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.