Sunday, April 8, 2012

How NOT to Train Your Dog

I have been a professional dog walker for over nine years, and boy have things in the dog world changed a lot between when I started my business and now. Dog training theories have come and gone, and then come back again, so the controversy and the debate continues…..what's the best way to train a dog?

I have decided that for me, it is with Positive Reinforcement training. I have not always been consistent with this over the years because I have received so many mixed messages from so-called experts and even from the media. But I want to really hone my skills in this area (we live and learn, right?), so I'm currently learning the Karen Pryor style of dog training, which I will write a separate blog about as my journey progresses. I am starting with the Foundations of Clicker Training Course, and intend to end with Karen Pryor's Professional Dog Trainer Certification Course. I don't want to become a professional dog trainer per se; I just want to be the best dog walker I can be, and the best dog owner I can be for my puppy CeCe. Of course this is just my personal choice, but there's some general information I'd like to share and hopefully make you think about the choices you're making with your own dog.

In the preceding decades, we as dog owners relied heavily on punishment-based training methods, because that's what our parents did (yup, my own loving parents used to throw a hunk of chain onto the floor to scare our Lab Lucy into stopping whatever Lab-y thing she was doing), that's what the trainers did, and that's what the books told us to do. Well, some of them, anyway. When I think about the ridiculous stuff my parents used to do to 'train' poor Lucy, and the equally ridiculous stuff I used to do to keep my own dogs from misbehaving….I have to laugh. We were seriously on the wrong track most of the time. Which is why, when I adopted my very special Collie/Husky mix, Blazer, all those years ago, I really had no idea what I was doing in terms of training. It was truly a blessing that he came into my life, because what an incredible teacher he turned out to be. I very quickly learned that patience and persistence were the keys to helping Blazer to let go of some of his fear-based aggression, and I also (perhaps most importantly) learned that there were some things that I just couldn't force. Through trial and error, we learned to live in perfect harmony with each other, and I wish every owner could experience the depth of love and bonding we shared as a result.

I shudder to think what might have happened if Blazer had ended up with someone else…someone who, with the best of intentions, had subscribed to aggressive training ideologies that advocated dominating and pinning him to the ground. Instead of dealing with his fear issues, it would have intensified them (and the accompanying aggression), and I'm quite sure someone would've gotten hurt in the process. Or worse: the greatest dog in the world might have been euthanized because humans failed him from day one.

As Toronto-based professional dog trainer and behaviourist Denise Joyce points out, "fear and stress is the greatest predictor of aggression in dogs. Is it reasonable to punish a fearful response? Punishment tends to add stress and create anxiety and it sets the dog up for more reactivity and aggression."

And so why are we continuing to punish our dogs?

See, the problem is, as dog owners, we do what the trainers tell us to do (especially when they're on TV), because they're the experts. But there are SO MANY different methods and training schools - how's an owner to know what to do??!

I'm not an expert, but I do know a few, like Denise, and I also have common sense. I read, I listen, I ask questions, and most importantly, I observe. Every day I see crazy owners with their out-of-control dogs, like the woman who brings her French Bulldog to the park and angrily shakes a tambourine at him to make him stop harassing other dogs. No, it doesn't work…..but somebody obviously told her it would. At the same park, another woman brings her dog to the off-leash area, stands on the other side of the fence before entering and yanks him by the neck when he gets too excited. There's even a psychotic dog walker who flips dogs over and pins them on the ground. I can only imagine what he does to the dogs behind closed doors. Needless to say, none of these methods are working and are only causing stress to the owners, the dogs, and the people around them.

These people all need the help of a pro (I have a feeling that Tambourine Lady may have gotten that idea from some weirdo trainer), but choosing the right trainer can be overwhelming. Generally speaking, I tend to be wary of anyone who is overly extreme in their views, and close-minded toward any reasonable (note, I said reasonable) alternatives. For example, is it possible that treat training doesn't work for every single dog? I'm sure it is, since some dogs aren't food motivated, but that doesn't take away from its validity as a training method… has trained Dolphins to jump through hoops, after all! Trainers like Brad Pattison* (remember that show, 'At the End of my Leash'?) have a different ideology. In an interview with Slice TV, he says:

"At the end of the day, “gentle” negotiation techniques such as treat training and constantly repeating verbal commands undermines the owner and empowers the dog to an alpha status, and we generally do not see the resulting danger until the dog has lashed out or threatened a family member or friend."

As a dog lover, I'm very wary of anyone who doesn't advocate "gentle" techniques, but obviously many people agree with him, since he has a TV show and an expanding dog training business. I'm told that I have to be very careful about what I say here, so I'm going to leave it at that, and will include a link to the entire Slice interview at the bottom of this page so you can read it and form your own opinions on him, based on his own words and not mine.

Moving on. Denise makes a good point regarding treat training:

"I think it’s very important for the detractors of positive training methods to know that positive does not mean permissive. Food is just one way to reward the dog and there is a scientifically proven way to remove food as a reward. One of the common criticisms I hear is that we are bribing dogs to perform and that is simply not correct. Often, dog owners will take one obedience course and they get stuck using food, not knowing when and how to wean the dog off food reward using other principles of reward."

With all the mixed messages and choices out there, it's overwhelming, especially for new dog owners. Treats? No treats? Clicker? No clicker?? I don't have all the answers, but I am lucky enough to know Denise, who has the wisdom and experience to advise me, and she has kindly explained it for all of us in an easy-to-understand, pleasant-to-read serious of Questions and Answers. I have included them in their entirety in the next blog, linked here:

On a side note: I wish that more positive reinforcement dog trainers would be more…well……positive. They tend to be (and yes, I am making a generalization here) extremely rigid and forceful in their views (ironic, no?) and leave some dog owners feeling attacked and angry, which naturally pushes them even further the other way. As a vegetarian living among meat eaters, I can totally relate to this. But if there's one thing I've learned, it's that leading by quiet example will create far more converts than the whole preachy-soapbox routine.

Luckily, there are many wonderful, positive-positive (I think I just invented that term) trainers, so ask around, do your research (I recommend starting with the Denise Joyce** Q&A), read some Karen Pryor, and make an informed decision!


*To read the entire Brad Pattison Q&A interview with Slice TV, follow this link:

**About Denise Joyce:

After finishing her studies at the University of Toronto, Denise decided to turn her passion into her full time profession, dedicating herself to working with dogs and their guardians. In 2000, she opened her own pet sitting, training and behaviour consultation business, with a focus on holistic care and positive leadership. Denise has worked with animal advocacy groups lobbying for responsible dog ownership, and has assisted rescue organizations in an effort to keep dogs in their forever homes. Denise has worked as the Head Trainer for several full-service organizations and she developed a reputation as a knowledgeable, caring and professional trainer using humane and positive methods. Denise has appeared on Breakfast Television, Cityline, and Animal House Calls. She has also been featured in the Globe and Mail, Bloor West Snap, and Dogs,Dogs,Dogs. Denise shares her life with her partner and son and is owned by her mixed breed rescue dog, Hank.


Anonymous said...

Tambourine lady is Bark Busters. WORST EVER.

Anonymous said...

I'm so proud of you for this!! What a wonderful decision to have made. Good for you.

Just a heads up though - take out a certain person's name from your blog post. He's lawsuit-happy and *will* prove it.

Again, good on you for choosing the humane way.