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.
A common, and often hotly debated piece of advice is to encourage people to be better leaders. Though seemingly a benign suggestion it is ambiguous enough for both the giver and the receiver of the advice to have very different interpretations of the term. Given that we already have more appropriate terms for our relationship with the dogs we are training- trainer or teacher, there is no need to use a word that comes saddled with the baggage of pack leadership, alpha rolls and dominance. Even if this form of leadership is not what someone is suggesting, we can spare ourselves the need to explain our version of leadership merely by using another word. We don’t need to be good leaders in order to train dogs anyway, we need to be good trainers.
Nothing in life is free (NILIF) or closing the economy on a reinforcer- making the receipt of a valued or necessary reinforcer contingent on the dog’s performance of a specific behavior- is another training option that is not recommended in the group. In general there is nothing wrong or inhumane about it so long as an animal receives enough of the reinforcement to maintain good health and quality of life. Understanding how we can manipulate the motivators we have to train a dog is important. It makes sense if one is going out into the woods with their beagle off-leash to practice recalls, to skip the dog’s breakfast and have a pouch full of steak and cheese. Maybe (just maybe) we can begin to compete with other reinforcers in the environment that are going to make it more challenging for Tippy to respond to our recall instead of the scent of the herd of deer that wandered by before we got there.
If parents are struggling to get little Jimmy to pick up his dirty laundry, make his bed, do his homework, etc., and they are tired of punishing him, taking away his allowance, or making threats, knowing that playing video games is something Jimmy loves to do, they can take advantage of this to build the behaviors they are after. By making playing video games contingent on the performance of the desired behaviors, they can stop threatening punishment and put the ball in Jimmy’s court. Picking his towel up off of the bathroom floor and putting it in the hamper earns him 15 minutes of game time, bed making earns half an hour.
It’s important that any behavioral requirement we put on Jimmy (or Tippy) is one that they are capable of performing. If Jimmy is not doing his homework because the math is too complicated or written words are hard for him to comprehend, and he cannot earn his video playing time, we could expect to see him find other ways to be reinforced, or become frustrated. He might stop coming home from school right away to hang out at a friend’s house where he can play video games. He then starts smoking pot, steals cars for joy rides, gets arrested and ends up spending his youth in detention centers. OK, maybe this is an exaggeration, but my point is that it’s important that all animals have the opportunity to participate in activities that are positively reinforcing to them, and it’s our job as teachers to figure out what those are, and make it clear and possible for them to be attained.
In the case of fearful dogs we can assume that the motivator of the dog’s behavior is to protect themselves, to find a way to minimize what they perceive as a threat to their health and safety. Making the receipt of the most primary of reinforcers, food, contingent on doing something we want them to do, but scares them, is not fair. I would like to think that this is so blindingly obvious that it needs no further explanation. It is one thing to close the economy on food to compete with squirrels, it’s another thing to use it to coerce an animal into doing something that terrifies them.
I imagine being a dog trainer is like being the air traffic controller back in the tower trying to talk a stewardess through a landing after the pilot has a heart attack or is killed by Nicolas Cage. As attractive and savvy the stewardess may be, this might be her first day on the job, or she was sick the day they went over flying planes in the training she took to become a stewardess, or perhaps none of the navigation aids or gauges are functioning properly.
We know that flying planes is based on formulas that will include the speed, altitude, elevation and the angle of the plane based on the current conditions outside the plane and whether we want to keep flying straight ahead, turn, land or go higher. The controller has to figure out how to convey the information necessary for the stewardess to achieve whatever is required to get the job done. It won’t make it any easier if the guy in row 32, who has only ever been a passenger in planes is shouting out directions based on watching Denzel Washington land a plane upside down. It won’t be any easier if the woman in row 15 is telling her about the better way to fly a plane she made up and wrote a book about, but whose theory has not be adopted by the thousands of professional pilots who actually attended flight school.
How behavior is maintained, increased or decreased in dogs also follows rules that are known by the population of trainers and behaviorists who have taken the time to learn them. Those folks know that their job isn’t to give pet owners a course in aviation but rather to explain to them what they need to do and when they need to do it. Professionals in the animal training field follow guidelines that include not only effective and efficient ways to train but to do so in ways that are humane and the welfare of the animal is as high a priority as that of whoever is flying the plane.
When you need someone to talk you down make sure you don’t get distracted by background noise. And for heaven’s sake don’t try to land a plane upside down, no matter who you watched on TV doing it.
The compassion that people show for dogs with fear-based behavior challenges is commendable. Rescue groups pull them from shelters by the thousands and well-intentioned people adopt them. Given the number of people joining online groups looking for support and advice about how to help these dogs the reality that it requires more than time and love should be glaringly obvious.
I was recently asked by a rescue group how to prepare people who adopt a dog living with a variety of fears, and my honest opinion is that you can’t. No matter how much people are instructed that they need to be patient with the dog, unless someone has lived with a dog who required months or years to learn how to; feel safe in their new home, go in and out of doors, ride in cars, be home alone, walk on a leash, see new people or dogs, they will not understand what they are signing up for. And if they did, they likely wouldn’t.
But the other reality is that the rescuing and adopting out of dogs with fear-based challenges is not going end any time soon. So what can we do?
Get information: Understand that dogs don’t simply “get over” being afraid. The conditions experienced during a dog’s early development can have life-long impact on their behavior. There’s no way back to normal for some dogs. Let go of biases against the use of modern medicine to address stress and anxiety.
Get skills: Despite current appearances in the dog training industry (absolutely anyone can come up with a protocol or method to train dogs or make up reasons why they do what they do), how dogs learn new skills and can change their emotional responses is well-documented and to train them requires an understanding of a few basic laws of behavior modification. There are more and more trainers who have the knowledge and skills to address the issues fearful dogs face in efficient and humane ways. If you don’t have the skills, find someone who does.
Be realistic: It is going to take time and love and patience and energy and money. Spend all of them wisely.
For dogs adopted into homes as pets the onus of change typically falls on the dog. People will only tolerate aggression, destroyed couches, irate calls from neighbors and any of the other fall-outs from the behavioral quirks of fearful dogs for so long. No amount of “Well we told you the dog was going to need time,” is going to cut it for the owner or the dog. So how can rescue groups prepare new adopters for life with a fearful dog? They can adopt out a dog with a few of the basic skills they will need to live as a pet. Expecting a pet owner, as devoted and well-intentioned as they may be, to be able to train a dog to accept routine ear cleaning when the dog currently hides, bites or screams when handled is wishful thinking. As is expecting them to be able to train the dog to; walk through doorways, go outside for leash walks, walk nicely on a leash, get in a car, sit quietly when guests come into the house, etc., etc.
Dogs have demonstrated the ability to learn despite how we train them not because of how we train them. But our fearful dogs are more dependent on the how being as clear as possible. Being re-homed is among one of the most stressful events in the life of a social animal. Being stressed and uncertain is a miserable combination and is not likely to contribute to an improvement in the dog’s behavior. We can prepare the adopters of these dogs by showing them how to cue a trained behavior and reinforce it. By training dogs using positive reinforcement every cued behavior is an opportunity to feel good and to minimize the uncertainty a dog experiences in a new setting. Will this add to the responsibilities of rescue groups? It sure will. Some are already taking it on, and my guess is that it will increase the odds the dog will remain in the home and have a head start on becoming a happy pet.
If we take on the responsibility of selecting dogs to place in homes as pets, we should embrace all that that entails, it’s how professionals operate. When buying a car from a stranger most people will have it checked out by a trusted mechanic (or they would be wise to). We don’t trust that the seller is either aware of, or being up front about possible problems that may be dangerous or costly. People adopting dogs are trusting that rescue groups and shelters are adopting out dogs who will make good pets. They should not be expected to know how to anticipate or deal with fear-based behaviors in a dog adopted to be a pet any more than a consumer can be expected to know about all the things that could be dangerously wrong with a product they are purchasing and hoping to use immediately. And we don’t expect them to know how to fix them.
I know that there will be people who will resent having an analogy made between dogs and products, but I think it’s time we stop closing our eyes to the fact that fearful dogs are returned and discarded all too often and start doing something about that.
We are living in a golden age of dog training. The industry has been infused with information from professionals in the field of applied behavior analysis and animal training in general. Mark and reward training (click/treat) and lure/reward are if not embraced, are at least not unknown to most dog trainers and pet owners. Bob Bailey was pulled out of retirement and is once again offering chicken camps to help trainers understand and practice the fundamentals of operant conditioning. The list of educated and accomplished professionals contributing to the progress of dog training continues to grow. So why do so many trainers struggle with the idea of “training?”
I understand attempts to make training accessible to pet owners who may harbor as much enthusiasm for training dogs as I have for changing the oil in my car (very little). Yet often these attempts seem to only further confound or complicate what is quite a basic concept, teach the dog to do what you want. There is relationship training, attention training, engagement training and who the heck knows how many others methods and protocols out there developed to get a dog to do what someone needs them to do.
Don’t misunderstand me, I am all for having a good relationship with dogs and empowering them (whatever that means). Even people uninterested in the mechanics of training likely want to have a good relationship with their pets. And what that means for one person will be different for another and I’m not sure how we can even begin to define what it means to a particular dog. But if we break it down to basics, if a dog is able to understand what is required of them in order to keep them in a home as a valued member of the family, whatever relationship there is is more likely to continue and hopefully improve.
The behaviors required of most dogs are fairly routine; come when called, poop and pee in a designated area, on leash walk slow enough for the human to keep up with you, only chew stuff that isn’t of value to the humans. We can add to this list as we like, but each one of these requirements consists of a what often is an easy to train behavior, if you know how to train. What we call “paying attention” to us could be described very clearly as a specific behavior, in my case it means look at me. Because this is among the behaviors I deem important for a dog to be able to perform, it’s one I reinforce regularly, whether the behavior is performed on cue or not. And as we could predict because of the Law of Effect it’s a behavior I see a lot of in my dogs. I’m not focusing on our relationship, I’m focusing on the behavior. I like to think I have a good relationship with my dogs. They usually come when I call them, they wait for me to catch up to them on our walks in the woods, they would choose to go out the door or into the car with me when given the option.
I appreciate focusing on the warm fuzzy of relationships with owners rather than the cold sounding rate, timing and criteria of training. But what does a good relationship look like? Does it look like an owner putting on their walking shoes, grabbing a leash and going out with their dog? Does it look like hopping into the car and heading to a location where a dog can run off-leash? Does it look like signing up for an agility or nosework class? Does it look like a dog pulling on a tug toy or retrieving a ball? If it does, and it’s not happening because a dog pulls while on leash or lunges at people and cars going by, or takes off and doesn’t come when called, or is too afraid to interact with their owner, as a trainer I know how to remedy this. Train the dog. Make it easy for their owner to get the behaviors they need in order to be successful at keeping up with their end of the behavioral bargain required to create a good relationship; grabbing leashes, driving to off-leash areas, picking up the frisbee.
There are dogs out there who are reaching the end of the rope as far as the energy and patience an owner has for the dog’s inability to do what the owner needs. I may not know how to fix a relationship but I do know how to train a dog, i.e., get a behavior, and put it on cue. I make no apologies about it. Training is not a dirty word in my book.
It is not difficult to make a name for one’s self in this industry, and I say that speaking from experience. Come up with an idea or rehash an old one, package it well and people will buy it. It’s not always a bad thing. I like to think that my focus on the sciences of learning and animal behavior for coming up with solutions to help our fearful dogs is among the good things.
Recently on a social media site someone selling a product, which may be a great addition to the industry, described themselves as a “professional holistic dog trainer.” I asked what that meant and received this reply:
“Professional Holistic Dog Trainer means that I take a look at the dog from the physical, emotional, psychological and spiritual aspects of the dog. I have a very detailed background in bodywork and dog biomechanics so I only do training once I know the body is sound and that the back and neck are not being impinged anywhere.
I have spent 20 years studying and practicing Qi Gong and have a pretty sound knowledge of The 5 Element Theory of Traditional Chinese Medicine.
I am an Animal Healer and have worked for the last 20 years with nutrition for many diseases and behavioral issues to rebalance both.
I have been an Animal Communicator for the past 20 years and have assisted hundreds of humans with their health and behavior issues addressing the problems at the root.
I train positively but use treats very minimally and not at all with my product*. I work with dogs based on their awareness of communication via reading their energy and having clear consistent boundaries that are used in a natural manner as we spend time together.
Hope that answers your question.”
Indeed it does answer my question. I see no reference at all to any formal education in animal training, which despite appearances in most TV shows and too many training classes, is based on the sound principles of operant conditioning. Animal training is a mechanical skill and as such we can be good at it, or not so good at it depending on our commitment to increasing and improving those skills. An educated onlooker can spot a good trainer a mile away in much the same way a fan can identify a team’s great athletes or a band’s star performer. Most of us however are not educated onlookers. It’s not an inherent fault of ours, it’s just the nature of the dog training industry. We don’t often have the chance to see many of the really good trainers in action. Given that, we may be perfectly thrilled with a nice red table wine while remaining oblivious to the fact that an award winning zinfandel is available in the next aisle.
Don’t let the veneer of language sprinkled with the glitter of energy, natural, spiritual, blind you to the obvious. At no point did this trainer ever provide me with information to indicate that s/he has the background, education or skill to effectively and humanely train dogs. Indeed most of the information provided is superfluous or contrary to being a great dog trainer. That one practices an ancient Chinese martial art may be good for one’s blood pressure, but it says nothing of their ability to train dogs. Qualifying the use of food in training (minimally) is an indication that one may in fact not truly be capable of communicating with an animal since as a primary reinforcer, and one of the most potent ones, food is renowned as a motivator and is used by professional trainers across the board. That fish tossed to a seal after they wave at the crowd is a primary reinforcer to increase the chances that that behavior will be performed again on cue.
Professional trainers do not apologize for using food in training. This is not to say that we only use food for reinforcement but the mention of limiting its use is a red flag. We don’t get to decide what is reinforcing to an animal, the animal does. If a dog is not motivated to perform for praise, petting, or play I don’t hold it against them, I break out the cheese. Coming from the position that a specific reinforcer will only be used minimally is antithetical to good training (health or medical reasons may impact our decision but it will not change the position that food holds in the training world). We can make the decision how and what to use for reinforcement in the process of training an animal, not create arbitrary dictates.
The tragedy of the dog training industry in its current incarnation is not that people can come up with enticing ways to market themselves or their products regardless of their quality, as consumers we know this is how the game is played. The tragedy is not that some people don’t use or limit the use of food to train. The tragedy is that most pet owners, the main consumers of the products and services, have never seen what good, efficient training looks like. But the industry is changing and we are becoming more savvy consumers who can tell the difference between a really good cabernet and something in a screw top bottle that just provides a good buzz.
*product name removed
For those who choose to follow what is called the “humane hierarchy” when training animals (guidelines created by far better minds and more experienced minds than my own) there remains confusion among the ranks. In the hierarchy created by Dr. Susan Friedman, some note that because both negative reinforcement and negative punishment are presented on the same level they must therefore both be of equal invasiveness or aversiveness. This assumption then leads to debates about whether trainers who routinely utilize negative punishment have any right telling people who routinely utilize negative reinforcement that they shouldn’t be.
Few would would argue that there are not degrees to which something is aversive enough to either increase or decrease behavior. My desire to stop getting wet in a rainstorm is likely different in mid-July than it is in mid-February but the observable behavior will look the same, I’ll put on a raincoat. Since it’s my behavior I feel safe in assessing how aversive I found getting wet at the time. I should be cautious to assume I can attain the same level of certainty when looking at an animal’s behavior. There are those among us with the experience with the species and with an individual to assume (guess) correctly. But that’s not a recommended practice among professional trainers who use behavior to guide their choices when training. That’s what the humane hierarchy is for.
The other bit of confusion is that we typically are not choosing between negative reinforcement or negative punishment. One is for getting or increasing behavior, the other for stopping or decreasing behavior. We are choosing between using positive reinforcement or negative reinforcement to get behavior. In this case our first choice should be positive reinforcement. If there is a behavior we want to end or decrease we can choose between positive punishment or negative punishment. According to the hierarchy our choice should be negative punishment. We take away the opportunity for an animal to attain positive reinforcement.
Accomplished and ethical trainers do not punish unless they have adequately provided the animal with information to understand how to behave to get positive reinforcement. It’s not up to us decide how bad something is or isn’t to a dog. It’s up to us to develop the mechanical skills to be good trainers using positive reinforcement and the technical understanding of how learning is impacted by consequences. While we’re doing that this roadmap provides us with good information to guide us.