Friday, March 02, 2012

The Lassie Method of Dog Training

Rudd Weatherwax was the owner and trainer of Lassie, and back in 1971 he published a very basic dog training book called "The Lassie Method:  Raising & Training Your Dog With Patience, Firmness & Love."

Unlike Victoria Stilwell, who leaned dog training from a correspondence school course and thrust herself out there as an expert when she did not even own a dog, Rudd Weatherwax started training dogs professionally as a boy in the 1920s, moving on to train the famous terrier Asta used in the Thin Man movie series staring William Powell and Myrna Loy.

Weatherwax grew up on a working ranch in New Mexico where collies were used to herd 3,500 Angora goats. When his family moved to Los Angeles in 1917, the first dog that the young Weatherwax got and trained was a Fox Terrier that showed up at his back door one day. That dog went on to star in movies, and the young Weatherwax himself began to apprentice with Hollywood animal trainer Henry East.

Rudd Weatherwax went on to train the dogs used in Old Yeller, the Dog of Flanders, Hondo, and many other movies including the Lassie movies and television series, all of which featured male dogs (which generally have better coats and better heads than females).

So how did Rudd Weatherwax train dogs? With a great deal of affection, of course. But also, as the book title suggests, with patience and firmness.

Weatherwax's book is pretty basic, and as a consequence it focuses on the kind of dog training that is known to work and has been proven to work by real dog handlers for generations. Weatherwax was not too enamored with fancy equipment, and he was not shy about telling a dog NO in a way that the dog understood but was also far from abusive. And, to be clear, Weatherwax was just fine with food rewards as well. Weatherwax, you see, was interested in what worked, and it turns out quite a lot of stuff does!

And guess what? Rudd Weatherwax trained Lassie with a simple slip collar or "choke chain" as seen below.

Of course, this is not too surprising.

A million happy and healthy dogs over a 1,000 years have been successfully trained with slip collars and "choke chains" and most dog trainers still use them today. As I noted in a recent article,

I would be wary of any dog trainer that says compulsion has no place in the world of dog training.

At its simplest, dog training is simply getting a dog to do what it will not do naturally and on your schedule, whether that is an entirely artificial act such as running weave poles or retrieving a shot bird to hand, or not chasing a cat or barking at the mailman...

In short, collars and leashes have a place in every training regime, as does both positive reward and certain level of compulsion.

If someone comes along and tells you otherwise, be extremely wary.

And if that same someone tells you everyone else has been doing it wrong for 2,000 years, walk away in the opposite direction.

Nothing good ever started with a lie.


geonni banner said...

This is a wonderful book. I've had it since it came out as a promo item in the ad campaign to sell Lassie brand dog food.
Common sense, well applied. It works.

Jenny Glen said...

I was given this book as a child!
FYI, Spike, the dog in Dog of Flanders was also Old Yeller and was trained by Rudd's brother, Frank.

TeamDog said...

I thought William Koehler trained Asta for "Thin Man". Unless I am mistaken, he says so in his book.
Anyways, another great post!

PBurns said...

Frank was Rudd's older brother, and they trained dogs together (see p 9 of the book) and it's sometimes hard to know where one starts and the other starts. It might be best to talk about the Weatherwax Family of dog trainers as the IACP does. See >> Weatherwax

Asta was a dog by the name of Skippy who was owned by Henry East and trained by Henry East, Rudd Weatherwax, and Frank Inn who later went on to become a rather famous animal trainer himself. See this IACP profile >> There is a picture of Rudd Weatherwax training Asta/Skippy on page 6 of the book.

Koelher got his start in dog training in World War II and Asta (a Fox Terrier named Skippy) was dead by then. William (Bill) Koelher also has his own page over at the IACP web site. >>

Chas Clifton said...

And here I always thought that Weatherwax was a surname invented by Terry Pratchett.