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The Great Divide in Dog Training – What to Do…

Just as humans have argued for many years about whether to spank or not spank their children, dog trainers have argued about whether to physically punish dogs.  In psychological terms, parenting takes different forms.  One is authoritarian – that’s the obedience-oriented parent who allows little dialogue, and is the likeliest spanker, the one who, when a child asks, “Why?” responds with, “Because I said so.”  Another style is so-called indulgent parenting – the parent who allows the child excessive freedom, the permissive parent.  These are the parents who want to be their child’s friend, and who have low expectations of obedience.  An extreme form of indulgent parenting is neglect.  Either neglect or over controlling can cause learned helplessness. The third type is authoritative – the parent who is most likely to encourage the child to explore, while still placing appropriate limits on them.  This parent is most likely to use the withholding of privileges as a punishment.

There are studies which have concluded that children whose parents are indulgent increased the child’s likelihood of problem drinking by three times (  Authoritarian parents doubled it.  It’s worthwhile to note that parenting style is not always predictive of success or failure of a child, because other environmental factors and genetics play in to the equation as well, but there are some predisposing factors for failure associated with various parenting styles.

So, how does this discussion of parenting factor in to the dog training debate?  Well, the authoritarian dog trainer is similar to the strict parent.  These are the trainers who often see the dog as “wrong” and requiring “correction” and who have no problem using physical manipulation or punishment to effect changes in the dog’s behavior.  When you see the words “boot camp” or the training method is described as “balanced” you might be seeing a trainer who falls along the continuum in this group.  They are bolstered in this approach by the fact that punishment, administered in sufficient force, does work.  The dog appears obedient. But, some would argue that the dog has learned helplessness.  This is Wickipedia’s description of Seligman’s 1967 study on dogs: “In the learned helplessness experiment an animal is repeatedly hurt by an adverse stimulus which it cannot escape. Eventually the animal will stop trying to avoid the pain and behave as if it is utterly helpless to change the situation.  Finally, when opportunities to escape are presented, this learned helplessness prevents any action. The only coping mechanism the animal uses is to be stoical and put up with the discomfort, not expending energy getting worked up about the adverse stimulus.”  When trainers who are opposed to correction training describe a dog as “shut down” this is the definition they are suggesting.  The dog does not have to look unhappy to be learned helpless!  For the dog, this is the job where, no matter how good, the boss doesn’t notice your work that often, but make one mistake…

Contrast authoritarianism with a “trainer” (usually the owner) who allows the dog lots of freedom or doesn’t really know how to modify the dog’s behavior, may even think that loving the dog is enough – or the equally “hands off” laissez faire owner who thinks that dogs should be born knowing how to come when called, who when the adolescent dog decides not to listen, unceremoniously dumps it off at the shelter, or worse, off the back of a pickup truck in a strange neighborhood.  This is the person who excuses their dog jumping up on you by saying, “Oh, he’s just trying to be friendly.”  Or, it could be the person who might think the dog was born stubborn or spiteful, and there’s nothing that can be done to change it. For the dog, this is the job where you get either paid for just showing up, or you end up in “prison” at the animal shelter waiting for a better family to give you a second chance.

The authoritative trainer, like the authoritative parent, wants to engage the dog in the process.  This is the trainer who might use absence of a reward as a punishment, or who might heavily reinforce the dog with something the dog likes as a reward.  Just as the parent wants the child to gradually take responsibility for his own behavior, the assertive but democratic style trainer wants to encourage the dog to be an active participant in the process, and to choose appropriate behavior by a series of training scenarios that show him that it’s in his best interest to do so, and that poor behavior results in no reward.  These trainers might use a marker or click to tell the dog which behavior they like, and follow it up with reinforcement, not always food, that the dog is happy to work for.  For example, what’s better to reward a good sit/stay first thing in the morning, than to reward the dog by opening the door so you can take a walk together?  This is the job that pays on commission or gives merit raises.

If obedience is the only goal, both authoritative and authoritarian training methods work.  Even indulgent dog parents are sometimes rewarded with a naturally good dog.  But, if your goal is a dog that is a willing participant, enjoys his time (including training time) with you, and understands your cues as requests that he is only too glad to fulfill, consider choosing a trainer who embodies the true “balance” of authoritative training.  They often describe themselves as “truly positive” but that’s only in the sense that they do not use aversive methods to train, and their desire to separate themselves from those who do.  It doesn’t mean that the dog faces no consequences, but it does mean that the dog is the one who decides what’s aversive and what isn’t, and what’s reinforcing and what isn’t.  Most dogs would not volunteer to put on a pinch or a shock collar, given a choice.  Most dogs would volunteer for a job that pays off in liver treats.  It is the judicious avoidance of punishment, and the judicious use of reward that makes a truly great trainer.

The responsible pet owner is faced with quite a dilemma these days, but MUST determine accurately the method that a prospective trainer uses, before deciding who to hire.  There are shock collar trainers claiming to be force free, and positive trainers offering boot camps.  So, avoid listening to the buzz words.  Ask about the tools and methods your trainer is willing to use on your dog.  Be specific.  Do they use clickers, do they use lure/reward training, do they use shock collars, do they use prong collars, do they use absence of a reward, do they ever physically manipulate the dog (ear pinches, forcing the dog into a sit, etc.)?  Before choosing a trainer, ask around among groomers, veterinarians and dog sitters.  Search the reviews on Yelp.  Does the person belong to a professional organization?  Authoritarian trainers gravitate toward IACP, others to APDT, and IAFFPP (formerly IPDTA) or Truly Dog Friendly.  See which organizational mission you identify with.  Remember, there is a great divide among trainers, but there should never be a great divide between you and your dog.  Choose wisely.

Anne Springer is a graduate of Salem State University, member of Psi Chi Psychology Honor Society, Certified Trick Dog Trainer, member of IAFFPP and Truly Dog Friendly.

Learn more about Anne at 




About pawsforpraise

I own and operate Paws for Praise. We offer group dog training classes and behavior consultations in a dog and human friendly environment. We think training should be fun for you and your dog. Go ahead - make a tail wag!

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