A Closer Look at Dog Training Techniques: Part Two
By Joan Hunter Mayer
Welcome back! In the first part of this two-part series, we defined three of the most common dog training philosophies: force-free, aversive and ‘balanced.’ We looked at how reinforcement and punishment relate to animal behavior and compared how each of the three techniques approaches the use of training collars, the use of rewards in training and reviewed what leading veterinary behaviorists say about the effects of training styles on animal welfare.
In Part Two, the discussion continues with a closer look at how each technique stacks up regarding the time commitment required, potential for fallout, viewing every dog as an individual, the effects of training methodologies on pet guardians and finally, we think about what it might be like to walk a mile in our dogs’ paws.
Force-free methods encourage pet guardians to take time to train with their dogs and teach them the behaviors they want them to do in the future. An on-the-go pet parent may be disappointed that quick fixes don’t really fit in here. A training plan that helps guardians and dogs achieve their training goals can require some time, patience and commitment.
In order to set pups up for success, there’s a big focus on prevention, teaching dog guardians to be “problem preventers” as well as “problem solvers.” There’s a reliance on dog parents to manage their dogs’ environments, plan ahead and prepare for real-life challenges with lots of short, fun practice sessions to learn and reinforce desired behaviors.
Aversive – It is easy for pet parents to find ‘experts’ who guarantee a quick fix to many common challenges and easy for busy dog guardians to find aversive collars that are sold to provide ‘feedback’ to dogs to ‘correct’ unwanted behaviors.
‘Balanced‘ - While both correction-based and ‘balanced’ training methods offer the apparent advantage of fast results, it can take a lot of time (and resources) down the road to try to undo the emotional fallout that can occur.
We’re human; and like our dogs, we sometimes make mistakes. So, what happens to your dog, in each of the three scenarios, if you ‘mess up’ the method? Let’s take a look.
Force-free - If you “accidentally” give a treat at the wrong time, or your timing is off, you might inadvertently reinforce an unintended behavior, such as jumping up instead of sitting. But…the other side effect is that your dog gets an extra treat, enhancing the bond between you in a positive way – like a winter holiday bonus in July!
Aversive - On the flip side, an accidental shock or pinch can cause extra harm and inadvertently create a negative conditioned response to everything and everyone around at that moment – including you, other pets and children. That means people and places that used to evoke a happy response, or no reaction at all, might now trigger your dog to feel fear, anxiety and stress.
‘Balanced’ – Once again, the risks of negative fallout are the same for ‘balanced’ training as they are for aversive training methods because the focus is on the behavior(s) and not on harnessing trusting, affectionate relationships between people and dogs.
All Dogs are Individuals
Force-free methods approach each dog as an individual and extend the same respect to the people who love them. The focus is on fostering behaviors you want using whatever rewards best motivate your dog. At the same time, humane training is appropriate for all breeds, all ages, and in fact, all species. The fundamental concept that behaviors that are reinforced are repeated is true for toy poodles, Great Danes, humans, dolphins, chickens, elephants…you get the idea.
Aversive – You might hear that “all dogs are individuals” means some need a ‘heavier hand’ in training. Take the earlier example from Part One of a dog who struggles with walking on a loose leash. Unlike that example where we looked for possible underlying causes of the pulling behavior and how to address them, the solution offered in this category could involve a training collar that pinches, chokes or shocks your dog to provide ‘feedback’ to ‘help him remember’ not to pull.
‘Balanced’ training attempts to address the individuality of dogs and their people by sometimes including the use of force, fear and intimidation in dog training. But not all the time.
Individual personality or breed differences don’t change the fact that ethical concerns apply to all pets. As their guardians, we have taken on an obligation to do our best to understand and provide for their basic physical, mental, and emotional needs and keep them safe and comfortable.
What’s in it for You?
Consider what you want from your relationship with your dog as you sort through some of the prominent features of each philosophy.
Force-free training aims to:
- Provide for dogs’ overall physical and mental well-being.
- Use only effective, humane techniques to create and maintain a harmonious household.
- Strengthen the human-canine bond.
- Help build and foster loving, joyful and mutually respectful relationships between pets and their families.
- Help dogs learn to trust the training process and those teaching them.
- Enhance and enrich the lives of dogs, so they can thrive.
- Offer a nurturing way for dog guardians to limit inappropriate behaviors — without dogs wearing uncomfortable devices.
- Never ask pet parents to harm, injure, startle, scare or annoy their dogs.
- Go beyond basic 'obedience' techniques and develop valuable canine 'parenting' skills that will enable you to raise a healthy, happy dog.
- Often use training collars that sometimes change unwanted behaviors.
- Have some pet parents concerned about whether training collars will hurt their dogs. Dog guardians might ask, “Is there a ‘right’ way to harm my dog?”
- Can lead to a false sense of security. For instance, electronic fencing systems that utilize shock collars may fail to keep pets on the property and/or fail to keep predators off the property, resulting in tragic consequences.
- Can backfire, resulting in retaliation (a bite or attack) and an unraveled bond.
- Risk creating learned helplessness: dogs fearing harsh corrections might be so afraid to do anything that they decide to do nothing at all, appearing “lazy” and “aloof” (when they are in fact traumatized and shut down).
- Over time, dogs can become conditioned to the aversive stimulus and pet guardians will have to increase the intensity of the ‘correction’ to attempt to change behavior. Ask yourself, “How far are you willing to go?”
- Has all the same disadvantages of aversive methods (due the use of training collars and corrections).
- Lacks the advantages of force-free training (because it isn’t force-free).
Is there a chance you won’t damage your relationship with your dog if you opt for a correction-based or a ‘balanced’ training approach? Yes – in general dogs are tolerant, loyal, resilient and adaptable. Does that mean you should risk harming them when there are kinder, safer options available with proven efficacy?
As you consider your many training options, their pros and cons and the stance from leading veterinary behavior organizations, there’s one more voice to add to the mix – your dog’s. If given the opportunity to choose, would your dog choose training games and treats? Or being pinched, choked or shocked when engaging in natural, species appropriate behaviors such as sniffing or barking? Or a hodgepodge approach where she might be praised one moment and punished the next, not knowing what to do or who to trust?
The truth though, is that dogs don’t get to choose your training style. It’s up to you. Our dogs trust us to speak up for them and make the most scientifically and ethically informed decisions we can when it comes to their care. And that is why training techniques matter to you and your inquisitive canine.
The Inquisitive Canine was founded by Santa Barbara canine behavior consultant and certified professional dog trainer Joan Hunter Mayer. Joan and her team are devoted to offering humane, pawsitive, practical solutions that work for the challenges dogs and their humans face in everyday life. Here’s to barking with the dogs, cheering for the humans, and having fun!