Dogs - we love them! We invite them into our homes and even our beds. We spend billions of dollars a year on them. We buy, adopt, rescue, breed them. We just can’t get enough of dogs. Everyone that’s ever had a dog can tell you stories about those dogs and likely has an opinion about training dogs. If you have a dog with issues, you’re likely to get training advice from a guy at the dog park, your grocery clerk, and your mechanic. People will tell you, “I’ve had dogs all my life…” as some measure of their expertise. Well, I’ve had teeth most of my life, but that doesn’t make me a dentist! It’s likely that you will receive a lot of conflicting advice as well. To make matters worse, there are trainers on TV, a slew of training books, and many websites and on-line resources that offer different training approaches and advice. How do you choose? How do you know what is right for your dog? At their core, training philosophies boil down to a choice between correction based training or reward based training. Let’s look at the evolution of this choice.
Our history with dogs is long and complex. We share many characteristics that make us natural companions. I like to think people enjoyed the company of dogs even when practicality required that the dog serve a purpose and function. In many cases, human survival was aided by a dog doing a job - primarily herding, hunting, retrieving, and guarding. I’m sure there was some training involved, but for the most part the dogs were doing what came naturally to them, and what they were specifically bred for. A natural balance existed. World War II changed everything. It changed the way people earned a living, where we lived, how we ate, and changed the lives of our dogs as well. War rationing of food gave us grain-based kibble to feed our dogs. Urbanization left many formerly working dogs unemployed. And the dog training method employed by the military found its way into our homes through the works of people like Bill Koehler and Blanche Saunders.
This is also about the time when the “dominance theory” came into vogue. It was based upon a study of wolves in captivity and claimed that wolves formed packs with an alpha male and female and that the alpha wolves maintained this position of dominance by forcing the other wolves into submission. This theory was then extrapolated to our pet dogs and we were told to use techniques like the “alpha roll”, “scruff shake”, and “chin clip” (made popular by the Monks of New Skete) to “dominate” our dogs. We were indoctrinated in the belief that we must always “be the alpha” when dealing with our dogs. This attitude fit quite nicely with the punitive methods of military style training.
The military style of training (now commonly referred to as traditional training) relies heavily upon the use of the “training collar” - a choke chain, pinch/prong collar, or even shock collar - and a six foot leather lead. Dogs were sent to obedience school when they were six months old - strong enough to withstand the “corrections” used in training. Handlers were taught to give “commands” that the dog must obey to avoid receiving a “correction”. These traditional training methods could be quite harsh and there were many dogs that “failed” obedience school. These were dogs that couldn’t handle the stress and physical punishment. Their responses to training were to either “fall apart” - urinating, cowering, crying, freezing up - or to “fight back” - growling, biting, attacking their handlers. The dogs that fought back were often subjected to even harsher training as the humans were told they must “win” and “dominate” these dogs. Not only were the methods hard on the dogs, they were hard on the humans as well; requiring some brute strength and physical confrontations with the dogs, which sometimes led to owners being bitten and dogs dying.
A new era dawns
Further research has debunked the dominance theory (http://www.clickertraining.com/node/2297). Modern studies shows that wild wolf “packs” are actually family units. Submissive type behaviors are offered rather than demanded and there is little violence between family members. While there are still many similarities between dogs and wolves (as there are between humans and apes), dogs are not wolves. We must be cautious in applying our wolf theories to dogs and we would be wise not to put ourselves in positions of physical confrontation with dogs. They have mouths full of razor knives and they are generally stronger and way lots faster that we are. Even with young and small dogs, just because we can physically overpower them, doesn’t mean we should.
Fortunately, for us and for our dogs, modern science prevailed and brought us out of the dark ages of dog training. In the 1970’s and 80‘s marine mammal trainers started going public with what they had learned. They had quickly realized you could not put a choke chain on a killer whale and any sort of “correction” could result in an injury to the trainer or the animal just leaving. They had to find another approach to achieve their goals. Karen Pryor’s book, Don’t Shoot The Dog, published in 1984, revolutionized our understanding of the science of learning - and applied to “anything with a brainstem”. Enter the positive training movement. A complete change in attitude came along with the new science. Dogs were now given cues instead of commands and the primary “correction”, if one existed, was loss of the opportunity to earn a reward. If a person could teach a killer whale to do a back flip with only a whistle and a bucket of sardines, then surely our pet dogs could be taught basic manners without the use of a training collar. And basic manners were just the beginning of what dogs have been taught with positive methods.
The Science of Learning
In it’s simplest terms, traditional, military style, training focuses on “correcting” undesirable behaviors: The dog remains standing when told to sit so the leash is “popped” to “correct” the dog for the mistake. Modern, positive, training focuses primarily on rewarding desirable behaviors: The dog sits when asked and is then given a treat and/or praise as a reward for compliance. Both methods can be effective, so lets look at the pros and cons of each.
Correction Based Training
Generally fast results if effective, basically simple concept if applied correctly.
High probability of “fallout” - dog becomes fearful or aggressive, physically taxing on dog and handler, handler must be physically able to make corrections, requires special collar, easy for humans to become “correction happy” and jerk the dog often and for no reason, may permanently damage dog-human relationship, damage to the dog’s neck/throat is common, ineffective and abusive if done with poor timing or technique.
Reward Based Training
Much of it can be done “hands-free”, can be done by anyone (children, adults, elderly, etc.), long lasting effects, fosters cooperation and respect, does not require special equipment (except perhaps a clicker), little risk if done with poor timing or technique, is generally fun and pleasant for dog and handler.
May take longer to accomplish some goals, requires handler to be patient and precise for best effect, requires handler to learn more about dog behavior and training.
When you consider this data, the choice between correction based training and reward based training seems perfectly clear. Modern science shows us that dogs can easily learn without force, fear, pain, or intimidation; that force-free training is safer, kinder, and has more long lasting effects than traditional methods, and that we can have more trusting and cooperative relationships with our dogs when we use force-free methods. Why then do we persist in “correcting” our dogs? Why are traditional obedience classes still common? Why is the public fascinated by TV trainers who advocate correction methods based on the dominance theory? After 30 years, why aren’t we getting it?
The Positive Paradigm
A commitment to reward based training requires a paradigm shift. Whether, like me, you see dogs as spiritual beings in dog bodies, or you view them as “just dogs”, these creatures share this planet with us and deserve to be treated with kindness and respect. There is no reason to use pain, fear, force, or intimidation when less invasive and less aversive methods will work just as well and with fewer risks. But it takes effort to break old habits, to see things in a new light, to let go of “tradition”, and to open ourselves up to seeing the world from another’s point of view, especially when that “other” is another species. Examining ourselves, our history, our motives, and our desires can be taxing. It’s just easier to keep doing it the old way, without thinking.
We are a culture that defends our freedoms vehemently, including our right to own dogs. We also recognize the need to protect those that can’t protect themselves. Every state in the country has laws defining and prohibiting animal cruelty and abuse. Yet little abuses happen daily right under our noses and we overlook them by calling it “training”. Training collars, including those that produce an electric shock, are available for sale everywhere and could easily be considered tools of abuse, yet we condone their use in the name of “training”. Funny thing is, those that advocate the use of these items have developed a wide range of euphemisms to describe them - slip chain, power steering, nick, tap, buzz, tickle. If they are so safe and effective, why do they need to hide behind these obfuscations? Let’s tell it like it is and stop the madness!
Hopefully, by now I have convinced you to throw away your “training collars”. But then what? Those were your primary means of communication and control of your dog. As a necessary step in the paradigm shift, you may now feel powerless to control or train your dog in any way. Good! That will prompt you to look for new ideas and options. When I first made the switch away from traditional training, it took me a full year of having my dogs not wear collars at home to break myself of the habit of grabbing those collars any time I felt the need to reposition or stop my dog. That feeling of helplessness was instrumental in my learning to communicate with them better and to actually teach them words for the things I needed from them - inside, outside, wait, touch my hand, move out of my way, etc.
Learn to listen to your dog
Dogs do what works for them. If barking at the door gets you to let them out, then they will keep barking at the door. But if barking at the door never gets your attention or gets you to go to the door, eventually your dog will give up barking at the door in favor of a more rewarding behavior. Behavior that is rewarded tends to increase. Behavior that is not rewarded tends to fade away. You can’t really teach a dog what NOT to do. You can only teach what TO do. Make a point to notice what your dog is doing right - resting at your feet, playing quietly, waiting patiently, following you. These are behaviors we want to reward. Your dog will tell you if your training efforts are on track and working.
To be clear, positive training is not passive or permissive. It takes a great deal of attention and discipline to be consistent, active, and creative when it comes to raising our dogs with positive methods. It’s easy, and perhaps reflexive, to just say “No!” It takes knowledge and practice to be proactive and patient.
Where knowledge ends, violence begins. This could not be truer than in dog training. Every time a person yells at a dog, yanks a collar, or swats a rump it is a clear indication of the limits of their knowledge. When we don’t know what to do to accomplish our goals or solve a problem we get frustrated and upset. So the obvious solution to most, if not all, of our dog problems is educating ourselves. The Culture Clash by Jean Donaldson and The Power of Positive Dog Training by Pat Miller are great places to start. We must learn how dogs “work” and to apply the science of learning effectively if we want to live in harmony with them and treat them humanely. Our society continues to shift away from corporal punishment and authoritarian methods with our children, so the day is sure to come when those methods are no longer accepted or tolerated with dogs. And that can’t happen soon enough if you ask me.