Vibration collars are frequently suggested as a good tool for communicating with hearing-impaired dogs. I hadn’t had much experience with them, so when I was asked to write an article on them several months ago, I realized it was a great opportunity to expand my own education, and I jumped at the chance.
Actually, this is far from the truth. For starters, I am not much of a tech or gadget person. (There’s a reason I work with animals for a living and not electronics!) Plus, my only prior experience using a vibration collar had been a failure. We had a deaf pit bull-mix in our Behavior Modification Academy a few years ago. We worked with her for five straight days, but we couldn’t get her to acknowledge the vibrations even once, not even on the highest setting!
Also, a vibration collar looks very similar to a shock collar, and my negative association with shock collars is so strong it gives me the heebie jeebies (technical scientific behavioral term) to even look at the one that WDJ Editor Nancy Kerns had shipped bought on Amazon.com and had shipped to me. I dragged my heels on actually opening the box until I had to do it!
There are a number of remote-controlled dog collars on the market that offer a vibration mode in addition to the ability to shock the dog, and we would never advocate buying or using those collars. Products that are designed to shock are clearly meant to be used in an aversive manner, to startle and/or hurt the dog in order to stop him from doing something. This is not how we advocate training dogs.
Then there are collars that do not produce shock, only vibration, but that are marketed with claims that the vibration can be used as a more humane or gentler alternative to a collar that delivers shock. In our view, this is completely missing the point. A less-unpleasant punisher is still a punisher. We advocate training without pain or fear.
This isn’t just a matter of semantics; it’s an entirely different training philosophy. We were looking for a product that produced a vibration that would be used only as a cue for the dog. As such, we wouldn’t want a collar that could produce a vibration so strong that it resulted in a dog’s fear or discomfort or avoidance.
Unfortunately, the marketing of these products just isn’t at all congruent with what we see as their best use. Even the collar we had the best results with, the one that came with the highest recommendation from a trainer who uses it for deaf dogs (the Wolfwill Dog Training Collar) is marketed for use as an aversive. The box itself says that with just the push of a button, your dog will “quickly learn the association between his behavior and your correction; in no time, you’ll have a better-behaved pet.” Argh!
That’s not at all how we recommend using these collars.
Since I don’t have a hearing-impaired dog of my own, I put out a call to my trainer network seeking volunteers with deaf dogs who might be interested in trying a vibration collar. While I was waiting to schedule appointments, I took the Wolfwill collar out of its box and took a closer look.
Now, I’m aware that when you already have a negative association with something, it’s easy to find things you don’t like about it (confirmation bias) – but I found a lot of things to dislike about the collar. (See “Wolfwill Vibration Collar: The Negatives,” on page 10.) However, my assignment was to explore the value of using this type of collar for training, so I put the negatives aside and made arrangements to work with three different dogs.
As it turned out, I was also able to compare the Wolfwill with another vibration collar. One of my interns, Peggy Bowers, happened to have the same collar that I had tried a few years ago: the Gentle Trainer GT-1 by Unleashed Technology. Peggy had used the collar successfully on another dog, so we decided to try it again, as well as the Wolfwill product. For these experiments, we were joined by another one of my training interns, Layne Tubby.
The three of us tested the collars on ourselves to see what we could feel. The Gentle Trainer has prongs that are similar to those on a shock collar. But we found that its vibration wasn’t really noticeable on the prongs themselves; only the receiver box itself seemed to vibrate. In contrast, the vibration on the Wolfwill is delivered via a curved plate rather than prongs, and the vibration was clearly noticeable on the plate.
The Gentle Trainer had a significant difference in intensity of vibration between the low setting (1 – barely noticeable) and the high (15). The Wolfwill was considerably stronger when set on its lowest setting (1) than the other collar’s lowest setting, but Layne and I could barely feel a difference between 1 and its highest setting (16) – just a longer pulse. Peggy, however, said that the highest setting on this collar sent an unpleasant sensation down her hand and arm that she found quite aversive.
The Gentle Trainer supposedly can be used with a half mile between the remote control and the collar. The Wolfwill is supposed to be capable of working at a maximum distance of about one third of a mile.
HOW WE USED THE COLLARS
I see the primary benefit of a vibration collar as an attention-getter for a hearing-impaired dog – although another valuable use could be to teach a “find me” recall. Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s possible to vary the vibrations enough for a dog to easily distinguish a variety of different cues using the collar alone. The owners agreed – their primary goal would be to have an “attention” signal.
With each of the dogs, we did a brief introduction to the collar, feeding chicken treats without vibration, feeding treats while it vibrated near the dog, and then feeding treats while we held it against the dog’s neck. Some dogs can find a vibration aversive and I wanted to maximize our potential for having our test dogs accept it.
None of the dogs seemed concerned, so we proceeded by putting the collar on the dog. Our goals were to see if:
- The dog acknowledged the vibration when the collar was on his neck.
- The dog would begin to offer a “conditioned emotional response” (CER) to the vibration – that is, to show an awareness that the vibration meant “Chicken!” by turning toward his owner when the signal was sent.
- We could begin to establish a recall cue by having the dog move toward the owner in response to the signal at increasing distances.
We realized this was quite an ambitious agenda for just one session with the collar, but we were interested to see how much we could accomplish.
TESTS WITH SPUD
Our first test dog was Spud, a two-year-old congenitally deaf French Bulldog, belonging to Jordan Cruz and referred by veterinary behaviorist Dr. Leslie Sinn. His deafness was the result of a breeding between two merle parents – dogs with a coat color pattern that consists of a typically bluish- or reddish-gray mixed with splotches of black or reddish-brown. Double-merle dogs have a very high chance of being deaf, blind, or both.
In addition to being deaf, Spud has other behavioral issues, including anxiety and potential obsessive-compulsive behaviors. It is not unusual for other neurodevelopmental disorders, including blindness and difficulty processing information, to be part and parcel of the world of a double-merle dog.
Spud showed absolutely no awareness of vibrations from the Gentle Trainer collar. He did cock his head in acknowledgment on the first test of the Wolfwill, and while he continued to show signs of awareness that something was going on when it vibrated, after 15 minutes or so of tests, he showed no indication of giving a positive CER. Rather, at that point his signs of stress appeared to be increasing, so we ended the session.
My conclusion: A vibration collar will be helpful for Spud only if future training sessions are successful in establishing a CER – a positive association between the vibration and his chicken-dispensing human.
TESTS WITH LIVVY
Livvy is a deaf three-year-old double-merle Australian Shepherd who has very limited (and declining) vision. On the recommendation of veterinary behaviorist Dr. Karen Overall, Livvy’s owner had come to me for a behavior consultation in November 2018; she wanted to learn how to reduce Livvy’s severe reactivity to moving vehicles, dogs, and other objects. Dr. Overall had diagnosed Livvy with severe visual and hearing impairment, possible panic disorder, and hyper-reactivity, especially to moving triggers and some noises.
Irene Schmalz, Livvy’s owner, had done a little work in the past with my intern Peggy Bowers with the Gentle Trainer collar. In those sessions, Livvy had acknowledged the vibration signal after about five to 10 repetitions, but had not offered any CERs.
That’s why, for these sessions, we opted to use the Wolfwill collar and skip the Gentle Trainer, as we knew we were likely to see better results with the product that vibrated more noticeably. Livvy immediately acknowledged the signal with a turn of her head and began offering consistent CERs after 20 signal repetitions.
We began increasing the distance between Livvy and her owner – ultimately to about three feet. About half the time, upon feeling the signal Livvy would go to Irene, but sometimes, she would go to Peggy instead. That’s when we realized our error of initially having Peggy feed the chicken – duh!
We took a break and started over again, triggering the vibration and then having Irene feed Livvy a piece of chicken, until Livvy was consistently showing CERs when she felt the vibration. Once it was clear she had the vibration/chicken-from-Irene association down pat, we redid the distance work with significantly better results.
Conclusion: A vibration collar could be very useful for Livvy and Irene. Livvy responded well, and with her vision impairment as well as her deafness, the collar could be very instrumental in maintaining a good quality of life for her. Despite her impairments, Livvy is independent, and being blind as well as deaf puts her at an even greater risk of getting disoriented and lost.
Irene is already doing Nosework with another excellent trainer; I suggested that Irene work with the trainer on having Livvy find her by scent. Then they could pair the “find Irene by scent” task with a vibration cue, for maximum benefit.
We also discussed the value of adding touch cues to Livvy’s repertoire – a light touch above the tail for a sit, on the shoulders for a down, etc. – as the hand signals Irene has been using to communicate to her dog will become increasingly less useful as Livvy’s sight continues to fail.
TESTS WITH MAGGIE
Our third test dog was a 13-year-old terrier-mix who is losing her hearing due to her age. Maggie has the advantage of 13 years of hearing, so she already knows behaviors that her owner, Elizabeth White, has taught her over the years.
Maggie does, however, have several age- and health-related challenges, including arthritis (lameness despite pain-relief medication) and two large lipomas (fatty tumors). Elizabeth was very interested in the collar because she routinely walks her dog off-leash (so the leash doesn’t interfere with Maggie’s effort to ambulate without pain), and she would like to be able to get Maggie’s attention when the dog gets distracted, stops to sniff, and falls behind.
Maggie immediately acknowledged the vibration with a turn of her head and was offering consistent, happy CERs after just five repetitions.
We began adding distance and found that because Maggie is so connected to her human it was hard to tell if she was responding to the collar and returning to Elizabeth, or just choosing to return because she wanted to be close to her. With Spud and Livvy, we had worked indoors only, but we decided to go outside with Maggie to see how the collar worked where she was more likely to be distracted.
Outdoors, off leash, and with more distractions, it was easier to see when Maggie was truly responding to the collar – which was most of the time (Yay!). We had about an 80 percent success rate, with just a few occasions when Elizabeth had to push the button longer to get Maggie to acknowledge and come to her, which did eventually happen in under 20 seconds. (Note: The vibration pulse shuts off after 10 seconds – you have to release, and after several seconds push the button again.) I suggested she also pair the vibration with her verbal cue while Maggie can still hear her to strengthen the association.
Conclusion: A vibration collar could be useful for Maggie, and Elizabeth has the added benefit of being able to train Maggie to make the recall association while she can still hear. Elizabeth has already ordered a Wolfwill collar for Maggie.
I have to say, I am feeling quite positive about the benefits of using a vibration collar for dogs with hearing loss. Despite my initial reservations, and the significant flaws of both brands of collar that we worked with, it will certainly be something I recommend to owners of deaf dogs as a useful communication tool.
I want to applaud Jordan, Irene, and Elizabeth. It was heartwarming to see how connected and committed these owners are to their dogs and rewarding to be able to help explore new ways to open lines of communication between the owners and their deaf (or nearly deaf) dogs.