Electronic collars have been around the hunting dog world for about half a century. Indeed, a good many of today's e-collar users weren't born when the first crude electricity-delivering devices were strapped to the necks of disobedient dogs. And these gizmos were, in fact, crude; they had one level of juice that was hot enough to convert the toughest dog into an immediate believer. Contrary to modern e-collars, early models had little to do with training; they were "shock" collars meant to dispense behavior-discouraging lightning from a distance.
Sadly, there will always be a few heavy-handed people who use whatever they have available—clubs, whips, knotted check cords, fists, gun butts, even birdshot—to discipline dogs. In the wrong hands, all of these items can inflict levels of punishment (and lasting physical and psychological damage) worse than anything delivered by modern electronics.
On the flip side, quite a few of today's hunters employ e-collars as they're meant to be used—appropriately and judiciously as one element in a comprehensive training program. To be sure, remote electronics have come far, in both technical sophistication and broad acceptance, since the early days when a shock collar's sole purpose was to barbecue a dog at long range.
However, even with the user-friendly nature of current electronic training units, conscientious sportsmen new to the technology or otherwise inexperienced with e-collars often find their use daunting. With that in mind, here are some practical tips that might ease entry into the world of remote electronics.
Once you make the commitment to electronic training, buy the best e-collar you can afford from a well-known manufacturer offering proven products and customer service. It's true that top-shelf units with all the bells and whistles are expensive, but as a novice you won't need the refinements required by a professional trainer. At minimum, you should look for a sturdy, compact e-collar system with a range of momentary and continuous stimulation modes adjustable on the transmitter, low stimulation levels (the more the better) for training, waterproof receiver and long-lasting and easily replaceable or quickly rechargeable batteries. That said, because good e-collars are durable and can be used for years, you might opt for a model with more features than you need at the moment but that you can "grow into" with experience.
E-collar units come with instructional books and often videos. Both are included for a reason, so read/watch them prior to putting a collar on your dog. Taking that a step further, there are a fair number of books and even more videos available that are produced by professionals with lots of experience in e-collar use. (All hunting dog magazines provide extensive lists of training books and videos.) The videos in particular can be helpful in laying out a visual step-by-step e-collar training process. Going a level beyond secondhand instruction, if you have access to a professional trainer consider paying him or her for a couple of introductory, hands-on lessons in basic use of the e-collar.
Before you use an e-collar on your dog, try it—that is, stimulate it—on yourself. Put the electrodes on your forefinger and work up the scale of stimulation levels. You might not feel some of the lower levels, or you will barely feel them, but you'll certainly feel the more potent settings. By doing this you will gain a better understanding of what your dog will experience when you push a button, but keep in mind that its neck is much more sensitive than your finger.
As soon as your dog is large enough to comfortably wear an e-collar—for most collar sizes and most gun-dog breeds, that's about 4 months—condition it to its presence by putting the e-collar on your dog every time you take it for a casual run or otherwise do something fun with it. Some sportsmen let a pup wear a collar for short periods around the house, especially during play times. It won't be long before a dog forms a positive association with the e-collar and, as many dogs do, will become downright excited at the sight of it. As a note of caution, during this early period of acclimation leave your transmitter at home to short circuit an impulse to use the collar prematurely.
A fundamental principle of electronic training is that you don't use an e-collar to initially teach your dog commands. A collar is used to enforce or reinforce a command that a dog has already been taught. In other words, you obedience train a dog the traditional way. Once your dog understands what a command means and exactly what's expected when it hears it, you use the e-collar to reinforce immediate obedience.
Before you begin working with an e-collar, you must determine the appropriate level of stimulation to use on your dog. Start with the collar's lowest setting and work up until you see an indication that the dog feels the stimulation; this might be turning its head, an ear twitch or an involuntary muscle movement in its neck. The first setting that elicits a response, however mild, is your dog's base level of stimulation and the one you should normally use for training.
Each time you intend to use the e-collar make sure it's working before strapping it on a dog and heading to the field. The quickest way to verify stimulation is to do a low-setting check on your forefinger. A pre-use check might sound obvious, but too many hunters don't do it and at a critical moment find themselves with a dead unit in their hand.
After your hunting dog—as opposed to a field trial dog that cannot wear an e-collar in competition—understands collar protocol, whenever you're in the field it should wear the unit. You never know when you'll need it for normal correction. In addition, "hot-button" situations might arise when you want to stop a dog in its tracks. For example, you can't instantly impress upon a dog that porcupines and snakes are bad medicine, deer aren't to be chased and busy roads are dangerous if it isn't wearing its e-collar.
Your system's transmitter should have stimulation buttons that are difficult to depress accidentally. On top of that safety feature, be careful how you carry the unit. As a case in point, a few years ago a springer of mine was inadvertently zapped—I don't know precisely how—by a transmitter carried in my shirt pocket when it was coming to me with a woodcock in its mouth. It took a lot of sweet talk to get the 6-year-old veteran hunting again. Then a fortuitous cluster of woodcock reinvigorated the dog's juices, and all was well. It could've gone the other way.
Making the transition from straight, traditional-method training to building an e-collar into your program can be challenging for a newcomer to the technology. But by honestly evaluating your hunting needs, buying a solid and serviceable electronic system geared around those needs and then using your e-collar appropriately to sharpen your dog's learning curve, you'll find that remote training can help it develop a higher standard of performance and style.