The Myth of Low-Level Stim E-collar Training
Lately, I’ve been noticing that the training industry has gotten e-collar happy. I’ve been seeing a big influx of dogs that were started on e-collars. Their owners come to Nitro K-9 for a variety of reasons. Many dogs are fine off leash, but end up leash reactive. Others have become so desensitized to the e-collar that it stops working, and whatever obedience they have has gone to hell in a handbasket. Still others end up anxious messes, always fearing e-collar corrections.
I want to be very clear: I am pro e-collar. I use them; I recommend them. However, my view is that they should not be introduced until after obedience has been taught and is solid on leash. The way I use that is that I overlay e-collars onto established obedience to get dogs off leash and able to work at a distance.
And I always recommend using them under proper guidance. No one without e-collar experience should be strapping one on a dog and going to town. But the problem goes deeper than that, because not all e-collar training is created equal. I deal with the fallout when people go to popular e-collar franchises, or they watch popular YouTube e-collar trainers. And what these have in common is that they are using “low-level stim” e-collar training. In this article, I’m going to talk about what that is, and why it’s not good training.
First, what is low-level or low-stim e-collar training?
In the old days, e-collars basically had one setting—fry the dog. Modern e-collars, on the other hand, are a marvel of technology. A good one will come with a vibrate or buzz function, as well as a wide range of stim levels. In practical terms, this means that you can tailor the use and stim to the specific dog. That’s a good thing.
Low-stim training is a natural outcome of the ability to dial up or down the settings and to work the dog at lower, less “punishing” levels. It’s essentially the idea of using the discomfort from the e-collar to get the behaviors you want.
It’s really that simple.
Sometimes it will be a quick stim with the command. Other times, people will use negative reinforcement (basically, hold the stim down until the dog gets it).
That they use the “lowest setting the dog responds to” shouldn’t fool you. That’s what most people who use an e-collar do.
Myth #1: Low-stim e-collar training isn’t really aversive.
There’s nothing new about low stim training. It pops up under various names and different brands. But while early trainers were more honest about the fact that it relied on discomfort, newer marketing is far far more disingenuous. For instance, you’ll hear people say things like:
“It’s just like a tens unit.”
“I can’t even feel the dog’s working level.”
“It’s not painful.”
“It’s like a fly buzzing around their neck.”
Here’s the problem. First, the DOG can feel it. Because otherwise, it wouldn’t work. Second, do you really want to build a relationship with your dog based on an annoying sensation?
In preparation for the article, I spent a lot of time looking at videos of low-stim e-collar training. What I noticed as an overwhelming trend was that how trainers are describing what is happening is not consistent with the dog’s actual responses. For instance, some dogs display what the trainers are calling a fast, excited recall. But when you look at the dog, you realize that the reason the dog is returning so fast is because the handler is holding down the stim button. Is that fast because the dog is happy? Or is that fast because the dog understands that speed will turn off the pressure?
In one video, a trainer is explaining how she uses the e-collar to “reward” the dog paying attention to her. It sounds great, and to inexperienced eyes, the dog might seem very engaged. But if you look a little more closely, it is it is obvious that she is lighting up the dog.
I mean, LIGHTING UP. Over and over.
And what was even worse is that she wasn’t providing any guidance. No commands. No words, even—other than a “yes” marker when the dog made eye contact. As far as the dog was concerned, she was just getting stimmed.
I’m here to tell you that low-stim e-collar training is inherently aversive, and anyone who says differently is lying to you. An e-collar works in two basic ways. You can either have the stim high enough that it effects an immediate change when you press it quickly, or you can hold the stim button down until the dog registers it and changes the behavior. To keep it low stim means that people need to hold that button down a lot.
Not aversive? You be the judge.
Myth #2: Using low-stim e-collar training is no different than using a training collar and a leash.
Many low-stim trainers start dogs off on e-collars instead of teaching obedience through leash and a training collar. (I use prong collars.) They will argue that e-collar pressure is no different than leash pressure, or that an e-collar correction is no different than a prong correction. However, based on my experience, this is simply not correct. I have never once met a dog whose general demeanor was improved by the application of an e-collar stim, unlike a prong collar. (See my article Why I Use Prong Collars on Every Dog for more details.)
Here’s why: Dogs are attuned to nips and communication around the neck; they are used to physical scruffing and corrections from other dogs. A prong collar is very natural in that way. A skilled hander can communicate many things intuitively in a way that an e-collar can’t, at least not at foundational levels. A big part of this is good, appropriate leash work. (Many low-stim trainers seem to have terrible leash skills.)
In contrast, a stim is a stim. It may be at a lower level, or a higher one—but it lacks nuance. In addition, dogs have no frame of reference for the sensation of an e-collar; there’s no analogue to it in their world. You can see this when dogs are introduced to the e-collar. Many times, they will start looking around them, completely unsure of where this strange new feeling is coming from. Now, it’s not to say that dogs can’t learn what an e-collar means—they do–but it’s not instinctive. And no matter what, the sensation is always going to be startling to some degree. There’s a reason that many of the low-stim trained dogs out there appear to be on edge a lot of the time.
There are many who will disagree with me on this. But I will put my clients’ dogs up against theirs any day of the week.
Myth #3: Low stim is never high stim
To be fair, people don’t actually say this, but they certainly leave people with that impression. To really understand this, we need to talk first about how the e-collar is conditioned and then how it’s used.
How I and other more “traditional” e-collar users condition the e-collar is no different than how the low-stim people do it. You find the working level by dialing up from the lowest level until the dog shows a response. This response is generally something quite subtle, like an ear flick. (It should also be noted that a lot of the time, the indications are so subtle that people miss them entirely. So they keep dialing up and up, because they think it’s “not working.”)
Dogs are highly variable; some will have a very low working level while others will be higher. But you also have to keep in mind that a working level in your driveway without any distractions is not going to be the same working level as when your dog starts bolting after a cat.
This is a big problem with low-stim training; it blurs the line between not being aversive or anything more than a minor annoyance and what is straight up punishment. This can be very confusing to the dog.
Let me give you an example. There is a popular YouTube trainer who has a very specific protocol. The first step is to condition the e-collar with the dog on a long line. You wait until the dog is wandering off, then recall and stim. The dog moves to the handler, and then is fed a treat. The next step is to take the dog on a walk and dial up the e-collar stim for normal conditions. You see, he is aware that what works in a no-distraction environment will not work when there’s a lot more going on.
So, is this low-level stim? Or not? You can’t have it both ways.
Practically speaking, what this translates to is a dog that can become desensitized to the stim entirely. I see this a lot. Their owners keep having to dial up (or continually hold down the stim) to get the most basic behaviors. Often, the dogs also become very disconnected from their owners. No surprise there—owner stims for attention (and that’s “good”), then dials up to stop the dog from chasing a cat (“bad”). The entire relationship is based on punishment.
Where I differ is that I view an e-collar correction as a punishment; I’m not in denial about it. This is why we start all work on leash first. By the time the dog gets to an e-collar, they know the commands—which in turn means that they have an easier time understanding what that weird e-collar sensation means. In addition, when you overlay e-collar work on top of obedience, you can make sure they always get a warning first. This leads to a completely different kind of relationship, one that’s based on fairness and absolute clarity.
Myth #4: Food and toys make low-stim training “positive” and “motivational”
Sometimes it seems to be that the so-called positive trainers have infiltrated the rest of the training world, with the never-ending focus on trying to be “positive” and “motivational.” It’s really just vending machine training: You insert stimulus and get out behavior. Where is the bond? Where is the dog that WANTS to be next to the handler?
You all know by now that I’m not a fan of using food and toys in teaching foundational obedience. One of the things that’s notable in all the ecollar videos I watched (and is consistent with what clients tell me) is the overwhelming use of food. And it’s not just about using food—it’s using food in conjunction with the stim.
Let’s break this down and think about it logically. On the one hand, you’re using discomfort or pain to teach a dog a behavior, whether that’s a recall, paying attention, or a command. Then you reward the dog for performing that behavior with a piece of food.
I can’t even wrap my head around how disconnected this is.
If the entire foundation of your training is based on getting zapped by the e-collar, it doesn’t matter how many treats you give to the dog afterward. It’s being dishonest about how you’re getting behaviors. Giving treats is nothing more than a salve for one’s conscience.
Myth 5: You can get really good obedience with low stim training
In all good training, there is a push-pull between the dog and the handler, which helps dictate where the dog is and how they move. We accomplish this partially through the use of pressure. There are many types of pressure. Leash pressure is one. Spatial pressure (using your body) is another. Or social pressure (wanting to be with you). And yes, e-collar pressure is a type of pressure too.
Pressure is not an inherently bad thing. Good trainers know when to use what. When done properly, it’s quite literally a push and pull, a flow of energy. (You can take a look at any of my videos to see how this works.) But it’s all contingent on the dog wanting to be next to you and wanting to engage. Again, this is why I don’t use food or toys in foundational obedience.
Let me ask you: if the foundation of your dog’s training is based on being zapped to pay attention to you, do you think your dog really wants to be next to you? How can you get a really solid heel where the dog is working in tandem with you? Why will your dog want to autosit right next to you? And will your dog look you straight in the eye with joy as you’re working?
Responsible e-collar training
If you’re looking for a trainer, find one that teaches obedience on leash first, and then overlays it with an e-collar if you need one. (Not all dogs do.)
Don’t be fooled by companies that promise off-leash obedience in two or three “easy” weeks. They’re shocking your dog into compliance.
If you’re taking the do-it-yourself approach, teach everything on leash first and THEN find a trainer who can help you overlay the ecollar. You may think this is unnecessary, but the fallout from e-collars is very real. They are extremely powerful tools that, when misused, can and do create a lot of problems.
And most of all, analyze everything. Question what you’re told (by everyone, including me). If something works, ask yourself WHY. It is very easy to mask corrections and an overreliance on the stim when a person simply pushes a button to deliver a correction. That’s why it’s important to look at the dog, not just how good their obedience seems. For instance, is the dog refusing to take food from the “hand that zaps”? Are their ears and necks twitching repeatedly or do they keep shaking their heads? Does the dog seem to move too fast? There are a lot of little clues to see how people actually are using e-collars—and what they’re lying about.