation at low levels does not distract or upset the dog.

One of these momentary units, the Model 300 Attention Getter, is only 2/3 the size of the larger field units and has no external flex antenna. Its range is 200 yards, compared to the 3/4 mile or 1 mile-plus ranges of the larger units. The other momentary unit, the Tri­Tronics Model 200/LR Field Trainer, is a full size, field­type unit with a range of one mile­plus. This Field Trainer unit also has a "reserve high" button. It gives the trainer the option of high level continuous stimulation (used, for example, to stop a dog from chasing jack rabbits). The 200/LR is also available in a 2­dog and a 3­dog unit for working two or three dogs from a single transmitter.

Both the Attention Getter and the Field Trainer offer selectable intensity at the transmitter, but not continuous stimulation. It is impossible to do effective basic training with these models, because basic training requires continuous, low level stimulation which the dog shuts off by performing a command.

The Model 500/LR and 500T/LR are combination units. They combine the features of the 100A Basic Trainer and the 200/LR Field Trainer by offering both continuous and momentary modes. The mode is selectable at the transmitter with a switch. The five variable intensity plugs work in either mode, a feature not otherwise available in any momentary type collar. This feature is of special interest for stockdog work, as many stockdogs perceive the Model 300 and the Model 200/LR as too hot. 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 500/LR series models also give you long range (in excess of one mile) for the first time in a collar with 100A­type features. The difference between the 500/LR and the 500T/LR is a praise tone. On 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.

Getting Started

Keeping the dog in "behavioral balance" with the Three­Action Introduction.

Over the years, we have found that the best way to introduce the electronic collar to the working dog is to select three commands that the dog already knows and teach the dog to turn off electrical stimulation by obeying these simple commands. We intentionally pick three distinctly different motions of the dog: We pick a command that means the dog should come to the handler (such as "Here"), a command that means the dog should leave the handler (we like to use the dog's command to get in his truck or kennel), and a command that means the dog should stay in place ("Down," "Wait," "There" or similar). Run to you, go away from you, become stationary three distinctly different actions.

We teach the Three­Action Introduction because learning three different actions to turn off the collar helps the dog develop what we call the "strategy for success." The strategy for success is the idea that "prompt obedience to a known command turns off the electrical sensation."

A dog with this understanding can later easily learn to perform many different actions on command to turn off or avoid the electrical sensation. As the dog's training advances, and you find you need long­distance reinforcement of a particular command for that individual dog, you'll have a willing, unconfused student that can easily add the new command to his "electronic vocabulary."

Therefore, you should teach your dog to do each of these actions on command 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 (because you feel the dog's "main problem" is failing to come reliably), you will end up with a dog that thinks that every time he feels the collar turn on he should respond by coming to you, regardless of the command.

Lack of a well-rounded strategy for success can severely limit the effectiveness of the collar with that dog if later you decide, for example, that you need to use the collar for "Get Out." The dog that never learned a three-action strategy for success most likely will just come to your side when he feels the collar even though the command is not "Here" but "Get Out." He does this because he is out of behavioral balance. Your side is the only form of success he knows when he feels the collar.

Escape and avoidance training how we progress for each command.

"Escape training" is the first step we take in teaching the dog to turn off the collar. During escape training, the dog learns to control low level electrical stimulation ("escape" from it) by performing the command.

After he understands escape training, the dog is then ready to understand that he can prevent the collar sensation altogether through prompt compliance. We call this step "avoidance training." (The dog can "avoid" the stimulation entirely by anticipating the need to comply with every command.)

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.

Buckle the collar snugly on the dog. A snug fit ensures consistent contact, which you must have for consistent training. If you discover that the dog is not feeling stimulation every time you press the button, try tightening the collar strap one more notch. (Also, check your collar and transmitter with the test light.)

We recommend you position the collar so that the antenna is on the right side of the dog's neck. Then when the dog runs through the brush, the right­handed antenna threads will be tightened by the brush instead of loosened, and you won't lose your antenna.

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. You want a level that is high enough to cause the dog to act when it is not distracted, but not high enough to produce pain.

Individual dogs have different sensitivity levels. Most of the working stockdog breeds seem to work best on the lower level intensity plugs, even if they have a lot of desire when on stock. Don't make any assumptions about your dog's sensitivity level. You can only determine it by going up through the plugs one by one.

Start by putting the # 1 intensity plug in the collar. 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 (the bottom button). Observe the dog's expression for a reaction. You want to see him cock his ears back or quickly move his head to the side. 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 higher one, and try again with the transmitter "low" button. Go up through the plugs until you see the dog give the reaction we just described when the low button is pushed. If the dog vocalizes, you have probably tried too high of an intensity level.

Introducing "Here"

The dog must already know some command that means he must come to you. (Remember, the role of the collar is to reinforce, not to teach an unknown action.) We use the word "Here" in this article, but you should use whatever word your dog knows.

The basic sequence:

Start with the dog on a rope and allow him to move around naturally until he is 15­20 feet away and facing away from you. When he is looking away or walking away from you, press the low button on the transmitter just before you give the command.

Continue to hold the button down until the dog 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 him with the rope and/or some body language (drop to one knee, back away from the dog, etc.). Praise the dog for coming to you.

If the dog runs past you, press the button again the moment he passes you, then immediately repeat your command and turn and walk in the opposite direction from the dog. Release the button the moment the dog turns toward you.

If the dog starts to come, but then decides to go somewhere else, immediately press the button. Repeat the command. Help the dog if necessary with body language. Release the button immediately when the dog heads toward you, and praise the dog.

As soon as you can, start to put the responsibility on the dog to figure out what he needs to do in order to turn off the stimulation. Stop guiding the dog with the rope and phase out the body language. Take off the rope as soon as the dog shows you he understands.

Introduce distractions.

When the dog shows you by his willingness to come that he understands that turning towards you is what shuts off the stimulation, start introducing mild distractions (but not stock yet).

Repeat the procedure described above:

  1. low button down,
  2. immediately follow with command,
  3. release the button when the dog turns and starts to come,
  4. praise when the dog reaches you.

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 his experience.

When to use higher buttons.

If your dog has learned how to turn off electrical stimulation and fails to respond to the "Here" command, repeat the command and push the medium button. If he still does not respond, repeat the command and press the high buttons. Follow the above as a general rule of thumb whenever the dog does not respond to your first command (but only after he has learned how to "turn off" the stimulation by responding to your command without distractions). If you find it necessary to use the high buttons very often, you should change to the next higher intensity plug.

Introduce the avoidance transition.

As training progresses you want the dog to make the avoidance transition. The dog makes this transition by making a comparison and discovering that if he responds promptly, the electrical stimulation doesn't turn on at all. After a few sessions on a command, you should see the dog responding quicker and quicker, so that the amount of time you hold the button down is becoming very short. Finally, you'll phase out the stimulation entirely when you give the first command. If the dog fails to come on the first command, then push the button and repeat the command. The dog will quickly learn not to wait for a second command.

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 obey the command leads to displeasure, instead of just the opposite. Therefore, when you first begin using the collar, concentrate on pressing the transmitter button just before you give a command. Timing will become second nature to you after a little experience.

Training Schedule

Our rule of thumb for ending a session is when you see "progress towards a goal." Keep the collar session for the dog short, and quit when you see the dog make definite progress When the dog has learned something, he has gained all the benefit that he will from that session, so quit at this point. You can start another session later that day or the next day.

You should plan on spending about a week on the "Here" command, progressing to working "Here" around distractions, before moving on to the command to leave the handler. Make sure you work the dog in a variety of locations. After a week on "Here," plan to spend another week on the command to leave the handler, while including a refresher on "Here" in each session. Then move on to the stationary command.

Introducing "Kennel"

The second command in the Three-Action Introduction is "Load Up" or "Kennel." Before you begin this action with the collar, the dog needs to know some command that means he should leave your side and go somewhere else. We do not use any command the dog uses on stock for this action because we never introduce the dog to collar work around strong distractions or excitement.

Regardless of the type of dog training (retriever, bird dog, stock dog, whatever) we use the command the dog already knows that means get into the truck or kennel. This is the command we will reinforce with the collar and the dog will learn to shut off electrical stimulation by going away from us.

In this article we will use "Kennel" as the command. In the procedures which follow, we are having the dog enter a wire dog crate to shut off stimulation. If your dog has never seen a dog crate and you don't use them, you can use your command to get in the back of the truck instead. You should back the truck up to a chute or dock, or something similar, so the dog won't have to jump up to get into the truck. Having to jump up to enter the truck in the first session really can mess up some dogs' minds and slow down their learning of how to shut off the collar.

The set-up for teaching "Kennel."

Attach your dog to a rope and run it through the back of an open wire crate. Have someone else hold the rope. If no such helpful assistant is available, run the rope around something sturdy behind the crate and back to you so that you can pull the rope. (If you are training "Load Up" into your truck, attach the rope in some way so that you or your helper can pull the rope to guide the dog into the bed of the truck.)

Have the dog enter the crate on command a few times without using the collar. Once he is used to going in, use the rope to restrain the dog to make him remain in the crate for a few moments.

First give the dog a comparison.

Now leave just enough slack in the rope to allow the dog to get all the way outside of the crate. When the dog gets out on his own, press the button and command "Kennel." Guide him in and as soon as he enters release the button. Let him settle a bit and then praise (praise too soon will cause him to come right back out). If the dog does leave the open crate when you praise, press the button and command "Kennel." Guide the dog back into the crate with the rope if necessary.

"Kennel" from your side.

Now, with the dog about six feet in front of the crate, stand beside the dog and press the low button as you command "Kennel." Use the rope to guide the dog into the crate. As soon as he enters, release the button and praise. Have the dog stay there a few moments before calling him out.

When you call the dog, it's best to throw something that he likes to chase directly behind you as he leaves the crate. This just helps release the dog, without him worrying about performing a formal command to come to you. Whatever you do, do not use the collar to reinforce "Here" to get the dog out of the crate. One thing at a time. Use a second rope if necessary.

If the dog leaves the crate before you call him out, step toward him and use the collar again as you command the dog back into the crate.

Introduce distance.

When the dog is willingly entering the crate to turn the collar off, and does not need to be helped with the rope, begin increasing the distance between the dog and the crate.

From now on, release the button as soon as the dog starts away from your side toward the crate. Take the rope off when the dog doesn't need guidance from it any more. The dog's understanding of what he can do to turn the collar off is now his guide.

Completing the teaching of "Load Up" or "Kennel."

Do a few repetitions of the "Kennel" command for several training sessions in various locations. As the dog gets quicker and quicker, you'll naturally be holding the button down for a shorter and shorter time. Then, after a week of sessions in which the dog is responding very quickly and confidently, give him a chance to avoid the collar. You are laying the foundation for the dog's "strategy for success." The dog is learning that he can control the collar sensation by moving as directed on command.

Coming In The Next Article

In the next article we will explain how to train the stationary commands: "Down" and "Stand." We will also discuss use of the collar to enforce "Get Out!"

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