Training – Alternative views on the modification of canine behaviour

Animal Care College – caring for people caring for animals


As many of you will know, the Kennel Club has been developing an accreditation scheme for dog trainers and behaviourists for over two years.The scheme is excellent and comprehensive although it would be fair to say that is progress has not always been smooth and some feel it is much more complicated than it need be. I am not one of them – the accreditation of standards in any field is complex almost by definition – and I feel that those tasked with creating this award have done an excellent job and the first half dozen candidates have just been awarded their certification.

However, there are two issues that have to be addressed. The first appears to be almost solving itself in an entirely unexpected way. It is the question of how dogs are best trained or their behaviour modified. The problems have really arisen because I believe a false dichotomy that been created by the learning processes suggested by some (I emphasise ’some’) research questioning pack theory.  I am not disputing the findings per se because it shows an evolution in the way in which dogs behave that sounds reasonable and has been successfully demonstrated by many trainers.However, I am saying that other research does not back it up – sometimes partially and sometime completely.  If you go to and click on ‘what is applied canine behaviour’, you will find what I think is a reasonable summary of the ‘old’ perception.

At the same time, I have no problem with the views of Donaldson (both Jean and Ian), Prior, Kerkhove and others, except that their published material is scattered with statements such as ‘if true’, ‘may’, ’suggests’ and ’seems’.  You could probably put all those same qualifications into the work done by Lorenz, Trummler and their followers so there is no doubt that the understanding of canine behaviour is not an exact science.

My own view is pragmatic and does not depend on a ‘vision’, ‘research’ or opinion’.  Given that any successful methods employed to train dogs are ‘reasonable’ by any humanitarian standards it does not matter what the theoretical foundation is.  The philosophy and ideas are important, interesting – even fascinating (and should certainly be understood by those involved in any behavioural work) – but they may give rise to a number of approaches to problems of behaviour. But one approach does not necessarily wipe another from the face of the earth and so you would think there is little reason to get upset if there is any disagreement. Not so: most of the proponents of each view are evangelical in their condemnation of the others’ ideas

It seems to me that we have been confused into thinking that there is an enormous gulf between the “old” (harsh and brutal) method, which embraces pack hierarchy and dominance, and the “new” (modern, progressive and gentle) method, which rejects these ideas altogether. Why should we have to choose between one and the other if (and I emphasise ‘if’) both work within those humanitarian parameters on which we all agree?

There appears to be a feeling that if you do not embrace the ‘new’ you are automatically of the ’old’ and therefore are ‘harsh and brutal’. My experience reinforces my belief that this is simply not the case. You may argue that the ‘pack’ approach may give credibility to those who might be harsh and I would take the point if overall attitudes to training had not changed. No one (well, virtually no one) would return to the Barbara Woodhouse ‘school’ despite her methods being very successful.

The reason for all this detail is that as things stand we are not yet in a position to condemn anyone would feels that pack hierarchies provide a reasonable sensible basis for CBM and in our own advanced Canine Psychology course at the Animal Care College we state that serious problems my require ‘rank reduction techniques’ i.e. those based on pack theory.

I took up the dichotomy with Sue Evans who is responsible for the Kennel Club’s accreditation programme. A slow, secretive smile and satisfied smile surfaced. She told me that one of the most interesting aspects of the assessment process was that as assessors had not been ‘screened’ for their views on dog training, many had been assessing candidates from the ‘other’ approach. She said that their faces ‘were a picture’ as they realised that an approach they themselves would not have used and in fact, rejected, worked perfectly well.

This is excellent news. Clearly, the argument is not, as some have suggested, Creationists against Darwinists. In the case of training and behaviour modification there is genuine and palpable evidence on both sides of the argument: much more like two people looking out of the window and one concluding it might rain later and the other concluding that it might clear up and be sunny.

The second may be more difficult.

A recent survey carried out by Pet Plan has revealed that one in four Vets have treated animals, generally dogs, for conditions caused by the ingestion of drugs. Regular readers will remember that I expressed my concern on this issue a month or so back.

Part of the report reads:

‘Whilst mood-enhancing drugs such as cannabis rarely prove fatal for a pet, unpleasant side effects can include dizziness, vomiting and temporary loss of movement. The effects can last up to three or four days and throughout that time; veterinary monitoring is essential to ensure major organs don’t fail. As a result vets bills can run into many hundreds of pounds.’

There was no specific indication as to whether these drugs were introduced by their owners by accident or deliberately by other vets or behaviourists and the assumption in the report surmised accidental ingestion but the possibility that these drugs may have been introduced deliberately highlights once again what is becoming an increasing problem within the world of Canine Behaviour Modification (CBM).

As Studies Co-ordinator of the Animal Care College I have naturally taken an interest in what is going on in the world of CBM and my concern is that those who use psychotropic drugs to calm down unruly dogs either while they treat them for behaviour problems more conventionally or on a permanent basis, are not prepared to listen to the concerns of many experienced trainers, vets and, indeed, the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons. They have dug themselves into a trench to extent that they cannot see above the parapet (do trenches have parapets or is does it only apply to battlements?).

The Kennel Club must take a view on this matter in relation to their Accreditation Scheme because the recent culture of demanding stress free training (for some) often requires the administration of prescription drugs.

The panels set up under the Animal Welfare Bill, with its provision of a ‘duty of care’ responsibility to animals are now working on defining that duty as part of secondary legislation. I hope that this will give added impetus to the view that stress levels while dog are being trained should be kept as low as possible and that the used of prescription drugs will be seen only as a last resort rather than a catch all ‘quick fix’ solution. In the meantime, I understand that Royal College will be addressing all aspects of the psychotropic dug issue separately.

(January 2006)

One Comment on “Training – Alternative views on the modification of canine behaviour”

  1. What a sensible report. Thank you! I have worked in this industry many years. I am wading through the KC accreditation. Am a retired police handler. I embraced a lateral thinking attitude to dog training many years ago. I teach and preach positive reinforcement. I cannot deny the fact that ‘old school’ methods applied sensibly and sensitively DO WORK and work well. I myself recently and reluctantly recommended rank reduction programs to a couple of clients. THE WORKED! I have my own views as to why they do work, but these are my views and dont really matter – what matters is IT WORKS.

    I try to think not of myself, but of the client and the turmoil they are often in with an issue. Rather like use of force as a police officer trying to make an arrest. If it is necessary, proportionate, and can be later justified, then if all else is failing – use it!


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