The more tools that a dog trainer has at their disposal, the more prepared they’ll be to help any dog and dog owner who needs it. Every dog that a trainer encounters over the course of their career will be unique, and present unique challenges, so utilizing a wide range of tools, skills and capabilities is essential to success.
Unfortunately, there’s a significant barrier holding many owners back from getting the training their dog needs: myths that claim certain training tools are used to harm dogs.
We’ve set out to debunk some of these myths in the hopes we can provide dog owners with a better understanding of the tools we use so they can make the right training decisions for their dog.
We’ll start by answering a few frequently asked questions about dog training tools.
What is a dog training tool?
A dog training tool is any device that you put on your dog to influence their behavior, from flat collars and e-collars to head halters and muzzles.
Why are dog training tools used?
At Koru K9, we use training tools to help change a dog’s behavior as opposed to simply managing behavior problems. That means, once our trainers have built a strong training foundation with a dog through reinforcement, we use tools like e-collars and prong collars to communicate what we want from the dog in a way that’s meaningful for them.
When it comes to training, it’s vital to understand that dogs have their own unique drives and biological motivators that are very different from humans. That means their brains work differently than ours and how they learn is not how we learn.
A dog can be thoroughly trained and proofed for proper recall, for example, but if a squirrel runs by and that dog’s prey drive takes over even the best training can fail. We put training tools in place to help us communicate clearly with dogs in these situations.
Are dog training tools harmful or inhumane?
While any training tool can be used improperly in the wrong hands, they’re not designed to be harmful to dogs or inhumane. When used properly by a responsible trainer, dog training tools not only establish consistency and clear communication but are something the dog will respond to positively.
That’s why finding a dog trainer who uses training tools responsibly is crucial, so we recommend you do your own thorough research before choosing a trainer. Interview multiple dog trainers and take notes; find out their certifications and backgrounds; and read client reviews and testimonials.
How and when should a dog trainer use tools?
There’s no one-size-fits-all dog training method. It’s our belief that every dog trainer should be able to adapt their training methods based on what each individual dog needs. So, how and when training tools are used will depend on the dog, their behaviors, their situation and what tools the trainer believes are the right ones at the right time.
Now, with those questions answered, let’s dive into four common myths around dog training tools:
MYTH 1: TRAINING TOOLS ARE USED TO FORCE COMPLIANCE
A popular myth about dog training tools is that they’re used to force compliance—that certain tools are meant to coerce dogs into changing their behavior through fear or harm. That’s simply not true.
That misconception comes from how dog training tools were used decades ago. A lot has changed since then. Techniques have been revolutionized and the tools trainers now utilize have been refined as technology has improved. When used properly today, dog training tools are a means of establishing consistency and clear communication rather than being used harmfully to force behavior.
Tools like e-collars and prong collars are meant to help trainers communicate with dogs in a way that everyone understands. During training, we teach dogs good behaviors using reinforcement and a blend of the four quadrants. Once a dog has learned those desired behaviors, training tools are overlaid to reinforce the behaviors consistently.
For example: we’re teaching your dog how to sit. Once your dog has learned a proper sit and is demonstrating that they understand what’s being asked of them, we introduce a training tool to reinforce the behavior. When introduced properly, your dog will be comfortable with the tool, understand what it means and is more likely to follow commands in high distraction situations.
So, rather than being used to force a dog into a particular behavior, training tools are used to remind your dog of what we’re asking them to do through clear communication that they understand.
In many cases, it’s inconsistency, uncertainty and a lack of communication that are the root causes of fear in dogs. Using training tools responsibly can help avoid that.
MYTH 2: E-COLLARS SHOCK OR BURN DOGS
As mentioned above, the techniques, tools and technology established in the early days of dog training have changed drastically. That’s transformed how tools like the e-collar are now used.
The technology in e-collars today is comparable to a neuromuscular stimulator that’s used by a physician. It stimulates rather than shocks. For a dog, an e-collar stimulation is more annoying than painful and is a reminder that we want them to perform a behavior they’ve already been taught.
How does it work? A quality e-collar has at least 100 working levels. When properly introduced to a dog, a trainer puts it on and slowly works to find what we call the dog’s “working level.” Starting at zero, the trainer will go up one level at a time until the dog shows an involuntary muscle reflex that’s like a knee-jerk reflex. Once a working level is established, the e-collar can be used to reinforce desired behaviors.
Take recall, for example. To reinforce recall, we put the dog on a long line with an e-collar and let them go exploring. Then, we make a recall command and begin to tap the e-collar. Once the dog stops and turns around, we stop the stimulation, encourage the dog to come back and they’re rewarded with a treat. Over time, it becomes a game for the dog: they learn that if they come back when recalled verbally, they can beat the stimulation of the e-collar and get a treat.
Think of it like an alarm clock. You set your alarm to make its annoying sound in the morning, so you’ll wake up when you need to. Then one day, you’re determined to beat that alarm. You get out of bed and shut the alarm off before it even sounds. The alarm has reinforced your behavior.
An e-collar works much the same. When used properly, the e-collar tells your dog when you want them to come back. Eventually, they might begin to pre-empt the e-collar stimulation by coming back when recalled and collecting their reward.
MYTH 3: PRONG COLLARS CAN PUNCTURE A DOG’S NECK
The misconceptions around the use of prong collars stem mainly from its name and the way it looks. As a result, many believe prong collars are used as a punishment to coerce behavior.
However, prong collars aren’t meant to be harmful to a dog and, in some cases, can be safer than flat collars or harnesses. Prong collars are not sharp. They’re designed to distribute pressure evenly around a dog’s neck, allowing the collars to be used as an effective tool to teach proper heel position when a dog is reactive on walks or pulls constantly on leash, among other things.
Thanks to the evenly distributed leash pressure, the prong collar creates a sort of bubble while on leash that encourages the dog to teach itself how to walk correctly in heel position. When the dog reaches the end of the leash, they’ll feel that slight pressure and come back. If they fall too far behind, that same even pressure will coax them forward. Same if they pull on leash to either side. Eventually, they’ll find the proper heel position where they don’t feel any pressure from the leash and stay there.
So, instead of forcing a dog to learn heel position through pain or extreme discomfort, the prong collar uses equal pressure to show the dog where proper heel position is and then they learn themselves.
MYTH 4: MUZZLES ARE ONLY USED FOR AGGRESSIVE DOGS
Like prong collars, the misunderstandings around muzzles have to do with how they look and are often portrayed. Because of how we’re used to seeing muzzles portrayed in movies or on television, many people immediately assume a dog is aggressive or dangerous when they’re wearing a muzzle.
While that may be true in select cases, muzzles are more commonly used as a tool to protect the dog in situations that can be scary or intimidating for them, like a trip to the vet. When a dog is comfortable wearing a muzzle, it will help keep them, and everyone around them, safe no matter the situation.
Dogs don’t have hands (obviously), so in many cases they use their mouths in situations where humans would use their hands—whether it’s protecting someone they love from a perceived threat or simply letting you know they don’t want to be touched.
If a dog must be in a situation that’s unpredictable or could be frightening for them, using a muzzle ensures everyone is safe and confident.