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Dog Trainers Playing in the Sandbox


The dog training industry is not regulated in any way, so currently, anyone who wants to call themselves a trainer and hang out a shingle can do so (which is why I wrote a previous blog post on how to find the right trainer).

Sadly, even if the industry were regulated tomorrow, there would likely be a grandfather clause which would allow anyone currently practicing dog training to continue doing so.  So, consumers would still not be protected against those who have insufficient skills, no background in behavioral science, or who use force in training dogs.

On the Internet, there are many dog-related forums, blogs, and Facebook groups.  These groups are populated by everyone from average pet owners to nationally known trainers and everyone in between, including some of those force trainer people who would get grandfathered, much to my chagrin.  Just as with any other subject matter, there are as many opinions on those groups as there are…well, you get it.  Arguments ensue over almost everything. Should you feed raw food or kibble?  Should you train using food as a reinforcement or not?  Should you crate your dog or not?  Should you spay or neuter your dog, and at what age?  Should we identify the quadrant of operant conditioning that we are using or abandon thinking about quadrants altogether (I don’t think we should – I want to use the quadrants that are force free whenever I can)?

These issues, if you look at the rancor they cause, are akin to the ones that cause nations to go to war.  They involve “no compromise” types of choices. Pro choice or pro life?  Gay marriage OK or not OK?  Republican or Democrat? Dog aficionados are just NOT going to agree on some matters.

The problem isn’t the disagreements.  Most adults can handle disagreement or debate, and they can even handle the tough debates.  What is disconcerting, however, is the departure from debate into tantrums.  It represents devolution, if you will, to a form of benign or not so benign name calling that is designed to deflect any attempt at pressing for answers to hard questions, so that people can hide from uncomfortable scrutiny. I’ve been called everything from “cookie tosser” (I like that one) to “queen of mean” to “crone” and everything in between. People have suggested to others that they rant privately about people like me because we are just so mean. The word “mean” is now tossed into the mix any time someone loses the ability to debate using facts and citations, versus “my way or the highway.”

If we are to elevate the profession of dog training, we must go beyond doing what is effective, and move toward doing what is effective AND ethical. We must treat dogs the way we would want to be treated if we were the dogs. It is our obligation, as force free trainers, to expose practices that cannot be supported with research, ethics, experience, and efficacy.

Elie Weisel once said, “We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” Many dogs lead lives that are not ideal, where even supposedly loving owners cannot see the fear or distrust in them. Sometimes, knowing that requires turning the other cheek when someone elects to call you a “hater” because you disagree. It requires you to smile to yourself when you find out that someone has encouraged ranting about you on some closed clique or Facebook group, or even on an open one. If no one hates you, you’ve probably never stood up for a difficult or unpopular position in your life.

Remember, it is not MEAN to ask for evidence, to question why a practitioner wants to do something to YOUR dog, or to stand up for the oppressed, the weak, the defenseless, or the misunderstood.

“Being ‘nice’ doesn’t convince someone who doesn’t want to be convinced. And being ‘mean’ doesn’t impede someone who wants to learn.” –Melissa McEwan

So, stop telling me to be nice every time I give you information. Stop telling me to be nice when you are frustrated by your own misunderstanding of an issue that I’m trying my best to explain in scientifically accepted language (in order to level the playing field so ALL can understand), and stop telling me to be nice because I refuse to drink the guru-of-the-week’s Kool-aid. I’m not being mean, just persistent.

I haven’t called you any names, or told you you’re stupid (even when I think you are), and I haven’t called you incapable of learning. I’ve simply given you an opinion, hopefully with some reasoning behind it. Put on your big boy or big girl pants and engage in adult debate, if you can. But, if you can’t, stop ranting about the meanies and go do some more research so that you can enter the debate constructively. Either that or, if you are going to run away on every Facebook page or Yahoo group from the hard questions posed to you, stay gone and let the rest of us learn together.

Finding the Right Dog Trainer – Harder Than You Think

Here’s some advice from Jean Donaldson on how to choose a dog trainer.  After her suggestions, I’m going to take the liberty of telling you how I would want her questions to be answered if I were going to try to find a trainer for my own dog.  You may not realize it, but trainers do, from time to time, attend one another’s classes, participate in working seminars, or take classes from trainers who are experts in dog sports or aspects of training that we are not expert in.  As an example, I can lay a simple track and have my dog follow it for fun, but I certainly am not an expert in lost person behavior or variable surface tracking!  So, if I wanted to know more about scent work of that kind, I might take my dog and go to classes with someone who does.  Anyway, back to the topic at hand – how does the average pet owner find a trainer?  (Jean’s comments are in bold font.  My comments are italicized.)

The animal training industry is completely unregulated and anyone can call themselves an animal behavior professional in spite of having no formal education or qualifications. So what can consumers do to protect themselves?

1. Ask for formal education and credentials.  
It’s important that a dog trainer gets an education in the science of how dogs learn.  If the trainer has a degree in a behavioral science, has taken classes in psychology, motivation, or learning theory, or has had exposure to these concepts via a school such as the Academy for Dog Trainers, Karen Pryor Academy, Companion Animal Sciences Institute, etc., that’s good indication that the person is interested in legitimate science, and not the “voodoo” that many people spout about their dog training abilities, as if those somehow came from osmosis or from the vapors somewhere.  Beware of any schools that still tout “dominance theory” or suggest the use of shock collars.*
(Addendum: In 2015, the Pet Professional Accreditation Board began an independent psychometrically sound testing program for dog trainers which also has an ethical component that prohibits the use of choke, prong, and shock collars by its certificants. Consumers can now begin to look for the PCT-A (Professional Canine Trainer – Accredited) designation when seeking a professional.)

2. Ask for continuing education involvement.
There are now many opportunities for dog trainers to receive continuing education, both in person and online.  If the person has done this, they ought to be able to tell you through what organization, the name of the presenter, and the topics presented.  More importantly, you should get a sense that they enjoy keeping up with the latest studies and they will not be afraid to alter their opinions based upon valid research.  For example, one of the pre-eminent authorities on wolf biology, Dr. David L. Mech, who originally coined the term “alpha” has recanted the original implication of the term because new research shows that it is inaccurate.  Hear him tell it in his own words:
Good trainers are always trying to learn more themselves!  “I’ve been training for twenty years.” is NOT a credential.  It’s also quite possible for a trainer to have been doing it wrong for twenty years, or at least not as humanely as they could have!

3. Ask for scientific evidence supporting any claims about behavior.
Behavior modification occurs because of two types of learning, operant and respondent.  In simple terms, operant conditioning takes place in a three part contingency.  There is an antecedent, a behavior that the dog performs, and a consequence.  So, this is the learning that takes place, for example, when we teach a dog to “sit.”
In respondent learning, there is only a two part contingency.  The dog learns, “If this happens, then that happens,”  This is the type of learning that changes a dog’s emotional response to something.  This takes place, for example, when we rattle the lid to the cookie jar and suddenly the dog comes to the kitchen.  He has learned that the noisy lid predicts that you will pull out a cookie for him.
A trainer should be able to tell you about these things.  The quadrants of operant conditioning, and the process of desensitization and counter-conditioning should be as familiar to the trainer as the tools of your own trade are to you!

4. Ask what actual physical events will be used to motivate your animal (keep asking if you receive obfuscating answers such as “energy,” “leadership,” “status” or “dominance”).** For example, ask, “What exactly will happen to my dog if he gets it right? And what exactly will happen to my dog if he gets it wrong?”

In good science-based classes, a dog that gets it right is going to hear a marker word or sound, and then receive a reinforcement (food, toy, privilege…)  For example, trainer enters the room and asks the dog to sit for greeting.  Dog sits.  Trainer reinforces the dog with a click/treat.

A dog that gets it wrong in a good training class will not be called stubborn, willful or stupid, he’ll simply get no reinforcement, or he’ll have a privilege withdrawn, and be given another opportunity to get it right.  Example: Trainer walks in and dog jumps on trainer.  Trainer withdraws all attention and turns away.  Once the dog is on the floor, trainer returns and reinforces the dog for having his feet on the floor.  Trainer gradually lengthens the time the dog’s feet are on the floor before giving the reinforcement.  After a while, the dog needs only occasional reinforcement for keeping all four feet on the floor.

No physical punishment should occur.  No choke collars, no prong collars, no shock collars.

5. Ask what side effects each procedure has. Fear is a particularly concerning side effect as it is difficult to undo.
No trainer worth his or her salt wants to add to a dog’s problems.  That’s why an understanding of the science is so important.  Aggression, learned helplessness, fear, are all to be avoided, but they are easily installed in dogs by those who persist in using aggressive or confrontational training.  Here’s an example of Dr. Sophia Yin using science (counter-conditioning) to change a Jack Russell Terrier’s mind about how he feels about air being blown in his face.  Before: Can you imagine a child exhaling while laying on a couch near this dog???  After: He’s changing his mind!:
Had Dr. Yin punished the dog, he might have stopped the growling temporarily, but the dog’s dislike for air in his face would still have been there.  In this training, the dog actually learns to LIKE having air on his face!

6. If you feel at all uncomfortable, don’t be bullied: get another opinion.
Places where you can seek help:

You are entitled to full information before consenting to any training or behavior modification procedure.
~ Jean Donaldson

* “Until these devices are illegal, consumers must protect themselves and their dogs by looking beyond the marketing messages of those who profit from their sale and use. It is not necessary to use electric shock to change behavior. It is not necessary in humans, in zoo species, in marine mammals or in dogs.”
~Jean Donaldson

“Absolutely, without exception, I oppose, will not recommend, and generally spend large amounts of time telling people why I oppose the use of shock collars, prong collars,
choke collars, and any other type of device that is rooted in an adversarial, confrontational interaction with the dog.”
~Karen Overall, MA, VMD, PhD, Dipl. ACVB, CAAB


When Your Teeth Hurt, Do You Call a Plumber?

Yes, this is a serious question.  When your teeth hurt, do you call a plumber?  Of course not, you call a dentist.  But, do you call a dentist who would use wooden teeth to replace the rotted ones he might extract from a patient’s mouth?

If you have a training or behavior problem with your dog and you call your friend, watch a TV show, ask your dog’s breeder, pick a trainer from the list your rescue or vet gave you without checking their credentials or auditing a class, or buy a dog training book from the average bookstore, you are doing the equivalent of going to an 18th century dentist and expecting him to know how to straighten your teeth when braces haven’t even been invented yet, or asking a plumber to fill the cavity in your left premolar.

Training and behavior modification of dogs is a completely unregulated industry, so, unlike a modern dentist, who must graduate college and maintain continuing education, and actually KNOW how to treat you (or even a plumber who must either go to trade school or apprentice with a legitimately licensed plumber), a trainer can just hang out a shingle and use any method he wants to try to train your dog.

Finding a dog trainer who will not hurt your dog, either physically or EMOTIONALLY, is not easy.  You, as a consumer, especially if you have not adopted a new dog within the past ten or fifteen years, might not even be aware that there are new and different methods for training dogs which do NOT involve painful devices.  

Years ago, most trainers were using some form of compulsion from leash pops to helicoptering. Today’s compulsion trainers, who haven’t adopted more modern methods, may still use harsh tools and punishment.   Some of them, realizing that public opinion may finally be leaning more toward science-based force free training that keeps dogs happy while educating them not to rip up your slippers or greet guests nicely, are adopting language on their web sites to fool you in to thinking that they are much more positive in their approach than they really are.  (Just one example of this: Shock or correction collars have suddenly become “remote” or “reminder” or “vibration” collars that are set to “beep”  – what the trainer doesn’t tell you is that those collars have multiple settings and that some dogs are given shocks that are higher than that “buzz” you felt on your wrist when the trainer let you try it for yourself to prove how “harmless” it was.)
Certification is not universal or mandatory, and no certification currently exists that guarantees that your trainer will be using modern force free methods, any more than AKC registration means that your puppy didn’t come from a puppy mill.  

So, how do you protect your dog from harmful methods that some trainer is telling you are fine??? One way is NOT to send your dog to any trainer who operates a “boot camp” – if you want the trainer to train your dog, be present during the sessions, and if anything is being done that you are not comfortable with, stop the session!  You are your dog’s only hope of protection. If you still want a trainer to train your dog, but absolutely cannot be present, then send the dog to a trainer who belongs to the Pet Professional Guild.  It is the only national organization that requires member trainers to pledge that they will avoid the use of choke, prong, or shock collars.  
There are some regional organizations forming as well, so that local force free trainers can have other safe trainers to refer back and forth to.  

Another way to keep your dog safe from harm is to reject the services of anyone who tells you that you need to be a pack leader, show your dog who’s boss, be the alpha, or dominate your dog.  Veterinarian behaviorists, who DO need a solid education in dog behavior before they can practice as such, are advising regular vets not to refer their clients to trainers who use such outmoded techniques:

You can also prohibit, in writing, the use of choke, prong, or shock collars on your dog.  If the trainer gives you any problem about that, then you know that he or she lacks the skill to train your dog without those devices.  Modern trainers have largely adopted training methods used by marine mammal trainers (ever try putting a prong collar on a whale?), and marker, or clicker training, that teaches dogs by reinforcing them for behaviors you like.

For more information about modern training, see Pam’s videos at, or visit the Kikopup channel on YouTube.  If you are in the Boston/North Shore area, contact us at Paws for Praise for help or a referral.


The Unreachables – A Message to Positive Trainers

It happens to every positive trainer.   You do the best you can at explaining why you train without force.  You tell your clients about the fallout of coercion that can affect their dog’s behavior and their relationship with the dog.  You explain how food is used as a motivator, and why it’s important to use something the dog wants as a reinforcement.   You try to save their dogs from the pain and confusion from which so many dogs are never saved.  You tell them there’s never a reason to shock a dog to train it.

Unfortunately, you are sometimes met head on with the myths that your client has heard for years from friends, television personalities, even other trainers (ones that are still mired in myth, and unwilling to even open the door a crack to learning how to use modern training methods effectively).  Myths such as: your dog will get fat if you use food, you’re “bribing” your dog, you need to tell the dog who’s boss, you have to be the leader of the pack, it’s not a shock, it’s a “tap,” etc.

We can spot them a mile away.  They glare at us as you encourage them to be more jolly while calling their dog.  Their dog does great in class, then they go home and ruin any progress by listening to Uncle Joe or their neighbor down the street who has “had dogs for years” (Do they think we haven’t???  Did they not remember signing a check to actually pay us for our knowledge?)    They listen as we tell them to bring some great treats to class, then they still bring the store bought version of doggy junk food the next week.  They complain that their dog is now “begging at the table” because we told them to train with “people food” and now they can’t get the dog away from them.  (Heck, I call that a huge improvement in relationship!)  Even after calmly telling them how to resolve the begging issue so that they can train with food effectively, a certain percentage of them will still look at us like we’re crazy, go home and repeat whatever it is they do each day, despite our coaching, and return more disgusted the next week, and the week after, then perennially thereafter blame their failure on that nasty positive training.

All of this is very disconcerting to trainers for whom the best of all possible worlds would be one in which all dogs were free of the confusing, sometimes hostile, often painful, interactions with their owners that break down what should be the most wondrous relationship between members of two incredibly fascinating species.  It’s why, believe it or not, we continue to seek ways to reach the unreachable client – the client who ignores our entreaties, badmouths us after they fail with a dog because of non-compliance with the training plan, or worse, goes on to train with someone who will force the dog into compliance by means of a choke, prong, or shock collar, when we know that they had a brilliantly smart dog that was fully capable of learning the way all mammals do, through operant and classical conditioning which we can employ using no pain or physical coercion whatsoever.

This week, there was an interesting and somewhat hopeful interview conducted by Victoria Stilwell with Jennifer Arnold of Canine Assistants on the topic of positive versus punitive training, which I wish people would watch in its entirety.  Ms. Arnold trains service dogs to do all manner of tasks for their disabled owners, including taking laundry out of clothes dryers and placing it in a basket, all without the use of force.   How can anyone, who realizes the complexity of service dog training,  think force is necessary to get a dog to do simple things like sit, down, or walk on a leash?

A second point of interest this week was the publishing of a new book, The Human Half of Dog Training, by Rise VanFleet, Ph.D., RPT-S.   Rise is a co-founder of the International Collaborative on Play Therapy and a Past President/Board Chair of the Association for Play Therapy.  She is also involved in the research and use of animals in play therapy, and uses one of her dogs as a play therapy dog.  Trainers everywhere should take advantage of any assistance with the human half of the client/dog relationship, especially delivered by such a learned woman in both fields!

Trainers, many of whom spend years learning about dog behavior, aren’t as facile at the human part of the equation.   We are dog-centric, dog nerds if you will.  Most of us really care about working more effectively with the people at the other end of the leash, but some trainers dismiss them as bad if they aren’t compliant, or don’t see things our way.  For others, myself included, while I sometimes have to “save the trainer” by letting go or walking away, I’m fascinated enough by behavior in general, as exhibited by all species, to care if I can have an impact on the clients who come to me.  Because it REALLY matters to their dogs if I cannot reach them!!!  So, I’m inspired by the work that my fellow trainers are doing.  Victoria is constantly working to dispel myths.  Rise is helping bridge the gap for trainers between helping the dog and helping the human to help the dog.

I guess my message to all the positive trainers out there is, “Don’t give up.”  The tide will turn, and more dogs will live without pain or fear.  A stellar example of how this will happen was the incredibly solid performance last week at the Dutch Shepherd Nationals by positive trainer Shade Whitesel and her dog, Reiki.  They placed second (with a score of 98 in protection) in a sport that is highly populated by traditional force training.  As more positive trainers convince those “unreachable” clients, and as more positive trainers begin to compete and win at the highest levels of dog sports, we’ll make progress.

Every positive trainer who spends the time and energy to learn his or her craft well (mediocrity breeds contempt, and rightfully so), every trainer who continues to seek new and better ways to convince an unreachable client, and every competitor who avoids compulsion in their training, brings us closer to a world in which dogs will truly be our partners in the highest sense of the word.

Yes, there will still be clients who walk away and from whom we must walk away.  But, for every one of those, there are a few more for whom the light comes on and stays brightly lit.   Every one that we reach is one more who can never go back down the path of unkindness.   Avoiding burnout is one way that positive trainers can be there to light the light for the most people and thereby save the most dogs from harm.

My Dog Isn’t Food Motivated….Really????????

I wish I had a nickel for all the times I’ve heard the phrase “my dog isn’t food motivated” as an excuse for why someone can’t get their dog to sit, fetch, come, or whatever behavior they are trying to teach.  Such owners often simultaneously cite their dogs’ stubbornness, breed, drive, or other characteristics as proof that they cannot learn what other dogs can.  So, how much truth is there to those assertions?

Well, in the case of food motivation, no truth whatsoever.  Any organism that rejects nourishment dies.  So, if you think your dog is truly and totally unmotivated by food, you should check his pulse right away!

I find it endlessly amusing that the owners of independent breeds seem largely unaware that the Internet is filled with just as many assertions about their particular breed being food motivated as it is by their particular breed being unmotivated.  When training, it’s best to just look at the one dog before you, assess the situation unemotionally, and proceed according to the science and good training mechanics.  But, a caveat.  If you go around thinking that your dog is different, special, and no one understands, you are making excuses, not proceeding according to science.  If behaviorists can make gorillas push their butts into a needle to get an injection, then certainly the same principles by which they do that can help you train your dog to come – if you use them and use them correctly.

The key to early learning and to retention is that you MUST use a reinforcement that the dog wants and use it at a high rate at first, then at an intermittent rate later.  So, what are those reinforcements and how can we insure that our dogs get reinforced sufficiently to facilitate learning?

The reinforcement that most dogs prefer is food.  There are some legitimate reasons why a dog might not take food in a given circumstance, however.  One of the most common is anxiety.  A dog’s system is designed to travel light when they feel they may need to fight or flee.  Another is taste aversion.  If a dog eats something that makes him queasy, even days later he can decide not to eat that particular food again.  A third reason is satiety.  If the dog just had dinner, he may not be very interested in continuing to eat, just because you want to work on “sit.”   Some dogs refuse food in the presence of another, some won’t eat without the presence of another.

Trainers who want to use food as a reinforcement have some options on how to make it more appealing to a dog that doesn’t seem interested at the moment (we’ll talk about other reinforcements beside food in a bit).  Firstly, the trainer can remove the dog from any anxiety-producing environment to a safer place to begin the training sessions.  See if the dog will take a delectable “freebie” such as beef, chicken, lamb lung, tripe, etc.  If he will, begin training.  If not, lower your expectations and begin in an environment where he can take the treat, which indicates less anxiety.

Many dogs who won’t work for a store bought treat in the presence of distractions will work for something of higher value.  It can pay off to do a “hierarchy of treats” test with your dog.  What does the dog like better if you offer chicken and beef simultaneously, for example?

Dogs that are fed very high quality food, or fed raw, for example, might not have a very far jump to make in terms of raising the desirability of the food treat in terms of scent or taste.  So, what do we do for those dogs?  A couple of things.  We might “close the economy” on food.  That means that the dog must work for each morsel, or not get fed.  There will be dogs for which you can partially close the economy, and dogs for which you can completely close it.  Here’s where the force trainers usually jump in with their rants on how cruel it is to only feed a dog for working.  Well, if the behavior you want to teach is a life-saving one, such as “Come!” then you need to decide if closing the economy on food is better than shocking the dog with a remote collar to enforce your will.  Personally, I, and I assume my dogs, would prefer closing the economy on food, which leads to positive reinforcement for behavior (come, get fed), rather than being shocked, which leads to positive punishment (the shock) followed by negative reinforcement (the shock stays on until the dog complies, then it is removed).

It is doubtful that any dog, despite a temporary lapse in appetite, or a temporary removal of free food will deliberately starve itself.  If you have any doubt as to whether it would be harmful to close the economy on food with your particular dog, then seek advice from a veterinarian behaviorist who is familiar with such protocols.  Most failures of closing the economy on food are caused by nervous owners, some of whom even feed raw diets to their dogs as an “ancestral diet.”   I guess I often wonder why they don’t seem to understand that, for the ancestral dogs, the rabbit didn’t run by every evening at five o’clock just begging to be consumed for dinner, as a mentor of mine once put it.  Dogs didn’t always catch what they hunted, so they went for a while without a meal fairly often sometimes.

Notwithstanding all of the above, it is true that some dogs prefer other reinforcements to food.  Dogs with a lot of drive or work ethic often respond well to tug games or frisbee/ball tosses as reinforcement, and it’s fine to use those.  But, in my opinion, it’s silly to reject food that a dog likes in favor of a tug that you have to work to get him to like.  Conversely, if you have to work to get your dog to respond to treats, and he is perfectly willing to work for a tug game, use the tug game.

In all my years training dogs, I have met exactly one dog who prefers praise to all else.  That’s how rare it is, folks.

Some dogs like a good chase, and are blase about food or toys.  If I had one of those, I’d figure out how to set up a lure in my yard and use it as a reinforcement!

Claiming that your dog doesn’t like food or toys, then just shrugging and putting a shock collar on him is a trainer failure, not a dog failure.

I regard it as part of my job as a trainer to make some form of positive reinforcement salient to the dog.   It enables me to reject “Do it or I will hurt you” in favor of  “Do it and I will pay you for your work.”  I’d rather close the economy on food, and seem temporarily mean to my detractors, than to put a shock collar on a dog and prove that expediency trumps kindness.  It never should.  And it doesn’t have to.

Couldn’t Have Said It Better

This really belongs in the “I Couldn’t Have Said it Better” category:

From Maria DeLeon, a very nice piece in response to a recently published blog from a so called “balanced” trainer who thinks that positive trainers “kill dogs” and other such nonsense.  In an unregulated industry, there is little, except a sense of personal responsibility, to force trainers to learn the science and the technical skill behind modifying dog behavior.  Maria has captured what a lot of very well educated trainers are thinking these days – we prefer to be as un- “balanced” as we can if balanced means rejecting science that is coupled with ethics, and if it means that we stick with modalities that have been disproven as helpful:

At Paws for Praise we try very hard to keep up with the latest science, and improve the technical skill with which training is done.  Timing, technique, and how to determine whether to use operant or respondent learning to address a given training goal are so important to success.  You cannot claim that a method doesn’t work, or has poor outcomes, if you don’t know how to apply the method properly, or when to use it!   It’s not enough, in dog training, or in any other professional field, to say that we do it because it works and we’ve always done it that way……..  Always seek to improve!!!  Thanks to Maria for the reminder that trainers who do that are on the right path, not only to more successful training outcomes, but to more successful businesses as consumers begin to realize that there’s something to this science stuff, and they really are having an easier time living with their dog!