The Magic Cure for dog problems

Anyone who has a dog with a problem, serious enough to seek help, is looking for the magic cure for dog problems. They feverishly search the internet, books, dvd’s, vets and every other resource known to man, or woman.

The problem seems that everyone thinks they have the magic cure to dog problems don’t they?

Me personally, I don’t feel I have the magic cure to dog problems, I focus on the dog in front of me and accept that I need to work through problems with the dog until an acceptable result is gained.

I would really like every dog I have to work with have great food drive, good prey drive, solid nerves and good understanding of marker training and work ethic, but that is an extreme rarity in dogs that come to me for help. In fact in many of the dogs I rehabilitate, they often have none of these attributes when I meet them.

So what do I do? Well I do what that specific dog needs to learn, grow and feel comfortable in previously stressful situations.

I think some people can be unconsciously selfish when they choose the cure for their dogs based on their feelings, fears and beliefs.

I think it is incredibly unprofessional for a dog trainer or behaviourist to play on the vulnerability of a client seeking help and telling them lies and myths about methods they don’t like.

A friend sent me a video recently of a dog trainer and vet in the UK debating the use of remote collars. The link is here ( and at this stage I am not asking you as the reader to agree or comment on remote collars, but look at the behaviour of the vet.

These are my thoughts though.

  • Has this vet ever trained a dog?
  • Has this vet ever rehabilitated a dog with serious or dangerous behaviour problems?
  • The vet refused to feel the stimulation of the collar, was this in fear that he would have to show that it is painless?
  • There was another person on the panel that was asked how she felt. Her first words were that she has cats not dogs, then gave advice. You know when someone asks my opinion on a subject I have no experience with, I don’t give one.
  • At the closing of the video the vet exclaims that he believes that when all dogs are pure bred they will not have behaviours problems, I might ask why over 90% of our serious board and rehab dogs are pure bred.

The vet repeats time after time that there is no reason to use cruel devices to train a dog. I gained from his point of view that he feels applying ANY discomfort to a dog is cruelty, but I am sure as a vet he would have given many dogs injections, operated on a dogs, touched painful areas of a dog during examination and perhaps installed microchips for identification. All these events cause pain, but of course as the focus is to help the dog the that’s ok, right?

Well apparently only if you’re this vet and get to choose how you cause the pain.

How about if you’re a vet and you euthanise a dog?

There seems to be a gross misunderstanding of what is cruel and what is a consequence of behaviour.

The Magic Cure for dog problems

I think the above diagram depects the divide between how many people are pushed into one of two groups, a Force free trainer or an abuser, punisher, administer of cruel tactics, but of course it is far from as simple as that.

The Magic Cure for dog problems

In an attempt to clear up this confusion I feel that the circumstances must be examined so we can help our dogs with common sense application vs. emotional reasoning.

Here is a familiar scene that I have seen many times.

A mother is in the super market with her toddler, the toddler picks up something he or she wants, like a chocolate or toy. The child is seeking positive reinforcement by taking the opportunity to self reward.

The mother takes the item off the child, this is negative punishment, because the toddler was expecting this reward and it has been removed.

The result of the punishment was the toddler started to cry, kick and scream to remove the punishment and get access to the reward (toy/chocolate).

The mother gives the item to the toddler to stop the tantrum. The child is instantly happy…

Was it right to give the item back? if yes, what was the mother reinforcing? Crying and screaming will get you what you want?

Was it wrong to remove the item causing the punishment in the first place?

Was this cruelty or abuse?

How about if she went to take the toy from the toddler and the toddler threw it on the floor and broke it and the mother gave the child a light slap on the hand (positive punishment).

Is this cruelty or abuse?

This depends on your parenting ideals, beliefs, your child, the way you were raised and many other attributes, right?

Well it actually more depends on the child, its understanding, expectations and most importantly the intensity of the slap, I feel.

These events and ones like them happen every day around us seamlessly without more than an eyebrow raised often.

The quadrants of operant conditioning often are brought up when discussing dog training and behaviour modification as if they control how the dog will behave, when in reality the dogs behaviour is not defined by the science, it is explained by it.

Meaning things can be explained by terms but you cannot force a dog to be positively reinforced by giving the dog food. If the dog is not at all motivated by the food no reinforcement will occur, ever.

Take a look at this blog by one of my trainers here Bec, “The difference between feeding and reinforcing.”.

Positive reinforcement solidifies a behaviour, negative punishment motivates the behaviour.

The value (intensity) of the food in this case will determine the punishment value, if the dog is highly motivated by the food it will feel a high amount of punishment if the food is withdrawn, in fact it may feel more punishment losing food than say if it received a leash correction.

But of course many people will decide which quadrants they will use based on their feelings not the dogs.

In the video link above, the vet says that dogs that can’t be trained to off leash reliability through positive reinforcement should always be on a leash.

I guess I would have to wonder what sort of life that would be for a dog.

The Magic Cure for dog problems
My dog Venom, enjoying life OFF LEASH

Here is another situation that people should consider.

You have a dog that goes to the dog park and has a great time playing with other dogs.

One day your walking down the street and your dog see’s a dog across the road and wants to get to the dog, but you are busy and don’t know the dog or the owner so hold your dog back by the leash.

This lack of access increases the frustration in your dog and his or her desire (drive) for the other dog goes up.

Your dog is now lunging and barking at the other dog to get access.

Whatever you do, you will be at a minimum applying negative punishment if you don’t let go of your dog.

If you offer food to your dog you could be reinforcing the behaviour you are trying to stop.

If you correct with the leash, positive punishment, your dog may choose to avoid the leash correction and come with you or feel the access to the dog is more valuable than you tugging at the leash.

Therefore right now, there is no avoiding punishment for the dog, it’s a no win situation created by not enough rules and boundaries around the reward of accessing and playing with other dogs in the beginning.

Will this dog be ok? Yes of course, this event happens thousands of times each day, just like the toddler above, no one was abused, cheated or treated with cruelty.

There is always a hindsight answer, that goes something like this “well what the owner should have done was…“.

Hindsight creates foresight. You can’t change what you did, only what you will do.

Dogs, children, human adults, you and me will experience ALL ASPECTS of operant conditioning throughout our lives, and some of us will suffer abuse.

There is a very big difference.

Dogs deserve the respect of being individuals with individual values, sensitivities and strengths, my goal when working with dogs is to help the dogs overcome behaviour problems that are or will reduce their quality of life.

I do that without cruelty, abuse or pretending that certain elements of operant conditioning are cruel or useless by design.

I observe the dogs response to stimulus, whether that be felt through touch, food, ball etc and adjust my processes to work within the dogs tolerances and values.

Dogs in my care and programs are assessed regularly for reduction in stress and anxiety, increased value of reward, increased ability to deal with pressure and healthy and respectful attachment style to their handler and trainer

These are the real welfare considerations to be aware of, not what food you feed or collar you use.

As always, feel free to share and or post a comment.

Steve Courtney

About SteveK9Pro

Steve Courtney is a Nationally Accredited Canine Behaviour Specialist, Obedience Trainer, Law Enforcement Dog Trainer and ANKC Breeder. Steve has been training dogs all his life and in these articles he shares with you his experience...

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One comment

  1. Audrey Dallapiazza

    Watching that Youtube video…well it made me want to slap him in the face. I deal with this very issue on a weekly basis. I’ve actually gotten myself in a bit of trouble for voicing my thoughts to some of these vets.
    Unless a Vet is a Veterinary Behaviorist- they need to keep their opinions to themselves. I don’t try and medically treat dogs- that is the Vet’s job…and only that. In comparison, imagine if the family doctor told a family how to raise their children…or told them what religion to practice…
    It’s just absurd.
    So basically what that Vet is saying- positive only training. Well what if that doesn’t work. Then the dog is medicated when it doesn’t need to be. Then what..the dog is euthanized. All because “we” are not allowed to tell the dog NO. “We” as trainers use different tools to help, never to hurt. Tell that same Vet to start paying attention to what “cruelty” actually looks like. Keeping a dog crated all day everyday for its entire life- that’s cruel. Using a dog for fighting- whether it be the one fighting, or the bait dogs that are used for practice rounds. Or even the momma dogs who are forced to have litter after litter and then thrown away like garbage. Better yet… have that same Vet walk into a testing facility that uses animals. THAT is the definition of CRUELTY.

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