When I first started out around 16 years ago, it was not uncommon at all that dogs were yanked and spanked into compliance. Choke chains were the standard kit for “training” dogs to walk nicely.
I discovered that there were kinder methods through research and this was when I started to attend courses for dog trainers. Since this time, the industry of training dog trainers has boomed into a whole new economy. Things got better for dogs and kinder methods used. Social media pushed that message out there. Today, dog training is an ever-evolving swirl of science, pseudo-science, new methods, and new ideas. I welcome changes for the better with open arms.
BUT…… and here is the rub. What the heck are we actually doing to our dogs now? There are some ideas out there that I wanted to discuss as I am worried that these ideas are actually preventing dog trainers from helping their clients to develop resilient dogs.
1. Apparently, nobody should ever bench over a puppy (bend over them and pat them on the head). Now, don’t get me wrong, I do know that many dogs are not comfortable with this, but, by no means not ALL dogs dislike this. However, THE REST OF THE WORLD DON’T KNOW THIS! When you can tell me there is a way for the entire world population of humans to understand they should not bend over a strange dog and pat it on the head, then I will stop helping my client’s dogs to learn that this a) happens, and b) that they can actually enjoy it! Far from telling my clients NOT to lean over their dogs, I want them, and their friends and strangers to do this whilst counter conditioning it so that the dogs learn that pleasant things happen whilst this is going on; in other words, feed the dog a tasty treat during and after this is actually happening. During, partly to overshadow potential discomfort, and after so that a clear association is made; being leaned over and having your head patted produces a wonderful outcome. If we do not do this, then I foresee generations of dogs that will not like being bent over and patted on the head. Remember the role of epigenetics (I.e. the passing down of behavioural information via the genes).
2. Apparently, dog trainers should not get any closer to a client’s dog than 15 feet. Being honest, I have no idea why this is. This idea has the potential to cause problems for clients. In the real world, strangers WILL get closer to the dog than 15 feet. During dog training classes, an experienced dog trainer who can read dogs SHOULD get closer to the dog to prepare it for the real world. In the real world, people who do not understand dogs (general members of the public) WILL walk closer to dogs than 15 feet. Surely, our job as dog trainers is to help to prepare these dogs for the real world. In some cases, NOT actually greeting the dog worries them, as this is not normal human behaviour. Not getting closer to dogs than 15 feet can lead to frustration if the dog would really like to greet the dog trainer. Really, properly qualified dog trainers should be able to understand how close they can comfortably get to a dog. If the dog is not comfortable, then the dog trainer has a duty to de-sensitise this dog to close proximity humans. It would also be the role of the dog trainer to counsel the client how to address frustration at NOT being able to greet.
3. Apparently, dog trainers should never demonstrate with a client’s dog because it makes the client feel inadequate. This is where dog training can be at its weakest. Dog trainers need to have human skills as well as dog training skills. In my opinion, there is no reason why a dog trainer should not be able to demonstrate to an owner how best to teach their dog to do something if they are struggling. Often, we can experiment with methods that will best suit the dog so that the dog does not get frustrated and distressed. Owners sometimes NEED to see that their dog can do something that they strongly believe they cannot. How we do this to preserve the client’s dignity is very important. Phrases such as “well it took me 8 years to perfect this, so please don’t feel bad about it” and “don’t worry. Your dog is only paying me attention because I am novel, and he is more interested”. We are not magicians. In my experience, most clients like us to show them how with their own dog so that they can get a clearer idea of how to do this. What we then should do, is let them try and then coach them with lots of support and self-deprecation. It is not our job to gloat about how we can do this, and they can’t!
It might be that these three things are discouraged because some dog trainers lack the knowledge on how to overcome anxiety that a dog might have dealing with being leaned over, or approached closer than 15 feet, or being handled by someone other than the owner. But by doing this, we are failing in our duty as professional dog trainers to prepare clients’ dogs for the real world. Could this be one reason why dogs seem more anxious these days than ever before? If such methods worked, should we not be seeing a reduction in anxiety behaviours?
I will now duck!
Denise Nuttall, B.Sc (Hons), M.Res
Full Member of the Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors (APBC)
Full Member The Canine Training and Behaviour Society (TCBTS)
Animal Behaviour & Training Council (ABTC) Registered Animal Training Instructor
Animal Behaviour & Training Council (ABTC) Registered Clinical Animal Behaviourist