Don’t get sucked in by the supposed “truism” that dog trainers can’t agree on how dogs should be trained. The educated among us agree on the fundamentals. Check out “Don’t Be The Third Trainer.”
I grew up in the northeast of the United States, in an urban area with neither parents nor neighbors who gardened. The majority of the fruits and vegetables I ate were store bought, with the summer time exception of sweet corn, a staple delight of childhood, food you were suppose to eat with your hands and that usually tasted a lot like butter and salt.
I’m not that much of a history buff, but I am aware that a significant portion of the people who first came from Europe to live in my neck of the woods didn’t survive very long. Contributing to their demise was the lack of food. Thanksgiving itself could be considered to be fundamentally about calories. No doubt in mid-March, Miles Standish and his friends would have greeted a crate of oddly squarish, weird orange, and somewhat mealy tomatoes, with relief. I remember my first taste of a tomato straight from the garden. Prior to that I was not a fan of tomatoes, however once I discovered how tomatoes could taste I became one, a fan of tomatoes right out of the garden.
Dog trainers are like tomatoes in that I think many people have never seen a really good one. I’m guessing this is the reason people read my blog posts, like this one published on Victoria Stillwell’s Postively Dogs site, and come to the defense of trainers who are whisperers, pack leaders or dominance seekers. They don’t know that in the world of professional animal training the trend is toward understanding the fundamentals of animal behavior and how we can modify it using techniques that take advantage of the power of positive reinforcement. This being true of all dogs, but especially those with extreme behavior challenges that frequently are provided as examples for the excuse of not knowing how to train using primarily positive reinforcement.
Some of us don’t have much of a choice when it comes to what kinds of fruits and vegetables we have access to, but dog trainers have a choice regarding how they train dogs, and pet owners should understand that they have a choice in who they pay to work with their dog. The use of force, fear, pain and intimidation in training comes with risks much greater than eating tomatoes grown thousands of miles away & months ago. If you’re put off of eating tomatoes your life will not likely suffer, but if a dog is put off of training, they may end up dead. Good trainers are fabulous to work with. Dogs enthusiastically anticipate sessions with them, and owners can trust that their dog is being trained in the most effective and humane ways possible. Training without fear, pain and intimidation saves lives.
Food is a primary reinforcer. Looking at it feels good, thinking about it feels good. Mmmm..hand churned ice cream with fresh peaches, sweet corn on the grill, garden fresh salsa with just picked cilantro. That’s why you keep watching, mum.
In the world of dog training food is still being given a bad rap by some. The misuse of food as a bribe is often cited as reason to avoid using it. The argument that dogs become dependent on food would almost be funny if folks weren’t serious when they made it. I have yet to sort out how to break my dogs’ dependency on eating.
Different dog trainer camps each have their own set of premises as to why they prefer not to use food in training. And ironically enough on the spectrum of trainers understanding how behavior works (from haven’t a clue to enough understanding to make stuff up and sound like they know what they’re talking about), and developing a method or style, both the dominance and force-free advocates have adopted other supposedly more natural alternatives.
Years ago I ran into a neighbor who had purchased two chocolate lab sister pups. I asked if she was planning on breeding them. “No,” she answered. How about spaying them? “No,” again. “Why not?” I queried. “Because it’s not natural,” she claimed. Had I been drinking coffee there’s a good chance it would have come out of my nose. Natural!? As IF there is anything natural about a chocolate lab (no offense to them or any other breed of dog). The pressures of artificial selection have created very different animals than the pressures natural selection would have created.
This hasn’t stopped trainers from jumping on board the it’s natural bandwagon (I have yet to understand how food has been relegated unnatural, and am not going to spend much time on trying). There are the trainers who seem to be taking their lead from dogs from another planet, those mother dogs who use bites to the neck and muzzle holds to teach their puppies how to walk more slowly on leash, come when called, or poop outside and not in the house (that those mums start out by eating their puppies’ poop is natural enough but few recommend owners go that route). And the trainers who extoll natural, organic, functional rewards (other than food) for training behaviors such as stop running away from me and turn and come to me, or stay in a crate for hours, a behavior which I daresay might be as unnatural as it gets as far as a dog is concerned. Some leap of logic has been made that even though we are going to train behaviors that go against what is likely very much in a dog’s nature; chase stuff, chew stuff, eat stuff, shred stuff, guard stuff, pee on stuff, we are obliged to do so by someone’s random definition of what constitutes natural.
Most troubling are the trainers who just flat out do not understand how counterconditioning works and avoid using food to create positive associations with triggers. Or fail to see how the use of food in operant conditioning can impact the dog’s emotional response to where the food is being given, what’s around, and probably most importantly the handler who’s supplying it, right along with performing the behavior itself. Those who assert that the dog’s good feelings when food is used only applies to the food, and not the handler providing it, are identifying themselves as lacking an understanding in classical conditioning, and it’s value to us.
Before anyone feels the need to comment and remind me that there are other things besides food that dogs can find positively reinforcing and motivating, I get it. I’m not arguing against the use of whatever a dog finds positively reinforcing in training, but those dogs who needed help yesterday and those dogs today who remain wary and fearful or are facing being returned to a rescue or shelter, or euthanized because they didn’t get the memo that they should be able to be trained or counter conditioned without the use of food, are the victims of the very bad advice to avoid using or minimize the use of food in training.
A friend recently shared an article with me in which this blog gets a mention. They say that any PR is good PR but all this article does is make me sad, and to be lumped in with other “quick fixes” for what is a tragic issue, makes me even sadder. The conclusion the author comes to that some dogs just can’t be helped is instead for a me a story about the dog training industry failing another dog and their struggling owner. I am not sad for myself.
The dog training industry is unregulated so anyone can label themselves a trainer or as what apparently happened in the author’s case, a behaviorist. In practically any other profession anyone who charges for a service and not only fails to deliver that service, but makes the problem worse would be liable to be sued, disbarred, lose their license, be Yelped out of existence, or we’d at least expect to get our money back. But not hack dog trainers. Nope. They just move on to screw up or under serve another dog.
I know the feeling of being a pet owner trying to live with a dog who is too terrified to move, and being given many of the same recommendations as the author. There is no guarantee that anyone can “fix” Willie or any other dog and he’s lucky to be with someone who is willing to accommodate him. The problem is not, as I see it, that we think that everything can be made whole, especially something that might have never been whole to begin with, it’s the fundamental inadequacy of the support and guidance the author (and others like us) received from the industry built to help her and her dog.
Among the reasons people resort to the use of punishment (P+) and tools like prong and shock collars is that they often provide immediate results when it comes to getting a dog to stop performing inappropriate behaviors. The users of these pieces of equipment will justify it because they work and point to how successful they proved to be, and in some cases we cannot argue with their success. The dog has stopped lunging, barking, pulling, etc., and from the handler’s perspective it was quick, easy and required a minimum of skill on their part.
Educated trainers do not advocate the use of these pieces of equipment because of the very real risk of a dog becoming more fearful, more reactive, more aggression, because of them. We cannot forget that this risk exists, it’s been studied and documented. That we are using pain to control a dog should not be left out of the argument against them either. But as advocates against these types of collars we should not lose the opportunity to learn a lesson from the value others put on them. Ending unwanted behaviors is important. We cannot continue to let our dogs repeat behaviors we ultimately want to see end. It’s bad training.
We have this big brain that provides us with the ability to think about how we can prevent, interrupt or end unwanted behavior without resorting to pain, or threats of it. We can and should use it. Many of our dogs cannot tolerate even the subtle reprimands we may use to end a non-fearful dog’s behavior (Don’t even think about going for that cheese on the coffee table!). Our body language, direct eye contact, tone of voice is enough to worry or startle them. We need to get good at training, and we don’t have to wander around in the dark feeling our way, or modeling mediocre or flat out bad trainers who get dogs to behave how they want through force, fear and pain or month after month of sloppy technique. Training a dog isn’t about looking for the right method or protocol. It’s about being able to get or identify the behaviors you want to see repeated and positively reinforce them, and then give the dog the opportunity to practice the heck out of them.
Any trainer who offers a solution that is conspicuously missing the clear and specific identification of a behavior to train and positive reinforcement as a main component of their method, technique or protocol, should be suspect. We need trainers who can demonstrate how to use positive reinforcement to get a recall, a down stay, a wait at the door, walking on a loose leash happily around other dogs, using good positive reinforcement training mechanics. Much of the other talk trainers use is either delusional or part of their marketing plan. Our dogs don’t need pack leaders and talking about empowering or fixing a dog is too nebulous to be useful.
Note the clearly defined objectives and behaviors stated by the lead trainer in this video and the high rate of reinforcement dogs are being given for performing a down stay on a mat. Whether you’re in a class or working with a trainer one on one you are looking for this kind of guidance- a clear definition of the behavior, how to get it and positively reinforce it and gradually provide more challenging conditions in which the dog can perform it. There is nothing unnatural about a dog performing a behavior in order to get food and dogs will likely develop confidence, learn to trust their handlers and become empowered in the process. This is the kind of training worth spending money on, it’s out there, don’t settle for less.
Frank Swanton was driving down Route 53 when the car he’d had for a year started making a loud clanking noise and was pulling hard to the right whenever he stepped on the brake. He had noticed that there were some problems early on after he bought the car but they didn’t seem too bad so he didn’t bother to have them checked. But today they were bad and there was a brake or transmission smell and he wasn’t sure he’d make it home. He remembered there was an auto repair shop about 2 miles up the road. He’d never been there before but he decided to stop.
Melissa Brandon picked up a rag and was wiping the grease off her hands as she hurried away from the car she was working on when she heard the bell announcing someone had entered the shop. Ever since she was a kid she loved cars. When she was small she played surgical scrub nurse to her father who slid around under the old Buick he drove, barking out, “3/4” socket wrench!” “Vice grip, the big one!” He took pride in his young daughter who had learned the names of tools the way his friend Ralph’s kid could name dinosaurs. “Stegosaurus, smegosaurus,” he’d wink at her, “that kid doesn’t know the difference between a crescent wrench and an allen key,” and she flushed with pride because she knew that by the time she was five! If she did get it wrong it was only once. After placing the tool in her father’s outstretched hand it would disappear under the car, reappearing in seconds accompanied by a single word, “Nope,” he’d say and she’d hand him her second choice. “That’s better,” he’d mumble. She had worked nights to pay for two years at technical college and busted her knuckles at the Audi dealership for 3 years in their service department before deciding to open her own shop.
“What can I do for you?” she asked the obviously distressed fellow who had called out, “Can someone help me please?” as soon as the door close behind him.
“There’s something wrong with my car,” he replied. “It’s making this clanking sound as though there’s someone in the engine with a hammer. There’s a bad smell, I’m not sure if it’s coming from the engine or the exhaust, and it’s hard to turn the steering wheel to the left if I put on the brake.”
“Did you want to leave it and have me get one of the mechanics to check to it out, or did you want to schedule an appointment and bring it back?” she queried.
“I need it fixed, he insisted. “Can you tell me what to do to fix it? Can’t you just give some suggestions? Or what about a book or a website?” he was practically pleading.
Melissa looked at the car, a late model sedan, similar to the cars she’d worked on during the course she had recently attended to learn about the new electronic systems being installed. She’d spent three, eight hour days studying the schematics of the computer boards, and had invested several thousand dollars in equipment for the shop to help perform diagnostics in situations like this. She knew where to start to teach someone to fix a car, but she also knew that a few tips and some random advice were not likely to solve this car’s problem.
“It would make more sense to leave it or bring it back so one of the mechanics can look it over and make the necessary repairs,” she politely replied.
This was when Frank threw the first verbal punch. “Oh I get it,” he snorted, “I thought you loved cars, but I can see you’re only in it for the money.”
Mrs. Brown, who had dropped her car off this morning as pre-arranged and agreed to pay for parts and labor, would be coming in at 5pm to pick it up. Melissa had left it up on the lift when she heard Frank come in the door. Mrs. Brown worked two jobs and had found someone to give her a ride after her first shift to return for her Camry that needed new brake pads, a job Melissa was only half-way through. If she was going to get paid for that job she’d need to get it finished. Last week she had discounted the work they’d done on the van for the kid’s club, the senior center’s mini-bus and Roger Ferris’s old VW. She had been friends with Roger’s wife who was dying of cancer, Roger had taken leave from his job at the soda packing plant to take care of her.
The monthly nut for the mortgage on the shop, including taxes and insurance meant Melissa had to work 5 days, sometimes 6, to cover it. Then there were the weekly salaries of the 2 other mechanics she hired, along with withholding and insurance, and she couldn’t forget that someone had been heavy handed with the sink in the men’s bathroom and the threads in the handle of the hot water faucet were stripped and she needed to replace the entire unit, and she was still not sure what happened to the wrench set she had to special order to work on a foreign car one of her customers had recently bought.
“If I can get it home can I give you a call tonight to talk about what I should do to fix it?” he suggested, seeming to forget his previous insult.
Two days a week she volunteers at the high school, an after school program to teach kids how to work on cars. She has to leave the shop early, but Buddy the part-time mechanic is happy to pick up more hours. She thought about Ellie Barton who had been giving her mother so much trouble, and how she had turned into a wiz kid with hybrid engines, and was able to explain some of the tougher information to other kids who were willing to pay attention. Billy Frankel, the kid who’d been suspended 3 times last semester had a knack for body repair. When he was done with a fender or hood even a professional had to look twice to notice a repair had been made at all. He’d even asked Melissa to help him pick out an old car from the salvage yard to fix up, and they’d left towing an old Impala that if he followed through on would be worth a pretty penny.
“I’m sorry I won’t be available,” she apologized, “my son has a recital tonight.”
“If I leave it how much is all this going to cost me?” he asked, his brow furrowed. “I bought this car at a fundraiser for the community food kitchen, I can’t afford to spend a lot of money on it.”
Two weeks ago a woman had brought her car in, convinced that the problem was the same one she had heard described on a call-in radio show. Two clever and funny mechanics diagnosed car problems on the air every Saturday morning. When the mechanic had a look at the car she discovered the problem was entirely different, a large part of the exhaust system had rusted out and would need to be replaced. When Melissa explained this to the car’s owner the woman wailed, “It’s even the same make and model as the one they talked about on the radio and they said it only required a $25 part to fix!” grabbed her keys and drove off. There were shops in town where they would happily take the woman’s money, replace the $25 part and send her home with a car no better, and maybe worse off than when she’d brought it in. But Melissa would never even consider it, though it meant that she lost a potential customer.
“First I’d have to have someone take a look at it to know what needs to be done, then if we need parts I’ll have to put in an order for those.”
She did some quick calculating, knowing that she couldn’t guarantee anything without having even looked under the hood but he was insistent. The range of how much time it might take to work on the car was wide, and the lowest cost possibility was still high enough to make him visibly cringe when he heard it. “Nevermind,” he huffed as he turned to walk out the door, “I thought you could help me.”
She stood for a moment as he got into his car and worked hard to turn the steering wheel as he pulled out of the lot. The sinking feeling in her stomach would pass, this wasn’t the first time someone had complained about the cost of repairs or expected her to take the time to explain, step by step, how to replace a fan belt, or figure out whether it was a fuse that needed to be replaced or something else in the electrical system. She did what she could, suggesting the easiest things that could be checked, repaired or replaced by an owner, and it felt bad to be accused of being mercenary.
As the car faded into the distance, smoke billowing from the tail pipe, Melissa turned and headed back to Mrs. Brown’s car. If she hustled she should be able to have it ready by five.
Here’s the main point that we often dance around- it’s about training the dog. Yes the dog needs to feel safe, and we often need to counter condition to triggers before we can get down to business, and that business is teaching the dog what they’re suppose to do.
For the most part dogs are pros at figuring out what we want them to do, and dog trainers can get away with tips and suggestions, and get the job done. Some trainers appeal to an owner’s belief in the mythical pack leader, others to the balm of “natural” or “organic.” And still others to our tendency to conserve energy and want something that seems simple and easy.
But at the end of the day, a dog is going to stay in a home because they do what they are asked or expected to do. If we cannot leave the decision of what they should do up to them (no you cannot chew the sofa, bite the mailman or pee on the rug) we need to train them. In many cases we need to train them fast, for their sake as well as the sanity (and safety) of the people they live with.
For those who are unaware of it (and many are because as a whole the dog training industry has done a woeful job of educating both trainers and pet owners about it) there is a science to behavior change. The physical act of training is a skill people can practice and learn, and for those who choose the most humane way to train, this means getting very good at identifying behaviors to reinforce, and minimizing or eliminating the reinforcement of behaviors we don’t want. The art of reinforcement is based on the laws of behavior. When we understand the laws we can focus on our artistry of providing reinforcement, or not.
Some of our dogs may always be compromised in their ability to function easily in the world they find themselves. For whatever reason that ship has sailed, they come to the table with the nervous system they were born with or developed. Most can learn skills. The act of learning by being positively reinforced provides benefits beyond the skills themselves. It improves relationships, it builds new pathways in the brain, it develops the confidence and optimism to try new behaviors, it creates trust between the dog and handler. And gosh darn it, it’s fun, it’s just flat out fun. And who couldn’t use a bit more fun in their lives?
Dog trainers are a notoriously passionate bunch, and I will not deny that I am among them. However what is going on in the dog training industry extends beyond personal passion for the subject and crosses over into what pet owners should expect when they pay for a service. What they should expect is solid advice and guidance based on the best information available to us regarding how animals learn and how dogs behave.
Though many pet owners may be unaware that dog training is founded on the very solid sciences of animal behavior and learning, this does not mean that dog trainers can be excused for being unaware of it, or choosing to disregard it. A doctor who based their surgical knowledge on a text from the 1800’s or even the 1950’s could expect to be sued for malpractice. A psychiatrist who declared that a person’s behavior was caused by evil spirits in their heads and a hole needs to be drilled to let them out should meet the same fate. But in the world of dog training the selling of nonsense is considered the norm!
“A while ago she started barking at him when he came into an area where i was. This has gotten worse and worse. Not sure if she is being protective of me, or possessive of me. There is a fearful tone to it too. The (insert the name of almost any franchise dog training business or pet shop) trainer, said i should reprimand her for doing this, and that it also signifies that my dog perceives me as weak. I try really hard to behave like a strong leader. But I feel like I am very ineffective at dealing with this barking.”
Here is someone trying to do everything right. They adopt a dog in the hopes of providing her with a better life. They realize they need help and contact a professional, spend their hard-earned cash, and are handed rubbish. Given this dog’s history, she was rescued from a puppy mill, we can assume that the dog was not provided with the early socialization to people and novelty when she needed to have it happen in order to feel safe around a variety of people and in different environments. The impact of this on a dog’s development and behavior is well-documented and any trainer should be aware of it. Even the owner has identified the dog as being “fearful.” What does the “trainer” recommend? Outdated and readily disputed advice about pack leadership and a declaration that would imply an ability to read a dog’s mind and know what she perceives!
In this digital age, when we have access to scientific works ranging from Galileo to neuroscience there is absolutely no excuse for it. None. Zilch. Zero. Don’t even bother trying to defend the ignorance or arrogance of a trainer who doesn’t take advantage of it. This is not about my opinion regarding how to train dogs. We are so far beyond that when it comes to animal training that to try to argue it is akin to asserting that how planets orbit each other is simply one’s opinion on the topic.
There are hacks and shysters in every industry. But if someone is in the business of teaching people how to drive a car and confuse the gas pedal with the brake, they need to be stopped. They pose a risk not only to the driver but to anyone who happens to be on the road with them. And they sure as heck need to stop being paid to do it.
1. Dog training is an unregulated industry. This means ANYONE can tap themselves on the shoulder with a sword and anoint themselves a; trainer, behaviorist, whisperer, dog psychologist, rehabilitator, nanny, etc.
2. Dog training is an unregulated industry. This means anyone can anoint themselves as the certifier of; trainers, behaviorists, whisperers, dog psychologists, rehabilitators, nannies, etc.
3. Dog training is an unregulated industry. This means there are no standard operating procedures that any of the above “professionals” needs to follow in order to have business cards printed, websites built or cash your check.
4. Dog training is an unregulated industry. This means anyone can recommend the use of pinching, shocking, squirting, startling, choking, hitting, poking, kicking, rolling, etc., to end unwanted behaviors.
5. Dog training is an unregulated industry. This means anyone can put treats in their pocket, spray their pants with lavender oil and call themselves a “positive-only” trainer.
6. Dog training is an unregulated industry. This means that someone can handle a dog in ways that causes them pain or distress.
7. Dog training is an unregulated industry. This means that should someone handle your dog in a way that causes pain and distress and there is a degradation in your dog’s behavior, they can blame you and/or the dog, you will have little to no recourse and they will have moved on to their next victim.
8. Dog training is an unregulated industry. This means that people are free to ignore the evidence indicating that there is the likelihood of seeing a degradation in a dog’s behavior, including increased aggression, should they be handled in ways that cause pain and/or distress.
9. Dog training is an unregulated industry. This means that pet owners, rescue groups and shelters, are at-risk of being manipulated by misinformation presented by the unregulated.
10. Just because dog training is an unregulated industry doesn’t mean that some of us are not preparing ourselves and learning to train as though it was.
We live with animals and it’s easy to lose sight of the fact. When it comes to dogs we are living with animals who are designed with varying degrees of proficiency or intensity to; hunt, chase, catch, kill, chew, shred, mark and bark. They also breed and poop, and often at times and places we’d rather they didn’t. We’ve brought these animals into our homes and begin the process of trying to get them behave less like animals. Of all the animals on the planet, dogs seem to excel at accommodating us (much of the time). To be fair, many of us are willing and able to accommodate them when they continue to behave like the animals they are.
Often the easiest thing to do, and something we have a long and rich history of doing with all kinds of animals, including humans, is to use force and punishment to get what we need from them. We find no end to the reasons to justify our actions. Societies enact laws to help guide its citizens in making more just, and humane choices to achieve goals, given our tendency to resort to threats of and actual violence.
Behavior is lawful. When we understand those laws we can make humane, and effective choices to modify it. We start with humane management. This means creating an environment in which the animal can live safely without needing or being inclined to perform the behaviors we decide need to change. We ensure this environment provides them with good reasons to live; things to do, positive outcomes to attain. We consider the needs and normal behaviors of the animal when choosing or creating environments for them to live in. Bringing working dogs (and any other category of healthy dogs) into our homes and providing a minimum of enrichment and exercise is as unreasonable as bringing a goldfish home and tossing it on the sofa and expecting it will live a long and healthy life, and thank us for it.
Given that the practice of bringing or placing dogs into homes without full consideration of what their care will require is not likely to end soon, our best chance at success, and their best shot at a decent life, will be achieved by using our big brains to come up with solutions. There are professionals- vets, vet behaviorists and trainers who have studied the sciences of health and behavior who are able to formulate plans for addressing the challenges we are facing with our dogs.
Should we find ourselves routinely resorting to force, fear, intimidation, punishment and restraint to manage our dogs we should consider the possibility that we have failed in one or both of two ways. Either we lack the skills to efficiently modify behavior without them, or we have not adequately assessed the ability of an animal to be successful given the conditions they will be required to live in. If we are going to punish dogs to end our own suffering and inconvenience we can at least be insightful enough to admit it.