One of the persistent misconceptions about e-collar or remote collar training is the idea that the tool exists solely for high-level corrections. The truth is quite the opposite: while a remote collar can be used at higher levels to stop unwanted behavior in dogs, a lot of remote collar work and e-collar training happens at much lower levels, where the dog can barely even register the sensation.
This level is what we call the dog’s working level.
The general working level of a dog can be used for a number of purposes that may vary from trainer to trainer and even dog to dog. Remote collars are reliable tools for training recall, perimeter, noncompliance, focus, directional cues, and much more outside just heavy-handed corrections.
The working level not only gives us a means to communicate with our dog for the aforementioned training purposes, but also is crucial for conditioning the dog to the stim feature. Working level also gives us a good general idea of our dog’s sensitivity to the stim and serves as a good baseline for determining appropriate correction levels for use a little later on.
The working level of the dog is essentially the lowest level at which the dog will be aware of the stim sensation. This sensation usually feels like a tickling or tapping sensation, at at this level is not uncomfortable in the slightest.
When starting out with remote collars and conditioning the e-collar, it’s important to find this level at the beginning of each training session. It’s normal for dogs to become increasingly or decreasingly0 aware of the sensation as we progress in training, so it’s good to regularly check the working level as time goes on. While in the conditioning phase, it’s best to check the working level for each session to make sure we avoid under- or overwhelming the dog.
What’s more, it’s also important to keep in mind that working level will fluctuate depending on the situation. You will find pretty quickly when first using remote collars that a distracted dog will need higher levels to notice the sensation at all, and especially excited dogs may jump several levels just based on how interesting their environment is to them.
Working Level Preparation
With clients who have not used a remote collar before, I will usually begin our first session by introducing the tools on the owners themselves.
With their consent, I have the client hold the remote collar receiver in the palm of their hand, and set the transmitter to zero. Then, I’ll jump the level two at a time; going from zero to two, from two to four, four to six, and so on. When the client notices the tingling sensation, we stop there.
I’ve found that most humans start to notice the sensation this way at around a level ten on the E-Collar Technologies remote collars, give or take a few levels.
The process I use to demonstrate working level with my clients is very similar to finding the level on dogs. We fit the collar to the dog’s neck with the receiver on the side of the dog’s neck. This side-of-the-neck placement is ideal because it sits over the belly of the larger muscles in the neck.
In the beginning, finding the working level is best done while the dog is relaxed and while there are not a lot of distractions. It’s critical to take your time while finding your dog’s working level, as you do not want to pick a level that is too high and may cause any sort of discomfort.
Make sure your remote collar is set to continuous mode, which will allow you to either tap the stim button for a brief stimulation, or hold it down for up to several seconds for a continuous stimulation. When holding down the button on continuous mode, the stimulation will continue until you release the button or until the remote collars auto-shutoff timer is reached.
On an E-Collar Technologies “Mini Educator” model, for instance, the continuous stimulation automatically times out after 10 seconds as a safety feature.
From there, we will set the transmitter to zero and go up two levels at a time until the dog gives any indication that they sense the stimulation. This may look like visible confusion, with the dog looking around as if they were physically touched or something brushed against them or landed on them. Some dogs will twitch their ear (especially the ear closer to the receiver) or lick their lips briefly.
It’s normal if your dog seems confused. While the working level does not cause actual discomfort, it is an odd new sensation, and so momentary confusion is totally normal. This confusion will dissipate quickly as we condition the collar to mean something.
On the other hand, some dogs will freeze and look off into space, or ignore the sensation completely. Some dogs are simply less sensitive, and this can make it a little difficult to identify the working level.
It’s safe to say, however, that in most remote collars if you go past about a level 20 while trying to find a dog’s working level, you’ve gone too far and need to double-check that the receiver is making appropriate contact. And if you see the muscle in the dog’s neck physically twitch (which is very clear in very short-coated dogs), it’s also safe to say that the dog can feel the stim and you should not go any higher.
How to Find the Working Level on a Remote Collar
The actual process to finding the working level is fairly simple, as long as you take your time.
- Make sure the remote collar is fitted well and making good contact with the dog’s skin. You may need to part the dog’s fur or switch out the contact points depending on coat length and density.
- Set the transmitter to zero.
- Go up one level at a time. Quickly tap and release the continuous button, and watch for any change in the dog’s behavior.
- If there is no reaction, go to level two and repeat. Repeat until you see the sign that your dog feels the sensation.
- If you go past around level twenty, double-check the contact points are making proper contact, and repeat from step one. It’s not impossible for a dog to have a high working level, but it’s good to take your time to make sure.
- If your dog looks visibly uncomfortable, you’ve gone too far. The reaction to working level should be very subtle, so dial back if your dog expresses any discomfort.
- If your dog freezes or is ignoring the stim, take your time and come back to the test until you start seeing indication that they feel it. Be patient with this process, and it will pay off.
Things to Keep in Mind
Every remote collar is going to be different. There are a handful of “gold standard” type remote collar brands such as E-Collar Technologies and Dogtra, and all have slightly different features and levels. Even within the same brands, different models are going to have different settings and stim power for different needs. Even if you have used remote collars in the past, it’s still good to take the time to familiarize yourself and your dog with any new tool.
Each dog is also going to have a different level, which is why it’s so important to check the working level for each dog that will be using one. I once had two board-and-trains in at the same time who were of a similar breed composition, sex, and general size; one had a very high working level at well over 20, while the other registered the stim at level 6 on the same brand and model.
Do not assume what your dog’s level will be. Always do the working level test when starting on a new remote collar, and let that prove what your dog’s level is.
Lastly, working level fluctuates. I find that many clients get too attached to the working level their dog uses in the quiet of their home, and are hesitant to reassess the appropriate level for when their dog is at the park playing or sniffing in the yard. I usually advise my clients to not lock their remote collar transmitter levels, and adjust as needed depending on the situation.
As you and your dog go on in your training, you may even need to increase the level in general, as your dog desensitizes slightly to the sensation through repetition. Perform the working level test every now and then, and make note of any changes for future use.
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