Not too long ago, we were hiking a mixed-use trail when a mountain biker crossed our path, cattle dog at his back wheel. Because we’re a little obsessed with collars, we checked to see what gear this little adventure pup was sporting - and were surprised to see a battery pack strapped to his neck.
More and more, dog owners are turning to e-collars to keep their pups safe in the great outdoors. On one hand, it’s a brilliant solution - a hands-free device to summon your furry pal when voice command fails. On the other, we had concerns: is it safe? Is it humane? We did a little digging, and think you’ll agree: the e-collar deserves a second look.
An e-collar - short for electronic collar - looks like a standard strap collar, but with the addition of a small black transmitter box. A hand-held remote is wired to send signals to the dogs neck from his owner’s hand, anywhere from a few hundred meters to a mile apart, depending on the model.
The e-collar sits high and snug on the neck, while our Lifetime Collar lies looser and above a dog’s shoulder blades. We’ve found it’s easy and comfortable for your pup to wear both at the same time - the e-collar for recall and corrections in the wild, plus their Atlas Pet Co. collar for visibility and identification.
The (undeserved) bad rap.
“Wait, do you mean… a shock collar?!”
Well, kind of. When e-collars first gained popularity with certain trainers, several decades ago, they certainly had the potential to make a dog uncomfortable - the units had few settings, and sometimes even the lowest level was too strong. While the jury is out on whether these early e-collars could injure a dog, they certainly could make a pup uncomfortable and scared.
Modern e-collars are a whole different story, though. These days, collars come with up to 100 settings, with most dogs being receptive to the very gentlest - think levels 3-8 out of those 100. Higher settings are not encouraged for frequent use, and manufacturers suggest employing them only in emergency situations.
But is it painful, then? Definitely not, according to every expert we consulted. In fact, several trainers we spoke to encourage owners to try the device out on their own skin before ever using it on their pups. “They’re always surprised by what it actually feels like,” says trainer Sean O’Shea.
Another widespread myth about the e-collar is that it can cause burns to a dog’s skin. Some pet owners have reported hair loss and red marks where the receiver box sits on the dog’s neck, leading them to believe that their pup has been burnt.
“Actually, they don’t generate heat,” says O’Shea of the devices. “What you’ve seen are pressure sores from the e-collar contact points pushing on the skin in the same place for too long.” Sean suggests rotating the placement of the contact points each time the dog wears the collar to avoid any chafing.
So what DOES an e-collar feel like?
I was curious myself and eager to see what they were like, so we purchased one and put it to the test on myself before strapping it to Atlas. At the appropriate gentle setting, the e-collar feels like a muscle stimulation. If you’ve ever used a TENS device for physical therapy, you’ll understand the sensation - it’s a light, attention-getting twitch. Trainers suggest you start at the lowest setting and work up incrementally until the feeling registers with your dog, keeping in mind that the even gentlest level might be the sweet spot for your pup. Typically this is around a 4 to 8 level out of 100.
It bears keeping in mind, though: some e-collars, used inappropriately and at high settings, could cause unnecessary discomfort for your dog. As trainer Rick Bohning aptly notes, “a leash can also be used properly as a training tool and improperly to cause extreme pain.” The key lies in finding the setting that works best for your dog.
So why would you use an e-collar? Well, consider how strong your dog’s voice recall is. On the trail. When an animal darts out across the trail. Treacherously close to a cliff.
The truth is, although we do our best to raise well-trained, attentive pups, animal instinct will always be a powerful distraction. We’ve all had a moment when we couldn’t redirect our dogs from a compelling smell or defuse an irresistible prey drive. When you’re out adventuring in the wild, where you can’t control the variables or the environment, the stakes are much higher.
E-collars actually have an advantage over voice command: the corrective stimuli is always the same, which can make training much easier. “The information provided to them is clear and consistent,” says trainer Robin Macfarlane. “Who can ask for more than that when you’re learning something new?” This clarity means that dogs often catch on to what you’re asking of them much faster.
That’s why many outdoorsy dog owners are turning to e-collars. Biking with your pup is fantastic, but the leash situation can prove dangerous to all involved unless you’re an expert at maneuvering. If you’re more of a hiker, an e-collar can bring you peace of mind when letting your dog off-leash in unfamiliar areas. When a bear or a cliff could be just around the bend, having push-button control of your pup could a lifesaver - literally.
The best part of being outside with your dog is the sense of freedom they get while exploring nature. Using an e-collar, according to professional trainer Nadine Francis, is “that fine balance between obedience and independence.”
Do your research.
Purchase your e-collar from a reputable, well-reviewed manufacturer. When it comes to your dog’s health and safety, it’s worth it to spend a little more time and money for peace of mind. Don’t gamble on a knock-off e-collar that may not have been designed to be gentle or humane.
Invest in features.
The more settings an e-collar has, the gentler the increments between each. This can be invaluable when finding the right level of stimulation for your pup. We also like devices that include beep or vibrate functions. Often, once a dog is conditioned to react to collar stimuli, a sound or vibration can have the same corrective effect and be used in place of the stronger buzz.
Call in professional help.
Any training program benefits hugely from some guidance from a pro. While there are countless videos on Youtube that give suggestions, with something like this I think it’s best to bring in a pro. We recommend you and your pup take an initial session to familiarize yourself with the device, and get a better idea of when, how, and why you’ll be using it.
Wait for your pup to mature.
Most manufacturers recommend holding off on e-collar training until a dog is at least 6 months old. The period before is too delicate, developmentally, to introduce corrective stimuli.
Trainers suggest you put the collar on your pup and not use the transmitter at all for the first few weeks. Even better - reward him with treats and play while he’s wearing it. Dogs can create negative associations with unfamiliar objects, particularly if they’re causing confusing sensations. Making sure your pup is happy and comfortable when he is wearing the collar will make it much more effective in the long run.
Share your stories.
Do you use an e-collar for adventures outside with your pup? We’d love to hear all about it. Let us know your thoughts on our Facebook page, or share a photo of your dog rocking a stylish e-collar plus Lifetime Collar combo by tagging us on Instagram @atlaspetcompany.