Of Dogma and Dogmen (and Women)

There are a surprising (and confusing) array of training options and tools out there in a dog training industry that is essentially unregulated. You are relying on trainers to be honest with you about their abilities and expertise in order to determine if you think they’ll be able to help you address your problems effectively. A large part of what comprises their expertise is what training tools they use and what approaches they practice, but one of the biggest indicators of individual success for you and your dog may be to what degree a trainer adheres to a “party line.”

From “Dog Men” (and Women) to Dogma

I should let you in on a dirty little secret in the dog trainer community. There is a battle raging for the very hearts and minds of dog trainers, and the checking accounts of their clients! There is a very vocal minority within the industry on either end of a philosophical continuum that firmly believes there is only ONE appropriate way to train a dog. On the one side are trainers that believe there is one specific handling method or tool that is effective, and reliable results are the most critical goal of dog training. They won’t be caught dead using a treat with a dog for no other reason than the connotation that brings. They will use a successful training record of reliably trained dogs to back up their claim.

On the other hand, you have a group that judges a trainer and tools based on their definition of what they consider “humane.” They believe that anyone using something other than what they consider “dog-friendly” must be unethical and tools they find unacceptable cannot possibly be used safely on a dog, regardless of how the tool is applied or how experienced the trainer is. They would sacrifice results and reliability in order to be as non-confrontational as possible and avoid inflicting any stress on a dog.

continuum with one point on each end and a position in the middle marked

Both extremes on the continuum are disadvantageous (possibly even dangerous) for dogs and owners. Trainers that subscribe to only one possible handling approach or set of tools and rely primarily on compulsion may train reliably, but ultimately at the expense of the dog. The dog is methodical in their compliance, but not eager to respond or engaged with the handler. On the other hand, a trainer that relies too heavily on reward for too long, avoiding exposing a dog to stress, can create a very unreliable and even dangerous dog. Do not underestimate the ability of an “entitled” dog to put holes in things, including people.

The Cult of Dog Training

While there are lots of trainers that are truly open-minded and strive to operate in the middle, there are many that insist on holding their “party line” and polarizing the training community. Sometimes it’s based on what has been effective for them, but often it’s simply because they have not continued to learn and evolve their own skills, and they’re scared of what they don’t know or understand. Often, they feel entrenched in a position and it threatens their deeply held beliefs to consider that an alternative might be successful. Or they may have a mentor that they feel loyal to that holds the belief. They may be worried that they will offend their trainer peers by using an unaccepted tool or handling method, a particularly potent fear in the age of social media and online communities of peer groups that are very vocal critics or allies.

In the case of trainers that rely more on compulsion, they feel the pressure of delivering results and value, while trainers on the other end steadfastly use the “humaneness” of their handling and tools to justify sometimes a decided lack of training reliability. Neither is optimal and both serve the dog trainer more so than the dog.

The comparison to religion, politics, and even science is apt. Google “flat earth society” and you will see that there is still, in our modern day, a group of people advocating that the earth is flat, despite all modern scientific evidence to the contrary! The same sort of thing happens in the world of dog training with “dogma” based dog trainers clinging to their ideology in the face of evidence to the contrary. There will never be a 100% consensus. But the good news is you don’t necessarily have to choose a side if you select the right trainer.

What Does this Have to do with You?

You should be aware of this because should you encounter such a trainer and should their chosen training style and/or tools NOT be effective for you and your dog, you will find yourself experiencing a lot of frustration. And if this trainer managed to convince you that their way was the only acceptable way to train a dog, you will eventually become very demoralized at the thought that you will never be able to get the behavior you want from your dog, or you might even find yourself considering re-homing or euthanizing him.

In addition, your dog will be experiencing a lot of frustration at this whole process and his behavior may even worsen. You have two options to safeguard yourself:

  • Research thoroughly different approaches, philosophies and methods so you know what kind of trainer to look for.
  • Find a trainer that uses many different tools and approaches so that if one option doesn’t work there are other options available.

How to Separate the Dogma from the Dog Men (and Women)

Characteristics of a dogma-based dog trainer:

  • They completely dismisses scientific research and rely only on practical experience OR a trainer that only believes scientific research even when they see practical examples to the contrary.
  • They use a lot of absolutes when talking about dog training in general: you should NEVER use this tool, you should NEVER say “no” to your dog, etc. Of course, when advising you about your specific dog, it is common if not downright helpful for a trainer to provide absolutes.
  • They may use a lot of disparaging adjectives to describe certain tools or techniques and uses a lot of positive adjectives to describe their approach or tools. Tools and techniques in and of themselves aren’t inherently abusive or humane, it all depends on the context and expertise with which they are applied. For example, using an e-collar on too high a level isn’t an advisable way to use an e-collar and could be considered abusive, but so too could using food to train an obese dog or depriving a dog food in order to train him.
  • They spend a lot more time indoctrinating you on and justifying their tools and methods, in fact, more time than actually assessing your specific dog and situation and applying practical solutions.

Characteristics of a “balanced” dog trainer:

“Balance” is a buzzword in the dog training community. If someone calls themselves a “balanced” trainer it just means they’re balanced in their opinion!

  • They have a variety of tools in their trainer toolbox and know how to use them, including different types of corrective devices (such as training collars) AND different types of teaching and motivational aids like targets, toys, and treats.
  • They should have a consistent track record of attending seminars, classes, and schools on an ongoing basis, and from a variety of different types of  trainers and educators so they actually expand their repertoire, rather than just being further indoctrinated in the dogma.
  •  They are likely less critical of different training tools and aids because they can see the value in them for specific dogs and in certain circumstances. They rarely categorically dismiss anything.
  • They are the type of person that identifies themselves as a “student”. Sure, they can teach you a lot and have valuable information to impart, but they also believe you and your dog will teach them, and make the dog training experience a partnership in which your input is validated.

[label style=”default”]WARNING: It’s going to get really scientific-y in these next sections. If you’re properly convinced that you should seek out dog trainers over dogmatists, read no further. If you’re interested in some history or wish to understand the Skinner myth, read on. [/label]

Inside the Skinner Box

We have dogmatic trainers on either side of the philosophical dog training continuum. The only thing that really differentiates them is which quadrants of Operant Conditioning they emphasize more in their training. What unites them is their unwavering loyalty to their chosen tools and methods. Let’s bring back in the continuum:

Continuum with one item on each end and a marker in the middle

We are all probably familiar with the Operant Conditioning learning model, but let’s recap here. Remember, in science-y terms: “positive” = ADD, “negative” = REMOVE; Reinforcement = desirable stimulus, Punishment = aversive stimulus.

Positive reinforcement (Reinforcement): Occurs when a behavior (response) is followed by a stimulus that is rewarding, increasing the frequency of that behavior. (Reinforce a behavior by rewarding a dog with a treat after they do the behavior.)

Negative reinforcement (Escape): Occurs when a behavior (response) is followed by the removal of an aversive stimulus, thereby increasing that behavior’s frequency. (In e-collar training, a dog learns to “turn off” the uncomfortable stim by paying attention or doing a command, and the comfort that is attained is reinforcing of the correct behavior.)

Positive punishment (Punishment): Occurs when a behavior (response) is followed by an aversive stimulus, such as introducing a shock or loud noise, resulting in a decrease in that behavior. (A leash/collar correction or stim of an e-collar is applied after an inappropriate response to decrease the likelihood that a dog will respond that way again.)

Negative punishment (Penalty): Occurs when a behavior (response) is followed by the removal of a desirable stimulus, resulting in a decrease in that behavior. (A “no reward” marker, telling the dog he will not be receiving a treat for his response/choice to decrease the likelihood that he’ll make that same choice again.)

To conduct a study where you’re testing a theory or observing specific behavior, you necessarily have to control variables. For Skinner, that meant using a single species, a rat, and putting it in a box to control the variable of the environment. In this way, he observed and tested the four quadrants of learning.

Where so many dog trainers and behaviorists get it wrong (and end up misleading dog owners) is claiming that they’re practicing “scientifically-proven” Operant Conditioning while only picking out the most palatable parts (positive reinforcement and negative punishment), and trying to apply them exclusively to get a reliably trained dog in the real world. It simply can’t happen because of competing elements in the environment and innate drives that are inherently rewarding.

Outside the Skinner Box

This phenomenon of Operant Conditioning breaking down in the real world is observed in the Brelands’ study the Misbehavior of Organisms in which they observed “instinctive drift” while attempting to prove that Operant Conditioning would function in “nonlaboratory conditions,” (which is where, coincidentally, most dog misbehavior takes place!). In short, they observed the “breakdown of conditioned Operant behavior” due to the presence of more powerful instinctive behavior.

To quote, “The general principle seems to be that wherever an animal has strong instinctive behaviors in the area of the conditioned response, after continued running the organism will drift toward the instinctive behavior to the detriment of the conditioned behavior and even to the delay or preclusion of the reinforcement.” Basically, “learned behavior drifts toward instinctive behavior.” –The Misbehavior of Organisms, Breland & Breland.

Outside of the Skinner box, or the training classroom, the real world tends to elicit natural drives in our dogs. These include among them a few that cause a lot of problems for pet dog owners: prey drive, defensive drive, and fight drive and include things like charging the fence line, chasing squirrels even when you have a perfectly good treat in your hand, or escaping the yard to mate with the bitch in heat down the street. They do those things because it’s inherently rewarding to them because of their instinctive drives–something Skinner doesn’t encounter in his observations. He observed behavior, he didn’t change it and then proof it in the rat’s natural habitat.

As the Breland’s demonstrated, absent ongoing conditioning, and sometimes in the face of incomplete conditioning, a drive will win out. The instinct of a drive is simply more powerful than the manufactured learning that has taken place.

Truly balanced trainers use positive reinforcement and negative punishment to engage, teach and communicate at the outset of training. It tends to be less stressful for the dog and creates a very motivated and engaged canine student. Less effective (albeit “humane”) trainers leave it there. But for training to be effective in the real world, you have to train to the real world, and that means using all four quadrants.

Create accountability in your dog by proofing what you’ve taught on an ongoing basis, by using positive punishment or negative reinforcement to clearly delineate to your dog the appropriate and inappropriate responses when there are competing interests. And create inhibition for certain drives by punishing responses that bring your dog out of engagement and “thinking” and into reactive drive (like chasing or fighting).

If you’ve laid the foundation effectively in the earlier training, any corrections/punishment at this point will probably be pretty minimal and the resulting stress ultimately character-building and productive as opposed to destructive.

The Long Way ‘Round

What you want in a dog training professional is someone that understands the balance necessary to get reliable results on a reasonable timeline while creating a better relationship between you and your dog.

It can be more difficult than you would think to attend to all those different variables, keeping the dog’s spirit in tact but also making progress towards behavior goals, but it can be done, especially when a trainer drops the dogma (and their ego) and opens their mind.



  1. says

    Critical thinking skills have flown out the window lately, as you have observed on some of the dog-related places we frequent. It’s a shame really, that folks are so caught up in silly words while the dogs continue to be under-served and the owners loose hope in finding help for what essentially boils down to TRAINING.

    I have previously worked in shelters and with rescues for many, many years and there IS a correlation of dogs being surrendered for troublesome behaviors and prior failed training.

    It ain’t that difficult, and for some reason, it has been wrapped in this foggy mysticism that people are too naive to penetrate for the truth behind the “science”.

    Well done, well thought-out post.

  2. says

    This is a fantastic and well written post. Thank you for putting into really well written words that all of us “balanced” trainers try to explain.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *