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Let the Dog Decide

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.


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.

How’s Your Relationship?

One of the saddest things I see as a trainer is a dog that has no relationship with the human at the other end of the leash.  When I see such a lack of camaraderie between dog and owner, I am struck by the similarities among almost all of these “couples.”  The first thing I notice, oftentimes, is how quiet and uncommunicative the person is with the dog, how quickly the person is inclined to correct the dog or feel that it needs correction, and how reluctant the owner is to use food in training or to use a sufficient rate of reinforcement when the dog is first learning.

Perhaps some owners feel that because dogs don’t talk that we need not talk to them.  But, a dog that hears its name spoken cheerily by a loving owner, who follows up with a “yes!” as soon as their dog looks at them, and then tosses a nice bit of cheese or meat, usually has a dog that knows its name.  If nothing interesting ever happens when the dog does try looking at his owner, why would he continue to try to engage?

If you can get a dog to turn to you when you say its name, you can carry on an additional conversation with your smile, directional gestures, and activity, that the dog can respond to. It’s the first step toward getting the dog to want to come when called, and the dogs with the most stellar recalls are usually those that have been built solidly on relationship.  Sure, if rote obedience is your only desire, you could put a shock collar on a dog and force it to come, but the joyous, free, “I can’t wait to get to you” recalls are built on healthy relationships that benefit the dog as much as the human, and not on coercion.  I would never again coerce a dog when I know that I can have such pure joie de vivre reflected back at me by simply making every recall a happy affair that results in my dog benefiting as much as I do.  I have no problem showering my dogs with a smorgasbord of real meat, cheese, yogurt, tripe, and all manner of other enticements when they arrive at my feet until they think that I really am the god of all things dogs want.  And even for dogs that are more inclined to want to chase squirrels than eat, there is still no reason for punishing techniques (there ‘s something called Premack Principle that will come in to play for that).

Another problem with relationship that I see is that everything is filtered through the lens of what the dog does wrong.  “How do I stop my dog from (name the unwanted behavior),” they ask me.   What if people, instead of thinking only of the things they want to correct, began to reward the dog when he was good?  Dogs are practical – they repeat behavior that works.  And, dogs aren’t trying to take over the world, be “stubborn” or piss us off.  They are just being dogs.  All they need is a bit of education and they are more than willing to cooperate.  But how do you educate a dog that’s already out at the end of its leash trying to avoid you because the only feedback you’ve given is aversive?  I’ve never been able to quite understand how any logical person could think that their dog would want to be with them after they speak harshly, pin, scruff, shake, yank, or ignore the dog.  (Yes, I know, we ignore jumping up, but that isn’t the same as ignoring the dog on a two mile walk, save to yank him away from some cool scent once in a while.)

Correction has fallout with regard to relationship.  If you were on a leash and the only time you got your neck jerked on, or heard harsh commands, or were pushed away, was when you were on that leash (next to your human), you might wish to stay far away from the human once the leash comes off.   The saddest thing is to see 5-6 happy dogs, engaged with their owners and having a great time at class, and one poor dog that is being corrected at home, trying his darnedest to get to the other puppies and people, never once looking back at his own handler.

The truly hard part for me, as a trainer, is when I get someone ask me if they are in the right class, are doing something wrong, or have a stubborn or stupid dog.  There are few nice ways to be honest enough to tell someone that they may have done some things that messed up the relationship they have with their dog.  If the dog wags its tail upon the owner’s arrival home, the owner may tend not to believe that there could possibly be anything wrong.  But, indeed there sometimes is.  So, if you are struggling in class, or at home, please know that I don’t want to tell you that your relationship is suffering, but your dog is counting on me to tell you!  So, if I ask you to increase your rate of reinforcement, or use a high pitched voice to call your dog, or get cheerful, or catch your dog doing something right, or pay your dog a jackpot, all of that is designed to get you to be the most important thing in your dog’s life.  If that means a smorgasbord, and no more “no” then that’s what it means.  Please don’t shoot the messenger, but this blog post is my way of telling you, too.  Your dog will thank me if you listen, but you don’t have to – one more happy dog is more than enough thanks for me.

For information on why punishment doesn’t work:

For more information on the proper use of food in dog training:

Pam’s Dog Academy has some great videos on building attention and recall (and side effect of building relationship!)  You can start here:

Pet owners can now join the Pet Professional Guild.  Guild members, affiliates & sponsors understand Force-Free to mean, no shock, no pain, no fear, no physical force, no physical molding, no compulsion based methods are employed to train or care for a pet.
To learn more:

Dog Training Ethics and Certification at Odds

There are some initials after my name that suggest education in canine behavior, but none of them are “CPDT.”  Some dog trainers, despite our desire for a certification process that helps insure competence, have elected not to test for that designation.  The reason is that, while the Certification Council for Pet Dog Trainers does not do anything but test, and the organizations are technically separate, the Association for Pet Dog Trainers is largely made up of people who have taken the test, and it is their ethics we question.

Originally formed by the likes of Ian Dunbar, et al, the APDT was intended as an educational organization that would uplift the quality of dog training.  For a while, it seemed as though that might happen.  Then, an odd thing occurred.  Trainers who continued to use choke, prong, and even shock collars, despite the “education” offered through continuing education, became a vocal enough crowd to influence APDT policy and ethics, we think for the worse.

Fast forward to a recent decision by CCPDT to lift its ban on the use of shock collars on puppies less than one year old!  That action prompted those of us who practice force free training to want to vomit in our mouths, for lack of a better graphic mental image to capture the disgust we felt.  Effectively, it meant that the the CPDT designation, for all intents and purposes, could NOT differentiate, for the public, the difference between a trainer who uses shock (even on puppies) and one who doesn’t.  The pro’s and con’s of the use of shock collars is fodder for seemingly endless argument between us and them, but suffice to say that the public deserves to KNOW what methods will be used on their dogs, including any possible fallout, so that they can make a decision based on the relationship they want with their dogs and their own moral and ethical values.  They need to be aware of the factions in the dog training world, that there is a rift, and that they have a choice to make.  Obviously, I have made my choice – as both a dog owner and trainer, I do not want to train my own dogs by saying to them, “Do it or it will hurt, ” and I want others to at least have the opportunity to learn what I have learned about there not being any reason to have to cause pain or fear in order to successfully modify a dog’s behavior.

One group, Truly Dog Friendly, agrees with the notion that we do not need to hurt dogs to train them, and it was hoped that they would take up the challenge of forming an organization that would provide certification, etc.  For reasons unknown, it didn’t happen.   But, recently, Niki Tudge, a force free trainer, and owner of Dog Smith, took up the incredible challenge on her own, and formed the Pet Professionals Guild.  Some of us, myself included, have joined as charter members and have high hopes that, at last, in the United States, there will eventually be a certifying organization that guarantees the public a  science AND ethics based force free choice for training their dogs.  People will have the benefit of knowing that their pet professional has assented to some very strong guiding principles. The sad thing is that the public, until now, may not have even realized that there was a choice.  A trainer is a trainer, right?  Wrong!!!

UPDATE March 15, 3016: There is now a certification that is independently tested and does have an ethics requirement. The Pet Professional Accreditation Board:

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