The Controversy About E-Collars on Dog Talk®

The Dogs Playing for Life™ Team

There was a small handful of people who follow my show who immediately responded negatively to the title I gave a recent show — “E-Collars Can be part of a Positive Training Relationship.” I purposely chose that heading to be provocative, so people might notice it. I had hoped people might listen and consider another perspective about using e-collars for serious dog-training challenges. I appreciate that it takes time and energy to respond to something you disagree with, so I individually thanked the six people who wrote me, even those who personally vilified me for having done the show at all.

I do know that for every person who takes the time to write or call, there are dozens more who might have wanted to, so I am writing this to further clarify the issues at hand. If you are interested in the controversy, I’d recommend you listen to the interview with Aimee as well as the one the prior week with Holly Sizemore from Best Friends, so you can appreciate the nuances of the topic.

If You Didn’t Like the Title, Did You Not Listen to the Interview?

Based on the quick negative responses to the e-newsletter with the podcast link, I wasn’t sure those six people had enough time to actually listen to the show before writing me (perhaps they had even chosen not to listen at all, in a gesture of protest?). Two of them announced they were unsubscribing from the e-newsletter. I don’t see how “cancelling” my show/newsletter makes a meaningful statement. I’m unclear how they felt that could hurt anyone but themselves, as they will miss hundreds of great conversations with wonderful experts and authors speaking about dogs and cats every week. The reason I invest in maintaining a free online podcast library with upwards of 750 shows in it is so the value of all my interviews can be found and shared anytime. Shouldn’t we all be able and willing to hear opposing views? Let’s not go the direction of college students who protest, disrespect and refuse entry to speakers whose work they disagree with. Let’s please try to listen and learn from each other. I hate to think the current national mood of “taking sides” and villainizing the Other Side will infect us in the pet world, who share a love of animals.

Let’s Hear an Opposing View

I am in the process of recording an interview with well-known trainer who has a strong opinion from the “other side” — against the use of e-collars. I’ve invited Victoria Stillwell, a trainer whom I admire and have had on my radio show multiple times, to have this conversation on the air with me, which I will broadcast on NPR Saturday January 4th, 2020 and be podcast on the e-newsletter on January 8th. Victoria wrote to me at length after seeing the topic of the interview with Aimee — an impassioned email expressing consternation that I would support the use of e-collars. I respect her opinions and experience and admire her for taking the time to write me at length. I also saw that investment of her time as a sign of respect for me, too. I am very glad she wants to share her opinion by discussing it with me on the air very soon.

I Get No Benefit from Raising the Topic

The first thing I’d like to point out is that there is absolutely no personal or professional gain for me to have raised the subject of e-collars at all, even though I have done several times in the past. Quite the opposite. By far the path of least resistance would be to stay silent on the subject or take the most common position of denouncing e-collars as unacceptable or even horrible. Nobody would ever fault me for doing so.

By giving a platform to an unpopular idea, I put myself in “harm’s way” by offering an alternative opinion or conclusion about whether there is a place for using e-collars in training dogs kindly and successfully. I do so because I wholeheartedly believe that keeping an open mind and even playing devil’s advocate has great value to everyone who loves and cares about dogs – all dogs, not just the easy and accessible ones.

I Have Historically Challenged Popular Beliefs 

I’ve taken unpopular stances in my books, blogs and radio shows partly because there are so few people in a position to do so, nor will they take the risks. My willingness to embrace the “other side” of a coin has sometimes cost me professionally, but I believe that voicing alternative thinking is what keeps me viable as a trusted voice to pet owners and a genuine, objective “influencer” in the pet field.

I hope the discussion of e-collars can be seen in that light: to consider something in a different context. I’m also always ready to hear other points of view and different information (which is what I’m hoping to inspire in this e-collar debate) and to gracefully change my views or position accordingly where appropriate. The challenge of learning and reading and listening to old and new ideas and drawing conclusions is what makes my work so satisfying to me. To inspire others to do so, too, is the ultimate gratification.

Question Commonly-Held Beliefs

I embrace the philosophy of challenging commonly-held beliefs as a way to stimulate thought and discussion, even if it contradicts acknowledged experts in the field. I have made my career in part by sharing information or conclusions I have drawn about pet products, veterinary practices, and, in particular, pet nutrition. For example, feeding cats or dogs is also a highly emotional topic for which I have sometimes taken an unpopular or unusual position, even acting as a catalyst to change peoples’ minds and challenge medical and scientific authority. For example, I told people on my live call-in show, CAT CHAT, on Sirius for nearly 8 years that dry cat food is “kitty crack,” that cats are obligate carnivores and dry food can make them ill or die prematurely. I also went against conventional veterinary advice and told people to feel free to feed their dogs “real actual people food” as part of their diet. There was “science” and “research” and “proof” that only dry pet food should be given to pets — for a list of reasons that actually made little sense if looked at objectively, or from a different perspective.

Consider the Context in Which E-Collars are Used

Where Aimee Sadler’s use of e-collars is concerned I am more than willing to go out on a limb and remain there — and welcome all responses. Aimee takes an even bigger risk professionally than I do by using the e-collars openly, knowing full well the extent of emotional responses against them. The loudest pushback often comes from donors, volunteers and/or staff who know little about the theories or practice of professional dog training or the thoughtful use of e-collars. There are also pet dog trainers who have never used an e-collar because it was never appropriate — and/or have heard terrible things about the abuse of the tool. Aimee relies on funding from major animal welfare organizations in her work with shelter dogs in Dogs Playing for Life (which doesn’t involve much actual training or the use of e-collars) so I admire her willingness to take a risk at offending other professionals or groups in the field to do what she believes is in the best interest of some dogs… in some situations… for some period of time….at her Canine Center of Florida. It is all about the context in which they are used.

Aimee has studied as thoughtfully as anyone else in the field. She is as cognizant as I am of the research projects that have been conducted using e-collars and the negative conclusions drawn. But that does not negate her own study and use of e-collars. In my opinion, those who would rely on published research as the ‘last word” on any topic are short-sighted. “Research” is not something set in stone or gold-plated — as with any and all research (medical, anthropological, behavioral, psychological, etc.) the conditions under which it was done, the guidelines used in conducting the research, the participants, and the researchers are all variables that have to be considered. I always keep in mind that much of the research done in any field is overturned more than once by evolving social attitudes, new information, etc. All research — whether about cancer, psych-drugs, addiction, education etc. — is subject to interpretation, re-interpretation and often is discarded down the road. I don’t believe one or more academic research papers that come out for or against a treatment plan should end a discussion of alternatives in certain contexts.

Roscoe being Worked on an E-Collar by Aimee
Roscoe being Worked on an E-Collar by Aimee

I’ve Observed Aimee Sadler’s Work First Hand for Decades

I have followed Aimee Sadler’s entire career, beginning when we both lived in Southern California, where she had her first dog training client in in 1989. Amazingly, that happened to be my newly re-homed Weimaraner, Lulu, who had a history of running away and being aggressively reactive to men. I watched Aimee’s work at the Southampton [NY] Shelter near where we both then coincidentally lived for a decade — and where she actually helped pick out and train my next two rescued dogs: Scooby Doo, a Weimaraner, and Jazzy, a Collie mix. I watched from afar as she moved to the Longmont [CO] shelter and then “went national” with a brilliant innovative plan to get dogs out of cages in high occupancy shelters. A film made by one of her team members about her non-profit Dogs Playing for Life (an idea, coincidentally, which was initially rejected as “dangerous and unrealistic” by many people, who then became passionate converts) premiered in my NY Dog Film Festival last year and will be traveling the country with the Festival throughout 2020.

I can attest first-hand that Aimee uses e-collars judiciously after all other types of communication with an individual dog have been unsuccessfully explored. She is as smart, compassionate, dog-loving and knowledgeable as any other practitioner out there about what goes into learning, what disrupts communication and what will ultimately bring about effective and friendly change for the dogs she works with. She knows all the arguments against e-collars but believes that for some dogs, in some contexts, it is the best solution to their problems.

I respect the fact that other people may have had bad experiences using an e-collar or watching one being misused — but that doesn’t negate the value and success of what she is doing or how she does it. I think it’s not unreasonable to say that her work actually advances what we can understand and learn about those dogs who are “on the brink” — have been pushed into bad behavior and reactions from prior experiences. Maybe their behavior can be genuinely modified so they can have a happy life themselves while being safe for other dogs and people.

Why Did Best Friends Decide Not to Send Dogs to the Canine Center?

I began looking into the pushback against Aimee’s work with what are sometimes called “red zone” dogs because Best Friends Animal Sanctuary put out a statement some months ago that Marc Bekoff shared in his Psychology Today column, that they had decided not to send their most challenging dogs to Aimee’s Canine Center as originally planned. This gave the appearance that Best Friends was taking a stand against Aimee’s training choice of sometimes using e-collars. But the truth is that Best Friends knew about Aimee’s methodologies. Before deciding to send dogs to her new facility, they actually sent two representatives down to the Canine Center in Florida — one of them for 3 days — who wrote up extremely supportive and positive evaluations of the mental and physical condition of the dogs. I read those reports. What happened to change their minds seems to have been driven at least in part by public opinion — whether donors, volunteers, staff — after a general open meeting. A crowd-sourced change of heart, you might say.

Videos Tell the Story Best

Aimee sent me short videos depicting various dogs being trained and re-trained using e-collars at her Canine Center in Florida so I could share them. Anyone interested in seeing these unedited short videos can write me at RadioPetLady@gmail.com. I had already seen hours of footage of her work over the years, but I specifically asked for videos of these most at-risk dogs being worked. If you choose to watch them, I imagine they will surprise you — for what you will not see. You won’t see the words used by people who are adamant against using e-collars on dogs — the dogs are not “suffering,” “in pain,” “frightened,” “shocked,” or “intimidated.” The dogs in the videos are relaxed, comfortable, attentive to their handlers, and seem pleasantly responsive. They are learning a different way of perceiving situations and handling themselves.

While the videos may not change minds about the value of e-collars, I hope people will see the humane way they can be used carefully to address certain specific types of dog training challenges. These were dogs other trainers/shelters had given up on, animals who previously had not been ‘reachable” about their behaviors which put them— and those around them — at risk for their lives. If one is to espouse the concept that we can “save them all,” as the Best Friends logo says, then we have to consider alternative ways to work effectively, efficiently and humanely with the most difficult dogs to get them out of shelters, if it is even possible. I salute Aimee and any other trainers willing to break the cycle of rescues and shelters that keep dogs locked up in cages for months and even years, as has been the case with many of these types of dogs. What could be more cruel than that? It takes pioneers to effect change, to look for different solutions. I’m simply saying let’s think about the courage and vision it takes to swim against the tide and possibly change the course of it for the better.

—Tracie Hotchner

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