Labeling your dog and self limiting beliefs

“He’s stubborn. She’s disobedient. He’s aggressive. She doesn’t do as she’s told. He’s an Akita. She’s a Shiba Inu. I have to use a prong collar because he is X Y or Z or because he is a (fill in the blank) breed/type of dog. Postive reinforcement training doesn’t work because he is a dominant breed.”

I’ve heard loads of these comments from clients and dog people over the years and read more of them online. One of the most memorable was a guy who described his pitbull as a “cunning, conniving cur” which then gave him authority to treat him as such. One of the reasons for his description was that pitbulls are bred to fight, so they have to use “every trick” they can to win. As opposed to the reality of the matter, which is the dog is fighting for his life to entertain sick humans.

I’ve heard arguments or excuses from people on a number of topics –  that bull breeds fight with other dogs because they are bull breeds. Hounds and Spitz breeds cannot be let off leash because a recall is impossible because their desire to hunt is too high. Mastiff and livestock guardians can’t be trained because they don’t have the brain for it (whatever that means). One of my favourites was a client who owned a border collie who read on an online collie forum that you can’t expect collies not to chase cars, which was the problem she was having. We managed to train her dog not to chase cars in the space of an hour, using a ball, not to mention the hundreds of collies I’ve seen in my lifetime happily walking down the street as cars drive by.

Yes, certain breeds do have tendencies to do things more than other breeds. But they don’t do them because of that. They do these things because they find it reinforcing (a different thing from enjoying something) and because they have been allowed to be reinforced for doing it. I know I am not the best dog trainer in the world. I know I’m pretty good at it and I know that I will never stop trying to be better than I am just now. I say this because I know it’s possible to retrain dog aggressive bull breeds. I know it’s possible to train a husky or a Shiba Inu to recall. I know it’s possible to do these things without resorting to aversive training methods. The reason I know these things is because I’ve done them. I know there are loads of other things you can train a dog to do, without having done them myself because I’ve seen others do it.

If you think you can’t train your beagle to come back to you because she’s a beagle, you won’t do it and you’ll never let her off leash. If you think your Akita is unfriendly to people because he’s an Akita, it gives you the excuse not to do anything about it (although with any work with dogs who react aggressively we need to always be aware of safety issues).

Rather than attaching a label to your dog, think in terms of “If (a certain sequence of events or situation occurs) then (my dog reacts in a certain way)”. If my dog is off leash and catches an interesting smell then she won’t come back when I call her (prudent use of a long line and reinforcers is how I would go about changing this). If my dog is on leash and there is another dog within 15 feet, he will react aggressively (here you could alter the  distance and use classical conditioning). If you need to label anything, label behaviours, which we can change.

If you believe that you need to use aversive training methods (prong or shock collars, rattle cans, ear pinches, leash corrections, spray bottles), than you will be closed to other possibilities and you will never learn them. I don’t think that every dog issue can be solved but most of them can and the rest of them can be managed. I know that not every dog issue can be solved with force free techniques but that shouldn’t stop us from constantly trying to find behaviour modification solutions which are the least aversive. When we have exhausted all of these options we have a decision to make. How we make that decision will depend on our own ethics. A more aversive approach might work, but do we really need to use it? Is it worth inflicting pain in order to achieve our goal? If the answer is yes, then it’s a matter for your own conscience. Having tried all available force free alternatives to get your reactive dog safe around strange dogs or people, can we justify using a shock collar rather than getting up earlier in the morning and taking him out when it’s quiet and not exposing him to situations which will make him react. Is the reason for you wanting to take him out where there are other dogs or people around for him or for you?

I believe that force free methods can impact the vast majority of cases. Of all the dogs I’ve worked with, there is only one which I didn’t know how to help. Aversive techniques may have changed her behaviour, but there is always a high risk of fallout and I don’t use those techniques in any case. I haven’t stopped thinking of a solution for this dog and still ask other trainers their opinions. So in my own experience, I don’t know of a force free technique which hasn’t worked in 0.002% of cases and I work with dogs other trainers have tried to help and haven’t been able to or that other trainers won’t work with so it’s not as if I’m handpicking my clients.

“Let’s push beyond old limitations and see what’s truly possible for dogs, and their trainers” – Eric Brad, Canine Nation

Fitting dog training into our lives – part 1

Revised April 2014. I would advise a little differently now, being more aware of the dog’s need for social interaction.



Before I start with the topic of this blog, I’ll define punishment in terms the science of learning theory. Punishment is anything which causes a reduction in the intensity, duration and/or frequency of the immediately preceding behaviour. If it doesn’t cause a reduction, then by definition, it is not punishment.

We all have busy lives, some more than others. When we bring a dog into our lives, we owe it to our dogs and to ourselves to ensure we have adequate time to take care of all our dog’s needs. Fitting daily walks and exercise, mental stimulation, grooming and training into lifestyles already packed with work, our own exercise requirements and looking after children can be difficult. When we have a dog with a serious behaviour problem or training issue, finding the time can be even more problematic.

If you are a returning reader to my blog, you will be aware of my ethos regarding dog training and behaviour modification. I use no physically aversive training methods and don’t use fear or intimidation to train dogs, nor do I teach it. Now, given unlimited time and resources, which many of of wish we had but few have the luxury of,  we would train our dogs with the absolute minimum stress possible. We would have the time to always train our dogs to do what we want them to do in every scenario. Unfortunately, this isn’t realistic for the vast majority of us.

An example of this is a dog I worked with the other night. The clients are a couple who both work and have two young children of school age. They have a friendly young retriever who is great with people and other dogs. She is well cared for and healthy. The issues with the dog are that she greats people inside and out of the house by jumping on them and she barks for attention at her owners in the evenings when they are watching television. The dog has all of her basic requirements met in that she is walked and played with everyday among everything else. It would be possible for us to teach this dog to lie down or sit with no distractions and then gradually move up to the level where she is able to cope with the distraction of people coming into the house without jumping on them. This takes time and a lot of effort on the part of the owners, and they probably don’t have the time to do this. The course of action I suggested was to have the dog on leash when people came into the house and not allow her to greet them until she calmed down. When she offers calmer behaviour, the leash is dropped and she is allowed to go and say hello. If she acts up again, the owner quickly picks up the leash again without any fuss or talking to the dog, and removes the dog from the visitor. The dog learns that the faster she calms down, the faster she gets to say hello to the visitor, which she wants to do, and that excited behaviour causes her to be removed from the guest. All of this is done without hitting, shouting, spraying the dog or scaring her, but if we are consistent and do it every time, the dog will get the idea and behave more appropriately.

Now, this method of teaching her has the potential to be more stressful for the dog, as removal of the chance to say hello is the motivating factor, rather than the dog being solely rewarded for good behaviour. Good behaviour causes the dog to say hello, “bad” behaviour means she doesn’t.  It’s simple and easy to apply, and will work in many cases as long as we are consistent in it’s application so the dog learns the rules. When using any punishment (in the strictest behavioural sense as defined above) the consequence needs to be unpleasant enough for the dog to want to avoid it – here it is unpleasant for the dog to be removed from the guest – and because it is unpleasant, it has potential to cause the dog stress.

As long as we are minimising the stress involved, and pairing it with rewarding the dog for good behaviour, the effects of the stress are reduced. Given that the less stressful alternative of teaching the dog under increasingly more difficult distractions takes time, which the owners don’t have, we need to come up with a plan which they can implement and has the lowest stress levels. There is no point in advising a stress free course of action which they cannot or will not follow. The dog doesn’t get trained, the behaviour doesn’t change and the overall stress to the dog over it’s lifetime doesn’t reduce. Appropriate use of physically force free punishment is a necessary part of learning. Frequent evalution of all training methods to ensure the dog is learning what we want it to learn and changing things which don’t work will help to minimise stress. That said, it is unrealistic to attempt to completely eliminate stress from our lives. All living creatures in nature are under some sort of stress, whether that is finding food or a safe place to sleep away from predators.

Dog training is sometimes about a compromise between what is realistic for owners and minimising stress for the dog while always being guided by our own moral compass as to what we are willing to do to our dogs in the name of training.

In part two, I’ll offer more practical tips on how to make time for constructive, effective dog training.

How do you define force free dog training?

Appropriate use of a long line

How do you define force free dog training? Is it lack of physical corrections, not using aversive training tools (prong collars, shock collars), or physical molding (such as pushing your dog’s rear end onto the ground to train it to sit)? Do you consider rattle cans and spray bottles a use of force. Is shouting at your dog or constant repetition of cues using force? Do you stare your dog down when she does something you don’t like. These are all things I wouldn’t use in training or behaviour modification either for my own dogs or working with clients.

Now, what about turning around and physically moving your dog when he lunges, either aggressively or playfully, at a person walking past you and your dog when he is on leash? Do you use a long line to train recall or closer proximity to you so you can prevent him from moving towards a distraction? Would you take your dog by the collar and physically move him from the counter if he was jumping up to get the left over roast chicken and you forgot to close the kitchen door? Do you use a crate or put you dog in another room when visitors come in? Do you body block your dog from coming into rooms or use the door to stop him running out the house? If your dog breaks a sit/stay, would you give another cue to ask him to sit again? Would you consider tethering a dog in place for short periods? I do, or would consider using these methods.

Now, the point of this is that all of these influence the dog’s behaviour, and most of them use some physical means to do so. I attended a BAT seminar recently with Grisha Stewart. Grisha talks of “putting on the breaks” using a long line when working with reactive dogs. What this means is that you use a the long line to slow the dog down from moving forward when the dog would normally run forward and this gives him time to think. We physically stop the dog from moving forward, but slowly and gently.

If I use the analogy of a military base. The military don’t want you entering in the interests of both you and themselves. For them, security and secrecy are the motivators. For you, they don’t want you coming in because they might be dangerous and there may be the risk of exposure to live ammunition etc. The fence is first line of physical control. After that, there might be security patrols where they could stop you by their presence or resort to more physical or might detain you.

In the above example, you might not know that you weren’t supposed to be in a certain area. Say the fences were in a poor state of repair. There might not be any signs or you might not understand what they say. As this applies to dog training, your dog might not know what the rules are, but you have a responsibility to keep him safe. You might not have reached that level of training yet and the environment throws you something you can’t manage in that instant. If that’s the case, you need to get physical with your dog.

There’s an expression among force free dog people – “Positive doesn’t mean permissive”. Some circumstances will dictate we need to physically move or restrain our dogs. Sometimes we need to get physical in preventing them from doing stuff we don’t want them to do. As long as we’re keeping the physical aversion to an absolute minimum, work to try to eliminate it and train our dogs so physical management to a minimum, we are on a more enlightened path.  For example, teaching your dog to lie down with a stuffed Kong when visitors come in will reduce or eliminate the need to put them in another room or crate them if they are prone to mugging your guests.

We have big brains compared to dogs. Dogs are faster than we are, have better weapons that we do, but we are generally smarter. There will always be times when we may need to physically intervene, but we can train and teach to reduce those times. No force, no fear, no pain or intimidation.

Use of physical punishment in training – why it works and the harm it can do (part 1)

Before I start this post, I want to preface it by saying I am now a 100% non aversive trainer and have been for some years now. I can’t remember the last time I shouted at a dog other than my own (which was a long time before I knew any better) and don’t even say “No” any more, rather I may repeat the cue to give the dog another opportunity to respond.

If any of you have read my first post, you will know that I came from a background of traditional dog training. I took my young Dogue de Bordeaux to a sports dog club, where the use of choke chains and prong collars was common place and shock collars were sometimes seen.

The reason I used metal collars was because

1. I wasn’t shown anything different and

2. I was getting results.

My dog Bosco was a terrible puller on the lead and I taught him, in the space of about 5 minutes, to walk to heal using a prong collar. I also taught a great down stay, sit stay and recall, all using a prong collar. Prong collars work, that’s why I used them and that’s why people continue to use them. Now I wasn’t a barbarian who enjoyed hurting my dog. I loved my boy and wanted what was best for him which was to mind his manners and do as I asked of him, I just went about it the wrong way. In my experience this is generally true of most dog trainers (always exceptions of course).

Prong collars work by, according to the operant model, positive punishment. The positive part is a plus sign(+) where something is added to punish (reduce) the undesired behaviour. So in the instance above with Bosco, pulling on the lead, getting up from a stay and not coming back were all punished/reduced by me adding a correction (i.e. painful experience) with the prong collar. The father of operant training, B.F. Skinner did this in a lab using rats. Rats were put in a box where, upon pressing one lever they obtained a food pellet and on pressing another one got an electric shock. It doesn’t take too long before the rat learns which button to press and which to avoid.

As progressive/non-aversive trainers, we need to understand why other “balanced” trainers do what they do. I recently had a discussion on a web training forum on this issue. The other person argued that using force in training doesn’t work. She argued that I hadn’t trained a down stay from Bosco, merely taught him not to get up, that I hadn’t trained heeling, merely punished him for pulling on the lead. My response to this is, really what is the difference? The picture looks that same, Bosco stays down and walks on a loose leash.

I think arguing against the effectiveness of forceful training is futile. What we should be doing is educating about the fallout or effect it has on our relationship with our dogs. I am currently making my way through Steve White’s DVD set, “How Police K9 techniques can transform your everyday training”. Steve is a progressive trainer who has trained police dogs forever. In the seminar, he states that when punishment is being used (he’s not condoning it), the dog should not associate the punishment with the handler. This is because it breaks down the bond of trust between handler and dog. The dog is less likely to trust someone who hurts it, which is hugely problematic when your dog is your police partner. The breakdown of handler/dog relationship is the best which happens. The worst that can happen is that you end up with a dog who is frightened and/or aggressive to the environment.

For instance, I taught Bosco to be super reactive to other dogs. I did this really well. He pulled because he wanted to say hello to other dogs and people he met. The harder he pulled, the more I corrected him. The more I corrected him the more he associated other dogs in the environment with pain and the more reactive he became as he learned that the pain stops when the dog goes away. What could have happened because he knew it was me who was hurting him, would have been to turn around and attack me. That would be among the worst things which could have happened.

By understanding why traditional trainers do what they do, knowing our own craft inside out so that we can produce better results and be able to demonstrate that our dogs are working for us because they want to and not because they fear not doing it, rather than dismissing these techniques as ineffective then hopefully we can continue to change things.

Part 2 –

Bosco without his prong collar, working for the ball and much happier for it
Bosco without his prong collar, working for the ball and much happier for it

Red Zone Dogs

I re-blogged a post by the wonderful Nicole Wilde yesterday discussing whether or not some dogs need a heavier approach to training meaning more physically aversive techniques. The answer to that is no, they don’t and I agree wholeheartedly with Nicole’s well educated opinion on the matter. It got me thinking about the term “Red Zone Dog” which has been popularised by Cesar Milan on his show “The Dog Whisperer”

I want you to imagine that you are frightened of something. You have also learned that screaming and shouting and acting like a crazy person generally makes the thing you are scared of go away. You also have no ability to rationalise things. Your screaming usually works either because the scary thing wants nothing to do with your insanity or that the scary thing was going to go on it’s merry way regardless of how you act. Now, lets say the scary thing is getting closer and closer. Having learned that acting like a madman usually works, this time it doesn’t. What are you more likely to do? My guess would be act the way you usually act but this time with more intensity and energy than usual. Now the scary thing goes away. So the next time the scary thing comes close and because you are smart and efficient, you are just going to jump in with the same level of intensity as the last time, so you learn this is now what works. Now some person comes along and forces you to remain in the same area as the very thing you are terrified from. Would it be reasonable to expect you to fight like hell to get away from the person and the scary thing and you might even want to hurt the person, regardless of their intention to help or otherwise, who is forcing you to remain next to the very thing which causes you nightmares? On top of this they occasionally punch and kick you in order to “snap you out of it”.

Now, lets imagine a trusted and kind friend who understands your fear, keeps you at a safe distance from the object of your terror, makes you feel safe and reassures you in a way you understand that nothing is going to happen when the scary thing appears and if you don’t react badly, you will either be moved away from the scary thing and/or given something which you really enjoy (chocolate, money, whatever you really like). Do you think in time you might become used to the scary thing, and maybe even look forward to seeing it at a safe distance? Maybe even think you might try getting a bit closer because when you do you get better or more of the things you like?

The safe distance I’ve described is called threshold. At or further away from threshold, dogs have the ability to learn and we can teach them that the object of their fear isn’t going to hurt them, and may even mean good things happen. If we move beyond threshold, dogs can only react, they can no longer learn. They now engage the emotional part of their brain and disengage the thinking, learning part.

Cesar Milan’s “Red Zone Dogs” are seriously beyond threshold. In his show, we have seen him forcing dogs to remain at a distance which they are clearly not comfortable with and he then assaults them. I’ll not get into the reasons or excuses he uses to justify this. Now I have worked with some seriously aggressive dogs, whose threshold distance is several hundred feet. These are difficult to work with but if you find the right location it’s possible and I’ve had some truly excellent results. Some of these dogs could easily be classified as “red zone” cases.

If you don’t want to see a red zone dog, don’t bring it within a distance to the scary thing where it can’t learn. It’s cruel and ineffective. How would you feel?