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Battle of the Training Methods: Facts & Fibs

If you’ve had a dog for even a short period of time, you are likely aware that the amount of information available about their behavior is overwhelming. There is endless advice from books, the internet, TV and that guy next door. To make things worse, it’s contradictory information. The most obvious example is the philosophical battlefield of dog training methodology: the carrot, the stick, or both.

“I hired a trainer because my dog snaps at me if I try to take his chewies, so we’ve been trading him for cheese. Now my neighbor, who has trained dogs his whole life, tells me he’s trying to dominate me and I need to put him in his place. He says my trainer is just a softie cookie slinger and we’re rewarding bad behavior. I’m confused and I don’t know who to listen to.”

People who just want to do right by their dog are bearing the brunt of it all. Shock collars and prong collars are heavily promoted and at the same time heavily condemned. The Dog Whisperer wouldn’t be on TV if he didn’t know his stuff, right?

To understand this deep divide, first we must understand the sources of our information: anyone can present themselves as an expert in this field. Many truly believe they are experts because dogs are so familiar to us. Their perceived expertise is false: I’ve been familiar with my teeth my whole life, but does that make me a dentist? Cesar Millan is simply a charismatic TV star. He is making guesses about dog behavior from his own interpretations and selling it to the masses as fact.

Dog training is unregulated, and this has resulted in a virtual information landfill. It’s frustrating, and I’ve been there. When I first started out in the pet care industry, the biggest thorn in my side was that so many used their authority (however small it may be) to assert their nonsense as fact. This nonsense often meant physically hurting a dog. It became my mission to set the record straight and advocate for these animals who cannot speak up for themselves. My hope is to bring clarity to those who are torn about the “right” way to train their dog.

I won’t give you strictly my opinions (but I have them, as I’m sure you can already tell) or anecdotal evidence. I’m going to give you facts that are supported by scientific evidence, which I have listed at the end of this page. I encourage you to research for yourself. Let’s begin by debunking some common myths.

FIB: “It doesn’t hurt.”

“Contemporary E-Collar Training utilizes the softest, most gentle remote communication, and is one of the most humane and effective approaches to dog training available! These collars use TENS Unit technology, the same muscle stimulation used by chiropractors and physical therapist.”

You may have been told that shock, prong, or physical corrections do not hurt your dog. However, in order for these tools to work, they must hurt. The dog stops barking because they don’t want to be electrocuted. They stop pulling because they are avoiding pins digging into their neck. They do what you ask because they are afraid of what happens when they don’t.

If the tool didn’t hurt, it wouldn’t work. This is the law of animal learning. It is not up for debate, it is science. Arguing with this fact is the equivalent of arguing with gravity or joining the flat earth society. When someone says it doesn’t hurt, they are demonstrating a serious lack of even a basic understanding of how animals learn, and very shallow knowledge of dog behavior. Besides, who are we to decide for another being if something is painful?

FIB: “Punishment occurs in nature. Dogs correct each other all the time.”

Dogs do not use barbaric, painful tools to control another being’s behavior because they find it annoying. They do have very dramatic looking arguments that are not intended to hurt each other. Their ritualized, intense display looks scary to humans, but is simply a form of communication. Actual bites and injuries between dogs are rare.

​Furthermore, electric shock only occurs in nature if the dog is struck by lightning.

FIB: I’m balanced. There isn’t one right way to train.

One either hurts and scares animals or they don’t. Period.

“Do you use pain, fear and force to train?” This is a yes or no question. Dodging it with “I’m balanced,” or “I use a combination of methods,” is a red flag. The use of treats do not negate the damage done by electric shock and physical corrections.

The use of aversives is loaded with nasty side effects, which leave pet parents with far bigger problems than what they started with. What could be right about that?

FIB: Force free trainers are responsible for euthanasia because positive methods do not work on complex behavior cases.

There is no evidence for this other than anecdotal stories from a biased point of view. It is a common battle cry among traditional trainers because they don’t have a leg to stand on. The evidence we have is actually to the contrary: punishment based training methods can increase the risk of euthanasia because they elicit an aggressive response from the dog. If one is properly educated and experienced, there is nothing that cannot be accomplished humanely. Trainers must be competent enough to get the job done. Inadequate positive trainers won’t do physical or psychological damage to dogs, but they can lead people to aversives out of their frustration with the lack of results.

That said, you do not have to choose between aversives and a dog’s life. Let me just say that again. You do not ever have to choose between aversives and a dog’s life!

FIB: I don’t want to bribe my dog with food, I want him to recognize me as pack leader.

There is nothing wrong with taking control of something your dog wants and using it to change their behavior. It’s training!

There is no such thing as “pack leader,” or “alpha” to a dog. There is no pecking order. A wolf pack consists of a mother, a father and their offspring. It is literally a family. L. David Mech, the leading wolf scientist who popularized the term “alpha,” has pleaded for his book to stop being published. Even if dogs did have pack leaders and alphas, I mean really… the dog knows you’re not a wolf, dude.

Now let’s talk about what we know to be true.

FACT: The migration to humane training practices didn’t come from softies who don’t know what they’re doing. It was the result of scientific discoveries about how animals learn.

In the early 20th century, there were two types of animal behavior modification going on at the same time: traditional dog training and the science of animal learning. Traditional dog training had been passed down from generations and was used to train police dogs and send others to war. Animal learning studies were taking place in laboratories.

The very first pet dog training classes inherited their methods from military trainers. An example of a book written by one of them is The Koehler Method. Training advice includes shooting the dog with bb’s from a slingshot, giving him a “good tanning,” and taping his mouth shut to a chewed object and shocking it with an electric wire. It refers to dogs as miscreants, idiots and screwballs. This is a very difficult read for anyone who feels compassion for animals. It is unfortunately still in print and practice.

In the background, animal learning science had been mass producing trained animals of all types for TV and film. This was completely unrelated to pet dog training. When Karen Pryor, a traditional trainer, was hired to train marine mammals, she discovered this science and was the first to reject traditional training as a result.

Dr. Ian Dunbar, a veterinarian and PhD in animal behavior, attended a traditional dog training class with his puppy in 1981. It resulted in his famous quote: “How can you teach heeling if the dog doesn’t even want to follow you? This is too stupid for words.” He then became a trainer and brought the science of animal learning into the field.

FACT: The use of pain, fear and force runs the risk of serious injury or death.

There are seemingly endless stories in the news about dogs who are abused, or their families suffering their traumatic loss. I will spare you the graphic content, but here are just a handful of examples for those interested in reading them:

Family dog injured in ‘Sit Means Sit’ obedience training ​Holliston police report details abuse allegations against dog trainer NorCal Dog trainers arrested, face animal cruelty charges after german shepherd’s death