Saturday, March 8, 2008

Traditional Dog Training

Every dog owner wants a dog who obeys. But these days, it's hard to own a dog or a puppy without getting overwhelmed by all the different training methods available. Traditional dog training methods (which usually use a choke chain, prong or electronic shock collar) have been used for generations, and the "tried and true" can be a very attractive notion to a new dog owner. Positive reinforcement methods (which usually use praise, treats, and sometimes clickers, head halter collars, or no leash at all) can be daunting and even scary for a new dog owner who is afraid his dog will never obey without a cookie.
How do you decide which method is best for you and your dog? Read on. You may have to un-learn some ideas that are based in traditional dog training, things you've heard from your family, friends or neighbors, or from traditional dog training or breed books.
Traditional dog training is probably what you (or your parents) used with your last dog. It generally involves the use of a leash "jerk" on the collar to correct a dog's non-desired behavior (such as pulling on the leash on a walk). The "jerk" can be substituted with a "choke if using a prong collar or a shock if using an electronic collar, both of which will greatly intensify the effect of this method. This type of training can be highly effective when both of the following are true:

the "jerk", choke or shock is administered at the instant of the infraction/undesired behavior, and
the "jerk", choke or shock is strong enough to act as an effective deterrent.
The main problem here is that we humans are rarely perfect - so we can rarely deliver the aversive consequence (the "jerk") with adequately precise timing. Further, humans differ dramatically in physical strength. So while a healthy 200 lb. man can often administer a jerk with adequate strength to be effective, a healthy petite woman may not be able to do so.
If your timing is not absolutely perfect, or your strength is not sufficient to administer a strong enough deterrent, the dog could be feeling the punishment of the jerk too late or not strongly enough. Rather than a learning experience, this simply becomes a painful and confusing experience. Over time, continued "jerk" or "choke" training teaches your dog that walking on a leash hurts, and that his owner is untrustworthy and unpredictable.
Another problem is that even people with great timing and strength may be asking too much of a younger dog. Let's say you're taking your 6 month old Lab out for his first "heel" session, and he's never really been out of your fenced yard other than for veterinarian visits. It's likely that he will be pulling madly in all directions and possibly even tangling you up in his leash. Alternately he could be so scared of the "outdoors" that he moves too slowly or not at all when you try to get him to walk nicely by your side. What do you do?
If you're expecting this Lab to exhibit a perfect heel, you may end up administering your perfectly timed and effective "jerk" almost continually, because he is almost continually NOT heeling. So the poor dog goes out for his walk and quickly learns nothing more than this: Walking on a leash with you is painful. Most new dog owners do not know how to distinguish between what's a "jerkable" offense and what's not, because it really depends on what that particular dog is truly capable of at that particular time, that particular day, that particular level of distraction, etc.
Lastly, a choke or prong collar can seriously injure the neck of a puppy under six months of age. This is why traditional training normally can't be started until the dog is 6 months of age or older; his neck must be strong enough to withstand the jerks. And as any dog owner knows, a 6 month old untrained dog has learned a multitude of bad habits already - pulling on leash, jumping on people, barking for attention, ignoring "sit" and "stay" commands, chewing on you or your furniture, and much, much more. As a matter of fact, waiting until a dog is 6 months old dramatically increases the likelihood that you'll need painful aversive consequences to extinguish the bad habits he's already developed.
Positive reinforcement training teaches that certain behaviors result in a pleasant consequence and all the other behaviors result in no consequence at all. (Notice that I didn't use the word "dog" in that sentence; positive reinforcement training can be used on any animal or human... Heck, plants grow as a result of positive reinforcement from the sun!) This method often starts out with pretty heavy usage of food as the pleasant consequence, whether you're using a clicker, halter, or just a happy "Good girl" as your good behavior marker. Over time and depending on the practice frequency, dog's accomplishment level and owner's satisfaction with the dog's behavior, the food consequence is phased out while praise and verbal commands and/or hand signals remain.
What are the advantages of positive reinforcement dog training? First, positive reinforcement training can (and should) be started the day you bring your puppy home. Any pup can handle eating and getting praised. There are so many things a very young pup does right as he rambles through his day, and the informed and aware dog owner can both identify those behaviors, name them, and then quickly reward him for them.
There is no need to wait until his neck is strong enough to endure traditional jerk-and-pull training. Now how does that compare to letting a pup run haywire with bad habits for months and then punish him for them when his neck gets strong enough? How great is it when a 6 month old dog is completely trained - and even better, the dog loves training and completely trusts his owner? (For more information, go to
However, if you are suddenly the owner of a completely untrained adult dog - let's say 4 years old - positive reinforcement dog training still is your best bet to get this nutcase under control. So yes, it is much easier when you start very early, but all is not lost if you start positive reinforcement training later in life.
Next, your timing need not be perfect when you're just delivering food. As a matter of fact, what positive reinforcement dog trainers call a "variable schedule of reinforcement" is actually more effective than predictable reward delivery. So your imperfect timing is actually an advantage!
Another great advantage to positive reinforcement dog training is that it makes it so easy for a pup of any age (6 months or not) to pay attention in an otherwise distracting environment. Which dog do you think will "obey" better: The one on a busy sidewalk getting his choke chain pulled up repeatedly, or the one on a busy sidewalk with a liver snap in front of his nose who keeps hearing his owner say "good sit!"
Further, because positive reinforcement training requires only trust and fun, it greatly enhances the dog-owner relationship for a lifetime. A solid trust between you and your dog means you almost never have to worry about him turning on you when you encounter a difficult or unusual situation. It also means he's much more likely to trust humans in general (unless someone in particular is abusive). You don't have to worry about punishing your dog, and your dog never has to develop fears and fight-or-flight defense tactics to deal with his owner's bizarrely random administration of painful consequences.
Finally, anyone can train a puppy using positive reinforcement - you, your toddler, the frail and elderly and handicapped can all be good trainers from Day One. No strength required.
So how did your parents and all those other people do so well using traditional training on their dogs? I strongly believe that the few who use traditional methods with true success also dole out plenty of praise and treats when the dog does right. But most dogs trained with traditional methods ended up (and still do) being euthanized for biting humans - a predictable behavior by a dog who receives pain from his owner one too many times.
Remember too, that many dogs were more "outside" dogs years ago and didn't have to learn all the indoor etiquette dogs now need to know. We expect more of our dogs today than ever before: To be sociable with every human, young or old, tall or short, nice or mean. (Years ago, a dog was expected to be vicious to outsiders). To be sociable with every dog they meet. (Years ago, most dogs didn't meet other dogs in social situations like dog parks or daycare.) To be good in the house and outside the house. To bark when they need to go out. Not to bark when they want to come in. To live walk nicely on a leash when 99% of their life is in a fenced yard. To share their food and toys with the boisterous toddlers from next door. (Years ago, it was considered absolutely normal for a dog to guard his possessions to the point of attack if approached too closely.) The list goes on and on.
The point is this: Think about what you're doing, how it's going to affect your long-term relationship with your dog, and what your dog is really learning. Then make your decision... and get some good treats!
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