Yes, I train my bird dogs with e-collars. [ gasp! ]

Vizslas model neoprene hunting vests

I’m sick of it.  All of the negative, nasty talk around e-collars.  Yes, many have used them irresponsibly and are to blame for the image some now hold of these devices.

If you’re opposed to e-collars then skip this post.  I have no patience to hear or read your comments.  Believe me–I’ve heard/read plenty thus far.  Those opposed to ecollars are more than happy to blast their opinions out on a regular basis.  Just about everywhere I turn it seems there’s another article, post, tweet on how awful ecollars are.  Consider this post a tit-for-tat!  I’m tired of walking on eggshells about my support of *properly* incorporating ecollars into a training program.  I understand our position isn’t a popular one but I never have been interested in winning popularity contests.  I do, however, believe in standing up for what I believe in.  Peer/societal pressure often makes doing so more difficult.

Next, I need to state the obvious; ANY “TRAINING” DEVICE CAN BE ABUSED and MISUSED!  Got that folks?  A flat collar and a leash can cause just as much fear and pain when improperly used as an improperly used ecollar.  I have enough years behind me now of training, testing, observing a variety of bird dogs in a variety of situations.  I’ve worked hard to get from knowing nothing to knowing something.  Some might even say I know quite a bit.  I still have *a lot* to learn but I’m now confident in the stuff I do know about training bird dogs.  I’ve seen enough dogs now to have informed opinions.  More importantly, as an amateur I’ve *trained/helped train* enough bird dogs to have *experience*.  Oh, and I have a *PROVEN* track record.  As of this writing I’ve trained/helped train and handled 1 AKC Dual Champion/Master Hunter, 6 AKC Master Hunters (one of them just 2 points shy of her Amateur Field Championship–6 of those points are from retrieving stakes), several AKC Senior and Junior Hunters and have won numerous AKC field trial placements in retrieving and non-retrieving stakes (pointing dogs). I’m an AKC Master Hunter level hunting test judge (working on my AKC field trial judge status).  Again, I’m an amateur.  I’ve obtained this level of knowledge and experience over the past dozen years of “playing” these games, training and hunting my Vizslas.  To date, I’ve only owned/co-owned a total of 8 Vizslas who have actually lived in my home or the home of Boulder Vizslas breeder Judy Hethowski.  Not a bad track record.

I’ve seen dogs that really get out there (not talking about range–talking about desire) and get BUSY.  You can see *that* look in their eyes–all they want is to hunt.  And, what a sight they are to behold when turned loose.  They take your breath away.  Some seem to just tear up the ground from right under their feet.  Others, move with great purpose but are more methodical–they seem to move much more lightly on their feet but like their counterparts, paint the loveliest picture of a bird dog hunting with desire–a bird dog who *knows and loves* her job.  Likewise, I’ve seen enough dogs who “have never had an ecollar around their neck!” (the owners so proudly proclaim).  Yet, some of these dogs slink about, wary to make a move lest they be scolded by their handler.  They look as if all independence has been stripped from them.  It’s painful to watch some of these dogs who “have never had a shock collar on.”  They act as if they’ve been beat by a 2×4 anytime they made a choice–any choice.  Yes, I’ve seen the same from some dogs who’ve been trained with ecollars.  This is my main point.  No matter the device–it comes down to the *trainer* and the techniques employed when training. We do have to take into account some dogs are born with virtually no desire and/or resiliency to work.  These dogs usually look flat in pretty much all they do–training techniques aside.  Like humans, dogs come in a huge variety of personalities.  They are not machines.  They are not robots.  Some are born with so much desire for the job they were genetically programmed for they can hardly focus when in environments that awakens those genes.  Others are born without an ounce of instinct or desire and are content to stroll about the block once or twice with their humans.  Most though, are somewhere in between.  Most have good enough instincts–levels of desire– and resiliency to be trained to perform at high levels.  These are the dogs that are most often screwed up by inept trainers–novice and pros alike.  You see, these are the ones with “just enough” to go either way.  At the hands of an inconsistent, ignorant trainer they’ll eventually shut down–ecollars or not.  They’ll quit trying and quit “giving” because they learn there *is no right answer* for them.  Ecollars give us *precision* when training.  They allow us to deliver a *perfectly timed* correction at the *perfect level of pressure* which is then a very *meaningful* correction to the dog.  This combination allows our bird dogs to learn rapidly because of the clarity a properly used ecollar offers.  And, much of our training (and obviously hunting/competing) involves significant distances between us and the dogs.  There is no way, without the ecollars, we could *effectively* deliver a well-timed correction when we’re just a few feet from our bird dogs–much less 50-200+ yards away from them.  Any half-witted trainer knows it’s detrimental to attempt to correct for a behavior once the behavior has passed.  I can’t imagine the confusion a bird dog would experience if they’re standing point say 10 yards away from their trainer and they bump the bird then decide to run it down in hopes of catching it–once their trainer finally catches up to them and starts “correcting” them for–in the trainer’s mind–bumping the bird, an infraction that occurred moments before *and is no longer in the dog’s mind.*  Thus, confusion!

I’ve seen how bird dogs with strong bird/hunting desire change when brought into areas they know they’ll get to hunt.  Their ability to hear fades the closer they get to the field.  Their adrenaline starts pumping and their pain thresholds change.  Their sight seems to change too as they begin to take in the cover, the terrain, with their eyes.  You can almost see them mapping out their moves.  In this state their thought bubbles would simply state “Birds.”  I’ve had ultimate chow-hounds refuse to accept the tastiest treat–prime rib, rotisserie chicken, a dab of the loveliest brie–when standing at the line.  It seems their sense of smell changes too.  Suddenly, these divine morsels they would have done back-flips for while at home or even at the off leash area they know they might scare up a rabbit or two, have no smell–thus no weight–when they’re standing at the edge of a hunting field.  I’ve seen these changes fall over many bird dogs over these years.  I’ve tested many bird dogs with such proven food-bits in exactly these conditions.  Admittedly, some have accepted the treat by ever so slightly opening their mouths–eyes cast out toward the field–but then spit the treat right back out.  “Not now,” they so clearly state.  So how does one reach a dog when they’re in such a state while out–consistently–at a good distance from their handler–hunting, covering ground efficiently so as to save the handler some mileage?  Before turning my bird dogs loose to hunt I reset them by having them heel and recall.  Sometimes I need the aid of the ecollars to break through the adrenaline pounding so loudly in their ears–overriding our voices.  I don’t “crank their collars up” or “zap” them until they yelp.  I use the collars at the appropriate level so as to tap our dogs from a distance–have them respond to our commands when in this ultimate, high-drive mode.  Sometimes I only ask they “hear” us call their names and turn directions.  Again, because they’ve been properly conditioned to their ecollars they do so with their tails still up, their eyes still bright and their ability to keep working fully intact.

There is nothing scarier than watching a bird dog in this all-out hunting mode, oblivious to any danger around them, working a field/scent toward danger.  The danger can be out at a distance or close-by.  It could be a usually quiet country road with a semi rapidly approaching or a rattle snake coiled upwind.  The danger could be a glorious rooster bursting from the cover and taking flight across a road and across a field full of thick cover in high winds with your bird dog in tow.  The danger could be wrapping up a hunt at the end of the day and hearing a pack of coyotes calling out in the area your bird dog is hunting.  I can’t imagine successfully recalling a bird dog in this mode without the aid of an ecollar in case the dog is unable to *hear* the commands being given.  “Unable to hear” can truly be because of distance, weather (wind), but also adrenaline.  Even if my bird dog *hears* my voice when in this mode and associates a tasty morsel with compliance to the command, I highly doubt the tasty morsel supersedes the matter at hand–hunting…retrieving…and sometimes, chasing.

This leads to the other reason ecollars aren’t optional in our household, namely, *safety*.  I can’t count the number of times I was able to keep my bird dogs safe through use of their ecollars.  As I stated above, there are a number of reasons they can’t hear us.  The ecollars I use have enough range to be able to reach my dogs in the most critical, life-saving moments I could never have planned for.

So, what about these AKC events?  Dogs aren’t allowed to wear ecollars when competing, correct?  Correct.  So then your dogs must know how to perform at these high levels *when they aren’t wearing their ecollars*, correct?  Correct.  The key point here is their training has been *PROPERLY* transferred to the ecollars.  They compete, very successfully, without their collars but then after a couple of tests/trials I go back to training with their ecollars.  I tune them back up–get them back in competition/finished-gun-dog mode.  If I don’t, they happily, consistently test how much they can get away with.  Without consistent, properly-timed corrections at the appropriate level, they push more…and more.

I think those of us who have taken the *time to learn how to use ecollars responsibly* and have made the educated decision to incorporate them into our training programs need to push back now.  We should stop averting the building conflict so many from the other side are pushing into our faces.  I’m sick of dealing with folks who want me to feel bad about this very important, and *informed* decision I’ve made, very much believe in, and have *SUCCESSFULLY PROVEN* time and again.  I invite any critic to join us on a hunt or to watch our dogs competing in order to see with their very own eyes just how my dogs feel about their ecolllars.  Then, I’ll take any critic out to watch different bird dogs owned by many different friends.  Same deal–let these critics see with their own eyes how these dogs come to life when they know they’re about to hunt–with those awful ecollars strapped around their necks.  Or even when my bird dogs know they’re going to do some training–again with those awful, abusive ecollars securely fastened around their necks–their excitement (no, not anxiety–we know the difference) is often uncontrollable.

I’m sure there are other methods of *CONSISTENTLY* training bird dogs to very precise, high levels of performance but I have yet to find them.  Believe me, I’ve been looking.  And I’ll keep looking.  I started out looking, hoping to find a way to train without the ecollars.  This was back when, like so many, I misunderstood ecollars.  I didn’t know, hadn’t yet learned how to use them *CORRECTLY*.  Despite the success we’ve found with using ecollars, I am still interested to know how trainers in other countries shape the behaviors of untrained bird dogs into elite canine athletes who perform consistently at high levels.  Unfortunately, I wasn’t born with a silver spoon in my mouth.  Nor have I inherited large sums of money.  I’m a commoner eeking out a living.  I explore and learn as my budget allows.  Perhaps someday when I’m bequeathed an estate worth millions I can resign from my desk job and use this imaginary financial infusion to travel to places I’m unable to reach now.

So, feel free to unfriend me, unfollow me, say nasty things about me because of this post.  This won’t bother me a bit.  I’ve come to a place in my life where I’m much more comfortable in my own skin than I’ve ever been.  A primary reason for my comfort is because I walk the talk.  I’ve invested lots of my precious pennies and years, and will continue to invest even more, learning.  My journey won’t end until they bury me.


Written by Mel Reveles of FusionVizslas.com. I am proud to be a founding member of the Rocky Mountain Vizsla Club– “The Specialty Vizsla Club of Colorado” and a member of the Vizsla Club of America. I am also a participant in the American Kennel Club’s Breeder of Merit Program.

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