Outdated Training Methods

Outdated training methods bug me. How do you feel about this?

Which Approaches Are Doomed?

The aversive trainers: There are a lot of trainers around the country, and especially new trainers, who base their entire program on using aversive methods. Their idea here is to suppress the dogs by primarily using aversive methods. I could describe the range of types I see, but if you look around you’ll identify them. Even the names of their businesses are often harsh and convey a no-nonsense tone that seems more vengeful than anything. None of these types of methods would ever create a type of working dog that any competitor or working dog organization would want or want to be affiliated with. I also don’t think most owners want that kind of result. I’ve seen these trainers make claims they can train any dog to do anything, which is absurd and dishonest. The “dog whisperers” are included in this group. This version is also an aversive method, all about dominance and submission, which attempts to prevent a dog from acting on its feelings. But you can only suppress a motivation for so long before it breaks out, and I’ve seen people who were injured because they tried this stuff. There is a lot more to what causes behavior than dominance and submission, and this approach, in my opinion, is a complete misunderstanding of dog behavior. A good training program isn’t aversive based. I propose the ratio of interactions of a good program would be at least 99% (or more) non-aversive, meaning fun, naturally motivating, affectionate and loved by the dog and owner. The aversives would be mild, primarily to guide the dog back to receiving all that fun and affection.

The good trainers began dumping the primarily aversive style training methods in the 1960’s and you should have done that by now, too. Up until about the mid-1960’s, training became more and more harsh. It got so bad that the top trainers started saying there had to be another way. They rightly viewed what they had been doing amounted to cruelty in many cases. You can’t say you love a dog, and then see yourself crushing and risking injuring that same dog.

The “force free” movement: Some in the movement are so radical as to say it is cruel to ever tell a dog “No” or impede a dog from making any kind of choices to do anything. This can make some dogs very dangerous indeed. I’ve seen people who even question whether it is humane to put a leash on a dog or to even touch a dog to teach them anything. Unfortunately, this “all positive” training approach has become almost a cult and is harming dogs every day. Extreme examples are trainers that make their dogs live in a totally controlled environment to prevent them from ever making a mistake or living any kind of normal life. These methods can superficially seem to work well for very controllable and obedient breeds but fail when dealing with normal dogs in off leash situations or dogs that are highly aggressive by nature. They then refer those cases to the veterinarians for drugs. Not a very good solution. They don’t really understand, or care to understand, the underlying mechanisms of natural animal behavior. They are too heavily into entertaining dogs and inappropriately using environmental enrichment methods. They are tightly in the behaviorism camp and don’t see that a lot of what they are doing is stressful and aversive, though they would deny that. Some of them are from the far extremes of the animal rights movement with the ultimate goal of the extinction of all domesticated animals. The animal rescue community is at risk of becoming a thrall to this extreme agenda. Trainers are warning that this approach, regardless of the intentions of those who preach it, endangers all domesticated dogs.

The “balanced trainers”: They claim to have fixed the “force free” problems by adding in aversives, but they are still stuck in the radical behaviorism camp, not understanding or applying methods that address the natural causes of behavior. They are still devising solutions, now with both positive reinforcements and aversive consequences, to force dogs to do things. They are partly right to abandon the purely positive methods. They are wrong because they aren’t putting all the pieces together properly.

The “medical method” of behavior modification: this is a school of behavior modification which started to become popular in the mid-1990’s when it became increasingly more accepted to use drugs to alter behavior rather than training, and if any training was to be done, it had to be done using either classical or operant conditioning modes such as using clickers and restraints such as head collars and harnesses. The veterinary community has increasingly bought into this model and has a financial interest to medicate behavioral problems. These people claim they are the only ones who should work with any pet with a behavioral issue, rather than realizing they should be a last resort because the problem is primarily a medical problem. I’ve worked with dogs that were having behavior problems that were the result of medical problems, and have referred them to a veterinarian for treatment. But it is absurd to assume dogs should be trucked off to the vet to get a drug to fix a problem. This is also done by people who use “natural” cures, such as plant extracts, to medicate behaviors. This is also the wrong approach.

The operant conditioning crowd: Behaviorism, an experimental branch for studying behavior, started being the focus of animal behavior starting around 1913 with the work of those like John B. Watson, and then leading to “radical behaviorism” by B. F. Skinner. Animals were viewed as programmable machines, and feelings and motivations became irrelevant in their eyes. This approach was building in 1880’s as the scientific community received funding for experiments on animals, mostly for medical research. Pavlov comes to mind. Experiments also started being done to understand the differences between nature vs nurture regarding animal behavior. A backlash started as a reaction to how these animals were treated in the laboratories. Read about these early experiments: what was gained by science was at the cost of great cruelty to the animals used. The anti-vivisectionist movement grew as a backlash alongside the experiments done on animals, and even the first legislation to protect animals in modern societies started going into effect by the mid-1880’s. I’ve debated people who still believe dogs don’t have feelings, and if dogs do, it really doesn’t matter. These people don’t understand dog behavior.

The “breeders” model: Along the way, dogs were increasingly bred to naturally do tasks so that they could do those jobs with little training at all. Each of the breeds we know of was created to do and be a certain way through selective breeding. The main advantage of creating breeds was that it didn’t take much knowledge to get a hound to tree a big cat, a bull breed to catch something like a hog, a pointer to find and indicate hiding birds, a herding dog to work sheep, a flock guard to protect livestock, a mastiff to guard your property or to be a war dog, a fluffy little dog to be a companion, or a sighthound to chase and kill some kind of prey. Genetics motivated the dogs do what they did. You didn’t need to know a lot about training. Eventually, that kind of thing sparked the interests of naturalists. Charles Darwin, for example, was writing in 1859 about the behavioral characteristics of wild and domestic animals and tried to explain how those traits were inherited and to define their functions for survival. But, just buying this breed or that doesn’t mean things are going to magically just turn out well, or that you can ignore how the dog was bred and turn it into anything you want it to be. The German Shepherd was created by Max von Stephanitz in 1899. War dog training became a thing, especially during WWI, and then again in WW2. War dogs had begun to be created, and war dog training was being systematized to allow soldiers to follow a formula to get a working dog into the field. You didn’t have to be a dog expert to follow a step-by-step program, and you needed to breed a dog that fit that program well enough to be able to be deployed even if you didn’t care about the welfare of the dogs. War dogs were also used in the Korean War and Vietnam war. But they were also treated as expendable tools and often eliminated or left behind to die when the wars were over.

Everyone needs to learn the lessons of history.

A very long time ago, wild animals were domesticated. Thousands of years ago, people began recognizing the morality of treating animals well and you see that reflected in many religious texts. People have known for a long time that animals deserve to not be cruelly treated. And even then, they recognized that people needed to be held responsible for what their animals did.

Dog trainers, looking for a way out of the harsh methods and for better results, in the mid 1960’s were starting to connect what they knew with what the scientific literature had been revealing about animal behavior and learning. You then started seeing more and more trainers talking about “drives”, those internal motivations that compel a dog to do this or that behavior. At first, this shift in viewpoint was considered heretical, but started catching on. We started getting a melding of inbred genetic behaviors with the scientific principles of learning.

I got started in the mid 1980’s as this transition from traditional training to include food luring methods. I quit some classes I was taking back then, however, because I felt some of the aversive methods were too harsh and I wasn’t going to do that to my dog. No one told me to do that, it was my gut that told me to move along. Something wasn’t right. I later learned the limitations of clickers, electric collars, and a lot of other training methods. All of that changed me over the years.

What is now emerging is a more holistic group of trainers who are trying to take all of this into account to take advantage of a dog’s inborn traits and humanely guiding them to do desirable behaviors using sophisticated learning theories. There is now a place for considering natural behaviors and incorporating the concepts of behavior that are being discussed in academic circles. There is a place for using classical and operant conditioning and all 4 quadrants of behavior. Sometimes medication is a useful direction, but not very frequently. And the academic community is also now starting to respect the results and opinions of those who train dogs for sport and a living instead of scorning them. Results are now being validated by everyone. The training is more humane, effective, and I hope it stops being pulled to the obsolete extremes. This new direction has been percolating along for nearly 25 years. This is the future, right here, right now. Lots of lessons have been learned, there no need to go back and learn them all over again and harm more dogs along the way.

Intro Video