Who’s it working for?

small black dog

Toohey is a street dog from Vieques

When it comes to talking about dog training there is no shortage of debate regarding which methods ‘work’ best. Some people suggest that they all ‘work’ and that we should either take advantage of them all or at least stop arguing about them. I am referring to reward based training vs. what is being called ‘traditional’ training which incorporates punishment (positive punishment for the trainers in the audience), aka ‘corrections’. My biggest gripe with this discussion is that like the word ‘leader’ the word ‘work’ means nothing because it could mean anything. When someone tells me that a training method ‘works’ my question is, “For who?”

Some would say that so long as a technique keeps a dog in a home it ‘worked’. And although it’s an important gauge of success, it’s the lowest rung on the ladder as far as I’m concerned. It may be the first step and a necessary one but the foundation laid is going to determine whether more height is gained. Those gains should include a higher quality of life for both the owner and dog and being routinely subjected to reprimands and physical punishment is not on my list of quality of life goals.

In May of 2012 I hope to bring a group of dog trainers on a volunteer vacation to the islands of Puerto Rico and Vieques where we will offer free or low cost classes to local pet owners. I want the techniques we use to demonstrate TOTALLY force/intimidation-free, non-manipulative training techniques. Even if the use of corrections and physical manipulation ‘work’ to teach dogs new behaviors the more important behavior that needs to be changed is that of the handler.

As a species we humans seem to easily slide down the slope of excess. When given the bag we find it difficult to stop with just one potato chip. Giving the keys to a high tech racing car to a teenager would not be a good idea, the chance of the car being used inappropriately is great. Or because it is a race car, even if it is used as intended it would put the driver and others on the road at risk. We don’t hand sharp knives to toddlers either. The more risk a technique poses the less it should be used by unskilled handlers. It is far too easy for us to become angry or frustrated when faced with noncompliance in a dog. At that point it becomes a challenge to not speak too severely or tug a bit too forcefully.

Showing people how to properly use corrections assumes that the handler is able to correctly assess the reason for the lack of compliance, and I’m not sure many pet owners can do so accurately. Is a dog not sitting because they don’t understand the cue or because their hips ache? Are they peeing on the floor because they have a urinary track infection, are anxious, marking or because they are not housebroken?

Cultural attitudes toward animals are slow to change but I’d like to contribute to the process by showing pet owners in Puerto Rico that dogs learn faster when they are rewarded for doing the right things as opposed to being punished for doing the wrong ones. If you’d like to join me, please let me know. And as a reward you’ll also get to visit a few of my favorite locations including a funky rainforest reserve, Old San Juan, white sand beaches and one of the planet’s most awesome spectacles, a bioluminescent bay.


8 comments so far

  1. Sue on

    What a brilliant idea, and I’m sure it will be a great success for you. (any chance you could extend your tour to the UK?!?!) :o)

  2. Louisa on


  3. JJ on

    Wow. That’s really great that you’re doing something like that. Now THAT is what I call a dog lover!

    I wish more people were able to spread the kind of knowledge and understanding that you are striving to share with people who may not know or have access to materials that would teach them otherwise in the first place.


    *Gasp* I was called out in this post ;]

    Actually, I love this post – your is the kind that I wish other people would take a lesson from! You genuinely feel the way you do – and though emotion is an apparent driving force in your article, it’s not overbearing and not insulting.

    I personally define “works” in that context as “the dog learned something/disengaged/engaged in a behavior as was asked.”

    [[What I didn’t say in my one post was “That doesn’t make it right.” (I often leave out my own emotions regarding the subjects I blog about if I can help it!)

    Although, I must point out one thing: The reason Traditional training practices are still around is because they APPEAR to work MUCH FASTER than our techniques do. (We know this is because the dog is making this face O____O and is too worried to do anything, and is therefore not indulging himself in whatever “behavior” was being “corrected.”)]]

    • fearfuldogs on

      Ah that you were the only person I ever heard make the statement that all types of training ‘work’ and R+ trainers need to cool their jets, so don’t feel called out. I don’t have a problem with emotion or the passion people feel for what they believe in. In my work with teenagers I seek those people out, whether they are rescuing animals, developing sustainable forestry practices or working for social equality. It actually makes it easier to filter the information they are sharing. If I read a study about a particular medication it is helpful if I know that it was funded by a drug company. It doesn’t necessarily negate the content, but we all need to do our due diligence when it comes to swallowing and digesting information.

      There can be fallout when intimidation, force or threat is used to get behaviors from dogs. Unfortunately that fallout is not usually attributed to the use of those methods (although studies indicate it is the case). I am usually not willing to take the risk.

      I do feel strongly that dogs are often disrespected in the way they are handled and trained, and that doesn’t work for me.

      • JJ on

        I agree with that. Fallout can happen in any instance that an animal is pushed too hard and happens more often – much more often – in traditional training.

        And yes! I hate those rants about how you need to teach your dog to respect you – and I do agree, it’s nice to work with an animal that respects you and is willing to work with and for you – but there should always be another side to that statement: Respect the animal, too!

  4. Donna and the Dogs on

    “When someone tells me that a training method ‘works’ my question is, “For who?””

    Great way to put it. And you know what? I’d rather have an imperfect dog that listens to me because he or she wants to, than a perfect dog that is afraid of the repercussions if they do not.

    Good luck with your training trip – it sounds like such a great cause to take on.

  5. Stephanie B on

    Hi Debbie,

    Great post! A few months ago, I adopted a Puerto Rican dog (Steven) through a rescue organization here in NYC. He is 4 years old, and spent his entire life in a Puerto Rican shelter before being brought here. He has a fantastic, sweet temperament, but also some issues with fear, and seems to have difficulty communicating in his native language with other dogs.

    The first month after Steven came to live with us, I called the trainer that the rescue organization recommended. For Steven’s leash pulling, he told us to use “corrections”. For his fear of loud noises (not easy in the city), he told us to make him “face his fears”. After a month or so, I began to realize that this type of “training” was not working at all. Steven was still pulling the leash, and seemed more frightened than ever.

    After some internet searching, I purchased your book, along with several on clicker training, and it’s amazing to see Steven’s progress. His steps forward give me so much joy. His excitement at the sound of the treat bag rustling is infectious. I’m so glad there is a community of fearful dog owners like this one on the internet- otherwise I might still be in the dark ages, wondering why these great “training tips” weren’t helping my dog.

    • fearfuldogs on

      So glad you have found a way to help Steven! I appreciate hearing about the success you are having. Poco a poco la hormiga se come el coco. Bit by bit the ant eats the coconut.

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