What is Sam The Dog Trainer’s Method?

One important question every dog trainer receives is “what is your method?” That is important because the behavior you want from your dog will reflect the training and experiences the dog will be encountering in the program.

My method is to improve a dog’s emotions and behaviors to want to do adaptive behaviors that are pleasant and safe for the dog and the owner. 

Thus, I’m first determining if what we are going to ask of the dog will make the dog fit well with that dog in their living environment. I understand dog behavior and dog breeds and their tendencies. That knowledge tells me what drives their behaviors and opens the door to understand them and “speak” to them. That’s why on the first appointment, I thoroughly go over the dog’s background, owner’s goals, and whatever prompted the owner to contact me. For example, I need to assess if the owner’s goal is achievable and humane for that dog. Let’s say someone owns a Bloodhound and they want the dog to be a top agility dog, I already know that kind of work will be miserable for the dog. If a dog is a watchdog, and the owner wants that dog to love everyone in every situation, the suppressing of all barking and suspicion and confrontation and investigative behaviors could very possibly make that dog neurotic and could damage that dog’s health through stress. I can’t make a terrier into a sighthound. I can’t make a protection bred dog into a love bug. I can’t make a pit bull not be a pit bull. And no one else can and no one else should. There are trainers out there that promise their programs can make a dog do things that can’t be done. You can break a dog down, just crush them, to force them to be something they are not. I had someone call me several years ago who had 2 Irish Wolfhounds. He wanted those dogs to be obedient like trained agility dogs, and to protect his home like a couple of Malinois. I told him that wasn’t fair to the dogs. He never hired me. I’m guessing he found someone. I feel sorry for whatever happened. Good training meshes with the baked in genetics and early socialization experiences of each dog. Some things are malleable, and some things aren’t.

Next, in many situations, you will find I will use some clever ways to get your dog to do the desired behaviors. I study a lot and look for good ways to train dogs of all types and will fit something that matches your dog and your lifestyle. Thus, I just started a 14-week-old French Bulldog this past week. We’ve started on a formal house-training program, because the owner plans on traveling with this dog around the country and needs a dog that can potty anywhere when needed, such as on a potty pad at her feet on a commercial flight. Next, the dog will be incorporated into her lecture circuit, so we introduced retrieving a dumbbell to lay the foundation for future tricks and tasks. We started on a Go (send away) command so the dog can be sent to a Place on stage to wait for a cue from the owner to demonstrate something to the audience. And we started loose leash walking to lay a future foundation for working around distractions. French Bulldogs are inquisitive problem solvers, so I take advantage of that to motivate him. But, going back to the first point, I won’t try to turn this French Bulldog into behaving like a different breed. You can be the most clever dog trainer on the planet, and whether you use positive reinforcements or aversive methods, you aren’t ever going to be clever enough to overcome that dog’s genetics.

Next, I arrange the work to get the dog in the right emotional state. This is where I depart from many trainers because the talk of emotional states leads to conversations about whether dogs are emotional creatures, or if we should even care what they feel or want or what drives them to do this or that. I really don’t feel many people understand what it means when someone proclaims, “science says.” “Science” is a very limited way of looking at any animal or person because true science must assume determinism, focusing purely on measurable methodological behaviorism without interpreting WHY a behavior happens. Scientific papers will avoid terms like feelings, wants, drives and such because they can’t be measured in a laboratory experiment. All top trainers read science papers, but since they also have to apply this to living animals, they also know the secret sauce for top performance is interpreting and tapping into how a dog feels. Ethicists, and even religious people, judge whether a method should or should not be deployed based upon whether the methods would be considered to be cruel, but those determinations fall outside of science. Good trainers have a moral code regarding animal welfare, and I wouldn’t let any trainer work with my dog if our values didn’t match up sufficiently. Feelings and drives are the HARDEST part of dog behavior to be deciphered, because we have limited information and a lot needs to learned through direct experience over many years and many situations, and science is a LONG WAY away from being able to understand and quantify them, either from the top down observations of animal interactions or from the bottom up looking at the neurology. But, an evaluation of feelings and drives have to be part of any good program, and getting good results requires understanding these intangibles. For example, I’m working with a Jack Russell terrier. She was teased as a puppy to growl, but that wasn’t in any way smart to do, or fun for that dog. Now, it has bitten that person because that dog doesn’t completely trust that person. This dog doesn’t always want to be touched by people it knows as a result, except by the owner. The dog is guarding some places in the home and guarding some toys and other things. The dog also gets nervous around crowds and during introductions to strangers. The dog reacts to seeing other dogs in public. And the dog is obsessed at trying to find rabbits on a walk. Each of these emotional states must be modified so the dog can still be a Jack Russell terrier, but not activate these feelings which are driving these behaviors. Thus, the training we are doing needs to be personal to get the best results. 

What about the use of positive reinforcement methods vs aversive methods?  

Let’s begin at the fringes, at the extremes on either side. For some trainers, the answer to all problems is suppression through some form and intensity of discomfort. For others, the answer is to always severely restrict that dog’s freedom and only use positive reinforcers. These approaches are too mechanical and miss a lot about animal behavior.

Here’s how I view things and approach these types of problems. 

Look at bowling. Bowling has rules and rewards and penalties. But it is still fun. If you roll the ball down the middle, your ball hits the bowling pins, and you score. That’s a good thing. That result is positive reinforcement and will make you want to do that again. The scores are variable, so there are structured valued outcomes for this result vs that result. If your ball goes too far left or right, it goes in the gutter. That’s a bad thing. That is negative reinforcement, and makes you not want to do it that way again. However, no one has a mental breakdown because they got gutter balls. In fact, the only way to get good is to practice enough to put more balls down the middle and at the same time avoiding the consequences of getting gutter balls. So, aversives are in every game you play, and you learn the rules, rewards and the punishments don’t amount to torture and they don’t break you down. In the same way, a good dog training program can can create rewards, tiers of valued rewards, rules, and mental safety barriers for a dog if you do it right.

Or here’s another example, what keeps you on the sidewalk and prevents you from stepping into traffic? First, it is reward for reaching your destination. Second, it is your perception of the relative value of being there versus doing some other activity. And it is the negative reinforcement you learned as a kid that you could be hit by a car, so you learned the rules of when to not step off the curb into traffic because that would defeat your end goal of getting your reward at the final destination. You aren’t afraid of walking on a sidewalk because you learned that. That sidewalk is a safety barrier, you get that and those nasty cars going by are no bother to you because you understand the rules.

Thus, rewards, rules, various values of reward, and aversives work together to get a good result if they are applied consistently.

But what happens if you have all positives and at the same time remove aversives and never have any rules? Once aversives and rules go away, unless the behaviors and feelings are sufficiently positively reinforced, the person or dog will go right back to doing the undesired behavior. If you can now get points even if your bowling ball ends up in the gutter you won’t care how the ball goes down the lane, or if modern cars can never again hurt you if you stepped into the street eventually you wouldn’t just walk only on sidewalks and you’d go into traffic without a care in the world.

Thus, unless an aversive consequence can consistently be used to keep you in your lane and keep you moving along then once the dog figures out the aversive won’t happen, they will go back to the original thing that was driving them to do the original behavior. That’s why trainers who base their entire program around using electric collars try to sell you one, and you will then need to use it for the life of the dog, because once the collars are no longer used, the undesired behaviors will crop back up. They have to keep forcing the dog to do the behaviors because there isn’t anything else to fall back on. There’s not enough reason to keep doing the desired behavior. That’s the same reason I don’t advise bark collars, because once they are off, the dog can discover they can bark again, and the barking will come back. This is also why I oppose the so-called “dog whisperer” methods, because they are all emotionally aversive and don’t really focus on teaching a dog what to do and to like doing it. I don’t think this type of intimidation training is humane or safe. Social groups of animals, regardless of the species, don’t behave this way to each other. I’ve met people who ended up in the hospital trying this stuff when the dogs retaliated out of fear or aggression. Furthermore, training that is mostly aversive saps a dog’s attitude over time, and it isn’t a winning picture in the obedience competition nor a happy attitude in everyday life. No one is harmed because they learned from their parents that they shouldn’t step into traffic. But people and dogs are harmed when life is slavery.

But, on the other hand, what about trainers who only use positive reinforcements? In many ways, these trainers look like they excel at what they do and are the most humane… in controlled environments. However, their approach isn’t one I would do, teach, or endorse. For example, imagine me telling students their dogs could only lead an extremely controlled life. Imagine your dog lives in a pen unless being trained. Once your dog is obedient in a bare room, then it can have supervised access to the living room, then a controlled yard, and on and on. Your dog’s life would be so tightly controlled it would make your dog neurotic, and possibly damage their health. It would also make your life miserable, never being able to take your eyes off your dog or letting your dog just be a dog. These trainers will claim they can get complete off leash control this way using only positive reinforcement, just like dolphins in captivity. In captivity… living in a controlled box isn’t living, it is just surviving. I think that is manipulative and cruel. 

Then the big problem happens. Once a dog gets a sample of chasing a prey animal in public, or engaging in an aggressive encounter, that experience isn’t going to be forgotten. Once the natural environment competes with whatever artificial positive reinforcers used to train the behaviors, there is going to be a problem these trainers can’t solve. Then you’ll end up with a happy dog, thinking all is wonderful and fulfilling, until your dog starts running after a chipmunk right over the cliff. Or a dog that can’t be called off the next dog fight or bite and someone or some animal gets seriously hurt. You haven’t built in the ability to suppress what your dog is doing and you are fooling yourself that you have completed the necessary training.

My approach, my method is to get your dog, as much as possible, wanting to do the desired behaviors long term, using and enforcing some rules in ways that don’t distress your dog, and for those behaviors and emotions to be durable into the future while still living a normal life. All of this is cultured within the boundaries of the breeding of the dog. As we work more together, you’ll see that what I do is not a cookbook method. A dog isn’t a robot. I use my intuition to guide a dog along and apply principles to address concepts of costs and benefits to the dog.

I have several tools that I use, and they might not be the ones you expected to hear about. First, is the development of a good relationship with your dog. You’ll need to do that, as well. Dogs are social creatures and we don’t want to engage in any kind of training program that resembles brainwashing through severe restrictions and controls. Pure Operant Conditioning isn’t dog training, it is a learning theory. Whether it is good for you or your dog depends upon how it is applied, but being dogmatic and ignoring huge aspects of why animals do what they do will probably wreck your dog. You must create a social relationship with your dog that is mutually good for the both of you. You also have to accept that your dog has adopted someone’s bad habits, either from the previous owner or from you. It’s now your responsibility to change that. Next, we need some technical tools that behaviorists refer to as the “4 quadrants”of behavioral consequences. In simple terms, two of them increase the frequency of behaviors and two decrease the frequency of behaviors. Some dog breeds, and specific dogs, respond better to more emphasis on one or more of these quadrants. We have to figure that out for your dog. No two dogs or dog breeds are exactly alike and so they can’t all be made to train the same way. Animals engage in recognized categories of behaviors that either encourage or inhibit their mutual relationship behaviors. What might be a good strategy for one dog might be the wrong one for another. Life experiences, and the age of when those experiences happen, can also greatly affect a lot of other things dogs might do. Our job is to provide those life experiences for the benefit of your dog at the right time and in the right way. Another tool I use is defining what will constitute success, and then tying that to a customized program that will achieve that result, in the short and long term.

Putting this all together, I involve the owners from beginning to end in the training of their dog. Lessons are given to offer “just right” challenges each session to make consistent progress over time, and to build good habits. One big problem with trainers who have their “secret” methods, or who offer board and train programs is the results aren’t durable because the owners can’t pick up where the trainers left off, even if the methods were correctly applied. The owners haven’t built any good habits and skills. Every handler makes mistakes, and you can’t drop off a perfectly trained dog with someone who doesn’t know what they are doing and expect the dog to remain perfectly trained. Skills have to be earned. There is no way around that.

So, hopefully, you now understand my method.

Intro Video