Dog Training Philosophy - Level 2
Dog Training Philosophy
Learn about the history and premise for each main training theory, plus arguments for and against each method.
By Gavin Ehringer
There are two predominant philosophies to dog training. Debate wages on as to which approach is best, with varying claims in the areas of effectiveness and humane tactics. To better understand training philosophy, here is a look at two methodologies.
On one hand is the pack theory of dog training. Its basic premise is that dogs, as domesticated wolves, look to an “alpha” leader. Its advocates argue that in order to have domestic tranquility, a dog owner must use subtle but consistent actions that establish authority: going first through doorways, controlling access to food and choosing the direction on walks, for instance. The idea is to become the leader, and discipline will follow.
On the other hand is the positive reinforcement school. Backed by animal behaviorists and researchers as well as trainers, this approach views the wolf model as unnecessary, even absurd. Good behaviors are rewarded, while undesired behaviors are ignored. These individuals emphasize rewards such as treats and lavish praise for good behavior. Often, a marker, such as a matchbook-sized box that makes a “click-click” sound, is used to let the animal know it has performed a desired action. Hence, the frequently used name clicker training.
The crux of training according to pack theory is that before you can teach a dog commands, you must first establish your alpha status through calm, assertive mind and body control.
Daily exercise, discipline and affection are the cornerstones of Cesar Millan’s method. According to Millan, star of the popular National Geographic Channel’s “Dog Whisperer” series, dog owners have no trouble giving affection, but they lack in the areas of exercise and discipline.
A family dog needs to understand what role he plays in the pack (the family). He also needs to have some use within the pack. In the wild, Millan notes, a wolf must work for food, water and the chance to breed. Access to these things is the result of a pecking order dominated by the alpha wolves. In the human/dog pack, humans must establish an order in which the dog acknowledges them as alpha leaders. When that foundation is missing, Millan says, the effects are anxiety, insecurity, fear and aggression.
Millan’s methods for correcting dogs’ behavior are often criticized as harsh. Positive reinforcement advocates don’t agree with the common alpha theory techniques of rolling dogs over to expose their bellies, grabbing them by scruff of the neck and employing hard tugs of the training leash or collar along with quick turns on the heel during walks.
Millan is the first to point out that such methods are reserved only for truly out-of-control dogs, the kinds he suggests need the help of a professional trainer. But all problems, he asserts, originate on the human-end of the leash.
England’s Jan Fennell, author of the book “The Dog Listener,” would agree on several points, but stops short of using many of Millan’s correction methods. Once a traditional trainer, Fennell grew dissatisfied with the common sit, stay, down training procedures. She didn’t like the methods of controlling the dog, shaking it or forcing it to do certain behaviors. She employs a pack training method that involves listening to the dogs, working with their nature and getting them to choose her as leader by their own freewill.
From observing wolves in the wild in Wyoming, Fennell says that dogs, although no longer part of the wolf pack, still retain their wolf instincts. Body language that is calm but assertive and strong is the key to establishing status and a bond with your animals.
According to Fennell, using the correct body language in routine tasks like greeting the dog after a day at work, feeding him the proper way and walking the dog with the correct posture will assert your place at the top of the pack.
Positive reinforcement training is based on the work of animal behaviorist B.F. Skinner, who found that delivery of a positive stimulus after a desired behavior results in an increase of that behavior. The use of a clicker is courtesy of Ivan Pavlov of the famous “Pavlov’s dogs” experiments. The basic idea of positive reinforcement training is to reward desired behaviors (such as sitting or walking nicely on leash) so the dog continues to do them, and ignore bad behaviors (such as jumping up or excessive barking) so the dog stops doing them.
The process works like this: First, the dog is presented with something he likes, generally a food reward. At the same time, he hears the “click-click” of the training device (it can also be a whistle, or simply the trainer saying “Yes!”). Once the dog associates the sound with the treat, he anticipates the reward for good behavior.
Unlike the species-specific pack dog theory, positive reinforcement works on all animals says one of its earliest and most respected advocates, Karen Pryor. Her book, “Don’t Shoot the Dog,” even shows how positive methods can be used to motivate a sloppy housemate to pick up laundry.
According to Pryor, the click starts a dopamine cascade in the brain, which feels like a rush of pleasurable emotions. The clicker becomes the signal for excitement. The food just primes the brain to become excited at the sound of the click, the same way Pavlov’s dogs salivated at the sound of the bell -- they knew a food reward was forthcoming.
Pryor says the reason well-timed positive reinforcement works is that it puts the dog in a seeking mode in which he actively works to find behaviors that will be rewarded. For instance, a puppy will stand by the door to be let outside to potty if he thinks that will earn him a treat.
The clicker’s advantage is that it can mark a behavior the moment the animal gets it right. If you want a dolphin to jump and spin in the air, you can’t give it a fish at the moment it does the trick. Instead, you click to signal that a reward will follow. Similarly, if a dog quietly lies down on his bed, the trainer can mark the behavior from the other side of the room with a timely “click!” Advocates argue that learning is much faster with this method because the animal immediately knows when it performs the right thing.
Another aspect of positive training is taking things away that the dog desires. Dog trainer Pamela Dennison offers the example of a dog pulling on a leash: Instead of yanking on the dog, which only leads to more pulling, you simply stop. Because the dog wants to walk, taking away the action of walking until the dog relaxes the leash is like taking away his reward. Dennison refers to this as “negative reinforcement.” It is negative in the sense that something desirable is subtracted.
Gavin Ehringer has covered the companion animal scene since 1990. With a background training both livestock dogs and horses, he has written for dozens of magazines including Western Horseman, Horse & Rider, Cowboys & Indians, American Cowboy, and elsewhere. He owns, trains and exhibits Australian Shepherds in conformation, obedience, disc dog and agility. He is at work on his seventh book, “Coming to the Fire: The Unnatural History of Dogs, Cats, Horses & Cows.”
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