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 Vimeo.com.
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.
Happy training – and make a tail wag!