When a Training Tool is Not

There is always much debate on the use of train­ing tools in the dog world: which ones to use, which ones are bet­ter, which ones are mean, etc.  And, as usual, it seems like every­one has a dif­fer­ent opin­ion.  Every arti­cle, trainer, book, neigh­bor, and TV show has dif­fer­ent thoughts on what YOU should be doing with your dog.

I could go on all day weigh­ing the pros and cons of each piece of train­ing equip­ment and where I see it used best and could prob­a­bly make an argu­ment for and against just about any­thing.  I am a pos­i­tive trainer (although I hate labels… more on that later) and I don’t want to give the “The Unabrideged His­tory of Behav­ior Mod­i­fi­ca­tion” here, I just want to talk about the times I see train­ing tools used poorly, or more specif­i­cally, not used for train­ing so we can rec­og­nize our train­ing weak spots and improve them.  Okay, here we go…

A train­ing tool is not when…

  • It is not being used with any inten­tion.  It is slapped on or whipped out to get com­pli­ance, not to build a behav­ior.  Take off the col­lar and the dog pulls just as hard.
  • The behav­ior dis­ap­pears, or reap­pears, with­out the tool present.  Hide the squirt bot­tle and the dog begins bark­ing again.
  • Once trained, the tool is still required to get the behav­ior.  The dog knows sit but wants to see that you have treats before doing so.
  • The tool does noth­ing to change the behav­ior.  Yell at the dog to stop jump­ing but the jump­ing con­tin­ues nevertheless.
  • No alter­na­tive behav­ior is given, so the behav­ior remains for lack of the dog being given any­thing bet­ter to do despite their often being strong neg­a­tive emo­tions asso­ci­ated.  I will go into this more later on.

In all these cases the inten­sion is good but the exe­cu­tion needs work.  The tool may have been used cor­rectly to start but not weaned off prop­erly, or never used well in the first place.  Here are some com­mon exam­ples I see and how to trou­bleshoot them.  But first…

 Moti­va­tors shall remain, no mat­ter how well trained your dog is.

This is impor­tant to keep in mind.  What­ever tool you are using to moti­vate your dog to work for you: play, access to things, dis­com­fort, food, you will always need to con­tinue using moti­va­tion on some level and in some way.  You may be able to get a lot more bang for your moti­va­tion buck, chain a lot of behav­iors together, build more com­pli­cated and chal­leng­ing behav­iors, and cre­ate emo­tional asso­ci­a­tions with the behav­iors that you are build­ing so that they can stand more on their own, but you should know that dogs, like peo­ple, won’t con­tinue work­ing if they’re not get­ting paid in some way (or not being pun­ished for not work­ing as the case may be).  So there is no sce­nario in which your dog will con­tinue work­ing for you for­ever with­out any con­se­quences, despite how it may appear to you, and I would avoid any trainer (like the plague) who would tell you otherwise.

 Here are some com­mon errors and their examples…

Leash walk­ing tools that are not paired with train­ing.  This can be head hal­ters or front-attach har­nesses but I most com­monly see this with pinch/prong col­lars.  The owner will often say “he walks great now that we have the prong col­lar but when we take it off he’s a bull­dozer again”.

In this sce­nario leash walk­ing is depen­dent on the tool because the dog has never actu­ally been trained to walk on a leash.  They don’t know how to move into leash pres­sure, how to notice ten­sion in the leash and respond accord­ingly, how to check-in with you instead of scan­ning the world around them.  They have not learned any emo­tional con­trol or leash walk­ing skills, they are just respond­ing to dis­com­fort when they hit the end of the leash and feel the prongs in their neck.

The solu­tion is to actu­ally teach leash walk­ing.  Sorry, there’s just no way around this.  If there’s any­thing to be learned from this post, it’s that there are really good train­ing tools and tech­niques that make train­ing much eas­ier but there are no magic bul­lets.  Noth­ing will replace actual training.

Yelling or man­han­dling that does not change the behav­ior but does cause extra­ne­ous behav­ior prob­lems (like avoid­ing you when you’re angry) or exac­er­bate emo­tions some­times caus­ing the behav­ior to actu­ally get worse.  I most com­monly see this with jump­ing up on peo­ple or with dogs that growl at other dogs in cer­tain sce­nar­ios.  The owner will yell at the dog, wres­tle the dog off the per­son, or grab the dogs muz­zle and yell in the dog’s face to stop.

There are two things going on here.  The first is that the pun­isher, yelling at or grab­bing at the dog, is not actu­ally pun­ish­ing, mean­ing it is not unpleas­ant enough to change the dog’s behavior.

The sec­ond is that the dog is given no alter­na­tive behav­iors to do instead, no way to cope with their strong feel­ings dur­ing greet­ings, or no way to avoid the dog that they don’t want to greet.  They are given no out and are then yelled at for behav­ing well… like dogs.

The solu­tion for this is a lit­tle more com­pli­cated as it has to address the some­times very strong emo­tions that are at play and most impor­tantly, can’t be solely about pulling out a stronger pun­isher (well if yelling doesn’t work, how about a shock col­lar).  That is going down a dan­ger­ous path that may end up men­tally ruin­ing your dog.  Even those sport train­ers who do use e-collars reg­u­larly make sure to train every behav­ior to a very high level of under­stand­ing before even con­sid­er­ing the use of such tools.

Some­times these dogs just need some instruc­tion on how to behave, some­times they need more social­iza­tion (they are react­ing strongly to things they are not exposed to enough), some­times they need more men­tal and phys­i­cal stim­u­la­tion (they are bot­tled up and going crazy), and some­times they need to not be put in stress­ful sit­u­a­tions (not taken to the dog park on busy days).  It really depends on the indi­vid­ual dog and is usu­ally a com­bi­na­tion of things.

Never teach­ing a real cue for some­thing so the reward is the cue.  This is most com­mon when using food in train­ing and is a nor­mal step in train­ing, but just one in which most peo­ple never move past.  This is the “he won’t sit unless I have a treat” sce­nario.  This is from a lack of under­stand­ing that the cue for sit is actu­ally the word (or hand sig­nal or what­ever) and is not the pres­ence of food, because up until this moment, the dog has rarely been told to sit with­out food in hand and so has never really paid to much atten­tion to the word (because the food is a much more obvi­ous cue).

This can be eas­ily resolved by ran­domly get­ting the dog’s atten­tion (with­out food) and ask­ing the dog to sit.  They won’t sit of course because there’s no food appar­ent.  Prompt them into the sit how­ever you nor­mally do, or if you have to, go get some food and lure them into sit.  If done enough times, “sit” with­out food, pause, and prompt, and the dog will be sit­ting with­out food present.

This is the same with pun­ish­ers like in the squirt bot­tle for bark­ing.  If the dog is warned first and then the squirt bot­tle brought out, the dog will quickly learn to quiet down for the ver­bal cue alone to avoid the water bottle.*

*This is going down the same rab­bit hole as in the jump­ing sce­nario.  So please, before you sign up for the squirt bot­tle, have a real hon­est no-ego sit-down with your­self about why your dog is bark­ing in the first place and try to resolve that prob­lem first.  Just like the jump­ing, the bark­ing is a symp­tom of the prob­lem and that needs to be addressed first.

So there you have it, a short list of exam­ples where I com­monly see train­ing tools not being used for train­ing, and some ways to trou­bleshoot that in your own training.

Happy train­ing!


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