Training – How puppies learn

Animal Care College – caring for people caring for animals


In the last thirty-five years my wife and I have owned many dogs. The whole idea was hers so I take no responsibility for what has happened since. Our first was a Finnish Spitz puppy we called Kirri. Her ‘proper name was Cullabine Greta and she became a champion. As an aside I would emphasise that we were absolute novices so it just goes to show that if you have a good dog you can win – although I accept this is much more difficult in breeds such as Golden Retrievers.

Soon after, another bitch joined Kirri and since then our household always had several dogs (ten was the maximum, I think) until we downsized and only one remained. She was already five and well behaved but, sadly, died of cancer eighteen months ago when she was only eight years old. It was a great shock to both of us and we have not been able to face having another dog until now when a puppy from one of her daughters became available.

The reason for the preamble is to explain why for the first time for many years we find ourselves in the position of having to train a puppy! This is not easy – for several generations we have been able to let the older bitches take that responsibility and I can confirm that they did an excellent job.Woe betide the puppy that stepped out of line – which brings me to the subject of the month’s column – the minefield of claim and counter claim by canine trainers and behaviourists as to which approach to canine behavioural modification is ‘the best’.

Regular readers will have noticed in our Canine Behaviour Modification Supplement that we have a range of authors who use a variety of methods to achieve successful results. None, I emphasise, use the old ‘yank and yell’ technique mentioned by Debbie Berriman in her interesting contribution last month. Barbara Woodhouse who I should also emphasise, was also an incredibly successful trainer of dogs brought this approach to millions through her television series’. But we have moved on and John Fisher, John Rogerson, Mary Ray among many others have demonstrated that it is possible to make astonishing progress by working with and re-enforcing the dog’s natural behaviours. However, there are many theories out there and those who advocate them are sometimes quite abusive about any ideas that do not conform to their idea of what is ‘right’ and anyone who reads my musings will know that I am against all forms of offensive discussion.

We have to look at what we know of the facts – some of which may appear to be contradictory because the researcher is anxious to prove a point and so are based on flawed research – and try to come to conclusions and solutions that are successful while placing the welfare of our dogs at the very core of what we do.

I would not pretend to have a deep insight into canine behaviour modification but as Studies Co-ordinator of the Animal Care College an enormous amount of material passes over my desk and therefore, although I may not know the countryside in detail I might have a better appreciation of the landscape.

I think (based on my own experience and my readings of research from Konrad Lorenz, Trummler and those following their foorstps) is that few young mammals are fully equipped to survive entirely by instinct – although instinct is the most powerful survival motivator.  To be successful within their environment they need to be trained/educated about what is acceptable, not acceptable and/or dangerous.  This initial training is usually carried out by the mother until the most respected member of the family/pack is deferred to because experience has shown that he or she is the most likely to take the decisions which will ensure survival.  This seems to be the case in all mammalian communities – even in the world of domestic cats, which are generally thought to be loners but which, in a feral environment, form colonies, as do big cats in the wild.

We also now know that in any given situation the ‘leader’ is not always the same individual and that the ‘evolution’ of the domestic dog provides a much more complex psychological framework within which we must work.This has led a reconsideration of our ideas about the mechanism of the ‘pack’. This does not necessarily ‘disprove’ or undermine the original premises of the structure of wolf behaviour – but it does give us new ways of understanding canine learning processes.

There is no doubt that canines are different in that their development has been arrested by our intervention.  For this reason there are many ways in which canine behaviours can be modified that are not applicable to other pets or domestic animals.  Naturally, good, positive re-enforcement training from the nest is the ideal but many breeders and new owners are not even aware of the processes much less skilled in their use. The result is often dogs that have never been trained to be ‘good citizens’. In these cases where established behaviours are damaging to the relations between the individual dog, other dogs, its owners and other people, then we sometimes have to resort to more basic tactics and it is occasionally necessary to use what have been termed formal rank reduction techniques and negative re-enforcement – an anathema to some.

We must always ensure the welfare of the animal being trained or whose behaviour is being modified.  It should never be necessary to cow it or hurt it – but that is not to say that it cannot be put under some mental pressure or physical restraint (we put dogs on various forms of collars and leads for their own safety – this is no different in principle) to ensure a change of behaviour which it in everyone’s best interests – including the interest of the dog!

Finally, except in extreme cases we should be trying to modify the behaviour of both dog and its owner/family in such a way that improvement it behaviour is permanent.I do not believe that this is likely to be achieved by the use of drugs

(October 2006)

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