Dog training – More about dog training – caring for people caring for animals Books: biography, fiction and non-fiction

‘The only thing two dog trainers can agree about is what a third trainer is doing wrong’  Steve White, Vice-president of the USA Certification Council for Pet Dog Trainers.

Back in the 1940s, a psychologist called BF Skinner did a great deal of work on animal behaviour.  He argued that it is pointless to imagine what is going on in an animal’s head.  It was better to treat its mind as a black box, closed and unknowable, with inputs that lead to predictable outputs.  He identified four ways to manipulate behaviour: these were – positive reinforcement (good dog – have a biscuit), positive punishment (bad dog – administer physical punishment), negative reinforcement good dog – stop punishment) and negative punishment (bad dog – take away the biscuit).  He argued that by connecting an action to its outcome almost any behaviour can be trained.  Skinner called this ‘operant conditioning’ and considered it as effective for people as for their pets!

There is no doubt that these processes work, but over the years, new ideas have been introduced which emphasise the positive and eliminate the brutal.  Curiously, this change did not come from dog trainers but from marine parks and aquariums.  In the 1960s an animal behaviourist called Karen Pryor discovered that rather than punishing bad behaviour, dolphins and killer whales loved rewards and, more importantly, if a reward was available they would repeat the good behaviour.  She found that all she needed to do was wait for the behaviour she wanted, give a reward. Very quickly, the animal would repeat the behaviour because it wanted the satisfaction and pleasure of the extra food.  She also discovered that even if you replaced the reward of food with a whistle, the behaviour would be repeated.  She once taught a goldfish to swim through a tiny hoop in response to the flicker of a flashlight!  ‘Its easy’, she said.  ‘You just have to have a healthy, hungry goldfish.’  Karen developed what we now know as ’clicker’ training and most advanced training and obedience work with dogs uses the ‘clicker’.

There will be many demonstrations of Heelwork to Music at Crufts and I would be very surprised if any of those dog trainers did not use a clicker.  Certainly Mary Ray, who will once again be putting her dogs through their paces in the big ring, uses the technique and if you ever have a chance to attend one of her demonstrations of how she trains her dogs you will see how effective it is.  This does not mean it is easy: the trainer needs intelligent, amenable dogs who are willing to please and must exercise considerable personal discipline and patience to achieve those displays which look so easy.

Karen Pryor and her colleagues and followers have wrought immense change in the way in which dogs are trained.  Heelwork to Music is a wonderful spectacle but the principle is being used in many ways by dog trainers to make use of the fantastic powers which dogs have to make our lives safer and better.  The dog has immense and useful abilities which can improve our lives and alert us to danger.  Working dogs can jump higher, run faster, see further and hear better as well as being equipped for subduing the most fractious of men.  But these are nothing compared with the sensitivity of their sense of smell, which can detect a few particles of a specific substance per trillion, with ease.  So, apart from being wonderful companions for families and individuals who are also able to take part in our leisure activities whether it be racing, agility, flyball, obedience or hunting or pointing game, dogs have further, more professional roles.  There are three primary areas of their activity: they are the helping hand (as with herding, guide dogs or dogs for the disabled), detection and protection and pursuit.

It is in the interest of all pet dogs to be well trained: to ‘walk to heel’, ‘sit’, ‘wait’ and ‘come’ when told to do so are simple commands well within the training capabilities of most pet owners.  Problems arise when the dogs are, usually inadvertently, spoiled – for once they are adults and have bad habits, it is very difficult to modify their behaviour.  Such problems require specialist skills as does the formal training for leisure pursuits and the higher levels of training required for working dogs.  To have some understanding of the expertise and the knowledge required go to and click on to the cover of the booklet at the bottom of the homepage called ‘Defining roles for dog behaviour and training professionals’.  If you have not thought about it, you will be amazed at the dedication and patience of those involved and complexity and range of the skills required.

However, let me get back to the development of the modern techniques of dog training.  By the 1940s when Skinner was putting forward his ideas, Guide Dogs for the Blind (as they were then called in the UK) and Seeing Eye (in the USA) were already well established, but it was not until the 60s onwards that Hearing Dogs for the Deaf and Dogs for the Disabled (among many other charitable training groups) were established.  During the last 40 years there has also been a much greater demand for pet dogs to be well trained and in the Kennel Club’s words be ‘good citizens’.  This has led to an explosion of dog trainers at every level – and when there is an explosion there is nearly always collateral damage.

In this case that damage was caused by some trainers and charities being so seduced by the concept of positive reinforcement (the first of Skinners conditioning operants) which they, rightly, perceived as ‘kind’, that they forgot that in the domestic situation there have to be rules and an element of discipline.  This requires a degree of negative reinforcement but this does not, repeat not, mean ‘cruelty’ or hurting the dog in any way.  There is no doubt at all that given the right conditions and an amenable dog which wants to please, positive reinforcement is very effective.  But the enthusiasts for this approach have, as enthusiasts tend to do, taken the idea to the extreme and even used it to distort our understanding of the way in which the mind of the dog works.

You will remember that Skinner felt that the dog’s mind was a black box which we could not begin to understand.  This is no longer the case.  Over the past 60 years we have learned a great deal about how the brains and minds of animals work and an enormous amount of research has gone into trying to understand precisely the way in which developmental, evolutionary, environmental and genetic factors have combined to provide the behaviours that we see in all animals and particularly in dogs.  Unfortunately, much of this research is contradictory and it has led to a significant schism between dog trainers.  I have written in the past that this divide is more a question of semantics then of real differences in approach, but nevertheless those at either end of the spectrum (especially those at the ‘kind’ end of the spectrum) see themselves as being at war!

The key to all this is in the way in which we understand some of the words used to define the various interrelationships between animals of the same species.  Skinner and many of those working with dogs and animals at the time believed that man had to behave in a way that asserted his authority over the animals he wished to train. They drew parallels with what they said was the standard model of relationships in the wild.  This implied a ‘pack’ and a ‘pack leader’, who was in ‘control’ of the group.  The words used to describe these relationships were ‘dominance’ and ‘alpha’ among others designed to emphasise and establish power and authority.  Those committed to using only positive reinforcement techniques believed that this theory was not relevant and that research showed that such ‘packs’ were equivalent to ‘family groups’ and the idea that control was being exercised was both wrong and misleading.  They also suggest that those who do not concur with their view are themselves cruel in the techniques that they use.  Those trainers who see themselves and realists (and recognise that a measure of discipline within society and family groups, which has uncomfortable consequences, is essential if it is to be well ordered) see the first group as ‘bunny huggers’. They suggest that many of the problems of dogs in society  (specifically the increase in dog bites that we have seen over the last few years) is a result of ground rules not being applied.  There have been similar discussions among psychologists regarding the upbringing of children for as long as I can remember – and I began teaching back in 1963!

Who is right?  I do not believe that there is any need to treat dogs cruelly ( and no trainer worth their salt does so) but I am a realist and I was pleased to read a recent article by somebody who should know that rather supports my view.

Roger Abrantes is very well-known in the world of dog training.  He holds a Ph.D. in Evolutionary Biology and another in Ethology and is the author of seventeen books many of which have become standard works.  He is a world-renowned lecturer on animal behaviour and the drawings of dog positions and expressions he has published are generally agreed to be the clearest and most definitive of the many available.  The article is called ‘Dominance – Making Sense of the Nonsense’ and in it he says: ‘the discussion on dominance has run away with us’.  He explains that the word has ‘so many meanings and connotations that it is difficult to know how to use it as a precise scientific term in the behavioural sciences’.

The article is the first of a series and if you are interested you should certainly follow them through.  You will find them at  The detail of his discussion is too long to discuss in Speakers’ Corner but in my view his arguments are convincing and should be studied by everyone who has any interest in dogs and why they behave in the way they do.  This does not just mean dog trainers – it means anyone who feels the important to have a better understanding of canine psychology.

David Cavill is Chairman of the Pet Education, Training and Behaviour Council.

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