How to Undo Bad Shock Collar Training

how to undo bad e-collar training

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A lot of dog owners come in hesitant to make use of a quality remote collar because of poor experiences with generic shock collars, bark collars, and underground fences. While not universally unhelpful, the fact of the matter is that shock collars and perimeter collars can do more harm than good when it comes to training, particularly because of the way they’re used.

And while both the generic shock collar and the underground fence employ generally the same functionality as the high-quality remote collars we use at Lugaru K9 Training, at the end of the day they can both cause some issues when finally moving into the more reliable and humane methods of conditioning and utilizing a quality e-collar.

One of these issues is that the e-collar is going to look an awful lot like the tools the dog has previously been on. This brings with it undue negative associations, as both of these tools tend to operate at only high and inconsistent levels.

However, e-collar or remote collar training is still absolutely realistic for most dogs with previous experiences with similar (but lower quality) tools.

I’ve trained many dogs who have underground fences, bark collars, and shock collars. Not only is it perfectly realistic to integrate proper e-collar training to dogs with these experiences, but it can actually help undo negative associations and even replace all the other tools entirely.

Dogs with past experience with generic shock collar, bark collar, or underground fence use will need a few additional steps in the conditioning process, however. The approach is largely the same, but it’s very helpful to take these extra steps before you start your actual e-collar training.

Understandably, some dogs that have had experience with other e-collar adjacent tools will be suspicious about e-collar training based on associations with similar-looking things. Be patient and keep in mind that, while an e-collar is not inherently aversive, shock collars, bark collars, and perimeter collars typically are.

There is no reason your dog would like them, and it’s normal to carry some of that association onto the new tool early on.

Take the appropriate steps, however, and work your dog through the conditioning process with patience and compassion, and even dogs with previous experience on aversive-only tools can thrive with a proper e-collar.

E-Collar Training for Dogs with Bark Collars

I condition dogs to the e-collar who have been on bark collars all the time. Like other types of tools, remarkably little changes aside from some early conditioning to create new associations and some considerations for long-term maintenance.

Bark collars are, in essence, a type of e-collar that senses barking and issues an indicator noise to the dog followed by a series of stims increasing in level as the dog continues to bark.

I am not a huge fan of them because I find that most bark collars are low-quality (though there are versions from reputable brands like E-Collar Tech) and lack the nuance and accuracy of a human handler. Of course, that’s kind of the point, but I’ve found that bark reduction through hands-on training is even more effective.

But I digress.

Most dogs with experience on a bark collar will immediately associate the collar with “quiet time.” This means that, during the conditioning process, it’s helpful to take some extra time to help the dog understand the new meaning of the stim (that it comes from the handler, not the collar) and that low levels are normal.

When doing e-collar training with a dog who has been on a bark collar previously, it’s important to only use a type of collar that has at least 100 levels, like you might find from Dogtra or E-Collar Technologies. This is because remote collars with fewer levels will have higher jumps between levels, and will be too much for reconditioning a dog to the stim.

a brown short coated dog sitting on brown rock near body of water

Aside from that, the conditioning process is largely the same, but I like to take it a little slower and give extra treats or rewards to break the expectation the dog has that higher levels are coming. At this stage, repetition at low levels is the name of the game.

I usually add an extra week to the conditioning process for dogs with experience with bark collars to help them get used to the idea that most of the time, the stim will be very, very subtle.

Additionally, most dogs on bark collars have already become, to some degree, “collar smart,” meaning they have learned to select their behaviors around whether or not the collar is on.

This often carries over into the e-collar training, because the dog has so much practice selecting behaviors based on the collar being present or not.

I usually advise clients experiencing this to have their dog wear the e-collar for longer periods of time: put it on first thing in the morning, reposition it to avoid discomfort throughout the day, and take it off at night. Unless you are also targeting unwanted barking in the crate (and are at a point in the conditioning process where doing so is helpful), the dog can also take the collar off at naptime, crate time, etc.

When having your dog wear the remote collar for longer chunks of time, periodically check their neck for any signs of irritation and take a break if needed. If your dog’s skin becomes irritated, remove or reposition the collar and apply something to moisturize or soothe the area. I have used the Skin Soother Healing Balm from Natural Dog Company for many client dogs and my own with wonderful results on irritation, hot spots, and dry areas.

Having your dog wear the e-collar more frequently regardless of whether or not it is in use will, short-term, prevent your dog from being able to push boundaries based on the collar not being present, and long-term help reinforce new standards before the collar is eased off. As your dog becomes more reliable, you can be more selective about when the collar is employed.

You can read more about easing your dog off the remote collar in my article, When Can I Stop Using My Dog’s Remote Collar?

E-Collar Training for Dogs with Shock Collars

I’ve talked about generic shock collars at length before in my article, What is the Difference Between Shock Collars and eCollars?

In essence, the generic shock collar and the higher-quality remote collar (or e-collar) are adjacent tools to one another. They both have the same basic functionality, but one is executed poorly and haphazardly, causing it to become an inconsistent and aversive-only tool.

Fixing the association with a shock collar when moving into proper e-collar training starts with finding the most subtle sensation possible. As much as we can, we want to move the dog away from the idea that this tool is going to blast them with very uncomfortable levels.

I recommend you add one week of pre-training to your conditioning process.

For dogs who have been on shock collars, I recommend you find their working level, and take some extra time with it. If you think you maybe see your dog noticing it, that is probably the right level. It’s perfectly fine to note that level and start the process over at a later time to be sure.

When you have found that level, say your dog’s name and tap the stim once. Immediately give your dog their favorite treat and praise.

I like doing this process out on walks, as long as the dog is not over-stimulated or too distracted. Walks give the dog enough time between repetitions to forget the last one just enough. I do the name-stim-reward several times during the walk, twice per day during that first week.

Outside of those sessions, the collar is frequently worn but not in use. This week is for naturalizing the collar and introducing the idea of the low “working level.”

After this week, you can go ahead and start the rest of the conditioning process, which you can find in my article, How to Condition an E-collar or Remote Collar.

E-Collar Training for Dogs with Underground Fences

I have done remote collar training with many dogs that have underground fences at their homes. And, while remarkably little changes in the conditioning process for most dogs, they all do tend to have a similar reaction while going through the conditioning phase to find their working level.

They just stop dead.

This is a reaction that comes from the dog’s previous associations: move further, and the level is going up. Naturally, a dog with experience with an underground fence is going to freeze, because they don’t want to get blasted by a high level by moving past an unseen boundary.

The association is with their movement, and the association is with an unwanted result or consequence.

curious golden retriever resting on grassy lawn

One of my favorite things about dogs, however, is how quickly they move on to the next thing. It’s true when they say that dogs are “in the moment.”

As soon as the dog learns that the bad thing (the high-level stim) isn’t coming, they loosen up. And once the treats start coming, forget about it. Nothing ever happened.

In rare cases you might find that a dog is still really tense even at their working level. In these cases, I take the dog out of their home environment — even just down the street a bit — to continue the conditioning process. Taking the dog out of their yard or home where they are preoccupied or distracted by the underground fence can help break the association and help redefine what the stim means.

Then, continue as usual with conditioning.

Fixing Bad E-Collar Training

So you’ve tried e-collar training before, and made mistakes starting out. Or your new rescue dog came from a home that misused an e-collar or didn’t understand how to make the best use of it. Or your dog has been to a trainer before that just didn’t use the tool well.

Trust me when I say: this is not the end of the world.

You can’t control your dog’s past, but you can control what you do now to help them move forward. If you need a pep talk, I recommend my article, How Your Dog’s Supervillain Origin Story is Killing Their Redemption Arc.

And, the fact of the matter is, you will make mistakes. I make mistakes. Pros who have been in the industry for decades make mistakes.

Maybe you didn’t double-check the levels before using the stim, and gave your dog a correction-level stim when you only wanted to get their attention at working level. Learn from that, and double-check every time from now on. Don’t linger on it, because your dog sure won’t.

Learn to forgive yourself, because I assure you that your dog doesn’t remember your mistakes.

I work with many dogs who have been to trainers that use “meh” remote collars, whose owners have made mistakes, who’ve been on aversive-only tools like generic shock collars, and everything in-between. I give them some grace and some patience, and they all come around much faster than their owners thought possible.

Dogs are brilliant like that.

Author: Kimberlee Tolentino

Kimee has worked hands-on with dogs for over ten years, and today serves the role of head trainer and owner at Lugaru K9 Training in Port Orchard, Washington. Kimee has been a shelter volunteer, a dog walker, dog behavior intern, a dog trainer, and now specializes in behavior modification for pet dogs.