The E-Collar Revolution

Too many hunters have reservations about using electronic collars to train their waterfowl retrievers, but modern collars are the shortest path to a topnotch hunting dog.

Professional trainer Jerry Simmons demonstrates E-collar technique with the author's "puppy-in-training," Tinker. Photo by Mike Marsh.

Like most waterfowl hunters, I love watching a good retriever in action. But after training my first Labrador retriever manually and experiencing the same frustrations training the second, Santana, I turned to Jerry Simmons, a professional trainer in North Carolina. I no longer had the fortitude to train using manual methods and knew I needed an electronic collar.

"Does your dog know the 'sit' command?" Simmons asked.

Of course he did. I gave the command. Simmons and I bantered five minutes, until Santana became distracted. As his head lifted at another dog's barking, Simmons pointed his finger and I commanded, "sit." Simmons pressed a momentary button on his transmitter to activate the E-collar he had placed on Santana.

The dog sat, and sat, and sat. Every time he became distracted, the voice command was repeated and the E-collar activated.

"You've trained well," Simmons said. "Most young dogs sit less than a minute without E-collar reinforcement."

Simmons has trained 2,000 hunting dogs. He said electronics are the quickest way to first-class retrievers.

"The E-collar can make a good dog great and a great dog a champion," he said. "A retriever has only so much lifespan. With an E-collar, you pack two years of manual training into six months and get two extra seasons with a finished retriever."

While I was fortunate to have a pro's guidance, there are other ways to learn to use E-collars. E-collar manufacturers produce training videos for their products, and books are also available.

My dogs have now worn many collars, from lightweight, short-distance hunting models like the Tri-Tronics Sport Basic to the Pro 200. Each year, many improvements were made. Batteries last longer, antennae are shorter, transmitters and collars become lighter and more compact. Beepers and lights have been added. While E-collars may seem complicated, they are simple to use.

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But first, an amateur needs an understanding of how E-collars work. Tim Duncan, new technology engineer at Tri-Tronics Inc., said as with any other high-tech electronics, E-collars are constantly evolving.

"It's important to select the right collar," Duncan said. "A good collar has at least two buttons to provide momentary and continuous stimulation. It also needs a lot of settings to vary the intensity."

Duncan said Tri-Tronics' Pro-100 and Flyway Special E-collars are the most popular with waterfowl hunters. The Pro-100 has two continuous buttons and one momentary button; the Flyway Special has two momentary and one continuous.

"Less expensive models like the Classic 70 have fewer options and shorter ranges, but they have smaller and lighter transmitters for carrying," he said. "As with any other electronic technology, buy the best collar you can afford, but without going overboard. The right E-collar choice depends on use."

Most E-collars have rechargeable batteries for the receiver and transmitter. But some compact field transmitters rely on alkaline batteries. Dependable batteries are key to reliable performance.

"Rechargeable E-collar batteries typically last four years," Duncan said. "E-collars are also durable. We drop E-collars on concrete to test them. They have to be shock-resistant and watertight."

Alice Woodyard of Ronan, Mont., is on Tri-Tronics' field staff. She has trained many retrievers and owns six Labs. She recently completed a video for the Sport Junior E-collar.

"I've helped many amateurs train retrievers," Woodyard said. "For the hunter who trains his own dog, having an E-collar with selectable intensities is the most important thing. All dogs are different and react to different intensities of stimulation and even the same dog can become mentally different during the day or even during the same training session."

Among professionals, comparing an E-collar to an automobile is almost universal. The comparison simplifies how E-collars work in training. Woodyard said buttons on the E-collar are like the gas pedals and brake pedals of a car, but the car must be run before it is driven.

"The dog must understand what you want to begin with," she said. "You teach 'sit' with reward training. Once he knows the word 'sit,' it's still not a command because he doesn't think he has to do it. Then, using an E-collar, you give him a momentary, low-intensity stimulation and an upward tug on the leash to make him sit. As you walk and release him repeatedly, he learns that when you say sit, it's not a choice."

While the sit command is the most basic, it is also essential. "Sit" also means "stay," although many amateurs emphasize the "sit" command with the other word, with E-collar reinforcement, "stay" is redundant.

However, an extension of "sit," is a requirement for many waterfowl hunting situations. This is the "place" command, which some handlers also command, "up." It is not a command normally used for hunt test or field trial training.

"I use 'place,'" Woodyard said. "To teach it, I use a 2.5-foot x 2.5-foot piece of plywood raised on a 2-inch x 4-inch lumber frame. It's better than a piece of carpet because dogs don't see obj

ects as we see objects. Elevating the dog is important."

The dog is walked onto the platform and given the "sit" command. When he steps off, a continuous, low stimulation is used as the dog is returned to his "place" and the voice command given. The transmitter button is released, telling the dog he is in a secure place.

"By the time we are in the field, we are no longer tied to the platform," she said. "I can put him on a tree stand in flooded timber, or put him on the bank, away from my blind. After each retrieve, I return him to his place."

Continuous stimulation is used in training "place" and other instances when momentary stimulation is inadequate for reinforcement, such as when a dog is chasing something. The dog's senses are in overdrive, so it doesn't respond to the tiny electronic "tap on the shoulder."

"When a dog is chasing something, he is in maximum drive," Woodyard said. "You tap the momentary button repeatedly and it does no good. The continuous button will stop the dog."

The sit command, reinforced with E-collar stimulation and a whistle command, is the basis of all blind retrieve work. The dog sits, or treads water, facing you as it waits for directional commands through your body language and hand signals.

But even sit-whistle commands can be completely replaced by a transmitter button. For example, when Santana was sent to retrieve a wounded brant swimming across a coastal sound, the wind chop was so loud he could not hear whistle commands and he lost track of the bird in the waves. But he knew to turn and look back for visual cues when his E-collar was activated,

I've also used E-collar stimulation without audible commands near big concentrations of jittery waterfowl that would have been startled by loud whistles or voices.

These instances may seem extreme, but every waterfowler will discover very practical uses for which there is no substitute for E-collar training. But "training" should not be confused with "testing." At my first Simmons session, I asked when the E-collar could come off during hunts.

"Anytime you don't activate the E-collar when giving a command, you're testing the dog, offering the chance to refuse," Simmons said. "Testing is for field trials and hunt tests, where you are required to run your dog without any collar to demonstrate the effectiveness of training." But why would you test a dog while you're hunting by removing his E-collar? It's there when you need it, and you might jeopardize your dog's welfare if you can't stop him from sniffing a cottonmouth or breaking through ice chasing a crippled goose. You wouldn't consider driving a car without a steering wheel or brake pedal. Why would you ever test-drive your dog without his E-collar?

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