The Possibilities in Dog Training

Recently I became involved in a discussion about dog training methodology with friends and members of the CAPPDT. I felt compelled to write this post, hopefully I did it without judgement.  I know I have addressed this topic many times in the past but it certainly is worth more than one look.

Do you know why someone would train a dog with force and intimidation if they thought it wasn’t necessary?

The answer is…I don’t think anyone would.

Clicker Freaks

Regardless of anyone’s choice of training methodology, we are all united by our love of dogs.  Think about it, if you love dogs but train with force, you absolutely must be armed with a litany of reasons why you believe force is necessary in order to satisfy that whispering little voice in your subconscious mind that keeps asking you  “. . . what if all of those tree hugging, clicker freaks are onto something?” 

Imagine if there existed a world where you can train a dog to do anything you desire; be the most amazing family pet you ever knew – better than any dog you have ever owned in the past,  accomplish all of your dog training goals and do it in half the time it has taken you in the past; all without ever physically correcting the dog, or losing your temper while training . . . wouldn’t you want in?

Some of us live and thrive in such a dog training world. A place where dogs are neither blamed nor verbally or physically corrected. Yes, this world does exist. It doesn’t matter if you train competitive field dogs or bad-ass family pets; training this way IS a possibility for all.

It’s Not The Dog…

Perhaps you have seen others try to train without corrections and their dog was poorly behaved, it wouldn’t listen in the face of any distraction and their heeling in obedience could only be described as “sloppy” at best. Just because someone has tried and failed at “food only” training in the past doesn’t mean the “method is flawed” please entertain the possibility that the application of the dog training was the only thing that was flawed. 

I know for me, my education is limited, my focus in dog training has been on what I love; creating an amazing family pet first, great agility, obedience or flyball dog next. So I don’t have all of the answers to every dog training problem. But I know there are many others out there that are also digging hard to find “a better way” in all areas of dog training. I also know that most of the methodology I use does transfer brilliantly to most, if not all areas of dog, horse, cat or even children training.

Geeking Out Dog Training

The following chart summarizes dog training as I see it. (Note: I recognize this does not take into consideration dogs with severe behavioural disorders but rather addresses the masses that we see every day in the world of dog training). Knowing that dogs learn through reinforcement, reinforcement is the key to all training. When people lose control of what reinforces the dog the only thing left is punishment. It is one or the other.  As I see it, for the untrained dog, the need for punishment increases as the uncontrolled access to reinforcement increases.

Over the past twenty years I have been looking at dog training in this way, I feel there are two keys.

Key Number One:

The better you are at controlling reinforcement, the less you will need punishment in training.

In order to train to a high level of success in dog training, reinforcement is a key requirement. Dogs learn through reinforcement. If the dog has been allowed to continuously find reinforcement in ways that builds undesirable behaviours, then you either have to find something more rewarding (which may not be possible) or punish. No other options really. So here is what excites me;

The more creative you can become at developing, redirecting and controlling the reinforcement, the less you need punishment.

I choose to train with no physical or verbal corrections, therefore, I must be brilliant at knowing and controlling my dog’s reinforcement. It is an ongoing journey of discovery for me.

At one end of the punishment spectrum is the mildest form of punishment, that is simply withholding a reward when you don’t like what your dog is doing.

 

At the other end of the punishment spectrum would be considered abuse. Severe, life altering pain meant to create fear and completely shut down behaviour.

 I think we can agree that no dog training program would promote punishment on this scale as a routine part of life. Generally speaking “traditional dog training” would punish on a level somewhere in between these two points, it would be fair to say every school would dictate their own tolerance or definition.

By training this way you can be sloppy with your awareness of what reinforces a dog. It just isn’t that important because you can fall back on trying to control the dog (through punishment) rather than teach the dog self control and to ignore all reinforcement that isn’t directed from you.

Now let’s examine what I mean by “access to amazing reinforcement.” On the low end, is a dog that lives in a way as I describe in my book “Ruff Love.” The dog earns all of his reinforcement and that reinforcement comes only through the owner. Now obviously this isn’t entirely possible as your dog will earn reinforcement from any person that pats him on the head or when he takes a drink of water in the kitchen. That is why, for my purposes,  I see controlling access to “amazing” reinforcement as most important in particularly what your dog thinks is “amazing.”

At the far end of this “amazing reinforcement” scale is the dog that lives in a world without rules. This is a dog that steals food, toys, chases other dogs, squirrels or cats at will, barks non-stop to get what he wants, raids the garbage, the kitchen counter and of course, can be seen pulling the owner down the street on leash or knocking over the guests at the front door . . . you get the picture.

So what all this means is that if you think some level of “Ruff Love is too much work” you will be needing punishment to accomplish your dog training goals.

The better you are at controlling reinforcement, the less you will need punishment to train a dog.

Yes it is as simple as that, as Bob Bailey says . .  “simple but not always easy!”

Key Number 2

The last key to training this way is that the reinforcement is used. Effective and efficient training has all reinforcement used as rewards rather than lures.  The dog should be able to ignore all reinforcement until a time when it is earned. While training this way all amazing reinforcement has its origin as first an amazing distraction to the dog.

A Training Challenge

I put together this video clip to show some examples of what is possible. You can have three choices. You can obviously choose to not watch it:), you can watch it thinking “ya but this is a professional dog trainer” or “ya but this is a Border Collie” or “ya but this is an agility dog, or “this won’t work in my _______classes” (fill in the blank with Pet Dog or Hunting Dog etc) OR you can just watch this clip with an open mind to endless possibilities.

 

If you are currently a well-respected dog trainer that is using force because you feel you are working in a special “niche” that requires more muscle than what many of us are using, why not take my challenge. Become one of your industry pioneers. Do what others don’t believe can be done.

Think possibilities not limits.
Be the change your dog world is waiting for (even if they may not know it yet!).

Today I am grateful for all of you that will read this and dare to go against tradition and to look for a better way for your dogs and your students.

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