Don’t be an idiot; don’t use shock collars

While renewing my commitment to training our dogs and brushing up on the literature, I am reminded of a few simple dog-training truths. You know all of these things already, but I am scribbling these principles here as a strong reminder and encouragement to myself.

Rudd Weatherwax training Lassie. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Dog training is hard, you feel me?

Good training requires a lot of commitment.

People are lazy. Myself included. This is why we have dogs with behavior problems that don’t seem to improve. This is why our dogs frustrate us and we feel like neither party is clearly communicating with the other. This is why young dogs are getting adopted out and then returned to shelters a few weeks later.

The truth is that we’re always training our dogs to do something, even when we think we aren’t. Successful training requires a lot of commitment, awareness, and conscientiousness on the part of the dog owner.

You have to be intelligent to be a good trainer.

Time to be offensive!

If you want to be a positive reinforcement trainer, intelligence may be a prerequisite — or at least a mild level of intelligence. The less intelligent or less patient among us resort to shock-collar training because it’s easy. This may seem like an extreme statement, but I don’t know of any great positive trainers who aren’t also very intelligent. I also don’t know of any people using shock collars or physical or psychological intimidation who know much (if any) canine science.

Lately, I’ve become increasingly enraged by the success of a shock-collar “training” organization in my area. The “trainers” are not certified by any national training organization, at least according to their website — because why would they need to be? All you need to know is how to push a buzzer to shock your dog in the neck. Small children can be “successful” shock-collar trainers.

I’m very dismayed with the rescue that we got our dogs from, as they have become increasingly involved with these shock-collar trainers. Whenever the rescue gets a slightly difficult German shepherd, they ship them off to “board and train” with the shock-collar folks. They love posting before and after videos of these dogs (in fact, the incisive Eileen from Eileen and Dogs has sampled from their videos in some of her excellent posts against shock collars). The rescue’s presence on Facebook and constant promotion of their “training” techniques is actually one of the main reasons I got off Facebook; I couldn’t take it anymore.

In their videos, you see a similar pattern: In the “before,” we get an energetic dog, with the trainer in the background saying stuff like, “As you can see, Roscoe isn’t trained at all, and he is crazy,” while the trainer yells “SIT!” at the dog when the dog is looking at someone else or playing with a toy on the asphalt. And then we get the “after”: All of the life in Roscoe’s eyes is gone. He now walks slowly and tensely next to the trainer, who is gripping the shocking device, and Roscoe now does everything the trainer asks him to do. The trainer exclaims, “See how well he heels now! Look how calm he is!” Yes. And see how you’ve utterly crushed his spirit. That is not a calm dog; that is a broken dog.

Just watch some videos of people working with clicker-trained dogs and compare. There is so much JOY in a positively trained dog. The positive dog is having fun with her human; they are strengthening their bond as mutual trust and encouragement is exchanged. The shock-collar-trained dog? No joy — and of course there isn’t! Would you be happy when you were working with someone who electrocuted your throat at various intervals? There is compliance, yes, but at what cost?

I’m not saying you need a PhD in animal behavior to clicker train your dog. But you do need to understand the basics of canine behavior and psychology, to understand why and how you need to do certain things. Otherwise, you will create very serious problems for yourself and your dog in the long run.

People. Be kind to your dogs. Learn some basic canine behavior and science before you start shocking them in the name of obedience training.

First day of school at Canine Campus
A poor photo of me working with Pyrrha in her first class, back in 2012.

How do we break the pattern of laziness, and thus the appeal of shock-collar training?

I’m just as lazy as the next person. If I hadn’t been welcomed into this dog blogging community and found Patricia McConnell before Cesar Millan, I might have resorted to intimidation-based training tactics. I understand why physical and psychological domination appeals to so many dog owners. But knowing what I now know about dogs, it chills my blood to see those techniques used on dogs.

What aspects of dog training do you wish more people knew? What reminders about dog training do you need to hear yourself?

 

Review: Don’t Shoot the Dog!

Don’t Shoot the Dog!

This classic book by landmark trainer and behaviorist Karen Pryor has been on my to-read list for almost a year now. Our public library didn’t carry a copy, but then I stumbled upon it at a used book sale for a $1. Perfect!

I actually had no idea that this book wasn’t exclusively a dog training book; Don’t Shoot the Dog! is actually a general primer on the techniques and methods of positive reinforcement training, applied to all kinds of animals–humans included. The book is not a step-by-step training manual, but rather a primer on why these positive techniques work in the first place.

Pryor is best known for being a leading proponent of clicker training, a method of reward and reinforcement that she began using while training dolphins. Clicker training has widespread application to many different types of animals and dogs, of course, respond very well to the use of clickers.

The book discusses the application of clickers in positive reinforcement training, but it spends more time explaining why clicker training works. Why do animals respond so well and so quickly to this schedule of training? Pryor has the answers, and she presents them cleanly and clearly in this book.

I almost wish I had read it earlier, as it would have been a nice foundation for my introduction to positive training. As it stands, however, I’m still glad I read it and glad to have that extra assurance that this is the type of training that is respectful and effective. I am looking forward to continuing to learn these techniques and put them into practice with my own dog in the coming months!

Review: Adopt the Perfect Dog

Adopt the Perfect Dog.

English trainer and author Gwen Bailey compiled this short and helpful introductory guide to dog adoption. Adopt the Perfect Dog was published by Reader’s Digest and is short and hands-on, filled with lots of photos and instructional side bars.

At this stage in my dog-book reading process, it wasn’t the most illuminating book. But that’s not Bailey’s fault: When I was reading this, I’d already read 52 other books about raising and training dogs (I know; I have a problem). Most of her advice and recommendations–while being very true and helpful–I’d already encountered numerous times. (I think I’m finally realizing that I’ve just about exhausted my dog reading potential. Until some other great book comes out, I may be nearing the end of my dog book list for now.)

This book would be a great place to start for someone who, again, was a total stranger to dog adoption, particularly adopting an adult dog and acclimating him or her into one’s home.

Bailey advocates positive reinforcement training techniques and provides clear, hands-on advice about how to introduce your dog to your family, how to set house rules, how to handle possessiveness, and how to avoid separation anxiety, among other things.

On the whole, I think I’d be more willing to recommend Petfinder’s guide to dog adoption, as it is far more comprehensive while also being very accessible to a first-time dog owner. But this is a nice, quick little book and it is not without value.

Review: Training the Hard-to-Train Dog

Training the Hard-to-Train Dog, by Peggy Swager

This slim, colorful little volume is a helpful and basic guide for people who have “difficult” dogs. Trainer Peggy Swager divides dogs into several categories, including those who are naturally very stubborn, independent, controlling, or shy. From these categories, Swager gives advice on how to train dogs with these specific temperaments.

I was relieved to find that Swager is a strong proponent of positive reinforcement training and she often pointed out that the dominating, physical punishment-based methods of training often backfire with shy, controlling, or stubborn dogs. Unfortunately, it is often these “hard-to-train” dogs who receive the most aversive and negative training techniques. But Swager emphasizes that gentleness and respect can go a long way with these difficult personalities.

Swager herself is a long-time parent and trainer of Jack Russell terriers, who are notoriously hard to control and train. I’ve worked with a few JRTs myself and experienced them enough to be thoroughly convinced that I don’t think I could handle one myself. She is a certified trainer and speaks with calm authority about the “problem” dogs she’s encountered.

Overall, the book’s advice skims the surface of the challenges of working with difficult dogs. Swager provides factual but elementary advice on training basic commands. While this information is helpful, I think the guardian of a truly difficult, hard-to-train dog would probably need to look elsewhere for more in-depth counsel. In any event, Training the Hard-to-Train Dog is a great place to start for any person with a shy, controlling, or stubborn pooch.

Review: The Dog Whisperer

The Dog Whisperer, by Paul Owens

No, it’s not Cesar Millan. This is Paul Owens, who called himself “The Dog Whisperer” five years before Millan’s show appeared on the National Geographic Channel. Liz (Bo‘s mom) lent me this book and said that she’d read it before she brought Bo home.

Paul Owens wants to be the yogi for your dog training. He’s a positive reinforcement trainer who believes very strongly in Eastern principles of breathing, meditation, and holistic health treatments. I thought it was certainly an interesting approach to dog training. Aside from his breathing exercises, though, Owens doesn’t offer a lot of new information in the way of positive training. I agreed with most of what he said, but I think I’d be more inclined to rely on Pat Miller‘s straightforward and helpful training guide for my own dog.

One thing that Owens does talk a lot about is that you should never speak soothingly to or try to comfort a frightened dog. A lot of dog training books tell you this. But is it actually true? Can trying to comfort your frightened dog actually reinforce her fear? Patricia McConnell, my all-things-dog hero, wrote an insightful article on her blog, “You Can’t Reinforce Fear: Dogs and Thunderstorms,” about this very issue. I tend to trust McConnell’s word on this one. She has a Ph.D. and is an applied animal behaviorist and she has the science to back up her experience. Even though Owens is also qualified, I’m inclined to listen to McConnell on this one. I highly recommend her article and its follow-up companion on the issue to anyone who’s received this advice before.

I did enjoy Owens’ section on what we feed our dogs. Dog food is something I’ve been doing a considerable amount of research about. It’s not something that I know about and I was astounded at how complex the dog food industry can be. There are a lot of different opinions floating around about what to feed our dogs, but the general consensus is that most brands of widely available dog food are absolutely terrible. I’ve really enjoyed the content on this extremely helpful website, Dog Food Advisor. I’ve already been researching the different types of kibble that I’d feed my dog and it’s been an extremely helpful place to start.

I’m curious to hear from you on this one. How did you decide what kind of food to feed your dog? Did you ever make any changes? Since I don’t know if I’d try a raw diet right away, is there a particular brand that you would recommend?

Review: The Other End of the Leash

The Other End of the Leash, by Patricia McConnell.

If you keep up with any dog training blogs or if you read dog training books, you’re bound to hear positive buzz around the name Patricia McConnell. Having read The Other End of the Leash, I can attest that this buzz is well deserved.

This book is a beautiful journey through the mind of your canine and it’s a much-needed reminder that our behavior around our dogs may be sending the entirely wrong signals. McConnell has a degree in animal behavioral science and her solid academic background often breaks through in the text. Yet she presents her findings with grace and ease, making her research and the behavioral principles displayed applicable to those of us who don’t have a Ph.D. in science.

McConnell also shares lots of insightful anecdotes about her experience with troubled dogs and their troublesome owners. These stories illuminate many of the positive training principles that she recommends. I also deeply enjoyed her heart-warming stories about her own dogs, a pack of border collies and a Great Pyrenees, who help her run her sheep farm in rural Wisconsin.

I was especially impressed with McConnell’s skill as a writer. There are not many books about dogs can boast such excellent, clear, and enjoyable prose. As an English major and a self-described literary snob, I found a lot of joy in this aspect of the book, too. It’s rare to find a great dog trainer who is also a skillful writer. McConnell, gratefully, is both.

I recommend this book to anyone who wants an inspiring and informational introduction into the world of canine behavior. After just a few chapters, McConnell will have you quickly evaluating your own postures and tones with your dog. It’s a beautiful book; I would certainly read it again.

If you can’t tell, I now count myself a loyal McConnell fan. I am eager to read the rest of her books, but in the meantime, I am gratified to that McConnell keeps a fairly regular blog by the same title as her book: The Other End of the Leash. The blog, like this book, come highly recommended by me.