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  • Writer's pictureKari Bastyr, MS, CDBC, CPCN

Dog Training: Force Free? Balanced? Natural? Positive? What to Look for and Avoid when Hiring a Dog Trainer

poodle dog training

Kari Bastyr, MS, CDBC, VSPDT and Louisa Morrissey, CPDT-KA, VSPDT

Because most dogs are adopted through shelters and at an older age, many of them come with behavior issues that other people have reinforced. While secondhand dogs are wonderful and have a lot of love to give, it can be frustrating to try and change the bad behaviors while you try and train the behaviors you want. Equally important are young puppies learning how to grow up to be well-behaved, stable, happy, and calm. Teaching commands is important to all dogs, but the main focus, we believe, should be on teaching ‘impulse control’ and ‘manners’ while rewarding your dog for doing it right, instead of focusing on what he is doing wrong. Your dog can know every command in the book, but if he can’t calm down and focus to do a ‘sit’ in a high-stress or excitable environment, is ‘performing’ out of fear of pain or physical punishment, or doesn’t know how to do the command outside of your house, then ‘obedience’ is a moot point.

The first step in helping your dog listen with distractions and without fear, and more importantly, be motivated to listen to you because you have a loving and trusting relationship, is to find the right ‘positive reinforcement’ trainer. There is a lot of wonderful information out there on using rewards to train your dog, but there is also a lot of misinformation regarding training in general. Many dog trainers purport to use only positive reinforcement, but then use shock or prong collars when they believe a dog ‘needs more’. That is NOT positive reinforcement. Other trainers aim to use a ‘balanced’ or ‘holistic’ approach to dog training. What most dog owners don’t know or understand is that ‘balanced dog training’ means the trainer uses all four quadrants of operant conditioning: Positive Reinforcement, Negative Reinforcement, Positive Punishment, and Negative Punishment.

Positive Reinforcement: Presenting a positive stimulus to increase the likelihood of the behavior Negative Reinforcement: Taking away an aversive stimulus to increase the likelihood of the behavior Positive Punishment: Presenting an aversive stimulus to decrease the likelihood of the behavior Negative Punishment: Taking away an aversive stimulus to decrease the likelihood of the behavior

Notice that ‘reinforcement’ always increases behavior and ‘punishment’ always decreases behavior. Also note that Negative Reinforcement does not mean ‘punishment’, nor that bad things happen. The term is often used incorrectly in dog training. Therefore, a ‘balanced trainer’ may shock your dog for grabbing something off the counter, but then give him praise once the dog gets off the counter. A trainer using a ‘balanced approach’ will use a prong collar to leash correct your dog for growling at you, then give him a treat for stopping. This type of training is not only confusing to dogs, but severely undermines their confidence and trust in humans.

A new term called ‘force free’ training is also being widely used. Originally, this term was coined by trainers using only positive reinforcement (giving rewards for the correct behavior) or negative punishment (taking away rewards to decrease unwanted behavior such as walking away when a dog jumps). These trainers are dedicated to never using a method or tool that physically hurts or intimidates a dog, hence the term ‘force free’. Many trainers that use prong or shock collars have realized that most of the dog-owning public really does not like the idea of hurting their companions in the name of training. To cover up the fact that they use painful training methods and to appeal to the public, these shock collar trainers have now stolen the term ‘force free’ to apply to shock collar training as well.

You will also find people who use ‘natural’ or ‘pack’ dog training. This is a very good time to dig deep in your research! Often these types of trainers are using the outdated and incorrect ‘dominance theory’ to train you and your dog. This theory states that since dogs and wolves are related, and wolves use a rigid hierarchy to control the pack, that dogs do the same. They propose we need to be ‘alpha’ to our dogs, which couldn’t be further from the truth. The following is the modern information supported by animal behaviorists who have a Masters Degree or Doctorate from a researched-based animal behavior program and/or accredited university. (Beware of the self-proclaimed ‘behaviorists’ and ask for their degree. Many dog trainers say they are ‘behaviorists’ when they barely have a high school education).

The data that says wolves work in a strict hierarchy came from a study of captive wolves in a zoo done in the 1930s. Recent wolf studies show that wild wolf packs are a functioning, fluid family unit in which each individual is essential to the survival of the entire group and energy wasted on intra-pack violence is detrimental to the survival of all. Next, while wolves and dogs share a common ancestor, dogs have been domesticated by humans for a few 10,000 years. We have selected animals that work with us, read our body language, and understand our emotions. The modern domesticated dog is not a wolf, plain and simple, and does not need to know us humans are ‘alpha’.

Finally, the dog-human connection is a fascinating inter-species relationship. Dogs know that we are humans as much as they know a cat is a cat and not a dog! But why would you not want to use a trainer using the dominance theory? By approaching all of training from the viewpoint of dominance only, one misses some very important causes of a dog’s behavior such as medical problems, lack of training, anxiety, poor diet, fear, learned behavior, genetics, or simply a dog trying to adjust in the first month of adoption to a new environment. Additionally, the dominance theory type of training instantly creates a confrontational relationship between a person and their dog, as the person is required to establish, and maintain at all times, an alpha status. Do you really want that relationship with your dog? Wouldn’t you rather learn to train your dog through reward-based methods, respectfully communicate with them, and have the deeply fulfilling relationship you are dreaming of?

We receive calls from potential clients every day who are doing their due diligence… googling ‘dog trainer’ and calling around to see who has the best deal, who can do the ‘fastest’ work, and who is available. These are the wrong things to ask when looking for a dog trainer. First and foremost, ask if he or she uses ONLY positive motivation and reinforcement. Many trainers use pain-inflicting motivation, but say they use positive reinforcement. They will shock your dog, or jerk your dog off the ground, but not tell you that they do that. And why would they? Would you really bring your dog to a board & train program if you knew horrific things would happen while she was there? Ask which type of training tools they use with a dog, and ask specifically if they use choke, prong, or shock collars at any time. Ask where they received their education. Ask if they have references, both from clients and from colleagues. Ask what they will do when your dog gets it wrong.

Does the trainer offer a method that ‘guarantees results for all dogs’? How many of you think that is realistically true? You’re right, it’s unrealistic! Each dog is an individual. Each person is an individual and the relationship forged between them is unique. While we live in a fast food, two-minute, sound-bite culture, the honest truth is that training takes time. Relationships take time, respect, and effort, whether those relationships are between two people or between a person and their dog. A good trainer will be honest with you about the time and work that will be involved in training your dog.

The best way to find a reward-based trainer in your area is to search professional organizations like The Pet Professional Guild, Victoria Stilwell Positively network, Karen Pryor Clicker Trainer network, Fear Free Pets, or ask your friends and family if they use a dog trainer who believes in pain-free training. Reward-based training also doesn’t just mean feeding your dog a lot of treats. Food is a great motivator, and a great paycheck (would you work without a paycheck?), but good trainers wean off treats really quickly so you and your dog do not become dependent on them. Positive motivation is key, rather than making your dog afraid of you so he’ll behave. But when a trainer says he or she doesn’t believe in treats or rewards, run the other direction! If your dog has aggression issues, please don’t use aggressive techniques, as that will invariably make your dog worse or ruin him. Good trainers will focus on the anxiety and insecurity causing the aggression, and not just punish the aggression to make your dog to shut down. If your dog is shut down, he may not be aggressing, but the punishment will only increase his general anxiety and fear and potentially make him dangerous.

Above all, a good trainer will use techniques and tools that will enhance the bond between you and your dog, rather than destroy it. Training methods and tools that cause intimidation or pain deeply damage the human/canine bond. Training methods that are pain and fear-free, and based on positive reinforcement will deepen and strengthen your bond. A good trainer will be there for the long term as the relationship between you and your dog develops, and if you need help over your dog’s entire lifetime.

Have fun, and don’t forget to reward and positively motivate your dog- he or she will thank you!

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