RSS Feed

Monthly Archives: January 2013

Dinosaurs and Dog Training

I was struck by a message I recently received from someone who told me that they had seen many shelter dogs put to sleep for what were essentially minor issues that could have been resolved by a skillful trainer.  I was certainly with him that far.  But, in the next sentence, I was a bit stunned.  He said the only time he had seen such dogs really be rehabilitated was when they were sent off to a doggy boot camp.  The dreaded “we had to use punishment, it was to save their lives” argument was being made again.  And, yes, “boot camp” is often still a place where dogs endure prong collar corrections and shock collars. (The prong, or pinch, collar, in spite of my abhorrence for it, was never designed for a trainer to make a correction with it, it was designed to just sit there until the dog pulled, whereupon he would “self correct” when he encountered the painful stimulus of the prongs digging in to his neck, and at the level at which he found them painful, not the level the trainer decided to perpetrate on him, but that’s another blog post…)

I agree that some dogs have been punished so harshly that unwanted behavior does seem to disappear.  They seem “cured.”  But, mostly that’s due to global suppression of behavior, not learning.  In fact, the dog just gives up, realizing that he cannot avoid the unpleasantness.  A condition of “learned helplessness” arises.  The downside to it is that the dog becomes less trainable in general, because he’s unwilling to offer new behaviors lest they be met with the same result – pain, so he just sits there.  Ever wonder why so many force trainers use platforms where dogs just sit there to demonstrate how “obedient” they are???  Shut down doesn’t have to LOOK shut down, the dog just IS shut down.  But, I digress.

Trainers have been using harsh punishment for decades, eons even.  They’ve become quite good at it, and we know that timing is oh so important in training, which is, honest-and-truly, a mechanical skill.  So, when a shelter or rescue sends a dog into training with one of these people, they perceive a successful result when the dog returns.  They mark it a success, even if, several months or years down the road, the dog bites someone.  Longitudinal studies of how well shelter dogs are rehabilitated are nearly non-existent.  But, it’s safe to say that behavior (or lack thereof) must somehow be maintained by either punishment or reinforcement and the new adopters may or may not have the skills to do either.  

The fact is that our modern dog training movement, which is more reliant on clicker training or progressive reinforcement training, is in its virtual infancy compared to the more punitive styles of the past.  The “crossover” trainers, who adopted “positive training” (which, incidentally does involve consequences, and is not permissive) in the past few decades, are now the leaders of the movement (which, sadly, was set back about 50 years by the magic of television and a few unqualified people posing as dog gurus of one sort or another).  People like Karen Pryor, Bob Bailey, Keller and Marion Breland, proved that any animal, even chickens and goldfish, can be trained using non-violent positive reinforcement techniques.  Entities such as The Academy for Dog Trainers, Karen Pryor Academy, and Companion Animal Sciences Institute, are now educating trainers comprehensively in this science.  The drawback is that many of these are NEW trainers, relatively speaking.  They don’t yet have the “chops” that will come from just handling hundreds of dogs.  But, when they do, they will almost certainly replace the “dinosaurs” who could not adjust and adopt the modern techniques and technology.  Just as people who refused to accept computers became irrelevant in the workplace, trainers who remain stuck in the past will become the collateral damage of the learning curve, as well as the desire most owners have NOT to hurt their dogs.  As science and ethics-based trainers become more skillful, word of mouth will be as good advertising for them as it once was for the trainers whose work looked adequate, but didn’t give full measure to the ability for “the thinking dog” to partner with humans in miraculous ways.

Certainly, we realize that there are four quadrants of operant conditioning, but it’s rarely, if ever, necessary to use all four to get the result you want.  The way that people cling to the aversive end of the spectrum is not because it doesn’t work, it’s because they simply haven’t taken the time to become equally skilled at the non-aversive side of things.  If non-aversive works, too, why not couple skill with ethics?  Because you are a dinosaur?  Hope not, because you know what happened to them.


Effecting Change – Money Makes the World Go ‘Round

Admittedly, one of the first things I do in the morning is to sit down with my towel wrapped around my wet hair, cup of coffee on my desk, and play Words with Friends in between checking the morning Facebook activity.  It’s not all fun and games, though.  I am, as the illustrious Jean Donaldson has described me, a “warrior princess for force free training.”  Granted, that isn’t all I use Facebook for.  I like to catch up with far away friends, network a homeless dog or two, giggle a bit at the useless bits of fantasy, or participate in some of the “wall wars” as much as the next person.

Today, I happened upon a lovely blog post from Maureen Backman, of Dog Connect, called Fear: When Nothing Else Matters.  I was struck, as I always am, with the difference between how people like me, and Maureen, view dogs, versus the way other people, whose agenda is much more geared toward compliance than learning, view dogs.  But, even more than that, the thought occurred to me that there are people whose general bent toward dogs is kindness, yet they opt for training tools that are unkind because they think they have to.  The odd thing is that many of us used to be like them until we discovered that we didn’t have to.  Doing that takes a willingness to literally jump out of your comfort zone, not easy to do if you are already making a living at training dogs by means which you think work perfectly well (why fix what isn’t broken), or if you are already training dogs for a very important task, such as assistance dog work, that has a human safety component very different from the one a pet dog has to observe.

Why, after all this time, are so many people dragging their feet and clutching their prong and shock collars as if they were the veritable keys to Heaven, I thought.  Just as with Earl, Maureen’s newly acquired dog with separation anxiety, perhaps fear is a component.  Change is hard, and scary, for many people.  And, sometimes, people who resist change aren’t really as opposed to the change itself as they are to the background conversations they hear in their own heads about it.  They may fear being inept – I imagine that competitive results-driven force trainers whose dogs go out and score 98 in obedience would be humiliated, while learning a new method, to have dogs that don’t rise to that level quickly enough to avoid embarrassing them.  Somehow, they don’t seem to see that if you know operant conditioning, you can use any of the quadrants successfully.  They prefer the familiar, instead of testing the waters of the unfamiliar.  They perceive positive trainers as “soft” and yet many positive trainers used to use those traditional methods, but had the courage to try the newer paradigm when it first became apparent to them that there might be some truth in the science, or at least some better ethics about how we were treating the animals we trained.  I view traditional trainers rather like the aging board members who still insist that the executive director’s secretary call them to inform them of meetings when everyone else on the board has long since adopted email as the accepted mode of communication.  Laggards exist wherever there is discomfort with change, even when the change is good and makes things easier, or more comfortable in the end.

There are many theories on how to go about convincing them, but when people are clutching their prong and shock collars as if they were the keys to Heaven, not to mention that they are profiting from their use in competition or in business, it’s unlikely that simple ethics are going to convince them.  Just as with dogs, we may need a more powerful motivator.  If the Cheerios don’t work, try a meatball, right?

What if, instead of just complaining on Facebook, we took financial action?  What if we refused to purchase any product that puts profit into the pocket of the manufacturers of choke, prong or shock collars.  What if we didn’t take that cheaper puppy class at the big box store that sells those devices?  What if we didn’t donate to the shelter or rescue that is using such devices on dogs and directed our donations to the ones that use kinder methods?  If enough people did that, change could be effected much more quickly.  Just as it became socially unacceptable to drink and drive, or to smoke when you’re pregnant, maybe we could make it socially unacceptable to choke or shock a dog into compliance when there are kinder methods that are every bit as effective (Shapiro, Bloomsmith & Laule, 2003, Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science).

I no longer recommend any products by PetSafe (Premier) for this reason.  I avoid the big box stores and patronize my local pet supply stores, even if the prices are slightly higher.  I don’t donate to assistance dog organizations that use prong collars.  I try to avoid rescues and shelters that use or recommend such equipment or who refer pet owners to trainers who use them.  Political change is not easy – and maybe my efforts don’t parallel the courage of the people who walked over the Edmund Pettus bridge in Selma in the 60’s, but I am willing to take the hit if people think my view is unpopular, or my goal unreachable, because my conscience is clear.   I’m not always successful, sometimes I spend and find out later I should not have, but at least I have tried to spend ethically – just the way I try to train dogs.  Those who use positive methods are rewarded with my patronage or donations.  Simple operant conditioning.   Stop reinforcing behavior you don’t like, and reinforce behavior that you do like.


Ditch the Prong

Traditional trainers frequently advocate the use of prong collars to teach dogs to avoid pulling on their leashes, which, admittedly, is one of the harder exercises for novices to teach their dogs.  It’s also one of the most annoying and easy habits for dogs to get in to.  When you think about it, most people unconsciously move their arm in response to even a slight tug from a puppy, and before you know it, the little dog has had many dozens of reinforcements for pulling, simply because he got to go further in the direction he was headed at the time he pulled.

Some trainers argue that these tools, when used correctly, speed up the learning curve for the dog.   They even make the medicine seem sweeter to take (for the owner) by saying that incorrect use is what causes harm.  But, let’s take a look at how the device actually works.  When the dog pulls, the collar tightens, driving the prongs into the dogs neck (positive punishment) until they hurt enough that the dog stops pulling in order to alleviate the sensation he doesn’t like (negative reinforcement).

Some trainers liken the action of the prong collar to a mother dog’s “correction” but I have yet to see any appropriately socialized dam causing real pain to her offspring.  Trainers who characterize a grab as a “bite” to impress you of its harmlessness, are not only unethical, they’re actually showing very poor understanding of doggy dynamics.  Dogs’ corrections are exceedingly swift, and ordinarily tempered by EXQUISITE acquired bite inhibition, but they generally do NOT cause prolonged pain, especially around the entire neck.  Such trainers act as if science doesn’t exist (we know that positive reinforcement and negative punishment work just as well to modify behavior as the quadrants of operant conditioning that harsher trainers use).  Also, we humans are not dogs, and the lightning fast, yet benevolent, corrective response is not even within our clumsy capacity to deliver, much less have a dog understand it as such.  To them, when we correct, my guess is that they merely perceive us as unpleasant or unpredictable.

Trainers whose skill set is lacking in principles that are now used routinely to teach even large predators, such as tigers, to present their limbs to zookeepers for injections or blood draws, are likeliest to continue using unnecessary instruments that induce pain (“remote” or shock collars fall into this category as well).  The truth is when you know better, you do better, and there are many trainers who haven’t learned enough yet to feel confident applying ethical science to dog training.  Even more disturbing, there are many who close their minds completely to any attempt to learn how to master these techniques.  Sadly, in an unregulated profession, there are many hacks, and your dog is in danger if you don’t practice due diligence in finding someone who will “do no harm.”

When choosing a trainer, read the philosophy section on their web pages, but beware.  Many of the people who still use antiquated methods and equipment consider themselves “positive” and will use language designed to have you think so, too.  One way to insure that the trainer you hire will not use pain or fear in training your dog is to look for membership in the Pet Professional Guild, or a commitment to Progressive Reinforcement Training, a term which noted trainer, Emily Larlham, coined to describe the modern training paradigm.


So then, back to the little pulling pup, or the bigger dog with a confirmed pulling habit.  The first thing to do when revising your training strategy is to realize your own contribution.  Learn to remain static and not have your hand move at all in response to the pulling.  Temporarily, (or permanently if you like – I wouldn’t judge you harshly if you did that) use a no pull front clip harness, such as the Freedom Harness to give yourself some leverage that is not as unpleasant to the dog as a pain-inducing collar.  Realize that training takes time, and should start in a non-distracting environment (so use the harness out walking until the training is complete).  If you are not near a force free training facility and want to learn to train the walk without pain, there’s a wonderful set of Polite Leash Walking videos by Helix Fairweather on

I think it’s important to realize how valuable the relationship is between dog and handler.  I personally do not want anything painful to happen to my dog while she’s near me, lest she make the association between me and the unpleasant thing.  That diminishes trust, and can ruin your recall if you have a dog that becomes leery of getting to you, or remaining with you once there.

More information on why I don’t recommend prong collars and a bit about me.

Happy training – and make a tail wag!