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Dog Training Methods, Myths and Transparency

I have probably seen, heard of and or tried just about every documented dog training method that exists, I want to be the best I can at my craft so this means that I constantly search for better ways to train the dogs I live and work with.

I had a link sent to me recently by a client who had come across a trainer on Facebook having yet another dig at certain dog training methods. I believe somewhere there is a marketing guru that gives this advice

If you want to boost your business, just splurge every chance you get that you only train positively and those that don’t have not stumbled upon the fountain of knowledge yet.

I am all for positive training, my all time favourite training method is my training in drive system, but I know full well its limitations in some circumstances and of course with some owners, so it is pointless pretending that is the only method I use.

I read what this fellow had written and shook my head at what I was reading, it wasn’t so much the poor advice he was giving but the lack of respect he has for his peers in the dog training field. No one knows it all and can fix every dog, no one, so saying you can do it better than everyone is simply false propaganda.

The day after I read his writing I had a client come to see me with their dog, they asked what “specifically” was I going to do as they had been to three other trainers that had provided them nothing but wind. The lady in specific was searching for “an effective trainer that uses punishment“, she said.

I don’t like to use the term punishment to describe the way a client should interact with their dog. I think it comes with a feeling that indicates I want them to be angry, mean or harsh with their dog, which of course is not what I am striving for.

I questioned her a little more and some time revealed that she had been drawn to the advertising some of these guys put out telling how anyone that doesn’t train purely positively is in the dark ages and that they would show superior results.

She had attended training with three of them now and this is what her description of the sessions where: –

Trainer 1

She was quite harsh with me, seemed quite happy to “correct” me all the way through the lesson, she was telling me left right and centre how and what I was doing wrong. When I allowed my dog some slack in the leash so the head halter was not constantly pulling on his face she screeched “No! No! No!, leash freedom is equal to no rules! Keep that leash tight, don’t give him a millimeter” she screamed.

Trainer 2

He was quite nice, he told me that we won’t be using any corrections at all, just like his website stated, because corrections cause the dog stress. He followed on by telling me not to feed my dog any food for 3 days, nothing. Then offer food for a recall. The trainer said if my dog doesn’t come, don’t feed him for a further 3 days.

Trainer 3

She attempted to manage my dog on a halter also, my dog fought the halter until she gave up and told me that my dog has severe behaviour problems and needs medication.

So my client was looking for results not ideals.

I have worked with a lot of trainers over my time that use a variety of methods, some of the more common methods I have seen used and labelled positive, I have listed below.

Make the dog hungry

I have no problem with cutting back a dogs food, I have no problem creating a dog that is hungry so I can make use of a higher food drive, but I don’t think or pretend that in the initial stages the dog will not feel some stress when meal times go by and there is no food.

I do think that is controllable and manageable and so if I think it will have benefit, I might direct a client to “deregulate meals”. Now this doesn’t mean starve the dog, but rather take away the security of dinner time and offer it back in exchange for some work.

Is this easier on the dog than say a physical correction? I don’t think it is for some dogs no, I think if you dropped a dogs meals for 3 days some would rather be corrected many times rather than feel constant hunger and therefore stress that may come with it, whilst some dogs wouldn’t care at all.

Head Halters

Do I feel that the head halter is less stressful than say a Martingale collar or a Prong collar? Sometimes yes and sometimes no, and of course it depends on how it is used. Many people label  head halters a positive piece of training equipment and they are wrong or lying.

I think as some label it positive, others use them as they feel they will be seen in a more positive light.

Clicker Training

Ideally clicker training is marker training and I feel that marker training is a great way to communicate with your dog. I don’t use a clicker a lot but have no problem with those that do. The problem often comes when suggesting that there are no negatives, no stress or no consequences involved.

Asking the dog to complete a task and then not clicking and rewarding when the dog makes a mistake will add stress. It has to, the dog was performing the task to gain the reward and when it doesn’t achieve that reward, that loss is the pressure that helps remove the wrong behaviour the dog offered (negative punihsmet).

Again no problem with any of this as long as the people selling this method aren’t trying to do so on the purely positive wave.

Shaping

A while ago the term shaping emerged as a system that had the dog offer behaviours in order to achieve a reward, a no stress, pressure method. In behaviour work, “shaping” is called an “extinction burst”.

The dog in training is offered a reward but that reward is withheld until the dog offers the correct behaviour, if the behaviour is simplistic and the dog figures it out early, it will be rewarded and all is well, but be aware that if the dog tries a number of behaviours with none of them being correct, stress, and a lot of it can occur.

Again there is no problem with this as long as we are not pretending it doesn’t happen.

I don’t avoid the use of dog training aids or tools based on public opinion, politics or how I will be seen, instead I choose tools based on how effective they will be at getting my client the best results.

I find more often than not people are not looking to fit into a group, an ideal or politically correct movement, instead they just want help with their dog and have be made to feel guilty about how they could have avoided this problem if a year ago they were more proactive.

Some protest and attack those that use some tools or methods, saying that these tools should be banned. Many of them haven’t used the tools at all, but can state that of course they cause harm, are cruel, don’t work and are many other things that are untrue.

Do the people who would banish aversive tools really believe they can solve every dog problem with every dog both now and in the future, or do they simply not care?

Have they decided on a method that works for them and in their situation that they find works, and believe that it will work on all dogs, everywhere in every situation, forever ?

I say forever because if a tool is banned it will stay banned.

It is a real shame that people focus so much on promoting themselves as better trainers because of the methods or tools that they use, rather than on the results they get.

Can we really take the chance at removing a training or management tool from the available choices because we are 100% sure that we will never, ever need it again on any dog, any time in any situation?

Because that is what is being said…

I had a friend of mine stay a couple of days at our home, she is also a dog trainer by profession and runs a nice business of her own. She dropped in on a few consults to see how things are done and after seeing a few of the dogs that I had that day, she said quote “I don’t know how you do it, these are the worst behaved, most frightening dogs I have ever seen, and you are getting them moving forward in a very short time“.

She doesn’t “attract” the clientele that I seem to,  I have a reputation as the guy that won’t turn any dog away, and I won’t, but I also won’t pretend that all dogs can be rehabbed purely by rewards, this isn’t always possible, practical or effective.

I guess one message that I would like to pass to other trainers or behaviourists that read this blog is:

Try to take a proactive approach towards others in our field, instead of discrediting them, highlighting what they can’t do or things they use that you wouldn’t, be a professional and be confident in the work that you offer, those who are confident don’t need to attack others, their work and results speak volumes.

My overall advice to anyone looking for someone to help train their dog is as follows: –

Pet dog that needs basic obedience: – How fast do you want to learn? a good Private Trainer will get you farther than a group class faster, but of course you pay for that. The main consideration is making sure the trainer you choose meets your needs, I personally would not choose a trainer by the method they use but the results they get with dogs like yours.

Pet Dogs that needs behaviour modification for problems such as aggression etc: – This one is more complex because the first consideration you need to make is that, you will not have endless chances to overcome this problem. Some problems are hard enough to solve even on the first attempt. A dog that has been presented with many methods is one that will become resilient to change.

Next is that, you need to see a Behaviourist not a trainer, the difference is that trainers teach steps and behaviourists work on the psychological aspects of your dog. I still feel that assessment of the behaviourist may be best done by making sure they have worked with these problems previously, with dogs like yours (in terms of temperament) and have some good results behind them.

Qualifications are nice but not essential and I would prefer experience over qualifications, but seek both if you can get them.

Working Dogs: – Your run of the mill pet dog trainer may struggle with working line dogs, they are often more driven, resistant to some reward styles, fast and at times resistant to pressure. If you have a working line dog, choose your trainer well as you will find many that will be out of their depth with these types of dogs. If your working dog develops a behaviour problem then you will need a behaviourist that is also familiar with working with them and how to deal with them. Results speak volumes here.

Sport Dogs: – This can be tricky too as most dogs that compete at top levels have a foundation structure that needs to be adhered too all the way through the training program. Dogs that have trained in one foundation then had other layers applied over the top often look confused and inaccurate. You can’t un-teach something, so if you are using a method and it is working, stick with it. This in hindsight means, choose your method well.

Someone who does well with their dog may not do well with yours at all, there are a number of reasons for this including the very common one, not all people are trained to teach others.

I think in today’s world, time is short, but know that for every hour of good training you put into your dog, you get back 100 good hours in return!

Do the math, it is totally worth it!

Now remember this is a Blog, so share with us your thoughts!

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19 comments

  1. I have worked at a shelter for years and have been involved in hundreds of rescues. This financial year alone I have had to get hair scrunchie’s removed from 3 different cats necks that became embedded (other items also from other cats) and I have seen about 4 dogs with collars and rope embedded. (just this year alone)

    I have seen many adult dogs who panic once we have put a lead on their necks obviously for the first time. They yelp, crocodile roll and take a lot of counter conditioning to get them to trust the leash and handler. Any tool can be misused.

    I personally assess an animal, use the most positive methods I can to help the animal and will use other training techniques as required which produces the least amount of stress to the animal that will work. Banning scrunchie’s, collars, leads or any other tools because people use them incorrectly or negligently is futile. We do need positive trainers and education.

    We need trainers that understand that animals learn from the application of stress but know how much to apply and when to recover the animal to maximise learning and build confidence. Not any different to how people build resilience and confidence. I see evidence of this in our school system. We are all given exams which increase our stress levels. Once we finish the exams we develop confidence for the next one and so it goes on.

    But we see children sometimes that show avoidance, never turn up to exams again, quit school or even give up half way through an exam. Once this works for them they repeat it and it becomes a learned response.

    Dogs are the same. A good trainer recognises where the dog might decide to give up and knows what to do to assist the dog build that confidence and not quit, regardless of tools, its about the dogs ability and the trainers ability to facilitate that growth and confidence building. Its cruel no matter what tool you use if you push the dog to quit. Courses can teach you principle and theory but experience helps you recognise these precious points in a dog where a trainer can turn that stress into a learning block.

    I wish more trainers pointed less fingers and spent more time in positive discussion to facilitate learning. An old skool Koelher method trainer is better then a dog left to his own devices, at least the person is trying to move forward and making an effort. Lets foster effort and award enthusiasm, after all, Australia does not have government accredited schools for everyone to go to in each city and town to learn to become a perfect dog trainer. Most people in Australia learn from practice and from meeting others that are like minded. Not perfect but healthy.

    If there is one piece of wisdom that I think I have, is that if you want to convince someone that your right, build a relationship of trust then share the knowledge. A person who is wanting to learn will use the best methods and stay clear of things that do not work or are less effective or cruel. Throwing rocks just makes your job to convince people harder.

    Cheers to moving forward, respecting each other and the never ending process of learning about animals. With each year of working with animals I am convinced that there is a lot more to learn then there was to learn the year before 😉

  2. Great post Steve – comments on here bring back the old adage that “put three dog trainers/handlers in a room and the only thing that two of them will agree on is that the third one is doing it all wrong”!!!!!! Wish more people would understand your common-sense approach to matching training techniques with dog/handler skills – as you have said many times, it is the humans that require the training in order to achieve the goals they have for their dogs. You can have hours of fun throwing a stick for your dog but the stick can also be used to beat your dog – should we be calling for a ban on all sticks??????

  3. I have met a fair few rescue dogs that were pretty fearful too and I would say the number one thing that seemed to trigger a shut down would be the raising of a voice. Suggests to me that a lot of dogs that end up in rescue aren’t being mistreated by tools of the inanimate kind, more like “tools” of the human kind. You can do a fair bit of damage with a raised voice or a raised hand. I don’t think any tool should be banned particularly as you can abuse a dog with no tool at all. I have to admit to being sceptical about both prong collars and e-collars before seeing them used. Having seen them used you see that they are being unfairly demonised. Conversely I have lost count of how many dogs on head halters i have seen pawing at their faces going down the street, yet no one seems to think they are a bad idea. If we work on the basis that everything has a potential for misuse by idiots then we might as well not leave the house.
    What does make me angry though is the fact that several people I know who have had bull breeds with some dog aggression have been told by positive trainers that their dog can never be cured and should be PTS. If you are a doctor and it is beyond your remit to assist a patient it is your duty to give your patient an opportunity to be referred to a specialist who has specialised knowledge and tools to assist. Why do some trainers not give their clients the same courtesy if a dog does not fall within their area of expertise or capacity.

  4. Great blog, Steve. And I hope this message finds you well. I’d like to add that I have had an experience working with 2 Border Collies some time ago. Both were REALLY REALLY soft and timid dogs – way more than I’ve seen in the softest of BC’s. When I began working with them, I used a very soft, positive approach utilising food treat rewards (I tried tug as well, but that was too over the top for them at that stage). In both individual cases, they shut down on me. I introduced the good use of the e-collar at working level stim. So soft were these dogs that the maximum level required was around 3 or 4 on a 127 stim-level collar. Using the collar stim as a negative reinforcement coupled with positive reward brought both these dogs out of their shells and both of them progressed very quickly over a period of only 2 weeks or so, by which stage their confidence had bloomed to embracing drive training with tug, not to mention learning really successful obedience responses.

    As I mentioned Steve ….. excellent blog and I concur with everything you have expressed. I love reward based training, especially drive training, but to religiously preclude the use of a technique that could successfully correct an undesirable behaviour and have it become a better/safter behaviour only serves to narrow the field of training vision.

    • For those that don’t know, Judi Buchan owns and operates Pro K9 in Melbourne, she is a good friend and skilled trainer and behaviourist and yes I agree with her post 🙂

      I too have come across dogs that’s methods that the “textbook” would advise against, has been their savior.

      Great post Jude…

  5. After going to many trainers over the years, I’ve come to the conclusion that those who promote themselves as avoiding a particular method tend to so because they can’t promote themselves as consistently and quickly achieving results!

    That goes for trainers who promote themselves as “positive only” as well as those who promote themselves as “no food/no bribery” or “no electric collars” or whatever. In each case, the trainer is trying to distract you from what they don’t know or can’t do, by focusing on what they refuse to use!

    I’ve also found that the best trainers tend to have something positive to say about most methods, even if they don’t tend to use that method themselves.

  6. I think that certain types of training equipment should be banned, or at least restricted, but not because “we are 100% sure that we will never, ever need it again on any dog, any time in any situation?” but because the potential for their misuse and abuse is too high.

    Take remote control shock collars as an example; can they be used to effectively and humanely train a dog? Quite possibly. Are they ever the only option that could work on a particular dog? Probably not. Can they be misused or abused to completely destroy a dog? Definitely!

    Consider that for every dog that is successfully trained using such a device there will be many people who hear about its success, and a proportion of them who have minimal dog training experience who will think “oh wow, shock collars are great”, buy one for $30 off ebay, and then do massive psychological damage to their dog with it.

    It’s not just that first dog you need to consider, but the welfare of every dog that is trained by copycats. If there is any option that won’t go so terribly wrong when novice trainers copy it that could combat the same problem, it is the better option.

    • Thanks Megan, I think the point on “how many dogs are destroyed” is a bit over the top. I have been working with remote collars for over 12 years and have never seen a dog “destroyed”. I have seen people that went a little hard, went a little soft and who had lousy timing, but the dog was no worse off than dogs I have seen confused in other methods.

      Whilst it is possible copy cats may do what you say, they aren’t as common as you may think, I also think that you don’t give people enough credit.

      I have taught many clients to use a remote collar, not every one of them have got it technically correct, but none have caused the “massive psychological damage” your referring too, personally I think that is scare mongering.

      I have seen mixed up dogs being trained positively, through compulsion and through targeting, the common denominator was not the tool or the method, but the person advising.

      I have met a number of people that screwed up the LAT game, should we ban that? Of course not but just like the remote collar, can be miss used.

      Once we rate the human population to dumb to use certain tools, I guess we should jump on the BSL wagon and say were also to dumb to own certain breeds.

      • I imagine it depends on the context you’re working in. I worked in a shelter, and though it was for just a short time I saw quite a few dogs who had been damaged to some extent by various aversive training methods that their previous owners had no doubt copied from people who were better at training dogs. I personally fostered a toy sized dog that was rescued from the pound where she had a destruction order for how viciously defensive she was about being handled, especially around her collar, and she had scabs on the front of her neck from a shock collar. She was about 6 months old. She came around pretty easily with some gentle handling so she wasn’t “destroyed”, but she would have been, literally, if the rangers at the pound had had their way. Many other shelter dogs that were hand-shy, collar-shy, clicker-shy (ie “remote”-shy) and so forth were not so lucky and would hold their fears for the rest of their lives. Perhaps saying “completely destroyed” is a bit melodramatic but either way, it’s not worth a little bit of human convenience to train some dogs when so many end up the worse for it.

        • I worry that most all people I know in rescue, don’t have a clear view of what the dogs lives were before the dog entered rescue, but you seem to have “no doubt” about all these abused dogs pasts?

          It is easy to make assumptions, just pretty hard to make good ones.

          I really think given my experience working with dogs over the past near 30 years, I have a pretty clear view of how dogs are treated, trained and raised and how easy it is for people to pin a past on dogs that is more emotionally based rather than factually based.

          Can’t say I have met too many toy breeds that were so out out of control they needed an electric collar either, but if scabs were present, they would have been necrotic sores. Caused by neglect (leaving the collar on too long) rather than collar use or miss use.

          I have seen flat collars grow into dogs skin from being left on too.

          Again everything you raise is relevant, but it highlights a people problem not a tool problem doesn’t it?

          • Leaving a shock collar on too long certainly falls under the “misuse” category in my mind.

            This is reminding me of gun control debate: Guns don’t kill people, people kill people. But people with guns can kill people better than people without guns. Equipment doesn’t abuse dogs, people abuse dogs, but people with aversive equipment can abuse dogs better than people without aversive equipment.

          • Again I agree, but as flat collars grow into dogs necks by being left on too long, should they be banned too? Or should we address the root cause? Should we ban dog food because people over feed their dogs until they are obese? Or perhaps ban dog parks because they undoubtedly create more dog aggressive dogs? Should we ban small dogs because they are a prey target for bigger dogs? lol It can get pretty slanted can’t it.

  7. Very well stated and I agree, use the sytem and tools required for the job, no more no less. Some people have never faced a “hard” or determined aggressive dog who does not care about the “treat” and may have a psycological or temperament problem that requires special handling and not all “positive”. Thank you for your common sense approach. cheers

    • Hey Roger, thanks for your comment, I think the whole thing is blown out of proportion and I wanted to weigh in with some common sense.

      • Although I dislike the terms restriction and regulation and all they imply, sometimes I think licensing potentially harmful devices might help. Unfortunately, one cannot licence overfeeding, behavioural indulgence, poor clicker technique – damaging as they can be. I guess I anthropomorphise my dog when I don’t want to use any nociceptive stimulus to train him. I can only understand that, for myself, given a choice, my gut reaction is that I would prefer instruction rather than a painful prick sensation. However, if my life depended on learning something essential quickly, or even if it just promised to impart that learning more efficiently, I might agree to be jolted. But I’m not sure… I have a choice, after all, which also plays a part in learning. Right technique for right dog… I’m back to regulation. I, too, trust other humans to want to do the right thing and to try hard but nociception going wrong with the best of intentions somehow seems harder to watch than over feeding..

        • It is all relevant Cindy I do agree, and overfeeding is of course more common than any other type of abuse (I guess you could call it), I would not disagree with regulation of some or all tools really, but I would be cautious of who made the regulations.

          We have to remember too that many dogs die daily from obesity, whilst I don’t know of any that have died by the use or misuse of a training tool.

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