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Weaning Off E-Stim: Tap, Tell or Help

by Robin MacFarlane

"When can I stop using the remote collar?"

One of things we need to understand when training with a remote collar is how and when to begin weaning back on its use. Our goal is to enhance reliability in our dogs training, not to create a dependency on the tool.

However, before we get concerned with weaning off of the collar (and too many people start with that mindset and hurry the process, leaving holes in their training), we first need to make sure our dogs thoroughly understand the stimulation and how to respond to it.

This means that step one is collar conditioning and teaching our dogs exactly how to respond to e-collar pressure. This is what we'll call the Tap, Tell & Help phase.

In this early part of the process we simultaneously add e-stim to our obedience command and helping the dog respond properly. There should be no allowance for letting the dog guess how to respond at this early phase. We teach the dog that the weird sensation goes away when you do the desired behavior. We are immediately helping the dog through use of a leash, long line, luring, modeling, or other cues that assist the dog in attaining the right answer quickly.

We need to make sure we assist our dogs with how to properly respond to each and every command we have intention down the road of using the e-collar to enforce disobedience. This teaching phase enables the dog to have a confident and positive response to e-collar stimulation, and to any given command it may be applied to.

Once the dog shows an understanding of how to respond to commands when e-stim is added we move into a proofing phase where we Tap & Tell and begin to expect the dog to respond without the help and assistance. We wean back on the leash pressure, luring, modeling etc., and allow our dog to demonstrate they are generalizing their response around various distractions and situations. At any point the dog show confusion, we add some help back in to assist the dog in the problem solving.

Let me re-emphasise our goal is never to allow our dog to struggle with significant confusion while under e-collar pressure. Stimulation can speed up or tighten performance; it can prompt behavior in a dog that is distracted, but it will never solve confusion in the dog's mind. We have to become proficient at reading the body language of the dog to know when we are seeing the stress of confusion, and this is typically in the early introductory phases or as we up levels of difficulty.

Once we see that a dog is having a fairly consistent response (I generally shoot for at least an 80% correct response ratio), we can begin to wean back on our addition of the e-stim to the commands. Now it becomes a Tell only, with no tap, by issuing the verbal command and only following up with e-stim if the dog demonstrates a refusal.

At this stage, the dog is performing well with the addition of the e-collar, so I begin to switch and issue some commands stim free. If the dog responds properly I make sure to offer plenty of praise and reinforcement. Essentially the dog can begin to think he is so fast he beat the stimulation and avoided it entirely.

Sometimes the stimulation is added in with the command, sometimes not. This is the beginning of weaning off the e-collar use. It is a gradual transition to less and less use of the collar rather than a cold turkey discontinuation. Gradually the ratio of commands with stimulation to commands without stimulation decreases until I get to the point where I am only using the e-collar if needed for prompting the dog due to distraction or refusal.

Hopefully that makes some sense the way I've described. Most people run into problems by using the collar too little in the beginning and not create a confident response in the dog. Or they wean off cold turkey rather than playing with a gradual ration of weaning back, which keeps the dog working at a much more optimal performance level.
-- Robin

Robin MacFarlane is a professional dog trainer and owner of Thatís My Dog in Dubuque, Iowa. Her best-selling dog training DVDs, JUST RIGHT and JUST RIGHT 2 have helped thousands of dog owners teach their dogs basic obedience and fix problem behaviors through a system of training that you can easily work into your daily routine.
  • Robin writes for Gun Dog Supply on our E-collars Dog Training blog
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