Before I was a dog trainer, I had a short-lived and largely unfulfilling career as a technical writer. Before that I was a college English major (much more fulfilling!). My areas of study were technical communication, rhetoric, and creative writing, and it’s amazing to me how helpful all of these specialties have been in sorting through the available body of dog training literature.
Before I proceed, let me assure you I’m not here to force anyone to handle their dog in a way they’re uncomfortable with and I one hundred and ten percent respect a person’s individual decision to train their dog in the manner they choose. In fact, I completely support a person’s right to have a decision in the matter in the first place, a decision many trainers don’t believe you can be entrusted with if you’re given facts that aren’t twisted with bias. My hope is that people make their dog training decision based on correct information as opposed to rhetoric or propaganda. I take issue with misinformation, specifically opinion that is presented as statement of fact. Here is an example of such a statement taken from Victoria Stilwell’s website:
“Modern behavioral science has proven that forceful handling such as physical punishment, leash yanking, or making a dog submit by rolling it on its back is psychologically damaging for the dog and has potentially dangerous consequences for owners. Instead, the most successful modern training theories suggest that reinforcing good behavior with rewards while using constructive discipline is much more successful. Positive reinforcement (i.e., giving the dog a reward in the form of praise, play, food, toys, etc. when it responds and offers an action or a behavior that you like) has been shown to be the most effective way to train a dog because rewarding good behavior will increase the likelihood of that behavior being repeated.”
The reader is being led to believe that the statements made in the paragraph are factual because of phrases like: Modern behavioral science has proven; and Positive reinforcement has been shown to be the most effective way to train a dog. Fear-inducing statements are included as well, again suggesting that statements such as: psychologically damaging for the dog and has potentially dangerous consequences have actually been derived from controlled scientific studies in which substantial quantitative data was collected that demonstrates that dogs indeed suffered psychological damage or became aggressive. Other words are carefully selected to evoke a specific emotional response from the reader. For example, the writer uses the words “leash yanking” instead of the more conventional, yet less emotive terminology, “leash correction.”
Nowhere on the website where this excerpt appears do I see a citation to the scientific study that proves that these statements are facts, as they seem to purport by using words like “science has proven.” To my knowledge, systematically comparing and measuring the affects of different training approaches on dogs in a controlled study has not been done.
The claims made in this excerpt, and similar claims made in magazines, books, and on TV, are based on anecdotal evidence, one’s own personal experience or observations. If a trainer only uses one training approach and they get even a mild behavior improvement, they can basically make the claim that their training is effective, including me! The difference between Victoria Stilwell and me is that I’ve never claimed that the way I train dogs is the one and only acceptable method. I acknowledge that there is more than one effective and fair way to train a dog. And as a trainer I’ve had several clients who have completed all-positive training programs with other trainers and been unhappy with the results, even if they saw a mild behavior improvement. My personal anecdotal evidence shows me that using a leash to correct a dog can be effective and humane, as can using an e-collar (shock collar).
Ideology versus Reality
The difference in training approaches really comes down to two opposing concepts: ideology versus reality. “All-positive” training is really one group of people’s “ideal” vision for dog training, or an ideology presented as scientific fact, using a combination of anecdotal evidence and rhetoric to try to convince people to accept it. Touting the approach as “humane,” “safe,” and “dog-friendly” implies that other approaches are “inhumane,” “dangerous,” or “mean.” It doesn’t seem like such a big deal. After all, we’re a highly political, free speech, free market society. We’re constantly expected to sort through propaganda and rhetoric from advertisers, politicians, and religious institutions. So why not just let the all-positive propaganda run wild? Why this raining on the all-positive propaganda parade? Consider these potential consequences:
- The well-intentioned owner that truly believes the only appropriate training approach is an all-positive one that doesn’t use a leash correction, who’s made their best effort at all-positive training without success. Now this owner faces the decision to euthanize or give up her dog because the behavior problems weren’t able to be fixed by the one training option that she’s been told is “safe” and “humane.” In reality, an e-collar or a well-timed physical correction could very well have provided a solution to her problem.
- Extrapolate the above example to an entire animal shelter that has adopted an all-positive training curriculum. If all-positive training is not successful at rehabilitating dogs in the population, those dogs are euthanized because the shelter can’t in good conscience place them in homes. In addition, these dogs (most of whom have behavior problems through no fault of their own) are competing with other dogs with less severe problems or whose problems may be effectively addressed with all-positive training—the shelter’s single training approach. If they refuse to try all training avenues available to rehabilitate these dogs, they face certain death.
- In Wales (UK) e-collars have been banned from use. They are now illegal. This is a scary example where the all-positive rhetoric, the supposedly innocent ideology presented as fact, was successful in persuading a governing body to take away the freedom of choice and an effective training option for dog owners. Imagine the frustration for those dog owners that the e-collar fixed their behavior problem and allowed them to keep their dog.
The counterpoint to this training approach, which places primary emphasis on ideology, is training approaches that consider humanity and safety, but are also based in the realities of dogs and peoples’ day to day interactions with their dogs. All-positive dog training was adapted from orca training—in which captive dolphins and killer whales are trained using positive reinforcement, earning food rewards when the right behavior is performed and losing out on the food when the behavior is not performed. The savvy observer distinguishes some subtle differences between orcas and dogs. For example, dogs are land mammals that are significantly smaller than killer whales. Dogs live with us in our homes and interact with the public-at-large, riding with us in our cars and accompanying us to the park, whereas dolphins are safely tucked away behind fiberglass. So how does a training approach primarily based on ideology and behavior theory developed for orcas, handle the real-world training needs of owning a canine? Quite frankly, there are many problems it doesn’t effectively address, such as proofing a dog’s abilities with distractions (not so much an issue for captive orcas).
Not ironically, there isn’t a good all-positive and completely “non-aversive” way to proof a dog’s obedience proficiency without an interruption (correction or redirection), essentially, a consequence for allowing themselves to be distracted. A popular training “tool” in the all positive camp is treats. The treat is offered as a reward for achievement (similar to the bucket of fish for the dolphin), and it is not given if the dog does not perform. Now, if what is happening in the environment happens to be more interesting or rewarding than the treat you have in your hand, you have no available recourse to get your dog’s attention or otherwise redirect them. All you can do is NOT give the reward and ignore the bad decision. Again, not a problem for orcas, but for your dog that might want to take off after a rabbit, it could be a life or death distinction.
I’ve seen many all-positive trained dogs that actually resemble Sea World dolphins. They can spin, jump, flip, roll over, and beg while there’s a treat in sight or the promise of a food reward. They enthusiastically perform a whole program of tricks. But when it comes to necessary real-world behaviors like politely walking down the street or doing a command in the presence of the mildest distraction or when they don’t feel like it, the training falls apart, exemplifying how the ideological training approach ultimately breaks down in the reality of the world we live in with our dogs.
Compared to dolphins, dogs exist in a very different world, have a more intimate relationship with humans (physically and emotionally), and have different qualities that impact the way they learn. That’s the truth; that’s the reality. All-positive dog training derived from orcas and behavior and learning theory derived from studying rats in cages doesn’t acknowledge these important differences.
Like I said initially, it’s not my intention to try to convince you to train your dog using one particular, superior method. You may be better-suited to do all-positive training with your dog because of your personality, while your dog may be better-suited to an e-collar training program—in this case your results may be mixed, whereas if you and your dog are well-suited to the same training approach, you have a better chance to get maximum results. The real key is using factual information to determine an approach that is both comfortable for you and effective for the dog. I encourage you to question and think critically about the dog training information you come across. Once you’ve separated the fact from the opinion, make your own decision for what works for you and your dog in your life.