Dog training – the how is as important as the what.

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I recently watched a video someone had posted on a training forum which I contribute to occassionally ( I don’t know why I do this, it’s bad for my blood pressure). The video shows the owner putting a sandwich on the floor in front of his dog and the dog doesn’t eat it. The dog is also wearing a prong collar. This looks like a cool trick/behaviour which he has trained his dog to do (or not to do). For me though, knowing how this man trains his dog, how he advises others on the forum (basically the prong collar is the first port of call in dog training and use it for near enough everything), the training is really not that impressive at all. The result might be good to view, but I’d have preferred if he had shown the process by which he achieved the result.

We can achieve results in a variety of ways but for me it’s as important, or maybe in some cases even more important, how we get the results with our animals than the results themselves. Yes, we all want quick, effective results with the minimum amount of effort. Sometimes that isn’t realistic and we have to compete against an e-collar trainer or an old school yank and crank trainer who might offer fast results. But at what cost? The dog owning public is horribly ill informed, through no fault of their own, as to what works best and quickest. As positive dog trainers, we need to be at the top of our game in order to effectively educate owners and train dogs. Many positive dog trainers have heard that our style of training takes longer than other methods. I don’t think I’m the most skilled trainer around, but I’ve found, and the science supports it, that positive reinforcement training, applied thoughtfully and with skill, has long lasting, quick results with no fallout behaviourally to the dog.

“The ends justifies the means” mentality can cause serious problems. If the ends are most important, is it ok for me to cheat in an exam in order to pass? Is it ok for our police and prosecuters to falsify evidence in order to secure convictions? In my previous job, there was an increasingly invasive attitude of pointing out the failings of others in order to secure promotions and career advancement. Is this ok as long as we get that promotion?

The same too in dog training. However, if we focus more on the means, do we forget about the results? I recently spoke to California based trainer Kelly Dunbar. She says there is an increasing philosophy within the positive dog training community that the means are the most important. I think this may lead to us excusing poor training or lack of knowledge. We need to be able to do both and have the skill and knowledge to do it quickly, effectively and impart that knowledge on the client in a manner they both understand and can apply. This is no mean feat.

Lastly, we need to take the outcome seriously as well. I was at a Kay Laurence seminar a few years ago. She said she had seen a previously dog reactive dog who had been clicker trained to stand still while being sniffed by other dogs. Kay wasn’t overly impressed by this to say the least. Even though the dog had not been trained using aversive training tools or methods, I’d argue that the result was hugely aversive to the dog. In this case even though the means were non aversive, the results were. By being more thoughtful in our training plan, a better option may have been to start listening to what the dog was trying to tell us in the first place through the aggressive behaviour and teach the dog better options to manage their own behaviour either by moving away or approaching calmly.

If we are to succeed in educating dogs and dog owners we must take all of this and more into account. We must keep learning and applying what we know thoughtfully and seek outtrainers and like minded people who can help us.



4 thoughts on “Dog training – the how is as important as the what.

  1. Absolutely! Awesome post!
    And I know the post to which you’re referring… and I’d agree with everything you say. 🙂
    I have a similar video to post – and my pup is mostly clicker/marker trained (90%) on a flat collar.

  2. I don’t like the term positive dog trainer. I am not a positive dog trainer and there is a good blog that reflects my thoughts on this. I use progressive reinforcement that sometimes includes punishment (negative punishment) but methodology and techniques that would never compromise the safety and trust and love in the relationship between me and my dogs. I don’t train with force, pain or with fear (positive punishment). Positive dog training could also mean positive punishment when looking at the operant quadrant? I think from a scientific perspective it is a misleading term.

    Positive reinforcement is in the eyes of the receiver too. What is positively reinforcing for one dog may be punishment for another. I know some dogs who find shaping with the clicker an uncomfortable and sometimes frustrating process. So yes, positive reinforcement should be the default approach and training with force, pain and fear should never be condoned. But there is a grey area in the middle which isn’t entirely positive within the context to which you refer.A bit like Sea World – how can you pat yourself on the back for using positive reinforcement training techniques when the very environment that the trainee whales and dolphins are kept in is essentially cruel for their wellbeing? Also, BAT, the methodology developed by Grisha Stewart, is essentially negative reinforcement. However, when used as a technique in a safe, loving and trusting relationship I would strongly argue that it is a humane and effective process.

    1. Nomenclature is always difficult. I don’t use the term “positive dog trainer” very often either but this post is aimed at a wide variety of readers not just those who have knowledge of scientific terms. “Force free” is also I term I don’t really like. With regards to BAT, the reinforcer which is being relied on primarily is the dog’s ability to make choices surrounding his/her own space.

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