There are so many different options available when you start looking for a dog trainer and considering dog training approaches and tools. Some approaches are specific types of handling, some are defined by the tools used, some are specific programs or even methods.
Of course, an approach or tool is only as effective (or not) as the trainer using them. So it’s important to consider the expertise, experience level, and personality of the trainer involved. Here are a few approaches (broadly defined) you’ll often see:
- Leash and collar (aka balanced training or traditional training)
- “All Positive”, Clicker, or Marker training
- Koehler Method of Dog Training (KMODT)
- Remote Collar (aka shock collar training, e-collar training)
- Bark Busters®
- Dog Behaviorists/behavioral modification (found at some vet clinics and at colleges/universities)
So, what training approach is right?
No single tool or approach is the solution for everyone. That’s why it’s important to have a clear understanding of your needs and lifestyle, your dog’s personality, and how different approaches attempt to address the specific behavior issues you’re dealing with.
To figure out which approach is best for you, consider a few factors:
- What approach will allow you to reinforce the training as close to 100% of the time as possible?
- What approach are you comfortable with and/or do you enjoy?
- What approach best addresses the specific behavior problems you’re experiencing?
The definition of a “trained” dog and how training works
In order to have a productive discussion about training methods, we need to first have a clear understanding of what dog training entails and what it means to successfully train your dog. When discussing dog training, there’s usually an implication that the process has a definitive start and end point. At the start, the dog is untrained; at the end, they are trained. While a training class may last for 60-minutes over the course of six weeks, your dog is always learning even after you leave class for the day or “graduate” after six weeks.
As soon as your dog is born, the learning process begins with his mother, littermates, and the world around him. Throughout his life, he is constantly learning from other animals, people (especially you), and his surroundings. This “incidental learning” tends to lead to many behavior problems because the dog makes incorrect or unwanted associations.
Obedience training is a human invention that formalizes the learning process by teaching the dog what YOU want him to learn rather than leaving it up to him. Regardless of training style, the only way to get reliable obedience training results is to reinforce the training and your expectations as much as possible, ideally 100% of the time. If you tell your dog to “sit” but you don’t reinforce it every time, instead of learning the command reliably, he learns that “sit” means only under certain conditions (the leash is on, you’re standing beside him, or you’re holding a treat in your hand), or in certain places (standing in the kitchen next to the treat jar, or at the training facility).
It takes between four and six thousand successful repetitions of a single behavior for a dog to generalize it. This means that your dog won’t be reliable until you’ve had extended practice in many different places and circumstances (called “proofing”). For some dogs, this takes months or even years to achieve. This cannot be over-stated, so I’ll say it again: Teaching your dog some commands in the living room does not constitute a reliably-trained dog. The approach and tools you use need to, at some point, afford you the ability to effectively proof your dog in a variety of conditions and environments for him to be considered reliably trained.
Obedience training and/or behavior modification is sought by frustrated owners to address unwanted behavior that often develops as a result of the dog teaching himself. This increases the training challenge because he’s not just learning something new, he’s also unlearning something old.
Now that you have a better understanding of what it entails to train your dog to get reliable results, when it comes to training approach, the real questions are:
- What approach/tool will enable you to reinforce the correct behavior with your dog with as close to 100% consistency as possible and over a period of time (weeks, months)?
- What approach is enjoyable enough for you to want to continue to use it consistently, possibly over the lifetime of your dog?
Your comfort level
What we don’t know usually scares us. Your comfort level with a training method, tool, and instructor are very important because if you’re not comfortable it’s unlikely you’ll reinforce the training. If you don’t reinforce the training, your chances of long-term success are zero.
A few important questions to ask yourself when considering different training approaches are:
- How do I feel about this form of interaction with my dog? For example, am I comfortable saying “no” to my dog or does that make me feel guilty?
- Is this interaction something I can realistically continue to do for the rest of my dog’s life to reinforce the training? Do I enjoy it or does it feel like work?
- Do I like how my dog looks and behaves during this interaction? Does he look engaged and eager to learn or shutdown?
Remember, it might take months or even years of consistent reinforcement to create a truly reliable response in your dog, depending on how consistent you are and how effective the approach is for your dog’s particular behavior problem and temperament. Even if he masters the initial training in a few months, I guarantee there will be situations in the future where you’ll have to return to the training tool and method to refresh the expectations in a new place or under new circumstances.
As with any big life decision (what car to buy, what college to attend, what job proposal to accept), it’s up to you to do your homework and make a decision based on good information. Good information means going right to the source, speaking with a trainer that actually uses the tool or method in question rather than just relying on a neighbor’s recommendation or simply signing up with the first training school that pops up on your Google search.
You may also have to step outside of your comfort zone. Weigh your dog’s learning needs against your own comfort. You may discover that a certain trainer, approach, or tool is particularly effective with your dog. The proof is in the pudding. If your dog responds favorably but you don’t feel comfortable, it may be wise for you to adjust to become comfortable with the tool or approach that your dog is mindful to.
Addressing your specific problems
Not all training approaches and handling techniques are created equal for addressing specific behavior problems, especially in a given timeframe. Dogs that are very sensitive will need patience, time, and a lot of positive reinforcement without coddling to gain confidence. Dogs that are more outgoing and confident may progress faster through training and may not need as sensitive a handling approach.
When exploring training methods, think about the specific behavior problems you’re facing and what your perceived timeline is for resolving those issues and ask pointed questions of prospective trainers about how they and their approach would be used to address the issue. Getting past generalizations and sales pitches and determining how they will successfully use their approach and tools to train your dog will help you have a better understanding of whether or not it will work for you.
A word of caution
I encourage you to speak to trainers that specialize in the tools and methods you want to learn about and keep an open mind. Remember, dog training is a highly competitive industry and all trainers have a personal agenda (getting the sale, of course). Unfortunately, sometimes this means trainers do unscrupulous things, intentionally or unintentionally. This ranges from a well-intentioned trainer taking on a case they really aren’t equipped to handle, to a trainer bad-mouthing another trainer or approach in the hopes of scaring you away from the competition.
If a trainer makes you feel guilty or uncomfortable about considering a particular method, trainer, or training tool, I’d encourage you to keep looking. For more specific tips and information about finding a trainer, see “Selecting a Dog Trainer That’s Right for You“, and “Of Dogma and Dogmen (and Women)“.