Thirty years ago, I trained my first dog, a golden retriever
named Tara. She participated in obedience competitions and was
awarded “Dog World” scores, meaning that in three
separate trials she scored over 195 points out of a possible 200.
Competition trials measure precise response and performance in
various exercises including sit, down, stay, come-when-called
and heel. Like many dogs at the time, she wore a choke collar,
and was trained with leash corrections. She was occasionally reprimanded
by being shaken or pinned to the ground. No treats were ever used;
there was, however, an abundance of praise. Over the next fifteen
years, I taught thousands of people to train their dogs using
these methods. The basic message was: “Do what I want and
be rewarded with praise and petting, or suffer the consequences
of being jerked, shaken or pinned to the ground.” Tara certainly
“obeyed,” but she and I paid a price.
Trainers who use a combination of the negative and positive methods
outlined above are sometimes referred to as traditional or “balance
trainers.” Traditional training uses physical punishment
as well as rewards to shape behavior. Praise, petting and life
rewards (getting to chase a ball, go for a ride, tug a toy, etc.)
are employed by many of these trainers, but choke, prong or shock
collars are also frequently used and methods can include jerking
the dog, pinning him to the ground and “scruff shakes.”
Traditional trainers represent the vast majority of trainers in
the world today. Three decades ago, I was one myself.
Negative trainers use severely abusive methods. These can include
hitting (including the use of fists, newspapers, rubber hoses),
kicking, extreme shocking, biting (both by the trainer and/or
another dog), hanging the dog or holding him underwater until
unconscious, and ear pinching. Many people, desperate to change
their dog's behavior, feel that negative training is the only
way to get him to obey. It is not. This brings us to the third
group, the positive trainers.
The gentle touch
Over the past two decades, leading behaviorists and experts all
over the world have been practicing a kinder, gentler approach
to training even the most severely aggressive and frightened animals.
Positive trainers use treats, praise, life rewards and affection
almost exclusively. None of the physically aversive methods of
traditional or negative training are ever used. But can positive
training be effective, especially with difficult dogs and severe
cases of aggression?
I stopped using negative methods over 15 years ago, and 50 percent
of my practice deals with moderate-to-severe cases of aggression.
Having trained thousands of dogs with both positive and negative
methods, I have concluded that positive methods are not only more
effective, they are safer, more humane and far less stressful
for both dogs and humans.
Science seems to agree. A 2004 scientific study by the Department
of Clinical Veterinary Science at the University of Bristol is
one of several that strongly supports the value of positive training
over punishment: “Because reward-based methods are associated
with higher levels of obedience and fewer problematic behaviors,
we suggest that their use is a more effective and welfare-compatible
alternative to punishment for the average dog owner.” *
Why does positive training work?
How we train and interact with our animals is directly linked
to how we interact with each other. Numerous studies have connected
violent behavior toward animals with human-to-human violence.
The reverse is also trued. Positive interactions with animals
promote physical and emotional health and safety in human relationships.
Compassion, patience and consistency are used in the educational
process. Positive trainers recognize every dog is different and
learns at his or her own speed. They formulate programs to suit
the physical and emotional limits of each dog. Many things affect
a dog's behavior and reliability. These include breed, age, history,
health, the trainer's consistency and skill., etc.
For example, although a young puppy can learn most any behavior
in a few short sessions, behavioral reliability cannot be achieved
until the dog reaches emotional maturity, which normally happens
between one and one-half and four years of age.
Discipline is the key to the effectiveness of positive training.
Positive trainers all use the NILIF leadership model: Nothing
in Life is Free. Reliability is the goal, and training is strict,
but is also fun. The message to the dog is this: I will never
hit, kick, shock, shake or otherwise abuse you. But, if you want
anything, you must do something for me first. Want to get petted?
Sit. Want to go outside? Lie down. Want to say hello to another
dog? Stay until I release you. Want to chase a ball? Go to your
bed until I say “okay.”
Positive training also sets you and your dog up for success and
safety. It makes positive associations so the dog looks at life
as something friendly, thereby removing the need to be competitive
or aggressive. Finally, positive training increases behavioral
reliability through a strict but scientifically proven leadership
program. You begin training at the point your dog is successful
and step-by-step build to the point of reliability you have set
as your goal.
This brief overview illustrates how positive training might be
used to shape the beginning steps of a reliable “come-when-called”.
Start in a non-distracting environment. Rub the smell of a treat
on your finger. Place your finger one inch from your dog's nose
and say “come.” As soon as your dog touches your target
finger, praise and give a treat from your other hand. Repeat this
process, each time adding more distance, an inch at a time. This
method is called targeting. In essence you are saying to your
dog, “if you touch my finger with your nose, I will reward
you.” This translates to “come.” Have family
members and friends also practice, but each time someone new tries,
that person should start from one inch away, just as you did.
The rule is this: “If your dog won't do what you want her
to do, go back to the point where she was last successful.”
Practice saying the word one time only. Give your dog up to 30
seconds to figure it out. If she's doesn't, return to the distance
where she was last successful and incrementally add more distance.
When your dog gets top the point where he will run across the
room and touch your finger as soon as you put it down by your
side, add more challenges. The are referred to as the 3 D's, and
stand for duration, (length of time), distance and distractions.
In our example, we are adding distance with a little bit of distraction.
Show your dog the treat, then give it to a friend or family member
to hold. Now put your hand one inch from the dog's nose and say
come, as you practiced before. As soon as your dog turns his head
to touch your finger, say “good” and have your friend
stick a treat in your dog's mouth as quickly as possible. Make
sure your hand is only one inch away and your friend is holding
the treat at least a foot away, on his chest for example. Gradually
add more distance so your dog has to walk ten feet away and each
time return to your friend to be rewarded. It's like a Zen koan:
“to get the treat, he must leave the treat.” When
your dog does this successfully, he is now at the sixth grade
level for “come-when-called”.
If you expect your dog to turn on a dime when you call, even when
she is 40 yards away, or running at full speed after a squirrel,
you will need to take her through the canine equivalent of elementary
school, then high school, college, and finally to the PhD level
this response represents.
Positive training is a step-by step process. It is made effective
If you decide to use a trainer trainer, ask to
observe a class and see what methods he employs. Observe how he
speaks to the handlers. If a handler or dog is confused, listen
and watch to see if the trainer offers optional techniques, encouragement
and patience. If a trainer says you cannot watch while he trains,
I suggest you take your dog and run the other way.