E-Collar Training vs. Clicker Training

Imagine you’re in elementary school again, playing the “warmer/colder” game – you know, the one where a friend chooses an item in the room and tells you “warmer” when you’re getting close, and “colder” when you are going the wrong way.

Now, imagine every time you get “warmer”, your friend gives you an M&M. It’s not a huge reward, but it’s motivating, tasty, and the game is fun in and of itself. You are more and more excited to try new directions and find your goal, and you never get frustrated even if it takes a while, because you’re having a good time and getting reinforced. When you finally get to the spot, your friend cheers and shares his bag of M&M’s with you. You both agree – we need to play this game more often!

Conversely, imagine that instead of a treat when you’re “warmer”, you get a small electric shock on your neck. It’s not hugely painful, but it stings and is not pleasant. Every time you move in the wrong direction, you get stung. Since you don’t know where you’re going, a lot of trial and error results in a lot of stings. You are tempted to just stand in one place and not move, but that’s not “warmer” either, and you will get stung. You work hard, but hesitant, knowing you must keep moving but that every move may be the wrong one. When you finally reach your goal, your friend whoops in excitement and gives you a high five. You are so relieved to be safe that your friend says, “See? He works for praise. He doesn’t need treats. Look how happy he is.”

And he starts the game again.

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Comments & Responses

11 Responses so far.

  1. Elaine Graham says:

    Well put!!!!! We all like a good reward, not a scolding.

  2. Suzanne Fox says:

    E-collar use (unless you’re trash breaking) without having already practiced and taught hand signals/commands prior to collar use is not condoned. This article presents a terrible analogy – you don’t “teach” with electricity, you enforce an already known command and get a correction if the dog refuses to obey – especially at a distance. You don’t correct with electricity if the dog is confused or does not know what you’re asking it to do. E-collar use can be a great addition to off-lead/distance work when used correctly.

  3. Kristel says:

    GREAT description of shaping! I love how simple you made it to understand and how well you conveyed how upbeat and fun training should be:-)

    Your description of electric collar training is incorrect though. Nobody would ever use an electric collar that way, and thank goodness. It would be horribly unfair.

  4. Hi ladies,

    I am approving your comments in the hopes that we can have a civil, “agree to disagree” discussion. I hope to show not all “cookie pushers” are extremists who want electronic collar trainers to jump off a bridge. 🙂 I will not change your mind about electronic collars, and you won’t change mine. But hopefully we can find a common ground in the fact that we are all dog lovers. I am not a “black and white” type person – I believe there are shades of grey to every issue, this being one of them.

    Kristel, thank you so much for the praise. I really appreciate that you didn’t come in here guns blazing.

    To both of you: I do apologize if you feel I misrepresented training with an electronic collar. I can’t agree, however, that no one uses it this way. I am relieved that neither of you do! But many trainers do. There is a popular trainer in my area who puts collars on 8 week old puppies. Not to mention the pet owners who buy one at a petstore and don’t know how to use it.

    Is this the fault of the tool? No. Can the tool be dangerous? Yes. Can other tools, including those thought to be “humane” and “force-free” be dangerous if used incorrectly as well? Of course.

    My problem with electronic collars is that, in my personal experience, the trainers and practitioners who use them as you are describing – only for proofing an already strong behavior with off-leash distance work – are few and far between. They ARE out there, and I apologize that my analogy didn’t cover that fact. Again, in my experience in my area, I see so many dogs who are damaged emotionally by use of a collar. And electric fences, and bark collars, which I know are not quite the same thing.

    As to the point that dogs are only given a shock when they already know the behavior – well I would say, if they knew the behavior, and it was worth it to them to do it, why wouldn’t they? In my training, if a dog disobeys, we stop and reevaluate the criteria and whether we increased it to fast, or there is something else going on (dog is tired, dog is sore, dog is frustrated). A happy, engaged dog (whether you are using treats or play or whatever) has no reason to disobey. But this is probably where we will have to agree to disagree – it’s just a different philosophy.

    Here’s what it comes down to for me. And I am not trying to change your beliefs, just attempting to explain mine. Everything that a pet dog owner needs or wants their dog to do, can be accomplished without the use of pain. And when it comes to aggression and fear issues, veterinary behaviorists see the worst of the worst on a daily basis, and again accomplish rehab without using pain. I will grant you that very precise, high level distance work in dog-sports has not yet been proven to be able to be done without aversives – however, it could be argued that it is more the culture of the sport than the ability of the training methods. It used to be thought that no one could title in obedience without aversives, and that was proven wrong. I know several people are making huge strides in pain-free Schutzhund and gun dog.

    (Sorry, I tend to be long winded!) So, anyhow … when everything my clients wish to accomplish can be done without force or pain, and since using force or pain can cause such huge problems when done incorrectly, I cannot recommend the use of electronic collars. But I do not demonize you for finding that they work for you. I sincerely hope that you and your dogs continue to have a great relationship and have fun training together.

    I hope that I have shown that even those of us “on the other side” are not always militant extremists who think you are all horrible dog abusers. And if I may ask, what brought you to my blog? I am a small, one-woman company with not much readership. I don’t often get comments, and I certainly don’t get electronic collar people looking for me! 🙂

    • Kristel says:

      Great response, and no guns from me:-) I’m about 99% cookie-pusher myself. I have encountered some dogs that need a ‘tap on the shoulder’ in some situations, but it doesn’t negate the value of a positive learning experience. I am glad we have evolved and that dogs enjoy training.

      It’s awful that you have seen such misuse of this tool. Putting an e-collar on an 8-week old puppy is inexcusable. Used correctly, this collar is less about punishment and more about conveying information, especially at a distance. Pain should not be a part of it. I have found them to be an invaluable tool (on very low settings) both with deaf dogs and with dogs with structural problems who can’t deal with any type of leash pressure. It’s a great tool to have in the box- if used properly.

      It is also easy to misuse, and I don’t believe anybody should use one if they don’t have the education to do so. If it hurts the dog, you’re doing it wrong. I think it’s important to remember that.

      • Kristel says:

        Sorry…forgot to answer your questions at the end! A friend posted the link to your blog on Facebook, that’s how I found you. She and I both work with service dogs. I use a combination of lure-reward and clicker training. Aversives are only very judiciously applied, and only with certain dogs for very specific reasons.

        As a PS: I totally agree with you; I REALLY hate electric fences too:-)

    • Me says:

      This is awesome and so apt. If you’re training well, and the dog doesn’t have a medical issue in the way (heat or cold counts), the dog will comply because it’s worth it.

      “As to the point that dogs are only given a shock when they already know the behavior – well I would say, if they knew the behavior, and it was worth it to them to do it, why wouldn’t they? In my training, if a dog disobeys, we stop and reevaluate the criteria and whether we increased it to fast, or there is something else going on (dog is tired, dog is sore, dog is frustrated). A happy, engaged dog (whether you are using treats or play or whatever) has no reason to disobey.”

  5. Dianne says:

    Here is a statement from the anthrozoologist John Bradshaw that provides an excellent summary:
    “There is no doubt that both positive punishment and negative reinforcement, if performed skillfully, can be highly effective in the very short term – provided that we put any ethical considerations to one side and ignore any long-term damage to the dog-human relationship.”
    As a trainer who uses mostly reward-based learning, I feel confident that if I make a mistake, it only results in the dog getting rewarded for a behavior that I accidentally marked, instead of the behavior I intended to mark. I can’t be sure that I will never, ever make a mistake; yet, for a trainer that uses aversives, that is exactly the kind of bar he/she must set for him/herself, or the dog may suffer in unintended ways. There have been controlled laboratory studies done with “expert” trainers where that very thing has happened. Now, imagine a basic obedience class where a trainer using mainly +P/-R tries to pass on these skills to new dog owners. EEK! There are trainers here in my city who sell the shock collar, show the owner how to press the button, do one well-timed correction as a demonstration, and send dog and human on their way. They don’t teach an alternate behavior the dog can do, they don’t show the owner responsible use. It’s reprehensible.

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