Since humans first realized they could teach dogs to respond to a gesture or command, there have been dog trainers. Trainers, however, have not always been kind to their animals. While some reward their dogs with lavish praise and fine cuts of meat, others have used brutal training methods - ranging from hanging their dog until nearly dead to establish dominance and supposedly gain the dog's devotion for saving its life to using elaborate chain collars that pinch folds of the dog's skin between metal studs to punish the dog for not responding to a command. Supposedly to teach their dogs a lesson, some hunters have peppered them with shot for ranging too far or ignoring commands. Some dogs have only been stung by these shot pellets, but others have been blinded or seriously wounded. Other dogs have been hit, kicked and whipped by angry trainers.
More than 50 years of working with different breeds of dogs has taught me that when a dog doesn't correctly obey a command it's usually because the trainer or handler has not properly taught the dog how to respond.
Dog training is like raising youngsters: You must expect them to make mistakes. Along the way you teach them right from wrong, gently correcting them when they make an error and really loving them up when they do things right. Like a parent, a trainer must be consistent in doling out punishment and praise. Both must be given immediately after the act to reinforce the trainer's message about the behavior.
Not all dogs or children are created equal. Not every child is capable of being a straight-A student, and not all dogs are capable of being field trial champions. Parents and dog trainers should have reasonable expectations.
Hunters should carefully consider what they want from their dog. Along with companionship, most hunters want their dogs to hunt enthusiastically, to come when called and not eat or damage birds that fall to the gun. For various type of hunting, dog owners might have other expectations, too.
An upland bird hunter usually wants a dog to be able to locate a bird, and depending on a dog's breed, to point or flush the bird, to resist the urge to chase the bird when it flies, to find and retrieve it after it is down. Although some hunters want a dog to show style while it works, most only care about the end result.
A waterfowl hunter wants a dog to be obedient, to sit quietly in a blind until sent to retrieve, to find and retrieve the bird, and to refrain from shaking water on everything in the blind. Nothing fancy, just get the job done.
Often the first thing a new dog owner buys is a book for advice about training his or her dog correctly. The most controversial training device promoted in most modern training books and magazine articles is the use of electronic, or shock collars. These collars deliver an electrical charge to the dog when the trainer pushes a button on a hand-held transmitter and are for used for discipline and training.
The first electronic collars had a single level of intensity that could make a dog yelp or cower when activated. If a trainer decided a dog had committed a major sin, he or she could hold the button down and keep the current flowing. I don't know how many times I've heard a self-proclaimed trainer tell me, "He was way out there and totally ignored the whistle, so I burned him for about 10 seconds. That showed him!"
When shock collars first hit the market, some professional trainers refused to use them because they thought they were too harsh for mild offenses and were an ill-advised shortcut to proper training. Other trainers defended the judicious use of such collars and noted that they allowed them to correct unwanted behavior the instant it occurred rather than having to call the dog back for a reprimand. One cardinal rule in training is not to punish a dog for responding properly, which would be the case if you punished a dog after it came to you on command. For this reason, the immediacy of electronic collars offered a real advantage.
The collar is also useful because in a dog's mind it separates punishment from the trainer. Therefore a dog does not become leery of its trainer.
Another good point is that many hunting dogs, especially pointing breeds, are often quite a distance away from the trainer and correction is nearly impossible without the collar. When a dog takes off after a rabbit or deer, it can become lost or might be struck by a vehicle if it chases its prey across a road. A collar used judiciously can eliminate that problem.
Despite the potential benefits that I had heard, I wasn't convinced. I saw a shock collar in the hands of the average backyard trainer as being just another brutal way to make the dog submit to the trainer's wishes. Anyone from a 12-year-old kid to a professional can go into a store, pull out a billfold, and walk away with a shock collar without any training or previous experience to guide his or her use of the device.
At one point, I looked down on trainers who used the collars and was in favor of banning their use. But, after taking a closer look, it occurred to me that shock collars are a lot like guns. Saying "shock collars cause cruelty in dog training" is like saying, "guns cause crime." It isn't the collar that's bad, it's the way some people misuse it.
Shock collars and how they are used as a training tool have come a long way since they were first developed. Today they have a softer image and are often marketed as "electronic collars" or "remote training collars." In some manufacturers' literature, modern electronic collars don't transmit a "shock," they "administer stimulation," and the amount of stimulation can be adjusted by the trainer to suit the situation.
Although largely a matter of semantics, this move from "shock" to "stimulation" has some basis in fact. Today's potentially light buzz from the collar as a training reminder is a far cry from the
The written information provided with an electronic collar explains in detail how to use it at the lowest possible intensity to reinforce traditional training methods. The collars are now recommended to reinforce skills the dog already has, rather than as a tool to teach new skills and shock the dog into complying.
Tess Hewitt, who hunts pheasants and quail with her enthusiastic, well-mannered Brittany spaniel named Hewey, is a firm believer in electronic collars, though she said she never uses it for training.
"Hewey hunts instinctively, I didn't have to do a lot of training. I taught him obedience, but I didn't use the collar for that," she said. "But I don't want him to take off after a rabbit or something and get lost. Wearing the collar reminds him he still has to mind. That's why I use a collar."
An electronic collar used wisely and judiciously as recommended in the literature provided with it can be a useful, legitimate tool for training and controlling a hunting dog in the field. If you decide to try using one, learn to use it properly and don't exceed the printed recommendations. The goal is pleasurable hunting and training experiences for both the dog and the hunter.