If not the ‘dog friendly’ trainers, then who?

I was helping out with a reactive dog class and a woman enrolled with a Great Dane she had recently adopted. She had been turned away from another class because she was using a shock collar on the dog. In effect she had been sent off to find a trainer who uses shock collars to train dogs. Fortunately she found the reactive dog class, run by a skilled and compassionate trainer. Although the woman was asked to remove the shock collar while in classes, she was not sent off, shamefully, to continue her search for someone to help her manage her dog.

Not to make excuses for the use of shock collars, this woman was afraid for her physical safety when this dog decided he was going to run off after something. Not an aggressive dog, he was primarily a danger to her, pulling her over or knocking her down. He was a sweet, untrained, very big, dog. The only solution his owner had found, up to this class, was the shock collar. In the class the dog was fitted with a harness and his owner shown how to use positive reinforcement to teach the dog appropriate behaviors. As both dog and handler learned new skills, the woman reported that she was using the shock collar less and less for controlling the dog. I have seen similar scenarios played out with people who use prong collars. It seems to me that it matters less whether a dog is wearing a particular type of collar than how often it is used. People can learn how to never use them.

A common gripe of positive reinforcement trainers are the owners who refuse or are reluctant to use food rewards for training. Sure food rewards are powerful, they are also easy to carry and deliver, but they are not the only reinforcers available to us. Some dogs may not learn as quickly when owners forgo the use of food rewards, but the dogs can still learn. And owners can learn to create a variety of other reinforcers for their dog.

I don’t think that U.K. trainer John Rogerson was encouraging people to cheat in competition events in which they are not allowed to use food or toys to motivate or keep their dog’s attention, when he shared this story. Reaching into his back pocket he pulled out not a ‘toy’, but a wallet. The wallet was a conditioned reinforcer for his dog who prior to competitions was given the opportunity to play with it, as a reward for behaviors. Letting the dog see him tuck the wallet into his back pocket before entering the ring, was enough to keep the dog highly motivated during the event. His point being that trainers should not be limited by what they regard as reinforcers.

Owners who don’t want to use food reinforcers may not understand what they are missing when it comes to training their dogs, but they are not ‘bad owners’. A skilled trainer can show them how to create a variety of alternate reinforcers which they can use to help train their dogs. The hallmark of any good teacher is their ability to be creative and come up with ways that meet the learning styles of different students. I have the highest regard for trainers who are able to do this for both of their students, the dog and its handler, while at the same time are using techniques which are least aversive to both. My hat is off to you all!

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15 comments so far

  1. Morag (Well Connected Canine) on

    Love your post as always! I think the hallmark of a great teacher is one who ensures that reinforcements and rewards are available and delivered – rather than focusing on using food, make sure the timing is spot on and the dog actually wants the reward.

    We’ve been working with a husky in our heelwork-to-music class, and frankly a tug toy and playing with an LED pointer (being careful of the eyes of course) are far more rewarding than food, but the timing and marking is still crucial.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks so much for taking the time to comment, as always I appreciate it! It’s helpful for others to hear about the ways that trainers (around the world) are using positive reinforcement to help dogs learn new skills. Would love to see that heelwork-to-music class! I’m assuming it’s the same as what we call ‘freestyle’ here in the U.S., or are they different?

  2. niamhlost on

    I really enjoyed this post; and cringed slightly when I saw you refer to prong collars (and in context, in the same realm as shock collars!). I was actually pressured into a prong by a trainer I had for my GSD who was a rescue, sweet, high energy and VERY wilful (still is, the little devil). I got another one when I rescued another dog, a 92 lb junkyard black shepherd who had never been socialized and NEVER been in a house. On my own, I decided eventually that the discomfort I felt with the prongs form the beginning was going to continue – and bought martingales for my pups. It has been a little more challenging but I had already put a fair bit of training into the dogs.

    The point is that in one way, I can’t regret the prongs. Until they – and I (ESPECIALLY ME) learned to deal with them and train them, they were potentially a menace not just to me (in terms of pulling me down stairs, knocking me down etc) but more importantly in my eyes, to innocent bystanders!

    It has been more than year since I’ve used the prongs and time and experience has simply convinced me that they are NOT a good alternative – but thank you for having the insight to teach owners BETTER ways instead of condemning them for poor choices based on inexperience and/or fear.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks for sharing your story. We are constantly faced with choices when it comes to training our dogs. Just because a particular method may be effective, to whatever degree it is effective, does not mean that it must be our method of choice. As you’ve discovered, the more we learn about alternatives to inflicting pain on our dogs to get what we need from them, the less we need to rely on aversives. It sounds like you really care about your dogs and listened to what might be the best teacher around, the humanity in you that felt uncomfortable hurting your dogs.

  3. Laurie on

    Hi Debbie. Have to say I chuckled when I read this post. I am one of those owners that you refer to. And yes, we are not popular at most classes. I find it equally as frustrating that positive reward trainers can’t see beyond food as rewards. I have also observed trainers not teaching the proper use of food. (i.e. 7 weeks later the same behavior is still being rewarded with food)

    I have much better success with my border collie x and other working breeds I’ve trained by incorporating play and using a tug or toss of a toy as a reward.

    Being “more fun than squirrels” helps build a solid relationship and bond, one that really pays off when your dog is off leash doing something fun and you want them to come. I have to be able to compete with that.

    When I’ve used food, her focus shifts to that or the anticipation of food. Many owners have told me that if their dog doesn’t want food at that moment, or for others, if no food is forthcoming, the dog simply ignores the command.

    When dealing with high level fear issues, I have incorporated bits of food during the desensitization process and found that useful.

    From my perspective, I don’t think people who do use food are bad owners, they just don’t know what they are missing. 🙂

    • Debbie Jacobs on

      Thanks for adding your perspective Laurie. Much of this boils down to respecting both the dog and handler and assessing their needs, a process which never stops, and those needs may change frequently.

      The use of food rewards during desensitization adds counter conditioning to the process. This is highly recommended.

      I used to train my dogs in agility in a horse ring and we frequently had to remind ourselves that we needed to be more interesting than poop, which is right up there in value with squirrels for some dogs 😉

  4. barrie.lynn on

    Speaking of hats, I used to wear a bucket sun hat – soft, flexible, cloth hat – when running Fancy in agility because I could take it off and let her tug on it 😉

    • Debbie Jacobs on

      Clever idea! Wallets, hats, wonder what else people have conditioned as reinforcers for their dogs.

  5. Lizzie on

    Very interesting post, I’ve enjoyed reading it and don’t mean to be boring or repetitive but, if you are working with a dog that has no interest in toys, games, or the like, then treats are the only reinforcer.

    However I’ve not introduced Gracie to fox poo yet so that may be food for thought, if you’ll pardon the pun 🙂

    • Debbie Jacobs on

      You are right that we have to work with what our dogs value most.

      Do you know how to create conditioned reinforcers that can add to your bag of tricks? You are probably already doing it.

      By pairing something, a word, gesture, object, physical handling, etc., with a food reward (the reward always follows), the dog will associate it with the good feeling of the food reward. By consciously creating CRs you can increase your ability to make your dog feel good.

      You create CRs in much the same way as you train a new behavior. The dog doesn’t have to do anything though, just experience the CR & the food reward.

      head pat/treat repeat repeat repeat
      thumbs up gesture/treat ”
      bounce a ball/treat ”
      sing a song/treat ”
      do a silly dance/treat “

  6. Lizzie on

    Thanks Debbie, yes I do similar actions with Gracie but was not aware that they were called ‘conditioned reinforcers’.
    I have done this primarily to try to bring out the playful side of her with a ball or soft toy, however she is not interested in the object, just the reward. I am still trying to find out what ‘pushes her buttons’. I might try the ‘silly dance’ and see what she thinks about that!

    We both learn so much from your blog.

  7. Roxanne @ Champion of My Heart on

    I had not heard about the wallet guy. That’s pretty clever. I have heard about people who figured out a way to make their dog’s name a praise word for competitive situations where they can only use verbal cues and the dog’s name.

    For example, I knew Dobie whose actual name was Good Boy. :o)

    • fearfuldogs on

      It’s probably not as bad as liver under your fingernails, but I’m not sure.

      Hopefully our dogs’names are conditioned reinforcers, if we don’t use their names to reprimand them, or before doing something unpleasant with or to them. It’s tough. I try not to use their names when I want to distract them and I’m going to be raising my voice, like when Sunny decides he wants to push around the old cocker.

  8. selkie on

    If I could figure out a way to record the “ping” that sounds when I shut down my laptop…I would have instant control over my dogs! They know that “ping” means walk time and they run and get their leashes! who needs liver when you have a “ping”.

  9. fearfuldogs on

    Beside recording the ping (or do a search for the sound online, there are many common household sounds available for downloading) you could use a sound that you do have control over, your voice is easiest and each time BEFORE they hear the ping, and they’ll be going for a walk, say something, leashes!, for example. Whatever precedes the ping will become associated with it and you will be able to fade out the ping and eventually have the word be the cue, rather than the ping, to get their leashes. I’m assuming that they are not being cued by anything you’re doing physically, but this would probably still work so long as their response, getting their leashes, is rewarded with a walk.


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