Dog Training – the basics are not rocket science

The Animal Care College – caring for people caring for animals

Being deeply knowledgeable on one subject narrows one’s focus and increases confidence, but it also blurs dissenting views until they are no longer visible, thereby transforming data collection into bias confirmation and morphing self-deception into self-assurance-  Michael Shermer (American science writer and founder of the Sceptics Society)

Along with others far more experienced than me, I have been writing about the importance of training dogs properly for many years because the evidence is that proper socialisation and training, if implemented, would reduce the incidence of dog bites dramatically. But there is no doubt that we have not been shouting loud enough.  Those who may appear to be very knowledgeable about canine psychology and behaviour sometimes deliberately distort, misapply or simply misunderstand its implications and, furthermore, are prepared to swallow misleading and disingenuous ideas from those who are perceived to be leaders or researchers in the field.  Training a dog to become what the Kennel Club has established as a ‘good citizen’ becomes secondary to the application of fancy theories.  I am sorry that this article may be teaching you about sucking eggs but I would ask that you try to spread the word among your friends in dogs who may not be so experienced.

I opened a magazine last week which is published by specialists in canine and animal care to find that their training adviser was peddling (among other inaccurate and biased information) a totally pointless and useless technique in answer to a question about a dog which had got into the habit of biting ankles.  This lady apparently holds a BSc (Hons) in canine behaviour and training and is also a full member of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers, the Association of Professional Dog Trainers and the Pet Professional Guild: she should know better.  Someone has brainwashed her or she is completely self-deluded.  The first sentence works and is accurate when she says ‘nipping and play biting are a natural part of the puppy’s development’ but it is all down downhill from there.  She is partly right in that she says you need to distract the puppy and it is from this point that she shows a serious misinterpretation of canine psychology.

Most puppies and dogs not specifically bred to be aggressive want to please.  They are sensitive to humans (once again I advocate the excellent book, Genius Dogs by Brian Hare and Vanessa Woods – an excellent Christmas present for anyone who has not read it) and quickly respond to treats, tickles and cuddles.  Incidentally, recent research indicates that most dogs, in fact, prefer tickles and cuddles to treats so you might remember that over the Christmas and New Year period when the temptation to give your dog is a little extra is most difficult to overcome.  That aside what this lady next says is ‘you need to channel your puppy’s behaviour into an alternative activity such playing with a toys’.  Think about it: the puppy is nipping an ankle, chewing an electric cable or barking for no reason – all perfectly natural and, for the dog, pleasurable behaviours.  What is this lady suggesting?  Provide an alternatively ‘more pleasurable’ activity.  Given the way that dogs learn the puppy’s response is quite naturally, ‘If I nip, chew or bark or do anything else that my owner does not want, I get attention, I get to play, I get rewarded – let’s do it some more!’

If the owner has consulted a trainer who takes this approach which, of course, does not work, they explain that this is a really difficult problem which only somebody with a BSc (Hons) degree and membership of posh organisations can solve.  It is good business: the trainer gets more one-to-one training sessions for their ‘usual fee’.

This lady goes on to suggest that the way to discourage unwanted behaviour is to adopt a ‘zero tolerance approach’.  This sounds good but involves not reacting in any way to the unwanted behaviour: she says, ‘Do not develop or shout of flap ankles but stop playing and withdraw attention for a few seconds’,  i.e allow the dog to continue the unwanted behaviour which, of course, it will do because it is natural and it enjoys it.  She goes on to say, ‘If your puppy continues, try to keep calm, move away slowly and the split-second she is calm offer the toy and resume the game’.  I am not suggesting that this approach cannot work but it is time-consuming (perhaps deliberately – see the sentence regarding ‘fees’ above) and is certainly the hard way.

Positive Reinforcement is the right way to train dogs

Now the principle of what is called positive reinforcement is perfectly sound and, in fact, this is the way all dogs should be taught to do things.  If you watch the great trainers such as Mary Ray, who uses positive reinforcement to give their dog instructions via quiet commands, subtle movements and clicks of their fingers, you can quickly appreciate the immense flexibility of the canine mind and a dog’s ability to remember and demonstrate a long string of commands under immense stress from music, lights and audience.  These building blocks of behaviour are carefully constructed by providing the dog with enjoyable things to do and rewarding and reinforcing the activity effectively.

But positive reinforcement is irrelevant if you want to train a dog not to do something.  The opposite of positive reinforcement, as I am sure you will know, is ‘negative’ reinforcement.  Highfalutin’, ivory tower trainers and canine behaviourists will be able to explain to you what happens in a dogs mind when they are pursuing a pleasurable activity and although that is interesting in itself, the practical processes and techniques of good canine citizenship are not rocket science.  And it is not about cruelty, pack discipline, alpha roles and the like but about common sense and providing a less pleasurable experience when a dog is doing something you do not want it to do.  Please emphasise to anyone with whom you come into contact and is trying to train their puppy, that any negative reinforcement has to be at the time the behaviour is being exhibited: there is no point otherwise for the dog will simply remember that you are providing a non-pleasurable experience for no reason.  The result will be suspicion, caution and distrust.

The alternative to unwanted behaviour must be less pleasurable

So when a dog or puppy is exhibiting unwanted behaviour: going too close to the edge of a cliff, beginning to nibble at an electric cable or nipping someone’s ankles, the response has to be something that he or she finds less pleasurable than the activity.  In the nest, the puppy’s dam will give a low growl to stop unwanted behaviour and if it continues will give a sharp nip to the offender.  It learns quickly and stops the behaviour.  As a human you can give a very loud, sharp ‘No’, clap your hands or even give the low ‘growl’ yourself.  All three work equally well.

Another unwanted behaviour is when a puppy or dog jumps up at you or a guest in welcome.  The natural reflex is to give the dog a stroke and say how pleased you are to see him.  This rewards the behaviour so your dog is encouraged to do it: and the more it does it the more the behaviour becomes habitual and the more difficult it is to stop it.  But you can stop it: each time it happens just move one foot forward and place your toe gently on one of its back feet.  You do not have to hurt the dog: you are not punishing it – it is simply to put him off balance so that he drops back onto his four paws.  Then you stroke and praise him so that a new habit is established: that is of coming up to you to say ‘hello’ and waiting for you to drop down and give him a stroke.

Why can’t these simple processes be understood by otherwise intelligent people?  Perhaps one qualification to be a dog trainer or canine behaviourist is that they should have actually bred a litter so they have had a chance to observe the way in which the dam disciplines her puppies.

Some better ideas but still a nod to self-deception

The lady in question is a little more sensible regarding the problem of fireworks.  I am personally against chemical intervention using drugs (or what are disingenuous called ‘calming remedies’) because I think training which allows the dog to be assured and self-confident is a better alternative, but there is a place under some special circumstances for drug-related therapies under the careful and understanding supervision of an experienced veterinary surgeon.

But she also throws in the idea of ‘homoeopathic’ remedies and I find this disturbing.  Currently, all the research tells us that homeopathy does not have any scientific basis although taking into account the placebo effect which can be beneficial for many humans; the concept is not entirely relevant.  But it is entirely irrelevant for dogs as they have only a very limited sense of non-stimulated anticipation.  They can and are certainly affected by ‘tender loving care’ when they are ill, upset or anxious and this is by far the best approach: dosing with an unproven (and I almost certainly expensive) medication can make no difference at all.

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