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When Choosing a Dog Trainer, Buyer Beware!

Written by Leah Roberts

Originally posted in 8/27 2010

Summit Event BadgeBefore 1981 when Dr. Ian Dunbar developed the first Sirius Puppy Class, training wasn’t recommended for puppies under 6 months old.  The only training methods available at the time involved physical force using training tools such as choke collars, and were considered to be too harsh for young puppies.  Dr. Dunbar created the lure/reward method, which opened up an entirely new perspective on dog training in general.   With this method, instead of being corrected for wrong behavior, puppies are set up for success by being lured into the desired position then rewarded for achieving the behavior.  Unlike traditional dog training, with no force, fear, pain or intimidation inherent in the technique, it was now appropriate for puppies as young as 8 weeks old to begin training classes.

Lure/reward training proved itself to be so effective, efficient, and fun for both owners and dogs that the usage spread to family pet obedience classes for all ages. Eventually it expanded to more specialized areas of dog training, including dog sports, working dog activities and conformation.  Clicker training, another reward-based training methodology without the use of corrections, was also developed in this time frame and grew greatly in popularity.

Research Presents Compelling Evidence in Favor of Reward-Based Training

Over the last 30 years, animal behaviorists have studied the undesired effects of training with aversives.  Dr. Karen Overall,  noted veterinary behaviorist, is quite adamant about her views on shock collars and states, “Shock is not training – in the vast majority of cases it meets the criteria for abuse.”    According to a veterinary study published in 2009 in the Journal of Applied Animal Behavior, if you’re aggressive to your dog, your dog will be aggressive to you.  Meghan Herron, DVM, one of the lead authors of the study, says, “Our study demonstrated that many confrontational training methods, whether staring down dogs, striking them, or intimidating them with physical manipulation, do little to correct improper behavior and can elicit aggressive responses.”  Dr. Sophia Yin, another well-respected veterinary behaviorist, adds, “Indeed, the use of such confrontational training techniques can provoke fear in the dog and lead to defensively aggressive behavior toward the person administering the aversive action.”

Best-selling author and dog behaviorist Jean Donaldson states in her article entitled Modern Dog Training vs. Cesar Millan, “The force-free movement has been partly driven by improved communication from the top.  Applied behaviorists, those with advanced degrees in behavior, and veterinary behaviorists, veterinarians who have completed residencies specializing in behavior problems are in greater abundance than in previous decades, and there is much more collaboration between these fields and trainers on the front lines. These two professions are quite unified on the point that the use of physical confrontation and pain is unnecessary, often detrimental and, importantly, unsafe.”

Our own Dr. Dunbar says in an article entitled The Trouble with Punishment, “Sadly, many outdated trainers, and hence many owners who have read outdated training books, tend to focus on punishing untrained dogs for getting it wrong, for breaking rules they never knew existed. It is much quicker to teach your puppy the rules of the house – to show him what you want him to do and to reward him for doing it.”

Over the years, more trainers are choosing to reward instead of correct, and more owners are becoming aware of the difference and discerning about their choice of a trainer.  With such compelling testimony, it should be easy to find a trainer who uses modern, scientifically sound positive reinforcement-based techniques, and those who continue to hang onto the old, outdated methods should be going the way of the dinosaurs, right?


Why Dinosaurs Still Roam the Planet

Why would any dog owner or trainer choose to set up a dog as an adversary that needs to be conquered when the goal is to have a companion?  Even back in the old days when I took one of my dogs to a class using choke chain corrections, I was having trouble with this concept.  I was uncomfortable with having to do unpleasant things to my dog then, when there wasn’t an alternative.  Now that there are excellent alternatives, what could possibly be keeping choke, prong, and shock collar manufacturers  in business?

In great part I blame Cesar Millan  Using outdated and debunked wolf pack/dominance mythology as his basis, he has gained great popularity playing the part of a dog expert on TV.   His whole shtick is about creating drama by wrestling “dangerous” dogs into submission so that viewers will continue to tune in for the excitement.  Even though he himself admits that his techniques are all for show by warning viewers not to try them at home, dog owners and even trainers buy into the illusion.  Granted, it would be pretty boring to watch an aggressive dog being treated by slow, systematic desensitization and counter-conditioning, which requires keeping the dog calm at all times to be truly effective.  It’s far more exciting to set the poor dog up by throwing him into a situation where he has no choice but to react violently out of fear, and then show our hero saving the day by physically dominating him.   Cue music and flashing red lights.  Pure and simple, Millan has set dog training back 30 years by making dog abuse sexy.  It’s disgusting.

Modern training based on scientific research is fairly new, so another reason we still have force training is because people don’t like to change.  It’s human nature to cling to what is familiar to us, and we don’t like to fix what seems to work.  Granted, force training does work.  You can intimidate any living creature into compliance with the use of fear and pain, which are powerful motivators.   So if a trainer has been using prong collars for the last 30 years, he’s going to be heavily invested in justifying his methods anecdotally and tend to scoff at the research that potentially could prick little holes in his belief balloon.

Then there are the people who feel powerful if they can physically dominate another living creature.  Let’s just hope that this is the minority of dog owners/trainers who use force methods.  And I really wish I could believe that, but I think that attitude is far more prevalent than we would wish.

And, of course, there are just those who have not yet heard the gospel.  The literal translation of gospel is “good news,” and it’s up to us reward-based trainers and behaviorists to educate the public by spreading it.  It’s very good news indeed that we don’t have to hurt or intimidate our dogs into behaving for us!

Choosing the Right Trainer

Because of the new wave of enlightenment about training techniques, force trainers have to be much more careful with the way they advertise so that they don’t lose potential clients.  If you look at these trainers’ websites, many of them will not even mention the way that they train or what tools they use.  You may have to study the pictures to discern whether or not choke, prong or shock collars are used in their training.

Cute little euphemisms are also getting more popular.  For example, shock may be called a “tap,” “stim,” or a “muscle stimulator.”  The quick jerk of a choke collar that produces the startling sound in a dog’s ear has always been called a “pop.”  Says Jean Donaldson “The force-free movement gains momentum every year and a sure sign of this is that many trainers in the other camps resort to murkier and murkier euphemisms to disguise their more violent practices and retain their market share. Stressed dogs aren’t ‘shut down,’ they’re ‘calm.’ It’s not strangling, it’s ‘leading.'”

Even the terms “positive reinforcement” and “dog-friendly” have been hijacked.  Many students have reported responding to an ad for a “dog-friendly” trainer who turned out to require prong collars.  If they happen to use treats at all, they may label themselves “positive reinforcement” trainers.   Many of the trainers who throw treats along with using corrections will call themselves “balanced” or “eclectic” trainers.

If you want a truly dog friendly trainer or training class that uses modern, scientifically researched positive reinforcement training techniques, you will have to research past the advertisements.  Certainly the tools required (choke, prong or shock collars) are a dead giveaway.  But there can still be force and coersion used even if these “training” collars aren’t.  Beware of yelling, poking, jabbing, objects being thrown at or near the dog, loud noises used for startling, physically forcing dogs into position, alpha rolls or any kind of pinning,   etc.   Any reference to the words “alpha” or “dominance” should also make you sit up and take notice, as that’s a good indication that the trainer is leaning on that nonsensical old myth.

The best way to determine whether or not a training class is right for you and your dog is to ask to sit in on a session.  If your trainer won’t allow this, that could be a warning bell. Look for signs of stress in the dogs, such as tails being held low and into the body, mouths tensely shut, avoiding eye contact, crouching.  You should see happy, eager, relaxed dogs and people having fun.  If you feel uncomfortable with anything that you see, look elsewhere.




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