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A More Positive Approach to Dog Training

The art and science of dog training is rooted in a simple truism: Animals repeat behaviors that have a pleasurable outcome and avoid those that are unpleasant.

This principle of "payoffs" vs. "penalties" governs the way people learn and also perfectly applies to our dogs. Both people and dogs like good food, company and home comforts, but avoid pain, social embarrassment or hunger. Good management of payoffs and penalties creates better behaved people — and pets.

There has been a marked shift in the world of dog training from what used to be a focus upon tough compulsion to now an expectation that dogs need to have fun and be rewarded for the good things they do. There is a big philosophical divide between trainers who would use choke chains, spike collars and even electric shock to force dogs to conform versus those who take a more positive approach.

It is interesting that much the same debate has been raging among teachers and other child care professionals about how best to achieve a well-educated and confident adult.

Owners love to have their dogs perform extraordinary tricks, be it finding keys, retrieving the phone handset, performing a dance routine or rolling over and playing dead. The sport of "Heel Work to Music" is a massively popular activity that can be a beautiful testament to the intelligence of dogs and imagination of their owners. It is mostly based on the applied principles of instrumental conditioning and usually with clicker training.

Clickers provide a simple means of precisely "marking" a desired behavior, so the dog "knows" that if he repeats, it will likely be rewarded. Author Karen Pryor deserves much of the credit for popularizing clicker training, and there is a massive worldwide community who participate in "Clicker Expo," competing and having fun.

Clicker training depends upon the well-timed delivery of appropriate rewards — most simply food as a primary reinforcer and the clicker a secondary or associative stimulus.

Most owners who purchase a clicker will go online to read all about how best to use it. However, too many become bored and resort to rewarding their dog with a treat linked to a stroke and those traditional words "good boy/good girl." Is that not sufficient for Mr. Average pet dog trainer, who just wants to have a well rounded and compliant companion?

My experience is that it is sufficient, and most of my clients are not able or do not want to achieve the precision of timing or have the commitment to clicker train. A not-so-well-timed pat, treat or kind word can still be an effective training tool, and dogs are forgiving of errors in timing, signals and context.

Treats are very big business, where seemingly every pet food manufacturer and quirky home bakery business wants a slice of the action. The dog (and cat) treat aisles are now a major category, growing by the year as owners become ever more indulgent and anthropomorphic in their relationship with pets.

The motivating effect of a treat does not grow in proportion to its size. Rather, it absolutely depends upon the taste, smell or palatability of the treat: little and tasty being better than big and boring. Small, tasty morsels of dried jerky meats or freeze-dried liver would be my recommendation to dog-training clients, but I would always encourage them to read the small print on packaging. Simple and healthy should be the golden rule, with the fewest unnecessary additives that color, preserve or flavor the treat.

The modern enthusiasm for reward-based training makes a welcome contribution to dog welfare, enhancing as it must their quality of life and positive relationships with people. However, many dogs will still do do what they have always done, which is pull on the lead, chase squirrels and occasionally have disagreements with other dogs. The well-timed offer of a treat is hardly likely to slow down that pulling dog, bring him away from a squirrel or become best buddies with a threatening other dog.

In practical dog management, the resourceful trainer and owner still needs access to products or methods that stop or discourage dogs from performing these distinctly unwanted behaviors. Fortunately, there are a multitude of products, such as head collars or harnesses that will stop dogs pulling and that enable reward-based methods to teach the dog to walk nicely to "heel." There is now no need to yank dogs or otherwise punish them for walking out in front.

But what about those other misbehaviors, such as jumping up, stealing food from the table, chasing wildlife or choosing to fight others? For these, there is definitely a role for using appropriate penalties.

In my behavior practice, the best training product costs the least: a couple of pebbles or coins in a soda can or bottle, which if rattled in a skillful and timely fashion can become the penalty of choice to discourage unwanted actions. Other penalties might be a well-timed jet of water, a squeaky noise for a sound-sensitive dog or the hiss from an aerosol or by expelling breath through teeth.

This "hiss stimulus" is a powerful modifying stimulus for dogs, as for other species of domestic animal like cats and horses. They don't like the hiss sound because it arouses a primal fear of snakes and other dangerous animals such as swans, certain insects or angry big cats. The alternative to these subtle penalties is the age-old application of the boot, stick or in more recent times, an electric shock.

Too often, the specialist dog-training section of a pet store comprises a locked cabinet filled with devices intended to produce discomfort and pain in dogs. My experience of many years is that none of these devices are relevant to training dogs. Better and more certain outcomes are achieved by use of simple and inexpensive items, such as a long double-ended lead, a good dog training book, a well-fitted harness or head collar — and lots, I mean lots, of treats!

Our pet industry has been blessed with a year-after-year increase in the popularity of dog ownership, because we find their company so wonderfully rewarding. People keep dogs because they give friendship, and who would want to hurt or harm a friend?

Simple and kind training regimes should be the priority in pet stores and among dog trainers. The theory and best practice of dog training has never been so perfectly aligned as it is today, in favor of rewarding-but-balanced training methods.


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