We train with kind and ethical methods

How do dogs learn?

The basis of all dog training is from how things make dogs feel. As they interact with the world, they learn that their behaviour has consequences. If they do something and it makes them feel good, they want to do it again. Similarly, if doing something feels unpleasant, they are put off doing it again.

Years ago, trainers used both aspects to teach their dog. There was a split which began post war and by the end of the 70’s, the dog world was divided.

The style of training we do is commonly called ethical, force- free or positive reinforcement. It focusses on rewarding desirable behaviour, so the dog wants to repeat it. They are motivated as they gain treats and nice times. In class, we do lure/ reward luring into position and rewarding as we teach the word and hand-signal. Studies found that dogs learn best with encouragement and are more likely to thrive and remember. We then show how to use the tasks in every day situations so that the dog is polite and people’s lives are easier. 

Anyone who have seen the telly will realise that this is poles apart from what most TV trainers usually say. That’s because there are currently 2 main opposing camps.

How the trainer is trained usually structures how they work.

Sue was initially trained under the dominance method and the obvious problems prompted much more further study. 

Positive reinforcement and pack leaders differ in method and reasoning.

“Positive reinforcement” or Ethical training

This type work with encouragement, teaching dogs to think out their options and communicate so that in the end, everyone wins. Developed via dog behavioural research, trainers use this method as dogs learn quickly and happily- and it optimises they way they remember. Behaviourists use positive reinforcement to change undesirable and/ or inappropriate behaviour as it is more likely to address any issues without problems resurfacing elsewhere later. 

“Positive reinforcement”, means that if a dog likes something, they will want to do it again.

Only that’s really just half of the story– also if nothing good happens, a dog won’t want to do it again and so their motivation is reduced. This important aspect is often glossed over because it has a confusing and very off-putting technical term: “positive punishment”- punishment, in this context, means decrease. It’s called positive if the dog’s motivation is reduced without causing harm or distress.

“Positive punishment” means that if a dog can’t see the point in doing something, they are less likely to try it again and their motivation decreases. They are not hurt or distressed, they are disappointed.

Example: jumping up. 

Bear in mind how dogs learn- if it’s nice, they’ll want to repeat it, if it’s not, then they’ll be put off doing it again.

Why do dogs jump up?

Let’s pretend a mate rings your doorbell. He’s a dog person and loves a good cuddle. The dog jumps up and gets attention, it’s fun and enjoyable. 

Blood analysis found that when dogs and people interact, they both have increased levels of oxytocin, the feel-good “love” hormone, explaining why it’s comforting and such fun. When dog and owner cuddle and/ or look at each other, oxytocin levels increase significantly. I wonder if this is one reason why dog owners have fewer heart problems and don’t need the doctor as much.

The dog loves the fuss and now knows that people will tickle them if they jump up. They realise that the next time they want fuss, all they need to do is jump up again. Behaviour is increased by the wish for more cuddles- it’s “positively reinforced”.

Later, someone else comes after work. They’re tired and want coffee, so they quickly brush past, ignoring the dog on the way to the kettle. The dog doesn’t get the interaction they were hoping for and learns that it is pointless jumping up (this person at least). This bit is the “positive punishment” or positive decrease- jumping up becomes disappointingly pointless so it’s less likely. 

How do we change behaviour with positive reinforcement reasoning?

We work on their motivation and use both aspects to help the dog understand the new routine- one thing to put them off the rude behaviour, the other to introduce a polite, preferable alternative.

Stu and I say “we have a two stage plan. First, when the dog next jumps up, try not to touch them. We want them to think “it’s no longer fun, not going to bother doing that again”. Then, get them to sit and once that happens, cuddle them as much as you like. The key is remembering only fuss when their bum is on the floor”

Dog friendly mate arrives again. You ask him to ignore the dog while you get them to sit. Nothing now happens if/ when the dog jumps up, they are confused and disappointed because there’s no cuddles any more. Over time, they realise there’s no point to jumping- when motivation is reduced, behaviour decreases. (This is the “positive punishment”/ positive decrease part). 

When the dog sits, friendly mate bends over and they have lovely tickles and fuss. The dog likes this and wants more, so they are motivated to sit and the behaviour is more likely to be repeated. That’s “positive reinforcement” part as the wish for happy times will increase the behaviour.

It can take time for the dog to understand and sometimes behaviours get worse before they are completely better (called an extinction or exhaustion drive.)

At first some dogs jumps up again and again, confused and wondering where the fuss has gone. They haven’t realised it’s pointless yet and behaviour has become worse. Very often owners are dismayed. Trainers, on the other hand, are delighted as this is good news- the dog’s processing the new information and the penny is on it’s way down. Once they work out that sitting to greet someone will get them the attention they wanted, then they won’t jump up again.

The desire or trigger is still there (“Hi! Let’s have a cuddle”) 

Dogs are able to communicate their wishes politely (with a nice sit) 

Their needs are met (with the fuss and interaction). Both dogs and people should be happier.

This can be rather complicated and takes time; the fact they get worse can be disheartening and, all in all, it doesn’t make very good TV. Once you realise that it is a sign that the cogs are whirring, it becomes encouraging. Being as consistent as possible will speed up the process.

Dominance trainers

These trainers work by making things unpleasant to make acceptable behaviour increase and undesirable behaviour decrease. This camp, which included most people at first, was popularised on the TV. They use dominance, or negative reinforcement and negative punishment to make behaviour acceptable.

The theory behind the dominance method comes from how they thought wolves interact. However, the initial wolf information was seen to be incorrect and was retracted… too late as TV dog trainers had already spring-boarded for new ideas and publicised the (mis)information. Studies of stray dogs found that they do not form hierarchical packs. Hundreds of thousands of years of domestication has changed wolves into the many different breeds. Dogs can’t plot or scheme to take over, their short term memories don’t work like that. (More info here).

The spread of dominance- misinformation and TV “magic”

With TV training, things are staged so the dog looks worse at first and magically fixed afterwards. Being on the telly is a big responsibility and it makes us all look bad when people get it so spectacularly wrong. 

Dominance thinking goes something like this: “Look, Doggie, if you pull on the lead I will tug on it and startle you- it may hurt and you won’t like it, so you won’t do it again.” Shock or spray collars can be used to speed up desirable behaviour- if someone calls the dog and they don’t respond, then they are shocked until they return. They remember that the horrible sensation stopped when they did what they were told. (Of course please don’t do this at home). 

Results are seen extraordinarily quickly. Owners are told to give the dog clear boundaries and if they overstep, use punishment. 

The problem was that the trainers on the telly were presented in a documentary style as the “best” option. People think the information given in this format is trustworthy, so the dominance idea was taken up by the public. The training mixed common sense and personal ideas and seemed to work; but if you look closely, when the trainer appears, just when the dog suddenly seems to know how to behave, you’ll see they often have a shiny new shock collarSome, under this philosophy, give the impression that it is OK to use shock or prong collars and roughly manhandle your dog- the way to show you’re in charge is to push the dog onto their backs or yank the lead (please don’t).

The dogs may learn to comply, yet they are still unable to process appropriately and so they can’t make themselves feel better. The problem and the trigger remain and inevitably later, they will show up again but often it will be worse. The saying “it’s no use putting on a plaster if you don’t take away the knife” springs to mind. 

Example: Growling  say a lady’s dog snarls and growls at her boyfriend, and if the trainer said to tell the dog off- the dog probably would became quiet. The dominance trainer would then leave, saying the dog was fixed. However, the problem has not gone away, just the symptom. Although the dog is quiet, their motivation still remains- they still think something’s terribly wrong, but now, they can’t say anything. The trainer should assess why the dog was so stressed in the first place.

They are now in a dangerous situation- the dog is still very upset and now has extra anxiety from being told off. Most worrying is the dog has no way of expressing themselves- the next time the dog feels things have gone badly wrong, they’re quite likely to unexpectedly bite … because there’s no way to communicate distress there isn’t a warning system. 

The trigger is still there (“I don’t like this”)

The dog’s communication is removed (“I can’t say I don’t like this”)

The dogs needs are not met, the problem remains and another arises. It’s worse for dogs and people.

Positive reinforcement would assess and analyse the situation much, much more. Perhaps the dog is worried that they will be ignored now the boyfriend was there, if so they would need reassurance. If it seemed more like aggressive barking from fear, I would begin with asking what the relationship between dog and boyfriend was like, then depending on what they said, possibly encourage the dog to use their flight instinct rather than be self defensive. 

Dominance theorists think dogs want to be in charge… so whatever your problem, that’s your answer. It’s dog training at it’s laziest. When troubleshooting behaviour, a good trainer should consider many things- not just what is the dog doing and how they are conveying their feelings, but also what do they want, what else is going on around them, how well are the dog and owner communicating, as well as routines and habits … and so on and so on.

So if dog behaviour research says positive reinforcement is best, why do some trainers still spout the dominance stuff?

The trouble with the dog training industry is the lack of cohesion of the trainer’s training. There is no over-arching governing body to regulate the standard of work– astonishingly you can set up shop without any training and, nearly 40 years after the theory was debunked by it’s own creator, even some trainer training courses still perpetuate the dominance theory. So the cycle (and the misinformation) continues.

There is no way to hold a bad trainer accountable and no way to prove you’re one of the good ones.

Anyone who has just got their first dog would find it hard to tell good from bad. A dog trainer is a professional educator who exchanges knowledge for money- and if they charge a ridiculous amount … they must be good, right?  it makes sense to trust what they say. Sadly, this is far from the truth.

If a trainer uses negative reinforcement or punishment and starts talking about packs and dominance- then you know that they are not up to date with the science and it’s like they’re shouting that the world is flat.