Dog Training aids and tools are a hotly debated topic when it comes to dog training and rehab, they probably get more attention than the useful topics do, sadly.
Many people may not know this but in my field, dog trainers and behaviourists are often defined by the methods and tools they use rather than whether they are effective or not, crazy as it sounds.
List of some dog training aids
- Flat collar
- Head Halter
- No pull harness
- Check Chain
- Food Reward
- Prong Collar
- Remote Collar
- Slip Leash
- Anti Bark collar
- Target stick
- Food Treat
- and the list goes on…
Now I bet you are looking at some of these such as flat collar, food treat and clicker and wondering what the…?
Well read on and I guarantee that I will make sense.
The way that a dog perceives something will without question determine whether he or she finds it rewarding or aversive.
Now I want you think carefully about this scenario.
You arrive home and walk up to your dog with a food reward, your dog takes the treat happily, what quadrant does your dog receive this in?
Positive Reinforcement right? CORRECT!
Now what about if you have a second piece of the same food, the same smile on your face and you walk up to a dog on the street the same way and offer food, that’s also Positive Reinforcement right?
It very much depends on the dogs social values. If the dog is fearful of strangers, you walking up, with or without food is POSITIVE PUNISHMENT.
What does this mean? Well it means that regardless of your intentions, you may be punishing a dog just by showing up. WITH FOOD.
Imagine if a person brings you a dog that has been pulling on leash for 2 years, he is wearing a check chain.
You pull on that check chain because you wish to correct the pulling, but the dog is so used to pulling on leash, he or she doesn’t care, they don’t see it as anything aversive, regardless of what you intended.
Any accomplished Clicker Trainer will have likely met a dog that was frightened of the clicker, does not matter though, they just pair the clicker with food, perhaps suppress the clicker sound with a fabric pouch and push on, right?
Why because a clicker is harmless, and it IS HARMLESS. When the dog first hears the clicker the dog is fearful, so should we not remove the clicker?
Well I imagine this dogs comfort zone is so small that it will be fearful of many things, and the only way to help this dog live stress free is move to the moon and live alone.
Stress is a part of evolution and learning regardless of what we try or intend to do. Spending your life labelling one method or training aid aversive is futile because as little as offering food can cause stress in a dog…
Many people are averse to punishment, but little do they know that many training aids can be used for Negative reinforcement not punishment.
Just so you know, Negative Reinforcement is when you REMOVE an aversive. So suggest that you were walking down the street and your dog walked past a distraction.
Your dog chooses to follow your verbal heel cue and does. This means that the leash never goes tight, this is Negative Reinforcement.
The heel behaviour becomes stronger (reinforced).
Some of MY thoughts on some well known dog training aids
The Check Chain
This training aid has been instrumental in the training of millions of dogs, no one can argue that. Some people call these horrific, torture devices, yet many dogs have survived them and become trained and still had happy lives, loving their check chain wielding owners.
I personally do not use them other than in IPO training as the rules (at least used to) state that the dog must wear a fur saver collar.
I find that most people struggle to use them in a way that aids their training so don’t recommend them.
When used as a management device, they are often thought of as a choke chain as the dog pulls with constant pressure on a walk, choking itself, this is miss use though.
The are often strong (not cheap brands) and will not slip over the dogs head so offer a degree of security for the dog and handler.
They can often fail to be effective as they slip down the neck where they have little effect on the dog.
There are various types of head collar, there is some misunderstanding that these are not an aversive aid, which is totally incorrect. The pressure they apply is distributed through thin straps that run across the dogs nose and muzzle nerves which for some dogs
can be quite uncomfortable.
I find most dogs wearing these have constant pressure on the leash, meaning that there is no engagement formed in the walk and when distraction appears, they go back to pulling.
They can cause some dogs to feel trapped and this has known to increase reactivity on many dogs I have worked with.
Most people report that leash pulling by their dog reduces as soon as this is fitted, no real training required which is why they can be popular.
They can constantly annoy dogs regardless of their behaviour without any way to escape. A dog that lunges into a head halter can injure it’s neck.
Front attach harness
Worn on the body and chest of the dog, this harness has a leash attachment in the centre of the dogs chest, this means when the dog tries to pull on leash, he or she is mechanically disadvantaged by being pulled off balance.
Like most of these devices, they display an instant change of feel for the owner who is holding the leash, less pulling.
I don’t use these either but, I would use these over a head halter as there is no nerve pain like with head halters, although I have seen quite severe rub marks from where the straps pull on the skin.
I don’t feel they create a relationship or engagement either as there is still constant pulling in most cases, just feels less to the owner.
Most people report that leash pulling by their dog reduces as soon as this is fitted, no real training required which is why they can be popular.
Pulling the dogs skeleton off line under load has chiropractic concerns for me. Rub marks on the dog from straps.
Worn around the neck, the body of the collar can be made from various materials, nylon, leather etc. The body of the collar is separated by a chain or nylon section which when pulled by the handler or dog will reduce the circumference of the collar, thus providing a level of feedback to the dog.
Can be effective for many dogs that are not serious leash pullers or those that have reasonable impulse control or low drive.
I have never seen one of these cause an injury to a dog. They are a safe collar in the fact that they will not slip over the dogs head when fitted correctly. They can be used to give feedback to a dog with leash pressure.
Dogs that are higher in drive, have been pulling a long time into another collar, have low impulse control may just ignore this collars effect.
Anti Pull Corrective Harness
These come by a few names but I have grouped them into harnesses that apply an aversive by tightened somehow.
Again owners often report a reduction in pulling right away. These can tighten between the dogs chest and front shoulder and cause some serious abrasions and inflammation.
The goal is to add an aversive each time the leash goes tight, which reduces the likliness that pulling will continue.
Instant reduction in pulling felt by the handler
Does not promote handler engagement, dog can feel trapped, aversive without escape for some dogs, marks, abrasions and lesions when used sometimes.
Prong / Pinch Collar
There are many that love them and many that hate them, which I have no problem with, but I do feel that to judge a training aid, you must investigate the various ways they can be used and then decide. Many people will condemn the use of this tool without ever using it, seeing it used or learning about it.
To me that is sort of like a kid saying he doesn’t like a vegetable that he has never tasted…
The prong or pinch collar is a training aid that is a similar design to the martingale collar, the body of the collar is made from separate links and the collar is formed by a chain in between.
When the chain is pulled, the collar circumference becomes smaller and the links “pinch” the skin. How much discomfort or pain is dependent on how hard you pull the chain, just like with a check chain, martingale, head collar etc.
Can be effective when other tools have failed, can give control back to handlers that are struggling and can be a life saver to many dogs.
There is so much superstition, propaganda and crap by some people about these tools, but most have never seen them used correctly, or even seen them used at all.
The look of the collar is challenging but in reality when used correctly they are an incredible training aid.
They cause no injury in correct use.
Remote Training Collar (Vibration)
This is a collar that fits to the dog and the handler has a remote control. The handler presses a button and the dog feels a vibration, sometimes of varying intensity.
It is thought that as the collar only vibrates it is harmless, but in fact many dogs are concerned or fearful of the vibration when felt. Most can be conditioned to overcome the concerns if you want to.
The vibration can signal the dog that a behaviour cue is coming, or get attention etc.
Distance communication can be achieved without the need for a leash etc after initial training. No emotional connection to the vibration sensation attributed to the handler unless you desire to.
Can pair the vibration with reward to motivate dogs, like a clicker.
The vibration can be too much for some dogs and not enough for others.
Remote Collar (static pulse)
Great for getting instant attention from highly emotional, irrational people that do not understand them. The simple mention can often send people into emotional spirals, causing them to spout fairy stories of abuse that they have never really witnessed.
But when it comes to dog training and behaviour modification, these can be one of the most effective training aids on the planet.
Can they be misused? What can’t be misused?
By learning how to use a training aid correctly you are EDUCATING yourself. Education always is better than IGNORANCE.
These can be used in so many ways, from motivating a dog to adding pressure to a behaviour, to calming a dog.
The range means that you can still communicate with your dog when there is distance between you and the dog.
Can be paired with reward, sound, vibration etc to help a dog learn more clearly.
People do not understand the correct use and only feel that they can be misused, that is a shame. Many dogs will be put to sleep when this training aid is ruled out, and have been.
They can hold dog tags and be an attractive accessory to attach your leash to if and or when your dog is well trained.
Leash attachment point, some are attractive.
They often provide so little feedback dogs pull into them, choke themselves, become frustrated and resistant to leash pressure.
Food rewards can form part of a reinforcement strategy to define and strengthen behaviours in some (most) dogs.
Used well, complex behaviours can be taught and strengthened.
Used poorly can strengthen unwanted behaviour, cause stress, create an overweight dog or just not reinforce anything.
In just about every debate that stems from people disagreeing about training methods, there usually comes the gem of information that goes something like this “there are better ways“.
This is usually delivered with a smug look and head nod, but these better ways seem to be super elusive because there are so many dogs that never find these better ways, they must be well hidden.
Promise of gold at the end of the rainbow
No one ever seems to find it.
The school of thinking that everything must hurt or reward is very limited in its thinking. Training aids can be used to reframe values of certain stimulus (counter condition), they can be used to reduce the likeliness that a behaviour will be displayed as often (punishment) or increase the likeliness a behaviour will be displayed (reinforcement).
- They can help a struggling owner regain confidence and control so that they can enjoy more life with their dog.
- They can help you train behaviours and discourage behaviours
- and they can create problems when used incorrectly… ALL OF THEM.
This means that you should invest time and effort into learning the very best ways to help your dog learn and succeed and this should include learning to use training aids that can help you and or your dog.
Now when I am working with a dog, I take its current behaviour and history into account and I choose to use what I believe will be the most successful strategy to achieve your goals with the dog you have, right now.
I will not choose a system or tool based on what I like or don’t, I like to give you success, so that is my goal.
Whilst it is true that many dogs can be very effectively trained through the addition and removal or rewards, some dogs just cannot from where they are in their lives now.
Or if they could, the process may literally take years whilst the dog displays dangerous behaviours and the owner looses hope.
Training Aids are Training AIDS, they help us train dogs.
This does not mean they define how we train dogs, or at least they shouldn’t.
When we offer a service to you it is to help you understand your dog and modify his or her behaviour to be more in line with what you need, be it a dog that is no longer aggressive or one that is more responsive or obedient, we will deliver you the MOST EFFECTIVE strategy we know, regardless of what other “professionals” use, don’t use or think.
This will include certain training aids in most cases and will also include how to best use them for the betterment of you and your dog.
The last resort
I have met many trainers who choose to avoid using certain tools but will openly say that they would use one as a “last resort” and others who prefer “death before discomfort”.
There is a problem with that train of thought and that is that, if you started with food and flat collar, then tried a head halter and clicker, then a no pull harness and T Touch and then and then..
What is actually happening is: –
- Your dog is learning to resist every strategy to change his or her behaviour you come up with.
- The problem behaviour is being rehearsed longer, thus self reinforcing it
- The chances are that if the behaviour is dangerous, the time it is taking to reach the effective strategy may see the dog do something unforgivable whilst we held off the “last resort”.
- When you do give in and go for the last resort, your dog will resist much more when you do go there.
- Your losing hope that this dog will ever change…
What does all this mean?
Well it means “never say never”, one day you may find yourself in a position with a dog that just will not respond to anything you do, and you cannot go on with the current situation and could not live with the decision to kill the dog.
I am here for you, your dog will not be hurt, worse or shut down, he or she will develop confidence and skills to learn to function in your world much better.
Is every dog curable?
Well define curable, every dog bar those with inoperable medical problems can get better, probably much, MUCH better than you think, they just may not be able to do this with one strategy only.
Many training aids could be used to abuse dogs
In fact, many dogs are abused in just the way they are bred, raised, trained or not trained, ignored, treated, fed, exercised and by the type of relationship that they hold with their owners and others.
Look at feeding for example, one of the most common reasons for joint problems, health problems, early death is obesity in dogs. This occurs due to either the type of food we feed them or the amount of food we feed them and these are then proportionate to exercise.
There are countries that like eating dogs, and burning them alive to do so, but how many people who spend hours daily rubbishing certain training aids are also working as hard to help these dogs that are BEING BURNED ALIVE AND EATEN?
They are not, why not?
They seem so genuinely dedicated to helping you avoid certain training aids and trainers, they run out of time for the dogs that are on fire?
Owners are the problem!
Well maybe but they can also be the solution, it is true that when we work with people they leave us and make mistakes, and yes they made them before seeing us, they never seem to make them on purpose though.
Some people are just not good dog trainers, and that is fine, we try and make them the best they can be and we in a very high percentage of cases do just that.
The only way to train a dog is with love and kindness
Sure, but when you love a person you may also stop them from doing something they want to do for their own good right?
How about if your friend was addicted to dangerous drugs and you forcibly had to stop them taking drugs and lock them in a room, is that cruel?
Maybe you could just be kind to them and say “I love you” and they would beat their addiction like that, or maybe not…
Next time you see two dogs fighting and heading towards killing each other, call out “I love you” and see how fast they run to you as friends…
Two categories of dogs
There is your common house pet dog, these dogs are not too bad and respond well to most basic training methods, training aids and systems.
With little work they can really learn to be great dogs, great companions and function well enough in life.
Then there are the second category…
- These dogs have anything from serious to severe behaviour problems
- The behaviours are deep seated in the dog or developing fast
- The dog is emotionally invested in displaying the behaviour and is very resistant to being diverted from this course.
- The dog may be a higher drive dog or a dog with lower thresholds to drives such as prey or defence.
- The dog may have been traumatised or highly rewarded in a behaviour.
The second category of dogs are dogs that are most common that come to us for board and rehab or behaviour consults with me.
Many vets and trainers have failed to make any difference to these dogs, or have never ventured into any training with dogs at this level, and nor should they.
The confusion comes when people think the dogs that I work with and that need training aids are the same as the dogs they work with, and that their very basic systems and treats will change things, when history has repeated itself so many times where these strategies have failed the dogs.
It simply comes down to them underestimating the type of dog and problem and failing because they assume every dog will give up anything for a food reward.
I have spoken to other trainers that have told me of the better ways, whilst all their clientele have small, low drive, pet dogs that can be a little naughty, but this is not my world, so I say “do what works for you“.
How do you sift through all of this and choose the right path?
I only know the best path for me, and I make choices based on what I see and make rational choices.
Here are a few of my own tips
- I approach things with an open mind
- I am objective to what I have heard until I see this myself
- If someone tries to steer me away, I ask myself why
- If I am given an opportunity to evaluate something, I try and see how this could be useful, not what is wrong with it.
- If a professional in the field is always bagging out the competition, I avoid them, real professionals focus on helping their clients not what they can find wrong with the competition.
I want to step out of my normal blog etiquette here and say this: –
I will help people with their dogs, and if other trainers, behaviourists or vets don’t like how I do it, without seeing me work a dog, then that’s tough shit.
I have NEVER, EVER, worked a dog in a system with a training aid in front of a trainer, vet or behaviourist that has said that the dog is experiencing cruel, harsh or inhumane treatment.
I have dozens of vets and trainers refer dogs to me and these dogs get better.
I will work with the dogs that some others give up on and kill, this is far from a brag.
It is not easy to work here, many days, many dogs’ that come here are violent, dangerous, have bite histories, have killed other dogs, badly mauled people, bitten their owners, hurt themselves and much worse.
They are far from easy dogs that will shine with a food treat, BUT, these dogs often do not know any better.
They lack social skills, they are not educated well enough to use others strategies to solve their fears and stressors, they may have poor breeding or may have been traumatised or they may be absent enough good behaviours so enjoy the bad ones.
But it is not their fault.
And their owners love them.
I feel that if we have let them down when it comes to education, it is unfair to take their lives.
What IS cruel and inhumane is to limit how far we will go to help them.
I have worked over a dozen dogs this past month that when the dog sat next to me without trying to attack me, the owners burst into tears of joy as NO ONE has been near the dog for X years.
What collar was the dog wearing? WHO CARES? I DON’T REMEMBER!
Dog owners are not stupid people, they can make their own minds up and decide if a training system is working or not working, they can judge if their dog is suffering, stressed, in pain or being bullied, and they can see when the trainer is dedicated to help them.