Training methods matter

Methods are a hotly debated, and oftentimes controversial, topic among dog trainers. It gets even hotter when you toss in the variety of information on the Internet and media, and hobbyist trainers and dog aficionados who live and breathe for their canine companions.

I’ll admit, I’m a very passionate dog trainer. I got into this field because I love dogs, and I do love people, too, and want to see them happy together, as opposed to giving up and taking the dog to a shelter. I would be remiss if I did not cop to the deep love I have for dogs—it’s one of the strongest I have! No doubt most people get into this profession out of the same love for dogs. We have a wide variety of trainers here in Colorado, and if you go visit individual websites, you’ll see a lot of different terms, marketing jargon and labels used to define the methodologies of trainers:

  • Positive reinforcement
  • Balanced
  • Wolf pack theory
  • Natural methods
  • Traditional training
  • Force-free
  • Science-based
  • Clicker or marker training
  • Relationship-based or centered training

To most average consumers, all these labels sound pretty much okay or can mean a lot of things, depending on how you interpret them. Most people can say they want to learn how to communicate effectively with their dogs, and live in a “balanced” state or in “harmony.” But beyond these labels, how can a consumer really determine what the trainer is actually going to do to teach their dogs or solve problems they’re facing?

Dog training, and behavioral science as a whole, have made a lot of advancements in the last few decades. Karen Pryor’s Don’t Shoot the Dog is, in my opinion, one of the books that really made the case for operant conditioning techniques, and the superiority of using positive reinforcement to teach all animals new skills. On the flipside, in 2004, Cesar Millan’s Dog Whisperer TV show debuted, and the “calm-assertive energy” techniques as a pack leader to dogs began to take off. These two “schools,” if you will, and everything in between, are very much in opposition and can be not only confusing for dogs but people!

No doubt we live in a world where people are confused about how to deal with problem behaviors from dogs. I get a lot of strange looks when I tell people to just feed their reactive dogs for noticing triggers (the stimulus that causes the unwanted behavior). “But aren’t I reinforcing the (insert “bad” behavior here—i.e., barking, lunging, etc.)?” people will ask. It’s true that we always want to stay what we call “under threshold,” presenting that stimulus at a level where it will not illicit that behavior we don’t want, but sometimes we live in environments or undergo situations where that isn’t possible.

The key is understanding you can’t reinforce the emotions, and if a dog is truly upset and needs intervention to help them through something difficult, then we should do it, instead of getting frustrated and demanding something they cannot do—perform a behavior. It’s a great goal to want your dog to sit and look at you in the presence of other dogs, but if other dogs are scary for him, then it’s a VERY tough place to start for him! There is not a lot of understanding when it comes to our dogs and their emotional state, and this is probably one of the main reasons why I believe methods matter most. Time and time again, I see clients who have no idea how to make a positive association through successful desensitization and counterconditioning methods (DS/CC), even after seeing one or more other trainers or so-called behaviorists for their dog’s reactivity or aggression issues, and it’s mind-boggling!

Illustration by Lili Chin – click for a larger view

At Delightful Doggies, we choose to strive for situations where we can create a positive association for dogs with those items they find challenging, scary or overly exciting, and then we can get and reinforce the behavior we want. This means setting up the dog for success (so presenting that trigger in a very gradual, non-threatening way), making that association, and then getting a behavior because the dog has not gone over threshold, and sees the trigger as a good thing: It makes chicken happen!

On the flipside, there are others out there who will go too far too fast, or do not employ proper DS/CC protocols, and when the dog does have the reaction the person doesn’t want, the dog is punished. That usually ends up doing the opposite—it makes the trigger even scarier, and can make reactions worse—or suppress them. While the dog may not bark once you’ve used your punishment (making the handler think they’ve “fixed” it), they’re still a bundle of nerves underneath it all, and this training may break down. It may also cause your dog to enter a state of learned helplessness, even if they act the way they want you to moving forward. This isn’t fair to the dog, or help him feel confident and comfortable in the world in which we’ve asked him to live.

I recently shared a post from Sarah Stremming at Cognitive Canine (GREAT blog to follow!): “Why Positive Reinforcement ALWAYS Works.” So many times I have heard others say training didn’t work (regardless of the methods used). This blog makes the very valid point that it’s not the method, but the application of the method, that fails. If we set up appropriate plans and stick to them, they should work—even if it’s a punitive method! It’s very important to remind ourselves that our ability to see things through, to appropriately plan for and execute the training, is at the core of it all. Handler error and misunderstanding, poor timing, inadequate motivation/reward, etc., are all likely to blame than the method itself.

There have been trainers who used to be dedicated to more force-free, positive-reinforcement based methods who have gone over to incorporating more punishment. I have always been blown away by this because I came from the other end; I used to use a blend and was taught a more “balanced” way of training, until I found clicker methods and it totally changed my world. When I hear these trainers talk about how “positive reinforcement failed,” I often wonder why it did for them—and where their skill level is with the techniques. To me, methods matter a LOT. I want my dogs and their people to be happy, healthy and confident, rather than suppressing emotions for the sake of a behavior they may be able to perform, but not comfortably and due to the fear of being punished.

At Delightful Doggies, we are committed to staying away from punitive methods and honing our skills in using successful DS/CC and positive reinforcement to ease the dog’s emotional state, help them be calm and confident, and getting and reinforcing behaviors we do want. If we do this effectively, we have no need for punishment, and we believe the same for any dog, trainer or handler out there. It’s also proven to be safer to use these techniques over punishment. Don’t we owe it to our dogs, and ourselves, to be safe and happy together? We want to contribute to building a world full of people who can harness the power of the positive, to give dogs the ability to choose and make the best choices, and understand dog emotions and the power of a well-thought-out DS/CC plan. We hope you will join us!

Happy training,
Laura
Owner, Delightful Doggies

2 thoughts on “Training methods matter

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