The Great Training Debate

The Great Training Debate

While nay-sayers may tell you otherwise, dog training has two sides to the coin, two sides to the story and ultimately two different methods of training dogs. Although both sides, from traditional and modern methods, disagree about which methods are right, in truth, they both work.

You could say that dog training can be as different as two languages, but both are forms of communication. When applied effectively, your dog will understand what you are saying. How you deliver the message is very different.

Dog training methods have not changed much over the years until recently when a push for more science-based methods began to evolve.

Traditional training involves using corrections or aversives to discipline the dog for not performing a command or behavior as desired. Trainers use training tools such as different style collars, leash corrections, or vocal cues to tell the dog they did it wrong. After the dog failed to perform and has been corrected, the command or behavior is repeated and the right outcome is rewarded.

Through hundreds of years of history dogs effectively bonded to humans and formed successful working partnerships. Training them was an integral part of creating a working relationship to serve humans. Early dogs were hunting, herding, guarding or draught companions and needed to be able to serve a purpose.

One thing that never changed was their ability to be easily trainable. Humans aren’t known for always being the kindest creatures on earth. We have a keen belief that other creatures must serve a purpose to be useful and for dogs that often meant they needed to be compliant with delivering the uses we saw fit for them. They needed to be easily trained and this often involved the development of the use of training tools to make the training process easier and the animal more compliant.

By using corrections when a dog doesn’t complete a command or behavior with the desired outcome, the dog learns consequences. Many trainers with traditional backgrounds rely on training tools to assist them in giving the dog clear communication about what is being asked of them. The use of training collars such as e-collars, prongs, choke chains, and martingale collars are effective training tools, though not everyone agrees with their use being humane. Each tool has a different use and effect on the dog, though many associations of these tools are not pleasant for the dog.

To be a successful trainer you need to have a good understanding of dog behaviour and know when and how to apply corrections effectively. Correcting the dog immediately following a missed command or unwanted behaviour is essential to the dog’s learning process. Then repeating the scenario until you have the successful outcome, correcting the dog when they do not react appropriately. For example, if you are teaching a dog to sit you may use a leash and pull up on the dog as you ask them to sit. You may push their bum down and into the sit position. You would repeat this until the dog associates the word “Sit” with the action. If they failed to sit when asked you would give a leash correction pulling them up and into the sit position and reward when they sit after being given the command.

Traditional training methods can be as soft or gentle as the person who applies them. When applied with correct timing, appropriate reaction and an understanding for how to accomplish the final outcome, corrections can be mild yet very effective. In the wrong hands, it can be harsh or downright abusive.

Despite its sometimes forceful appearance, traditional training has served its purpose. It is not the nice sort of fluffy training everyone wants to watch but results can be reached quickly. Those on the other side of the fence argue there is a better, more humane way to accomplish the same goals without having such a hands-on approach.

One of the most famous dog trainers to use traditional training tools is Cesar Milan. In the early 2000s, he made quite the name for himself by rehabilitating dogs through his methods. He was a popular figure until more recently when he began to experience a lot of backlash from the positive reinforcement community who called his methods outdated, inhumane, forceful, and even abusive. Despite harsh criticism, Cesar still has a large following. He has rehabilitated many dogs successfully.

Like him or not, Cesar opened the door for a lot of people to become interested in the world of dog training and understanding dog behaviours. He can also be credited for saving hundreds of dog’s lives as he proved dogs with dangerous tendencies could be saved under the right training programs. These are dogs that previously may not have been given a chance. Unfortunately, sometimes these methods fail. Not every dog will be successful despite any type of training given to them.

In the US, especially, after Cesar’s rise to fame, there was a sudden explosion of interest in dog training and understanding behaviours. Dog owners had a thirst for knowledge and understanding how to fix their dog’s behaviors and problems. A large training community evolved and spread globally.

After further research and more education, dog training and techniques began to diversify as people tried new theories. Some moved to science to understand how to best train their dogs.

Most trainers are quite opinionated about what techniques are right and are especially biased to the one they use or claim to have discovered. More TV shows have since emerged and made several dog trainers famous by giving them their own shows. The divide between which methods of training are correct has never been so far apart.

The evolution of dog training is advancing, and new methods are being created. Science-based training is becoming more popular than ever as more owners push for more humane methods to build trust and improve the relationship with their dog. They do not want to use tools and force to get their dog to work them, instead, they want their dog to work for them because they are motivated to do it on their own free will.

Many owners and trainers branched out from traditional training methods and begun learning and experimenting with more modern methods and positive reinforcement. They believe that understanding and rewarding good behaviors are more powerful and effective than punishing bad ones.

A trainer using positive reinforcement would approach teaching a sit much differently than a traditional trainer would. They may use food to get a puppy interested in what in their hand to follow their nose. Using food in hand, and raising their hand just above the puppy’s head, the puppy will naturally scoot their bum under them into a sit position. The trainer will give the “sit” command then reward with food. Instead of using hands and leash correction to position the dog into sit, the dog offered to sit on their own and was rewarded for doing so. Positive reward trainers reinforce good behaviors or actions rather than punish the ones they don’t want.

By understanding a dog’s motivation behind bad behaviors, we can use science to understand why dogs act or react the way they do. Once we have a solid understanding of what our dog is trying to accomplish we can use other motivators to reinforce good behaviors and make changes in a positive way.

At one end of the dog training spectrum, you have all positive reinforcement training and the other training with aversives. There are a number of trainers who have been taught or experienced both types of training and those who fall somewhere in the middle in the land of balanced training.

There is no doubt, that there is more than one way to teach an old dog a new trick. Does this mean that one is right over the other? That will depend on who you ask. Other factors that influence what type of training is best include the dog’s personality, the problem, and the owner's comfort level of new or different techniques. The most important factor would be the trainer’s competence and educational background in understanding dog behaviours and their ability to solve the problem.

Dog owner’s looking to work with a trainer should always invest time into learning about different dog training techniques, training tools, and their uses-including when and how to use them. Educate yourself on different trainers in your area and check their reviews and credentials.

It is not uncommon to find trainers who have no professional training background and are self-taught. While the dog training community is largely unregulated, there are associations that are pushing for formal education, apprenticeships and creating a code of ethics for dog trainers to follow. These associations can recommend dog trainers they feel follow and abide by their standards.

Dog owners have the responsibility to act in their dog’s best interest, but to do that, you can’t go into it blindly. It will take some due diligence on the owner’s part to explore dog training techniques and trainers and find one they feel is accountable and are comfortable working with and also has their dog’s best interests at heart.