Has dog training become overly complicated?

“Over the years, dog training has become overly complicated, time consuming, technical, mechanical and impersonal – lacking in communication, interaction and relationship. I feel that dog training has lost its way, its voice and its soul. We simply have to get things back on track before dog training……(dare I say it?)……..goes to the dogs” (Dunbar, 2015). So wrote the renowned dog trainer and clinical behaviourist Dr Ian Dunbar some six years ago. Does he have a point?

“Throw away any preconceived ideas you may have about how to train a dog using words of command, mechanical clickers, whistles and hand signals, and understand the universal language of emotions. It is your emotions, when coupled with the giving or withholding of rewards, that will enable you to communicate with your dog better than most academically trained behaviourists ever could. Welcome to the real world of dogs” (Rogerson, 2010). Emotive words indeed from the renowned dog trainer, behaviourist and author John Rogerson.

A mere twenty years ago the idea that dogs are capable of feelings and emotions would have been laughed at by the academics. In 2012, Dr Gregory Berns trained dogs to enter an MRI scanner. The scans confirmed what owners already knew, that dogs are able to recognise faces and emotions thereof. Activity in the caudate nucleus region of the brain causes the release of hormones, as with humans, responsible for certain emotions. These include vasopressin linked to aggression, oxytocin, often referred to as the ‘love hormone’ and dopamine known to enhance the experience of pleasure. It appears then, that your dog IS capable of falling in love with you, and not simply because you are the provider of basic needs!

Until about the early 1970s, dog training was the preserve of police forces and the military. Pet dogs were left to get on with it; any apparent ‘misbehaviour’ or aggression being dealt with, by ill-informed owners, in the form of beating into submission, chaining up or euthanasia. As I recall, the first ‘celebrity’ dog trainer, with her own TV series, was Barbara Woodhouse in the early ’80s. Training was in the form of dominance with ‘yanks’, reprimanding, bullying………..the lot! Some of her Youtube videos are difficult to watch! To this day, Cesar Millan espouses similar techniques with pinning down, kicking and all. This is also evidenced on his Youtube channel. It would appear that things have not moved on greatly, with Channel 5’s ‘Dogs Behaving (Very) Badly’ promoting the use of dominance and punishment, thus setting reward based training back by many decades.

The point is that, even now, some dog guardians may treat their pets as objects of desire rather than sentient beings. For example, one of the most common ‘problem’ behaviours guardians encounter, and one which I am often asked to help resolve, is pulling on lead. Ironically this is also one of the easiest problems to deal with. Every day I witness handlers yanking and pulling back in resistance. Punishment does NOT work, period. If it did, why do we see this behaviour over and over? The temptation is to escalate the punishment, potentially with dire consequences; an unhappy, withdrawn dog and a relationship breakdown, not to mention long term damage to the neck and throat area – thyroid glands (dogs have two), muscle and blood vessels. This abuse has to end somewhere!

The other side of the same coin is to COMMUNICATE with our dog, explaining exactly what we want him/her to do using plain English. Yes, plain English; dogs are capable of understanding up to 1,000 words. Of course this is over simplistic as three or four words strung together may be their limit, even then failing to comprehend the literal meaning – but you get my drift! As far back as the ’40s, William Campbell devised the ‘jolly routine’ of singing and dancing to ENGAGE the dog. He was way ahead of his time! The dog should WANT to walk alongside rather than in front. How about a game of tug on the go until the dog gets the message. Why simply ‘manage’ the behaviour when we can actively train for an alternative behaviour? – that of walking WITHOUT pulling. This is known as ‘differential reinforcement of an alternative behaviour’. It is far easier to teach a positive (R+) than it is to teach a negative (R-)! My mentor, Steve Mann, shows this eloquently on his Youtube channel.

So, to answer my own question – training a dog may APPEAR complicated but science has truly shown us the way forward. This all started in the late 1800s when J B Watson, the father of modern behaviourism, was of the opinion that we (mankind) needed to take an objective view of behaviour by observing rather than relying on emotions. The ‘science’ of behaviour was thus founded. But don’t be disheartened, the best form of training is COMMUNICATION, ENCOURAGEMENT, and LOADS of REINFORCEMENT for the wanted behaviour!

Engagement and relationship building!

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