Please Don’t Hate Me! I’m a Reformed E-Collar User

I eventually realized I'd been too lazy to train my dog the right way -- through positive reinforcement.

dogedit  |  Sep 9th 2013

I realize this is a touchy subject, which is why I’m not going to justify my past behavior or get all preachy on you. I’m just going to tell you my story. But first, you need to know a little history about me and my dog.

When I adopted Charlie off Craigslist, I was her third owner within her short four months of life. She was born into a dog-hoarding situation and was later adopted by a family that couldn’t afford to take care of her. She was underfed and needed a lot of training when she came into my life. While I have been a lifelong dog owner, Charlie is my first “city dog.” All my previous dogs have been “country dogs” who were allowed to roam free in the huge fields and forests behind our house. They never wandered off and seemed to just know the limits of our property. We only used a leash when they went to the vet’s office. Bottom line: I had never formally trained a dog before.

It took Charlie a long time to realize that she was staying with me and that our apartment was not a temporary home. I spent almost every waking hour tending to her enormous exercise demands. She was a high-energy dog and I was a low-energy person; we didn’t mesh well in the beginning. Slowly I changed my habits and adapted my life to suit her needs. I read every dog training book available at the library and watched Dog Whisperer episodes with fervor.

I wanted to do everything right, but inevitably I rushed things. Having been used to dogs who would walk alongside me without a leash, I desperately wanted to be able to take Charlie hiking off-leash. And even though I knew it was too soon to trust her off-leash and that I hadn’t put the proper work into her training yet, I allowed her to be off-leash for short hikes, typically when her playgroup dogs were around, since she tended to stay close to them. But when it was time to get back in the car at the end of our hike, she would stubbornly stand in the middle of the parking lot giving me this look that said, “I’m not done playing so I’m not coming with you.” Admittedly, I was embarrassed about not being able to control my dog.

Instead of dealing with the fact that I had no idea what I was doing and that I was being a complete idiot, I allowed myself to be persuaded by another dog owner in our playgroup to purchase an e-collar. Several people in the group used them and were completely convinced with how well they worked. It seemed too good to be true, but I purchased the e-collar anyway.

It had nine settings that increased with intensity as the numbers got higher. I tested it on my palm up to number three and decided that would be the highest I’d ever go with Charlie. The tingling sensation was similar to when you bump your funny bone in your elbow; enough to be uncomfortable but not enough to hurt. In addition to the shock setting, the collar had a “beep” button. The first week that Charlie wore the e-collar, I was too afraid to use the buttons. I figured I’d just let her get used to the slight weight of it and continue working on our voice commands. Then we had another confrontation in the parking lot at the end of a hike where she wouldn’t get in the car, and the other dog owners showed me how to use the e-collar for the first time.

At first nothing happened; she didn’t respond to my button pushing. The dog owners laughed at me and said the setting was too low and to turn it up a notch. I did. When Charlie let out a yelp and came running toward me, I felt horrible for having caused her pain and I hated myself for pushing that button. But it worked; she had jumped in the car.

Over the next few months I only shocked her a couple more times and then used the beep function exclusively. I just couldn’t stand shocking her when she responded just as well to the beep. But in the back of my mind I knew that the beep instilled fear in her and that fear was the only thing keeping her obedient. Eventually I stopped using the e-collar altogether. I felt like a total failure for having used it in the first place and came to the realization that I’d just been too lazy to train her the right way — through positive reinforcement.

I also began realizing all the dangers of allowing a dog to be off-leash, even if they respond favorably to voice commands. The wooded locations where we hiked were filled with unseen dangers, which could cause extreme injuries and even death. On one hike I came across a barbed-wire fence hidden by overgrown weeds, which Charlie could easily have gotten tangled in if she’d been running off-leash. As we ventured into more remote locations, guide books warned of wolves, bear and coyotes; I wasn’t going to take chances having my dog come face-to-face with wild animals.

Sometimes our hikes took us near bluffs and white-water rapids, and I cringed at the thought of her falling over the edge if she were unleashed. I also read stories relating how off-leash dogs affect people who are fearful of dogs and that some leashed dogs don’t like to be approached by off-leash dogs. I realized how selfish and disrespectful I’d been toward people by allowing my dog to be off-leash in the past. I had never put myself in their shoes.

As soon as I decided to keep Charlie on-leash at all times, a wonderful thing happened: I was no longer anxious during our walks! I didn’t need to worry about someone yelling at me for having my dog off-leash, and I didn’t have to stress about Charlie getting hurt. For once, our walks were peaceful and predictable. Charlie knew what was expected of her, and my new, self-assured (and relaxed) body language let Charlie know that I was in control. She responds to leash walks beautifully and now we walk and hike like a team.

I only wish I could go back in time and never have used the e-collar. So many beautiful photos taken of Charlie during that time are unusable to me now for fear that someone will begrudge me for the horrible device strapped to her neck. When I look at those photos, all I see is that e-collar.

It’s never easy to admit being wrong or to have caused my dog pain. I’ll always feel regret over learning this tough lesson, but there’s no way to go back in time and change what has been done. I just hope my story will make you pause and think about whether using an e-collar is really a choice when there are positive methods proven to work, if you’ll only commit to taking the time to do it right.

Read more by Heather Burt:

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