By Ted Gartner
I scanned the horizon and saw Willie, my black-and-white pointer, streak by about 250 yards to my right. On patrol for another covey of bobs, he crested a rise and went out of sight. After a few seconds, I decided I wanted him hunting more in my direction, so I reached down for my e-collar transmitter and tapped the “tone” button a couple of times.
On cue, he popped back up over the hill, gave me a glance, and went on his way. Almost like having a remote-control dog, I chuckled to myself.
Of course, things weren’t always this easy. Remote electronic training collars are nearly ubiquitous today, and most hunters I know won’t let their dog off the tailgate without one. But back in the day – and I’m talking the 1950s and earlier – electronic technology was absent from hunting. How did we get to where we are today?
The story begins with a professional lion hunter in the high desert mountains of Arizona. Dale Lee was a plain-talking, lanky houndsman who kept more than 60 dogs in his camp. He and his brother Clell are credited with tracking literally thousands of mountain lions and jaguars throughout the southwestern United States and Mexico. If anyone recognized the importance of keeping dogs under control at long distances, it was Lee. He knew there had to be a way to keep his hounds from running “trash” – chasing deer or other species.
Lee knew a man by the name of Frank Hoover, an Army-trained engineer from New Mexico. After retiring from the Army, Hoover made a career developing transistor radio electronics for remote control model airplanes. As luck would have it, Hoover also ran hounds in his spare time. Lee and Hoover started talking, and the first e-collar was born sometime during the early to mid 1950s.
By the early 1960s, the crude prototypes were being commercialized, and were marketed out of the back of magazines with now-defunct brands like the “Ability Collar” and “Sensatronics.” Whatever the name, they were wood or metal boxes (roughly the size of a quart milk carton) with a long antenna and a single button. One early manufacturer boasted that their dog collar receiver weighed “only” 12 ounces.
Early e-collar displayed in the Bird Dog Museum in Grand Junction, Tennessee
Older hunters will remember the Bill Boatman catalog, a mail-order dog supply retailer from Bainbridge, Ohio, who began marketing their version as the “Superheterodyne Electronic Dog Trainer,” available in the early 1960s for $249.99. That price seems reasonable, until you consider that adjusted for inflation, the same collar would cost nearly $2100 in today’s dollars. They still sold.
Boatman’s 1962-63 catalog’s headline shouts, “push the button and you correct dog’s bad habits… up to one mile away,” and brags about operating at “700 sparks a second.” These devices were certainly not known for their subtlety – but nothing about dog training was particularly gentle back then. There was one button, and one stimulation level – and it was high.
Magazine ad for early Boatman collar
They weren’t always reliable, either. Batteries failed, circuit boards got wet, antennas broke, and one trainer even told me of his frustrations when the frequency of a nearby airplane’s radio chatter would inadvertently activate his training collar.
1970s Era Training Collar
By the 1970s, the training systems were shrinking in size, and were being developed so that multiple units could operate in an area without fear of triggering every collar. Collars were also built with circuits that would automatically turn off stimulation after about ten seconds. More and more professional trainers began adopting the technology in their programs.
Perhaps the biggest advancement of the 1970s was user-changeable, color-coded resistors, or “plugs” for the collar. These plugs let the trainer decide the level of intensity that they would use for their dog during that particular session. While a step in the right direction, trainers often found themselves issuing corrections that were often too strong - or not strong enough. The plugs were also prone to getting lost in the field.
The 1980s saw the addition of audible tone features. In fact, some collars of this era had the high-pitched tone that we know today, but also a lower buzz as well. Also in the ‘80s, companies began commissioning research into canine behavior and e-collar safety. As more consumers adopted e-collar technology, manufacturers realized that they needed to educate the general public on how to safely and effectively train their dog with a remote training system.
The next big game changer for remote electronic trainers came in the early to mid 1990s, with the advent of the microprocessor. This tiny chip gave trainers the ability to instantaneously change the level of stimulation from the transmitter - a feature that solidified e-collars as must-have equipment for professionals and amateurs alike. Trainers quickly realized that they could rapidly train dogs to perform complex tasks using much lower levels of stimulation.
There were other advances in the ‘90s as well. Improved battery technology, increased range, insulated contact points, and enhanced waterproofness were all big enhancements in the 1990s that we take for granted today.
In fact, all of the e-collar’s biggest advancements – things like adjusting stimulation levels from the transmitter, tone functions, and range and reliability – all are all less than 30 years old. And that’s not even taking into account the GPS tracking collar – an innovation that’s just 12 years old but nearly ubiquitous today.
Today, a dog owner can find a top-of-the-line e-collar setup for about $300 – or adjusted to a mere $30 in 1962 dollars. It’s hard to say how the modern electronic training collar might evolve in the future, but 60 years later, Dale Lee and Frank Hoover would be amazed to see how their invention has progressed.
This story first appeared in the Summer 2019 issue of the Quail Forever Journal. If you liked it, and would like to see more, become a member today.