Thursday, February 11, 2010

Your Dogs are a Mess (and your kids are no prize)

This article was written for the March issue of Dogs Today magazine.

Psssst! I'm whispering. That's because I am a dog whisperer. I know secret things that others may not be willing to tell you.

Are you sitting down? Good. Now brace yourself, because I am going to (pardon the expression) let the cat out of the bag. Here it is: there are a LOT of ways to train a dog, and almost all of them work.

Yes, that's right: William Koehler's methods work, and so too do Ian Dunbar's.

Cesar Millan's methods work, and so do Karen Pryor's.

Victoria Stillwell's methods work, and so do Tamar Geller's, Jan Fennell's, Patricia McConnell's, and Barbara Woodhouse's.

All of these people have made careers out of successfully training dogs.

Anyone who tells you different is a liar.

Yes, that's right. The people who slag Cesar Milan are liars. So too are those who sneer at Karen Pryor. It all works.

You want another secret? Fine. Here it is: Like everything else in the world, dog training is subject to fads, philosophy and branding. Everyone is trying to sell you something (if only their own expertise), and part of sales is to convince you that they have something better, and the other guy has something worse. Sometimes it's true. Mostly, it's bunk.

You want more? Fine. Here's a little about dogs -- the tabula rasa we are working with.

Dogs, like humans, are pack predators and scavengers that operate within a loose social hierarchy. Like humans, they have their own language, and like humans they learn best when instruction is clear and consistent and when it comes after a "recess" period involving physical exercise.

Like humans, dogs operate for rewards, but they also shy away from adverse consequences. Like humans learning the alphabet, dogs can learn to string small bits of knowledge together to form entire sentences of instruction, but first they have to learn the vowels and consonants.

There. That's the basics.

You want more? Fine, here it is: While there are a lot of ways to make a puppy or young dog learn the basics of walking, sitting, coming, etc., most out-of-control adult dogs are a mess for the same three reasons:

  1. Not enough ACTIVE one-on-one time with the owner (including real exercise and long walks);

  2. No consistency, and;

  3. A confusion, by the owner, that the dog is a child.

That's it.

Watch any dog trainer, and you will see I am right.

What most dog training professionals bring to the table is simply a routine: If you spend 10 minutes, twice a day exercising a dog, and another 10 minutes, twice a day, training a dog with ANY training system you find on a shelf, your dog will probably end up brilliant within a few months.

Of course, that will only happen if the owner/trainer is consistent. This is the second thing the trainer brings to the table. Most people and most families are wildly inconsistent and, as a consequence, are poor communicators. Professional trainers teach owners to be consistent in their messaging.

Of course, it is the third point where a great deal of the controversy lies. A lot of dog people are terribly confused about dogs. They think a dog is a child, and they think children should only have positive rewards. In their mind, no child and no dog should ever get a correction.

It is, of course, complete nonsense.

Here's a hint about dogs; dogs are the actual experts.

And guess what? Dogs do not click and treat. Dogs communicate through body movement, voice, and yes TEETH.

What? Dogs use "coercion" with each other? Yes, sometimes. A couple of times a day in my little pack.

And, of course, dogs have pecking orders every bit as developed as that of chickens.

And YES, dogs are looking for a leader. This last point is one of the secrets every successful dog trainer brings to the table.

Most dogs crave leadership every bit as much as they crave food, love, and time in the sun.

Most dogs have the capacity to be submissive to a true leader. Puppies are submissive to older dogs, and smaller dogs are submissive to larger dogs.

Submission is not fear -- it is followship, the analog to the leadership you should be providing.

Of course this notion of "leadership" runs riot in a lot of people's heads.

In the modern world, too many people eschew leadership. They want everyone to be equals, and they want every little thing to be talked out and negotiated, especially within the family.

What does that mean for children?

It means if you tell your teenager they need to be home by 10 pm, but move the hour to 11 pm after a half hour of argument, you are teaching your child that arguing works -- and you are sure to get a lot more of it!

The same goes for dogs.

Consider this: your refrigerator door is probably a better dog trainer than you are.

Why do I say this?

Simple: For your dog, the refrigerator door should be the most important door in your house. Behind it lies every type of food your dog has ever dreamed of.

And yet, your dog never barks at the refrigerator door.

Why not? Simple: because your dog knows that door will never open no matter how long it is barked at. When your refrigerator says NO, it means NO.

In some people's minds, this kind of absolutism smacks of "authoritarianism." They think there should be some give and take with the dog. "Just Look at Tricky-Woo. He looks so hungry!"

Here we come to the root of so many problems: Vacillating people who are unable to send consistent signals on the front end, and who are unable to deliver consistent consequences on the back end.

Let's think about the kids again.

Your teenager borrows the car and does not come home at 11 pm, as agreed, but sneaks in the back door at 3 am.

Best to ignore it, right? If you do, see if you do not get more of it!

And so it is with dogs.

Slip a simple chain slip collar on a dog, and give a decent jerk every time the dog pulls at the end of the lead, and your dog will straighten up and be walking at your side in no time.

Reward it with a small piece of hot dog, or a scratch on the head when it walks slightly behind you on a loose lead, and he will get the message even faster.

Yet, there are people adamantly opposed to simple slip-chain collars, just as there are people adamantly opposed to levying negative consequences on their own children for bad behavior.

Who are these people?

They fall into several camps.

Some are armchair philosophers who have no experience working with difficult dogs.

Because they have trained a few retriever puppies they are sure they know the score for all dogs all the time, and never mind that they have no clue as to how to handle an adult dog-aggressive Pit Bull, a deer-chasing Lurcher, or a sheep-worrying Collie.

Another group are folks who are emotionally incapable of being true leaders. These people will tell you they "love" their dogs so much they could never be so "cruel" as to jerk on a chain slip-collar, no matter that the dog quickly stops pulling and is not in pain from the correction.

Does that mean these people can never train their own dogs?


The good news, is that almost ANY dog training regime will work if it is done consistently (even pure click-and-treat training) provided it is done consistently, and the dog is young or has no other serious behavior problems.

Will a "pure positive" training regime be a bit slower than if the owner had used a more balanced training system with a chain collar? Probably.

Will the dog be as "bomb proof" as it might be if a more balanced training method had been used? Probably not.

Will a pure positive training system fix a sheep-worrying terrier? Nope.

But will it probably work for you and your young dog? Sure.

As noted at the beginning, almost any published dog training method will work provided it is done consistently, every day, by a calm owner who clearly communicates with his or her charges after a decent period of exercise.

This is the real "secret" to dog training, and it's really no secret at all.

The original dog trainer.


Doug said...

Great article! I'm not any kind of dog expert, but I do find that this is definitely the truth for children - I see it in school all the time.

Now - how do you get a stubborn dog out of an undiggable hole?

Mongoose said...

Hey! You stole my bit! :)

jdlvtrn said...

Years ago Carol Benjamin started out with a Golden. Her writings reflected that her personal dogs were that way. When she got a GSD, she ratcheted up a few notches, even though they are dogs bred to take direction. When she got a Shiba, however, a more independent, primitive, assertive breed, she eventually got rid of him. She subsequently had a large bull&terrier mix and is now into Border Collies. Patrick, you are absolutely right. And I think that Koehler's critics have mostly not read his old book where he routinely tells the owner to be patient and "praise" the dog.
Thank you for putting this on the Internet.

-Janice Dougherty

compcat said...

I think that any time you set out to change behaviors in an animal (or in a group of people for that matter), you need a whole bag of training tools and methods to bring to work on the problem.

And, most importantly, if a method is not working, STOP, take a step back and figure out why (very often the why is the handler/trainer), and then either improve your technique or try a different method.

And for cripes sakes, house training needs a consistent schedule. And yes, this even works on purse dogs, as long as they are not brain damaged.

Pai said...

This brings to my mind that rant against NILIF that Smartdogs linked to a while back. It basically claimed that conditioning dog behavior with food was akin to psychological torture.

C.L. Quigley said...

This is a very sound post comprised of many opinions with which I wholeheartedly agree.

PBurns said...

Pai, These people are crack pots and as Smartdogs suggests, they do not have a clue as to what they are talking about. Laughable fools.


zron said...

To further illustrate the similarity of training dogs and humans: It is kind of a closely guarded secret in dog training circles that you can't go beyond a certain level with only positive re-enforcement. And to work, negative re-enforcement must be immediately coercive (i.e. painful). The method most use is the ear pinch. After a while a threatened ear pinch is an effective motivator. Many training classes don't reveal this until the advanced level. Works on humans too :)

PBurns said...

The first rule of dog training is to always love the dog.

The second, is that the goal is communication -- the dog will probably do what you want once it it knows what you want. This is the *training* part of the excercise.

Finally, you have a dog that knows you love it, and it knows what you want it to do.

Will it always do it, then? No.

This is where mild aversives come into play -- to instill discipline in a mind that may not be very disciplined if left with only positive messages to work with.
Remember, even a very smart dog has the mind of a 4-year old, and it is also a seething mass of genetic codes for prey, flight, fight, and food. Your messages are not the only ones it will receive today!

Pure positive trainers show their ignorance when they fail to recognize that food, verbal praise, or a game of catch with a favorite toy are NOT the highest reward a dog can have. To think so, is to scream "greenhorn" or to readily accept a very low standard of training.

A terrier will chase a squirrel into the street (and get killed for its troubles) because the code for prey is FAR stronger than the code for food. A bird dog cannot be taught a "whoa" without a check cord (or an e-collar), and without that basic command the dog is nearly useless in the field, and is likely to get shot.

I have never pinched a dog's ear, but I value a choke chain. Some folks use e-collars to train or prong collars or head halters -- they all work in the right hands, and they are all a disaster if the person has not taken the time to first communicate and train the dog.

Of course, every tool is a disaster in the hands of someone who claims one-minute mastery of things that require real knowledge and skill. Loot at what people do with cars and chainsaws.


Linda Kaim said...

There are millions of dogs and millions of way to reach them.

It takes patience and the knowledge of how dogs process information that makes for better training both for the individual and the species. Just like humans, no two are alike and it's important to remember that what may work for one, may NOT work on another.

There is no big secret to dog training, there is no reason to be an "asshole" to a dog either, regardless of what methods a trainer may employ, or what breed of dog being trained.

Language barriers in this business abound. The misinterpretation of otherwise simple words is what gets the craft of dog training into the most trouble.

Compulsion for example. Pretty innocuous on it's own, but pair it with language described to train dogs and you run the risk of awakening the demon.

Use it in the horseman's vernacular and it means drive or forward motion.

I am *compelled* to work every day, even if it means clearing 7 foot snowdrifts out of my training area where I will *force* one of the three tiny dogs to walk their dainty little feet over cold, hard ground, all of whom will try to *avoid* or *escape* the act of walking.

Compulsion means "an irresistible persistent impulse to perform an act".

I would imagine that there are "assholes" out there who happen to call themselves dog trainers, but that could also apply to the minions of the One Faith who consider even the stern look and the cocked eyebrow the most heinous of crimes.

I am compelled to endure incredible discomfort, physical exhaustion, cold and wet. In and of itself a punishment, but one I gladly embrace for that rewarding paycheck.

Language is everything.

Linda Kaim said...


The second definition of coerce is "to compel to an act or choice"

Coercion may not always be an act of physical compulsion.

I have only seen the ear pinch used in the dog's refusal when learning to master retrieving skills, I have in all my years, never seen it used in the correction of a dog for any other reason.

pinke.paints said...

Very well put! When I was asked at a baby shower to give some parenting advice, I replied, "Never give a command (not a request) that you do not intend to get off the sofa to enforce!" I added, "Works for children and dogs."

The photo at the top is the funniest thing I've seen recently! Thanks for the laugh.
Mary Pinké Neck

Seahorse said...

Linda, in equine vernacular the word you were seeking is "impulsion". It means quality, energy-filled forward movement in horse training terms.


Unknown said...

Nice article from terrierman. Lots of stuff 'out there' does not seem to relate to real dogs. For starters, dogs differ so much in what constitutes a reward or punishment for them, and in how they understand you. Like Rugby, my late keesie X was very literal, and was the only dawg in agility that jumped when I said 'jump', rather than when he was set up for the jump. That's a spitz thing, being literal. Rug taught me to be precise. Punishment for Conor, a softie mutt, is not understanding what I want him to do. That makes him very anxious. He teaches me to be patient and try to see communication through the dog's eyes.

Rewards, well, a nice warm heap of horse dung is a yummy treat for my ex-stray hunting dawg mutt, Toby, as is retrieving. He spits out food treats with contempt when he is in retrieve mode. Like telling me 'are you so dumb you can't see what I really want?' Tobe teaches me to use my brains. Though I have yet to try offering him warm dung as a reward. Hum ...

panavia999 said...

Terrierman, Your post is so full of common sense. The excellent advice "Never give a command (not a request) that you do not intend to get off the sofa to enforce!" is how I was raised.
I once knew a lady who had a dog from a shelter. She wouldn't discipline it. When it behaved badly- she wrung her hands and said it had once been abused! As a result it barked constantly and never obeyed -she said it was never trained. She reluctantly had to leave it with me for a week when she had to leave town. (No one else was willing and frankly, I wanted a chance to see if something could be done.) I am not a dog person. My experience is with horses. Most of all, while I refer to all my animals affectionately as "my children", I don't really think of them that way and I expect them to obey. I also think of animals in terms of the jobs they do. They are not just something warm and fuzzy. Anyway, within the week, I had that dog going on a leash; he knew sit, stay, heel and shake hands. I threw a can full of pennies at him when he barked inappropriately, he stopped quickly. In other words - there was nothing wrong that consistent feedback did not fix. He was confused by lack of firm hierarchy. After a week back home with his owner, he was right back to the same bad habits - because she did not have the resolve to do anything about the behavior. It was more important to feel good about herself rescuing that poor abused dog! She learned nothing from the dog. When she eventually had kids, they also became brats.

Linda Kaim said...

Thanks, Seahorse for the correction.

From the site:

1. the act of impelling or the state of being impelled
2. motion produced by an impulse; propulsion
3. a driving force; compulsion

Kali said...

This is a good post, although the missing point is that we need to define what "works" means, when we're talking about training methods.

It is completely correct to say that just about any consistent teaching method (say, Koehler or clicker) will result in the dog learning something.

WHAT he learns varies considerably between methods. In what way is it "working"? For some, "works" means the dog complies 90% of the time. Or 98% of the time. Or half the time. Or on leash. Or off leash. Or only when he expects a treat. Or only when he's wearing an ecollar. Or naked. Or whatever.

I always like to clarify to people exactly what I mean when I say, "Such-and-such a method does/does not work very well". Or ask what they mean when folks say, "I do whatever that works."

If you define "works" as reliable, single-command performance (and we're talking obedience here, not sheep herding) at liberty (off leash, in public, around distractions, and without batteries) well, then, your list of training methods that "work" gets very short indeed.

Unknown said...

Yes, as you imply, often people don't expect much of dogs and don't get it. It is remarkable what can be achieved if you expect a lot. For most people, I'd guess 'what works' is that the dog comes back most of the time you call, ie they don't expect 100 per cent compliance.

But you raise an interesting question when you mention sheep herding. Like do we want dogs that are 100 per cent obedient? I wouldn't. Dogs can sense some dangers we cannot. Sometimes they have very good reasons not to do what we say. In the case of blind people, it's obvious, the dog may see a pothole and disobey a command to walk ahead and into it because there is a higher directive, that the owner should stay alive. The dog is a junior partner, and is allowed to say 'no', because the dog understands that some rules (esp keep owner alive) override others.

Now to most dogs, we are not visually blind, but we are nose blind and virtually deaf. My old dog, Rugby, could single out the sound of his master's car from all others that pulled into the car park. He once sensed a fatal traffic accident before it happened. He heard a car was out of control, and refused to budge, and then there was an almighty crash.

We cannot always tell why dogs say 'no, I am not going to do what you want'. So how do you train a dog to respond to commands, but still leave space for that dog to tell you stuff you need to know? To use its brain in a way that helps create a partnership?

PBurns said...

Working sheep dogs and working terriers are not exactly "trained" in the obedience school way you are thinking.

Yes, basic comands are useful for all dogs, but the main thing you teach a sheep dog (other than left, right, drive back, drive forward, go out, etc., is to NOT do certain things, like grip a sheep (too often, at least), and bust them by pressing too hard. A sheepdog man is generally not whistling an aria or shouting a sermon. The dog may need only four or five commands over a very long drive, and some do not even need that.

Ditto for a working terrier.

My dogs face danger underground like I face traffic -- no real worries, and we can both think for ourselves even if we get in the occassional fender bender. That said, if my wife sends me to the store for milk, that does not mean go visit a bar in Cancun!

I will write more on training, since there seems to be an interest, but suffice it to say that there are only three moving parts to operant conditioning: reward, aversion, and extinction. All else is repetition, timing, chaining, and shaping.

I would no more salute a dog trainer who never used aversion than I would hire a builder who said he never used a square and a level. By the same token, I would never hire a builder who said he would build me a house with square and level alone. I can build a house with six tools, and I can train a dog with three, but I need them all. The fact that a square and level are only used a few times a day does not mean they are not important -- in fact, you do not have much of a house without them!


Kali said...

Yes, I know they are not the same kind of work, which is why I prefaced my comments about training and "what works" as being about obedience training, not specialized work. As someone who also had the pleasure of training a few Guide Dogs, I'm well aware that different "jobs" require different levels of "command response".

My way of thinking of it is that an obedience dog is generally concerned with respect for language, and command response. There are only a few ways in which the trainer can give a command and the dog can respond "grammatically", or coherently. With reasonable exceptions made for personal safety. In other words, we don't conflate "reliability" with "predictability". A RELIABLE dog is what we are after, and to be reliable does not mean that the dog can only respond intelligibly to a situation in only one way.

In comparison, a guide dog or a sheepdog is OBEDIENT TO TASK. Not to command, but to task. We are respecting that the dog is aware of things that the handler is not, and has a say in things. The handler may give a goofy command, or a ill-advised one, or a dangerous one, and the dog, whose understanding of THE WORK is developed above and beyond mere understand of stimulus-response type commands, is able to assess whether or not the handler is giving good advice, whether or not it makes sense to respond in the context of the overall goal. Hence, "intelligent disobedience."

Interestingly, when a blind handler is unsure whether the dog is not responding because of distraction/disobedience or for a good reason (safety), we instruct the handler to stop guidework and give the dog some stationary obedience commands (sit, down). If the dog responds promptly, then that tells you the problem isn't their focus or respect, and they should try to figure out what it is the dog is telling them about the environment that isn't safe. If the dog doesn't, then they should correct the dog accordingly, to regain focus and respect, then resume guidework.

In the case of a guide dog, not all dogs are capable of learning this high level of responsibility. It is also a very tenuous task to try to teach it. The difficulty is knowing whether the dog just doesn't have it/doesn't want it, or whether it was the trainer who failed to bring it out in the dog. Guidework may BEGIN as a matter of command response, but it must eventually shift to a more complete understanding of the work itself, in which the dog is obedient to the job and not just the handler's. Another way of saying it is that the commands become more like requests, or questions, rather than pure imperatives.

Yet the dog must also remember that it *is* a kind of imperative--that there are only a few "good" or acceptable reasons why "disobedience" (which is not really disobedience at all) is accepted. He can't opt out because he'd much rather smell the flowers.

Rachelle Williams said...

Brilliant way of explaining it. Training a dog is just like how we should eat - you need a little bit of everything to be healthy and happy. Too much of anything is not good and nor is too much punishment or even positive stuff for your dog. A little bit of punishment when needed and treats as well is definitely the way to go for dog and owner training