The dog training world is filled with endless opinions, methods, myths, and wives tales. Time and time again, I am contacted by clients who have previously worked with another trainer that, unfortunately, produced sub-par, if not worsening results. As delighted as I am to help these clients (and trust me, I am), I cannot help but feel disappointed for them. I mean, who the hell wants to invite a stranger into their home, pay hundreds or even thousands of dollars only to realize that the "expert" they hired has a "my way or the highway" attitude? Not to mention, stuck on one method of training to solve their dog's problem - the same approach they've used for every dog they've ever worked with for training. While the training methods of old appear to become more of a thing of the past, there's a new approach which gets glorified but is still extremely lacking. In this article, I will be referring to two specific types of trainers/methods of training, although both have their variations. The first is the purely positive trainer who seems to think that dog treats will solve any dog's problem. The other is the "boot camp" trainer that appears to believe that every dog is a sub-servant slave needing to be dominated and punished. They both fall short when it comes to genuinely teaching dogs and dog owners, and neither is willing to recognize their shortcomings. And based on what I've heard from clients, most are extremely judgemental and condescending. Honestly, I'm sick of them. ALL of them.
Sunshine, Rainbows & Fools Gold
Purely positive trainers believe and preach to anyone willing to listen that dogs do not need corrections and that instead of correcting your dog, you must wait it out or accept that your dog doesn't like, or doesn't want to do something. That sounds nice and all, but they limit themselves and their clients by labeling useful and practical training tools as negative, evil or cruel, and are fixated on only rewarding the dog for wanted behaviors. They claim that science explicitly supports this one-sided approach, which is not true at all. Science does support the fact that rewards based training is more effective than aversive based (old school, heavy-handed) training. But, let me repeat that - science supports rewards-based training. Not reward only training. There's a huge difference, and it's misleading to pet owners. Keep in mind; science also supports the fact that behaviors that are punished are less likely to continue in the future. In all fairness, purely positive trainers seem well intended, thumbs up for that. But the truth is, they are misinformed and unrealistic.
There will come a time, with any dog, when the distractions placed in front of that dog are more interesting than the food or toy-reward the owner/handler is offering. The dog needs to learn that there are consequences for not following known commands - if your goal is to have a dog that listens without the need for food. Besides, not all dogs are motivated by food or toys, and not many owners have the time or patience needed to follow an actual PP training program (for obedience). The reason some trainers will stand firmly behind PP training is that there are known PP handlers who compete and win in obedience competitions. Most people do not realize or even consider the fact that these handlers usually hand pick a dog with a specific temperament and with a high food drive. They are also dedicated to the sport they're training for. They control EVERYTHING around their dog from puppyhood to competition, and avoid training in environments that are unpredictable. The competitions they train for do not have real-life distractions; their dogs wouldn't listen in an uncontrolled environment in the real world. Aversive consequences are an essential part of learning for every animal species in the world. Purely positive trainers seem to assume that all dogs are fragile animals, and putting pressure or creating any form of discomfort for them is cruelty or abuse. Rescuing an out of control five-year-old dog with a history of chasing cats, unruly behavior, pulling people down the street, and barking at everything, is going to be next to impossible to train and rehabilitate with food rewards alone.
Fear, Disdain & Force
Trainers that focus primarily on punishment are at the other end of the ineffective training spectrum. Their immediate go-to is causing a dog physical pain, usually without getting all the details of the situation. They like to "shoot first" and rarely ask questions later. These types of trainers are typically trying to put a choke chain, prong collar, or remote collar on your dog before you've finished explaining what the problem is. By jumping the gun and assuming that punishing all behaviors will make them go away, they ignore the root cause of the problem behavior and neglect that fact that not all dogs are created equal. Addressing the symptoms of a behavior will always make the problem worse, create an entirely different issue, or ultimately damage the relationship between the dog and the owner, which is just as bad. You'll never hear them talk about the importance of a quality relationship between you and your dog.
Their inability to dissect a problem and ask pertinent, fact-finding questions is what bothers me the most. It seems as if to them, they are a hammer, and every dog is a nail. They don't care about WHY the dog is acting out; they make it hurt when the dog does act out and assume that will solve the problem. These trainers typically view dogs as either submissive or dominant, compliant or resisting, good or bad. To them, a submissive dog is a good dog. Never mind the fact that the dog's tail is tucked, head lowered, ears back, and heavily panting, as long as the dog does what its told, it doesn't make a difference to them. Even confused dogs get accused of not obeying while clearly stressed out and in panic mode; due to the lack of understanding of what is expected. These trainers never bother to show the dog what behavior is wanted, only what behavior is not wanted.
The Silver Lining
Okay, so if tossing treats and bribing your dog isn't the best training option and being as heavy handed as Mike Tyson isn't the best option, what is? Well, I'm glad you asked. Rewards-Based Balanced Training is. What does that mean? Simply put, it means using lots of positive reinforcement to teach the dog exactly what you want them to do or what they should be doing and using appropriate corrections to show them what not to do. RBBT is about using what your dog likes and wants as a motivator and encourages them to do the right thing and THEN, after the dog understands what is expected of them, holds them accountable to it. The accountability comes from the correction, and the correction is the balance. Every dog needs a correction suitable to them. Imagine teaching your kid how to do chores and then paying them for it (because you're an awesome parent) but if you choose not to pay one week, or four weeks, chores still need to be done - if they are not done, there is an undesired consequence for not doing them. Your kid wouldn't be allowed to skip doing chores because no money is there. Same applies to training dogs. Yes, food is a great training tool, but you shouldn't always need food for your dog to listen. RBBT is a combination of about 80-90% rewarding the behaviors that you like and want to see more of, and 10-20% corrections for the behaviors you don't want or ignoring known commands.
This balanced method of training focuses on the relationship between dog and owner and what each dog needs, conforming to the dog, rather than forcing the dog to conform to ineffective training or worse still, allowing the dog to get away with misbehaving. Look at it this way, by leaning more on the rewards side and positively teaching and reinforcing wanted behaviors you are much more justified in giving a correction when the time comes. Plus, giving a correction for an incorrect or inappropriate behavior after lots of praising and rewarding wanted behavior makes the correction stand out and mean more, as opposed to constantly punishing the dog, making them confused, fearful or resentful. In some cases, it may be a better, more practical option to start with a correction and then reward after the behavior has stopped. For example, if you've got a 90-pound Doberman jumping on grandma, you could correct the dog when he jumps to discourage the act and then when he approaches grandma without jumping, she pets him (assuming that the jumping was an attempt to be petted by her).
Few trainers (and zero behaviorists) are using a truly balanced approach. I'm confused. Everyone knows that balance is the key to life, or do they? We all know you shouldn't eat only ice cream every day, or broccoli, or steak. It's not healthy to work all day, everyday nonstop. Balanced diets work, balanced relationships work, balanced checkbooks work, and balanced dog training works. You need balance, but everyone's balancing point is different, and it's the same for dogs. Some dogs need a more stern approach, and some require a softer approach. Some of you who've had many dogs over the years will agree that there was one dog that just got it and understood what to do and what-not-to-do and there's that one dog that made you want to pull your hair out. Rewards-Based Balanced Training treats each dog as a unique individual with their own history, experiences, and internal/external expressions. The approach and training tools used depends on the dog, their level of understanding, and for me, the human client as well. Some dogs may need very few corrections, and others may need more. There's absolutely nothing wrong with rewarding or punishing a dog, but it is much more effective to use a combination of the two, at the appropriate times and for the right reasons as well. Rewards should not become bribes, and corrections should not create fear, resentment, or confusion.
Regardless of any labels for training methods and no matter what a trainer may call themselves; balanced, force-free, purely positive, partially positive, alpha, omega or whatever - the way in which they conduct themselves and train you and your dog is what matters. Empathy, compassion, and a genuine desire to help are hard to fake. No certification or licensing can guarantee a good trainer. Here is a quick guide to selecting a trainer/behavior consultant:
- Get referrals. Two or more is ideal.
- Speak to them over the phone. You can tell a lot about a person from a 10-minute call.
- Ask questions like, "what will we be doing for training?"
"how will you be teaching or training my dog?"
"what will you do if they make a mistake?"
"what training tools will you use and how will you use them?"
"what is the most severe form of punishment you will use?"
Avoid trainers that get upset or defensive for questioning them or their methods. You have a right to know who is coming to your home, what exactly they intend to do, or if neccessary, who is taking your dog and where your dog will be staying.
Beware of trainers that are quick to recommend or only offer taking your dog to their home or facility (board and train), especially if you are having problems at home. YOU are a huge factor in your dogs' behavior, and most training programs should require you to be involved. You will need more training than your dog - 90% of the time. Unless their board and train includes a minimum of 3-4 hours of detailed go home lessons where you are involved, don't do it.
Be cautious of trainers that lead you to believe the training process will be easy or a quick fix. Solving dog behavior problems are rarely easy. It requires your time, effort, mindfulness, and sometimes difficult personal adjustments for you and your family.
Stay away from trainers that judge you, try to make you feel guilty, inadequate, or outright blame you for your dog's behavior. While you do play a role in your dog's behavior, it is unlikely that you've done anything with malicious intent. You are hiring someone to help you, not ridicule you or belittle you.
If you find yourself working with a trainer that makes you feel uncomfortable or is asking you do anything that doesn't seem right, or you don't understand the purpose for, SAY SOMETHING! A great trainer should be able to adequately explain every detail about the training process and the reasons for their actions or approach and the desired outcome.
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