Philosophy Matters in Dog Training

Recently, one of the many wonderful rescues I work with posted a picture of a gorgeous dog, who was en route to her new home. As I skimmed the post, I read about this dog’s backstory, which was a bit sad: she had come from a life without a lot of enrichment or human contact, living outside without adequate shelter, and so on. But things were looking up for this particular dog, and of course I had to smile. She’d scored big with a wonderful home in another city; a family waiting eagerly for their new canine addition. But then I got to the end of the post: she’d needed some vet care and was being boarded with a dog trainer for a few days before travelling on to her final destination.

When I saw that another trainer was involved, I will admit my smile cracked a bit. As you may be aware, dog training is a wholly unregulated industry. That is, anyone can open shop, take your money, and do whatever they want to your dog. Hitting, shocking, and yelling are just the start of some of the negative and wholly unnecessary experiences that dogs may receive while being trained by a subset of dog trainers (and that is to say nothing of the trainers who are motivated by a desire to help dogs but lack formal education, skills, and experience, so end up taking handfuls of dollars from unsuspecting clients and failing to make a difference). The problem is so pervasive that my mentor, Jean Donaldson of the Academy for Dog Trainers, has created a video to raise awareness.

I went to the dog trainer’s website to see if I could find out more about their educational credentials and philosophy. Neither were listed, leaving me wondering what might happen to this dog in the few days she would be staying there. Educational credentials are important, obviously (imagine if you found out that your child’s math teacher had no training other than reading Dr. Spock). But philosophy matters too, and here’s why.

The consequence of consequences

One of the important ways that dog trainers help dogs is by changing dogs’ behaviour. This seems self-evident, but the truth of the matter is that we do a bunch of other stuff, too…changing the dog’s environment, mitigating owner expectations, and so on. But changing behaviour is often a key component of our work. In order to change a dog’s behaviour, we must teach the dog new skills: dogs learn to do x, y, and z, in situations a, b, and c. We can tell that our clients’ dogs are learning because we see the evidence right before our eyes: there is behaviour change. Often (but not always), dog trainers use a type of learning known as ‘operant conditioning’ to change a dog’s behaviour. The dogs learn that “If I do x, I get y”. In real life, the end product of this training looks like:

  • If I stay sitting when the vet draws blood, I get some cheese.

  • If I come when my owner calls my name instead of dancing away, I get a biscuit.

  • If I sit at the door instead of jumping up, I get a cookie and I also get to lick my owner’s face, which I love.

Using consequences—something that comes after the behaviour happens, like the paycheque of a cheese treat—to change a dog’s behaviour is a powerful training technique. But there is more than one type of consequence that will change behaviour: there is the proverbial carrot, but there is also the proverbial stick. The following statements may also be true, for a dog trained by a trainer who uses consequences that I’m uncomfortable with.

  • If I stay sitting when the vet draws blood, the chain around my neck won’t tighten and cut off my air.

  • If I come when my owner calls my name instead of dancing away, she stops the continuous electric shock on my neck.

  • If I sit at the door instead of jumping up, I don’t get a blow to the chest.

Painful and scary consequences like electric shock, yelling, swatting, penny cans, and so on absolutely work to change a dog’s behaviour. The science is in: just as much as the carrot works to change behaviour, so does the stick. It works, and that’s why so many trainers continue to use it. All mammals will change their behaviour to avoid scary and painful experiences. However, the science is also in: scary and painful consequences are unnecessary—we can get the job done without them—and they also carry side-effects: fearfulness and even aggression. There is ever-increasing evidence of welfare and public safety risks associated with these techniques.

Philosophy matters

So if both the “getting cheese” and the “getting shocked” type of consequences work to change behaviour, and both are sadly still legal, how is a dog owner (or a dog rescue) to tell if a dog trainer uses one style or the other, or both? This is where training philosophy comes into play.

When you’re looking a dog trainer’s website, look for language about the trainer’s philosophy (see mine here, and read more about choosing a dog trainer here). Look for information that clearly states the trainer will not use shock collars, prong collars, or painful/scary techniques on your dog, or that they will use exclusively positive reinforcement and other force-free training. If there is nothing on the website about this, simply ask. Ask the three questions from the video included above. If the trainer’s reply is not clear, ask if they use tools like shock collars or prong collars. Ask if they use alpha-rolling or rely on techniques that focus on establishing leadership, which is usually code for using scary or painful consequences. If they say anything other than a resounding “no way”, keep looking.

Kristi BensonComment