electronic collars

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Technology manufacturer Garmin recently released a new dog training collar, the Delta Smart, which allows a dog owner to utilize tone, vibration, and electronic stimulation through a smartphone app. The collar offers several distinct functions: Activity Tracker, Remote Trainer (my term), Bark Limiter, and Keep Away.

The Delta Smart has already come under fire, due to concerns over its smartphone interface and the fact that electronic collars are controversial in any case. There is also legitimate confusion over the device, due to vague advertising on Garmin’s part and inaccurate claims made by its opponents. It has been suggested that users would be empowered to shock their dogs from behind their desks at work, for example, but that would not be possible, since the Bluetooth technology on which the remote training feature depends only works over very short ranges.

Much of the current protest also lumps together specific concerns over the Delta Smart with generic concerns over remote electronic collars as a class of training aid. To those that acknowledge such tools have obvious utility and may in fact be used responsibly, the argument that all shock is abuse doesn’t contribute meaningfully to the discussion. Nor do some of the theories being floated as to what makes this device particularly dangerous, such as the bogus claim an owner can shock his dog through his smartphone while at work.

The most plausible (and least hysterical) concerns raised publicly so far may be found in a newly issued IAABC position statement. These involve the possibility that the Delta Smart’s Bluetooth and/or smartphone interface may introduce latency issues, resulting in untimely punishments. Significant latency would be a serious issue, but it’s unclear how big a risk this actually is. Other electronic training tools, not to mention a gazillion other gadgets, utilize Bluetooth for reliable short range communication without running into latency problems, at least on an order that would be detrimental in a typical dog training context.

All in all, I’ve found the static surrounding this device pretty annoying. The only thing that comes across crystal clear is that the idea of a dog owner controlling his pet’s behavior through a smartphone strikes a collective nerve.

Then a funny thing happened. I was aimlessly wandering Chicago’s downtown, killing time while my daughter attended a party, when I literally looked up and discovered Garmin had opened a flagship store on Michigan Avenue. Who knew?

Sadly, the clerk I encountered wasn’t very knowledgeable about dog training or the Delta Smart unit. Nor was there a demo model in the store. But on the upside, Garmin offers a 30-day return policy. Sold. I even splurged for the optional Keep Away Tag, which allows one to establish off-limit locations within the home, such as the pantry or trash can.

Being a luddite, I asked the salesperson to help me download the Garmin app and connect the new equipment up to my iPhone. It’s worth noting that even before I left the store, the collar was clearly malfunctioning. The Keep Away Tag, which is supposed to put out a signal to correct a dog within a radius of only 1-3 feet (precise distance to be programmed by the user through the smartphone app), was somehow triggering continuous tone corrections at the full length of the store, which I estimated to be at least 50 feet.

Back home, I spent two days on the phone with Garmin tech support. The first person I spoke to admitted his unit was also acting funny on his end. This was later explained, but not in a way that made very much sense. Anyhow, I followed their instructions and resumed testing the collar, although only on myself, not on any actual dogs.

I’m not going to discuss every feature of the Delta Smart here, just the most controversial. These are the remote training function, whereby the user manually presses a button on a smartphone display to deliver a tone, vibe, or electronic stimulation, and the Keep Away function, which uses a separate tag to automatically deter one’s dog from approaching the trash can, say.

The remote training function only works over very short distances. Garmin advertises a range of 10 meters indoors and 30 meters outdoors, meaning the Delta Smart boasts the least capability in this respect, compared to other remote training collars. This limitation combined with the clunky smartphone interface would appear to take all but the most rudimentary training applications off the table. It’s possible the remote training function was something of an afterthought. The product’s main selling points seem to be its Activity Tracker, Bark Limiter, and Keep Away functions.

Given the erratic behavior of the Keep Away function while inside the Garmin store, I couldn’t guess at what further testing at home might reveal. What I observed was genuinely distressing.

To reiterate, the Keep Away Tag is meant to allow the user to establish a modest radius (programmable up to 1 meter or 3 feet), within which the dog would be corrected automatically (via tone, vibration, electronic stimulation, or a combination). At least that’s what is strongly implied by the owner’s manual and packaging, which refer repeatedly to a 1 meter or 3 foot range.

In reality, the range is unpredictable and the type of correction applied isn’t always the type selected. When set on electronic stimulation at the longest range (presumably 1 meter), my Delta Smart collar regularly activated at distances of 6-12 feet away from the Keep Away Tag. Equally alarming, the timing of those corrections had little to do with actual proximity to the sensor. The collar appears to be designed to issue brief stimulations spaced a full six seconds apart, and it’s a crap shoot as to how close the collar happens to be when they get delivered. In other words, a dog might be corrected initially at 1 foot away, then again at 10 feet away as he hastily retreats. Or he might be corrected briefly at 6 feet away, then succeed at tipping the trash can anyhow.

Following is a brief video documenting another problem, erratic tone corrections at a distance of 16 feet from the Keep Away Tag. And just as an aside, my Delta Smart collar has so far logged over 20 barks, despite never being around a dog’s neck.

In summary, this product doesn’t work as advertised, and its design flaws pose a clear risk to pets. Regardless one’s attitude toward electronic training aids or punishment generally, we should all be able to agree that unpredictable and poorly timed punishment is problematic, not to mention unfair. While I hate to see the very real problems with this product conflated with boilerplate anti-shock rhetoric, my experience with the Delta Smart collar frankly suggests that a recall is in order.

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The Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers finally released its new position statement on electronic training collars. The announcement was made without fanfare in the latest issue of its online newsletter, which cited the adoption of the new policy during the CCPDT’s May board meeting:

The Board of Directors adopted the Electronic Training Collar position statement presented by the Electronic Training Collar Task Force. This position statement will outline the CCPDT view for the use of electronic training collars in dog training. A formal release of the newly adopted position statement was made at the end of June.

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The new policy statement leads with a nod to tolerance, acknowledging the existence of diverse methods and “certificant profiles”, and flatly stating that electronic collar use is not forbidden.

Conflicting prescriptions follow, however, including the suggestion that negative reinforcement protocols should be exhausted before considering the use of an electronic collar, the chief utility of which may be in applying negative reinforcement specifically.

While I appreciate the CCPDT’s decision not to ban electronic collar use among its certificants, the bulk of their policy statement, titled Electronic Collars and the Humane Hierarchy, seems based on a misunderstanding of where remote collars actually fit within that framework.

 

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Electronic collars are arguably one of the best tools available for administering timely negative reinforcement, yet they are stubbornly treated as a tool of last resort for unstated reasons, as if their application were somehow beyond the pale of either that quadrant of operant conditioning or the associated tier in the Humane Hierarchy.

Why do they merit special consideration, versus other less modern or sophisticated tools meant to do the same? Why should certified trainers, presumably well qualified to make responsible choices, be discouraged from even contemplating their use, while other aversive tools are freely discussed and liberally applied. Why are there no policy statements regarding head halters, no-pull harnesses, or citronella collars?

Was it just politics that drove the formation of the Electronic Training Collar Task Force, or are there magical thinkers within the CCPDT who consider electronic training equipment inherently witchy– a beast that defies logical assessment and whose effects may not conform to natural laws? Either way, the result seems confused.

© Ruth Crisler and Spot Check, 2014.

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Yesterday, the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers revealed the electronic collar survey it spent the whole summer developing.

It boasts a total of 16 questions, mainly geared toward gauging opinions on electronic collar training.

A brief letter accompanying the survey described its purpose thusly:

The board of directors is in the process of reviewing the Dog Training and Behavior Practices Policy and investigating a motion prohibiting the use of Electronic Training Collars by our certificants.

In an effort to develop a stronger position on this sensitive topic, the CCPDT has issued a survey, and will be holding a call for supplementary materials through October 20, 2013.

Measuring Perceptions v. Measuring Facts

The push to develop a “stronger position” on electronic collars apparently came together at the CCPDT’s May Board meeting, spurring the creation of a task force chaired by Vice President Shawn Smith and announced in the July 1st issue of CCPDT’s newsletter.

One might ask how an uncontrolled, anonymous survey will effect the policies of an organization nominally committed to science-based practices.

Or why more legitimate steps to gather information about current electronic collar equipment and training practices are not being taken.

Of course, the CCPDT is not merely soliciting random anonymous opinions. They are also looking at science, including all available literature on electronic collar training.

And that would be entirely sufficient if the goal of the task force were to determine whether graduate students should be allowed to use electronic training collars in pursuit of their behavior science degrees.

But that’s not the question under consideration.

It’s whether certified professional trainers should be allowed to use them, which would seem to call for an investigation of how certified professional trainers do use them (or at least might, if they weren’t continually discouraged from educating themselves beyond the most politically correct tools and quadrants).

Why has there been no call for case studies over the several months since it was decided that the CCPDT should “develop a stronger position” on electronic collars?

If the goal is to assess whether, or under what circumstances, pro trainers are using these tools humanely and effectively, you need to examine their methods and results, not just those of a tiny handful of graduate students.

Like it or not, the entire known body of scientific literature on electronic collar training is meager in volume, myopic in scope, and mainly outdated. In addition, most studies have inarguable (and widely acknowledged) methodological weaknesses.

Science begins with observation, not opinion polls. If the CCPDT intends its policies to have any weight or legitimacy beyond that faction of trainers who want electronic collars banned no matter what, it needs to make a good-faith effort to collect relevant information on current electronic collar protocols and practices.

Instead, we see the CCPDT focusing its energies on measuring perceptions.

So, in the context of developing a stronger position on electronic collars, does ”stronger” mean better informed or simply more radical?

Take the survey and decide for yourself.

NOTE: The below survey is intended exclusively for dog training and behavior professionals. If you do not work professionally with dogs, either as a trainer or behavior consultant, please do not take the survey.

https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/CCPDT_ETC_Survey

© Ruth Crisler and Spot Check, 2013.

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When Worlds Collide
A CLICKER??

 

Not making this up. It’s a remote electronic collar with a clicker built in.

It’s the latest addition to Dogtra’s iQ Pet line, which includes the iQ Remote Trainer and the iQ No Bark collar.

iQ CliQ

Madness, I know. Or is it?

I’m in favor of anything that breaks down barriers between nominally opposing methodologies, and like the idea of giving pet owners a tool with which to lay a positive foundation before beginning remote collar work.

Dogtra also asked me to contribute training advice to be included in the product manual and online, a great opportunity but also a challenge, given space constraints.

On the one hand, the chance to influence how pet owners use this product was impossible to refuse. On the other, condensing nominally thorough introductions to clicker work and remote collar training into a pair of very brief articles meant to constitute a simple and cohesive system of training– well, my head did actually explode at one point.

Happily, I was able to reach out to a few trainers I trust for editorial support (pretty key, as I’m not well known for my brevity). You know who you are and I owe you one.

So, what did I consider the most critical information for someone purchasing this equipment? You’ll have to buy an iQ CliQ to find out!

Kidding.

You’ll be able to find the CliQ manual online once the product is officially released.

© Ruth Crisler and Spot Check, 2013.

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I was jarred over the weekend to discover the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers had lately revised its 2009 policy statement on training practices.

Back in December, I’d written a letter to the CCPDT’s Board of Directors protesting the inclusion in that statement of language banning certificants from using electronic collars on any dog under one year of age. The letter had accompanied my application to re-certify as a CPDT-KA, and explained why I could not sign on to the new policy.

My check was ultimately returned and my certification allowed to expire. But that decision was not made hastily. The CCPDT Board took two weeks to consider my case, a fact that was communicated through official channels and leads me to believe that everyone serving on the CCPDT Board at that time would have read my letter.

And despite the scant response I got at the time, it appears the CCPDT Board may have taken my concerns (or similar concerns voiced by others) to heart.

As of August 4, 2011, the CCPDT’s Policy on Training and Behavior Intervention Practices no longer includes the following within its list of disallowed practices:

Applying a collar that delivers an electrical stimulation to a dog under the age of one year, with the exception of a vibration collar that does not have an electronic shock component.

In its place, a new and unrelated restriction has been added:

Purposely lifting a dog by the collar, leash, or scruff such that two or fewer of the dog’s legs remain on the ground.

Go figure.

Or, follow this link to view the revised policy statement in its entirety.

By the way, it’s unclear to me whether the CCPDT has actually shared the fact of these changes with current certificants, apart from editing the document as it appears on the CCPDT site. You would think they’d be obliged to, kinda-sorta, considering a new restriction was introduced. But the person who brought these changes to my attention said she’d only happened upon them by accident while reviewing the policy online. And it was definitely not mentioned in the most recent news update posted to their site.

A fact I can confirm unilaterally is that they did not inform me. But that’s not so shocking.

© Ruth Crisler and Spot Check, 2011.

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