Attitudes About Training

I found a copy of one of William Koehler’s training books in a local used bookstore. He was a trainer that worked in Hollywood, training dogs for films that I watched as a child. Had I known his training techniques then I probably would have cried before the dog got caught in a well or suffered some other fate that was geared to jerking the tears out of a 9 year old’s eyes.

The list of training aids prescribed by Mr. Koehler includes a variety of choke chains and should an owner be inclined to molly-coddle their dog, he clearly advises the use of a piece of hose or switch over a folded up newspaper. I suppose the newspaper idea caught on as the kinder corrective measure. But lest I forget, there’s the leather strap or belt, used to hit a dog, hard, and I kid you not.

Koehler’s willingness to use brute force to manage dogs is matched by his contempt for anyone that disagreed with his methods, the ‘wincers’ as he called them, a tid-bit tossing group of naive dog handlers. But as can be possible in anything, there are grains of truth and reason in his initial assertion in the book that in order to train a dog you need to get its attention. Koehler’s method of training gets a dog’s attention through a series of exercises that teach the dog that not paying attention hurts.

While training has changed over the decades, and since this is the only book of Koehler’s that I’ve read, he died in 1993, I don’t know if he, like the author of the first Monks of New Skete training book, recanted on any of his beliefs about how best to handle a dog. But what has not changed over the decades for many trainers is the attitude about the relationship people have with their dogs.

Koehler describes a dog that avoids his owner’s attempts to get a hold of him as, ‘competitive’, as opposed to say, untrained, playful, or even scared. There is no recognition that dogs may have rich and varied interests that don’t always coincide with their owner’s goals, a very different way of looking at inappropriate behaviors. A dog that is behaving aggressively because of fear is asking for something very different than a dog that is behaving aggressively and is not afraid, and your feelings about the behavior should reflect this difference. A child crying at the check-out counter at the grocery store because they can’t have a pack of bubble gum is very different from a child crying because their finger is caught in the door. Hopefully your impatience with the behavior is reserved for the former.

The beauty of using positive reinforcement when training a dog is that it does not matter why the dog is behaving aggressively, the training is not likely to make the behavior worse by scaring a fearful dog, or making an already confident angry dog more upset. It reminds me of the theme common in films, the protagonist’s motives are misunderstood, they are punished, but at the end they are redeemed, seen for the hero they truly are. If only a fearful dog’s story could be condensed into 90 minutes.

Today there are popular trainers who persist in simplifying our relationship with our dogs into that of leader and follower. All behavioral indiscretions on the part of our dogs are the result of a lack of leadership by owners or sloppy leadership, the dogs grateful when their owners step up to the plate and start taking charge. Advocates of the ‘pack leader’ theory of dog training will point to results, much the same way that William Koehler does in his training book. The ends justify the means as they say.  But does it? Getting a scared dog to behave a certain way because it is too frightened to do otherwise hardly sounds like a success to me.

In a telling clip of Cesar Millan working with a fearful American Eskimo dog, the caged dog snarls and snaps when approached, a tactic which has probably worked in the past to keep people away from it, which is the point of the behavior. A trapped dog has few choices. Unyielding to the display Cesar approaches the cage and towers over the dog who some would say ‘calms’ down, though I doubt the dog is feeling calm at all, freezing or the lack of movement does not mean that a dog is feeling good about the situation. Once leashed up and outside the cage the dog raises a paw which Cesar describes as a predatory behavior which is an indication that he needs to continue to be wary of the dog.

I don’t disagree on the latter, but paw raises have a multitude of meanings for dogs, many of which we may not fully understand, and while a paw raise may indicate predatory intentions if the dog is stalking the family cat, it is often seen as an appeasement gesture, a sign of indecision, or as Turid Rugaas would describe a ‘calming signal’. Not surprising coming from a dog that has been threatened. Just because physical force is not used on a dog, it is implied when one uses their size and body posturing to subdue them. The fact that the gun pointed at your head is not loaded probably won’t make any difference to you if you’re not aware of the fact or of the wielder’s intent. It’s probably just best to go along with their demands.

Suzanne Clothier writes about the attitudes we have regarding our dogs’ behavior and our relationship with them in her book “If A Dog’s Prayers Were Answered Bones Would Rain From the Sky”. I recommend it to anyone who has ever considered what their dog might want when it came to training time, and if you haven’t, read it anyway, it’s a beautifully written book that I can’t seem to keep a hold of, I keep giving it away.

http://www.fearfuldogs.com/books.html

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7 comments so far

  1. Cindy Logan on

    I found your site and read a few of your other posts. Keep up the good work. I just added your RSS feed to my Google News Reader. Looking forward to reading more from you!

  2. barrie on

    Not that I am advocating Koehler’s training but did you know that his books were actually banned in a lot of places because of the language he used? He said that dogs have the right to the consequences of their mistakes and the idea of dogs having rights to ANYTHING upset people tremendously. Was anyone using positive reinforcement in training at that point in time?

  3. fearfuldogs on

    There must have been R+ trainers because Koehler berated them as tidbit pushers or some similar ‘insult’. Probably anyone who trained dogs for performances used rewards to get the behaviors they wanted. There’s a fellow, dresses like a cowboy, who trained dogs for shows in the 30’s I think, who said that he used praise and bits of ‘flapjacks’ to train his dogs. There’s footage on youtube, but for the life of me can’t remember his name.

    Glad his books were banned for any reason. Being beaten by a rubber truncheon for poor performance hardly seems like the kind of right worth fighting for. But I hear what you’re saying, just hard to imagine that his thoughts were a step in the right direction for dogs.

  4. barrie on

    It is! I agree and I do know from reading stuff by Vickie Hearne that Koehler believed cats could only be trained using food. I believe that he got into dog training via the army so just probably had a very different view of life in general than either of us do!

  5. Kimberley on

    Koehler….. Very touchy subject for many people. The problem is, people often only read the parts of the book that deal with ‘problem solving’, and skip the part at the beginning where he states very clearly that the entire training in basic obedience should be completed first, because often times those other problems just dissappear. The harsh methods mentioned above, such as using a hose on a dog, is something reserved for the worst aggression cases. We are talking about large dogs that would happily come up the leash after you. He worked with dogs that no one else would, and was a big advocate of rehabilitating fighting dogs so that they could live a normal life and not be destroyed. I once watched a seminar on tape that he gave. He was actually a very soft-spoken man, who would be the first to tell you that there was no place in dog training for anger or ego. Although the pendulum has swung the other way, and many would rather put a dog down than use physical punishment now, I think he should be given credit for what he accomplished. He was ahead of his time back then, and there are cruel people who claim to use his method who have twisted what he wrote. As I said, the harshest discipline is supposed to be reserved for the completely incorigible, the dog who is facing death, not the average dog. I think there is something valuable in what he wrote, no matter what your training method is.

  6. fearfuldogs on

    Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment Kimberly.

    Just to be sure we’re literally on the same page, the book I refer to is:

    The Koehler Method of Dog Training: Certified Techniques by Movieland’s Most Experienced Dog Trainer.

    You say that there are trainers who would rather put a dangerous dog down rather than use punishment. There very well may be. Just as there are trainers who would rather punish a dog instead of using less aversive ways for training them. Whether this is due to preference or ignorance of alternatives, I don’t know.

    There are many trainers teaching reactive dog classes and working with these dogs, without using shock collars or rubber hoses and being successful at it.

    I know of no studies which indicate that the use of harsh punishment is more effective than less punitive techniques, for improving a dog’s emotional and physical response to a trigger. If you have evidence to this I would definitely appreciate seeing it.

    Mr. Koehler’s description of training techniques routinely use physical force to get dogs to perform behaviors, not just ‘problem’ behaviors. A handler who refuses to provide, what are seen as the necessary corrections by Mr. Koehler, are insulted, in one case called ‘mentally inferior’ to their dogs.

    The choices we make when it comes to defining why a dog, or a person for that matter, performs a behavior, affects our response to them. It’s hard not to imagine the conceptual framework Mr. Koehler applies to dogs’ motivation, not making their handlers angry. We humans can tend toward violence and aggression far too easily without feeling justified in doing so.

    As far as rubber hoses being saved for only extreme cases, here is an excerpt from The Koehler Method of Dog Training. The technique described is to be used for dogs that break stays or fail to perform recalls.

    “If you are one of those unfortunate individuals who have never known the fun of a slingshot, don’t let your lack of experience stop you. Find out from the sporting goods clerk, or an experienced friend, how you hold and shoot it. When you’ve learned the “grip” and “release,” put eight or nine BBs into the pouch at onetime and shoot the load against a box or can. You’ll see that the shot spreads into a pattern that would be quite certain to hit your dog.”

    That the use of well timed punishment, provided in a manner which allows the dog to make the association between their behavior and the punishment can be instructional, is not in question for me. Good trainers understand how to use both punishment and reinforcement to get dogs to perform and to help them learn new behaviors. It is the idea, which runs rampant through Mr. Koehler’s book, that dogs deserve any punishment we choose to dole out, is the tragedy affecting far too many dogs today. While he alone is not responsible for perpetuating this attitude, he does indeed deserve some of the credit.


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