Why I train this way...


Let's just get this one out of the way right up front...

I emphasize the fact that I don't use force (which I loosely define as the use of pain, fear, or intimidation) to train dogs. Why do I bring that up so often? The answer is simple.

Many trainers, including many in my area, do use pain, fear, and intimidation to train.

One problem with the dog training industry (there are plenty) is that it's not regulated. That means ANY person can order business cards and call themselves a dog trainer in our country. You don't have to be qualified. You don't have to have an education about dog training. And you can use any method you'd like. No one gets a dog with the intention of hurting it. But they take their dogs to professionals and have every reason to believe that person they are paying is knowledgeable on the latest methods, is upfront and honest about the fallout of their methods, and has the same commitment to treating dogs kindly as the pet owner. And yet, it's fairly common to see dogs on prong collars, shock collars, and choke chains as recommended by "dog trainers."

Why do they train that way?

Well, to be honest, it often works. After you burn your hand on the stove, you keep your hand away from the hot burner, right? Pain is a very strong motivator. If you shocked me on my neck until I sat down, I'd learn to sit down quickly - wouldn't you?

But the use of pain has two main problems in my opinion:

  1. There's a risk of serious unintended consequences. The science here is clear. The use of this type of training can lead to "inhibition of learning, increased fear-related and aggressive behaviors, and injury to animals and people interacting with animals." That's from the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior's Position Statement on the Use of Punishment for Behavior Modification in Animals, and I can provide plenty of other sources which list the downsides of using pain in training situations.
    Imagine this simple scenario. A dog named Rover is playing in the dog park with a prong collar on. Your friendly dog approaches and starts to play with Rover. Dogs often play pretty rough (and love it). Your dog play-bites Rover on the neck (very normal behavior). The prong collar hurts Rover and he thinks that your dog caused it. Now, he doesn't see your dog as a playful friend - he thinks your dog hurt him. And this happens over and over to poor Rover. Pretty soon, he starts thinking, "every time I want to play with another dog, they hurt me - I'm going to start chasing dogs away by barking and growling so they don't hurt me anymore." Animals easily generalize fear and pretty soon, Rover's owner is wondering why he's acting aggressively with all strange dogs.
  2. It's simply not necessary. We have equally-effective, safe, pain/fear/intimidation-free methods for training animals these days. All animals. Yes, ALL. I use the same methods they use in zoos and aquariums to train bears to offer their arms for blood draws, gorillas to consent to health exams, hippos to open their mouths and wait patiently for tooth brushing, electric eels to voluntarily swim into a net for transfer to another tank, and dolphins and whales to perform tricks for shows. And these methods work for dogs. Of all breeds. Of all ages. With any behavior problem.

So, why do others still use shock and prong collars to train? There are several simple reasons.

They don't know any other way. There are literally trainers who have been using the same methods for more than 40 years. It's all they know.

  • I'll continue learning from my mentor and her team, from conferences, from additional classes I'll keep taking, and by staying up-to-date on important research in our field. None of the true behavior specialists out there use pain. I won't either.

They are unwilling to change.

  • Many (most?) of us are at least partially resistant to change. Wouldn't it be so much easier if everything stayed the same and we didn't have to keep re-learning things we already know? But I actually get pretty excited about learning new ways to help dogs in ways that are less intrusive, more fun, and equally effective. I'll keep learning, and keep changing, as research produces better ways to train dogs.

They don't mind causing pain to dogs. 

  • I do mind. A lot. I see the use of shock and prong collars as absolutely unethical. Families don't get a dog so they can cause it pain. It's heartbreaking when their trainers convince them to use such methods by describing them as "merely a tingle," or "imitating the gentle correction of a mother's bite," or "we have to make sure he sees you as dominant." (There will be a post about dominance coming - short version: dogs don't see humans as part of the dominance hierarchy at all so worrying about whether or not your dog is trying to dominate you is a waste of time despite the claims of people who are spouting outdated and inaccurate ideas.)

Let me repeat something: the use of pain (shock and prong collars) is unethical. 

Several countries have banned their use entirely. I look forward to the day that's the case here. It won't happen soon. But the more educated dog owners become about dog training, the less they'll be willing to inflict inferior training methods on their animals. Please help spread the word.

I realize none of what I said above actually answers an important question: "So, how do you train?"

  • I use positive reinforcement to teach dogs what we DO want them to do.
  • I ignore bad behaviors knowing that dogs do what works - when a behavior no longer gets the dog what they want, they give up (that's a bit of an oversimplification - I'm happy to explain more if you ask).
  • I sometimes use time outs to teach the dog that a particular behavior gets them the opposite of what they want (attention, playtime, etc.).
  • I mainly use food treats to reinforce behaviors. Sometimes I use play. It depends on the particular situation and what's motivating the dog at the time. I don't believe that praise, petting, or the inaccurate belief that "dogs want to please us" are effective. Again, that's a really scaled-down explanation and I'm happy to tell you more if you're interested.

I hope that gives a clearer picture of why I don't use force and what I do use instead.


Tim Steele