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Dog training – Time to “get over it” and get on with life!


Prayer from Dog to God:

“Dear God: We Dogs can understand human verbal instructions, hand signals, whistles, horns, clickers, beepers, scent ID’s, electromagnetic energy fields, and Frisbee flight paths. What do humans understand?

OK, so you have a dog and you want it trained, right?

Thanks, Sue for Mopsy’s photo!

If you have read books on dog training, have been to an obedience class or two, or talked to any “experts” on dog training, you are probably confused.

Each dog training theory is presented with the zeal of the Sermon on the Mount –invariably accompanied by ruthless criticism of any other method and threats that if you use any other method you will ruin your dog for life.

Use food. Never use food. Use Clickers and whistles. Clickers are useless, use your hands and body instead. Use electric collars. Be positive, all the time. No, show your dog who is the boss. Tug & jerk. No, never tug, you will damage your dog psychologically. Praise a dog. No, don’t praise a dog, do you praise your kids every time they do what they are supposed to? Any form of growling is cruel, Check chains are cruel, halters are cruel, e-collars are cruel, harnesses are cruel and collars are cruel. The government “oughta” ban this, ban that.”

“Assertiveness” has somehow become confused with “punishment”, and “punishment” has merged into “cruelty” according to some behaviourists and trainers. There’s “dominance theory” there’s “fear theory” and “anxiety theory” – all these theories, where’s the reality? Even the scientific papers tend to prove only what they set out to prove and rarely compare methods (or even commands!)

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While trainers attack other trainers, the result is untrained dogs, & confused owners trialling multiple methods, or giving up completely. Behaviour problems haven’t diminished, either.

One of three outcomes may result from the above:

– The dog continues to misbehave – which might be OK if that means pooing on the verandah, but can be dangerous if the unwanted behaviour is play biting children or endlessly barking till the neighbours complain.

– Dog & Owner train each other accidentally to a point of “minimal tolerance” and life resumes a somewhat less stressful but largely unrequited pace.

– The owner gives up completely and surrenders the dog. The dog is often euthanased. Behavioural issues are THE most common reason for dog dumping and euthanasia in pounds and shelters.

A wise old pharmacist once said: “When there are 70 different remedies for a problem, then there isn’t actually one single “right” one at all – otherwise everybody would be using it”. It’s the same with dog training, really.

NOW, for the good news:

1. Dogs are surprisingly rational creatures who human read body language really well and generally really want to be loved. They are generally keen to learn, but you have to know what to expect and they have to have motivation to learn. There has to be “something in it” for them to really perform.

2. Not all dogs are the same. Just as some are motivated by food, some by games, some by the attention of being trained. Some dogs need more robust techniques because they like to “look up to a boss”, other dogs melt into jelly at robust techniques and need just a suggestion to get the message. Some dogs simply don’t see the need for “sit”, “stand”, “stay” and work better with commands like “retrieve that bird”, “get out of the kitchen”, or “get off the couch”! Most times, with patience, the dog trains the owner and vice versa. BUT reward based training almost always gives results.

Thanks, David for this photo of Bailey!

For example, a pretty no-nonsense vet once rescued a Cattle Dog with a bad attitude to wandering. This dog “ran on his stomach” so for nearly a year he thought his name was “biscuit” while bad behaviour was diverted and good behaviour was selectively rewarded . His motivation was food and love (in that order). Consistency was key to reward, first with food and gradually later with pats and games. He became a novice obedience triallist.

3. No two people are the same. The flippy female with the lilting voice is may be seen by an assertive dog as too playful the masterly man with the deep commanding voice too pushy for the quiet dog. There is an art in matching the dog with the person, and that includes training techniques.

4. Watching the way dogs interact with each other is interesting. No, not “being a dog” yourself, but watching the “dog laws” being enforced by other regular dogs (not the nasty ones!). Dogs do use punishment – short, sharp, more frightening than painful, at the very moment the crime is committed, BUT most of the time they use voice (growling, snarling and grumbling) and body language to get the message across. Dogs also use praise and rewards with each other – play, “wrestling”, ‘yips”, chasing, and playful body language.

So what do we conclude from all of this? Three things:

Firstly, that “experts” are experts only in their own field of expertise and for many trainers that’s only the technique that they trained on. Successful dog training is a result of a match between the owner, the dog and the training technique. Most times dogs “get it” instinctively.

Secondly, the real key lies in consistency. If puppy is always growled at for barking without reason, if puppy is always rewarded for doing the right thing, then he is more likely to get the message.

Thirdly, patience is paramount. No, dogs don’t need something repeated 20,000 times, but if they see you failing to be consistent with the message and your body language not matching the message, they may get confused. Sometimes it takes a while for the “light globe” to come on.

So where do we go from here?

Start with reward based, positive, “soft” techniques and develop from there until you find the right balance of assertiveness (some people call this “punishment” but it isn’t) and reward. The fact that there are so many well behaved dogs in the face of all these “right” and “wrong” training techniques is testimony to the resilience of the dog, not proof that one training technique is right and the others are wrong.

Remember: There is never any reason for cruelty – defined as pain from which the animal can’t escape, as ongoing punishment when the “crime” is past, as anything which the pet thinks is life threatening; or as anything that causes physical damage to the pet.

And what about “equipment”?

No piece of equipment is “cruel” and none is “humane” – all training equipment can be wonderful or dangerous depending on the behaviour of the trainer and the owner. An ordinary collar and leash can be dangerous in the wrong hands. Again, it’s about starting with minimum and working “up” from there. Collar & leash, check chain, halters, clickers, E-collars. While not too many people are fans of prong collars these days, it’s a matter of finding what the dog responds to best – and then working your way “back down” the equipment ladder once the pet “works it out”.

The bottom line:

Chill, folks. Forget rampaging screams to “ban” this and “avoid such and such a training method at all costs”. All this serves to do is confuse clients – damaging another professional’s beliefs or systems in front of a client damages your credibility too.

Let’s recognise that some dogs are biddable, others are “stubborn little such & such’es”. Successful training and happy clients will be about flexibility of approach, careful and educated use of equipment on a graduating scale, and realistic expectations.

Find a trainer that works with your style and your dog’s style and take it from there. There’s plenty of fun to be had with a trained dog!

NOTE: Pets Australia policy is that members DO NOT support prong collars; that there is no place for shock collars except in the hands of a qualified trainer and then only when euthanasia is the only alternative; and that check chains should only be used in by trained operators. Note also that harnesses have been the cause of radial nerve injuries if not fitted properly, and even ordinary collars have resulted in occasional neck injury.


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