Dog Training: The Importance, The Trainer And The Different Methods
Have you recently adopted a puppy or a dog and want to start training them? Or maybe you have had a dog for a few months or years but want to do something new with your dog, something fun (yes training can be fun), or go back to basics with some training classes?
Training is an important part of any dog’s life, and is important for many reasons which we explore in this guide. With so many different options to choose from for you and your dog, from choosing the right trainer to the right training method, it can be an absolute mind field.
This guide looks at the benefits of training your dog, how to choose the right training classes as well as the different training methods used by professionals.
Why Should I Train My Dog?
Training is not just about teaching dogs obedience commands and is not always just a nice extra something to do with your dog. Training helps build a positive relationship with your dog, teaches valuable life skills, increases sociability, helps avoid problem behaviours and can help build a strong and loyal companionship.
Slowly dog parents are beginning to understand that there is sometimes life saving value in finding the perfect trainer to help point them and their dogs in the right direction and provide much needed guidance.
There is nothing shameful about seeking help to ensure the best for both you and your dog. Dogs are now sharing our homes and our lives in ever closer ways, so it is even more important than ever that your dog should be given a good education.
Not only will this help them flourish and be the best version of themselves and the happiest version, doing so will also prevent thousands of dogs being abandoned to shelters due to behavioural issues that could have been prevented.
Investing the time to teach your dog will make living with them easier and that investment could also save a life.
As time has evolved so has the dog training profession but with a certain level of controversy. Many traditional trainers that continue to promote outdated dominance and punishment based philosophies have seen their livelihoods threatened by the increase of trainers preferring positive training methods.
But as a result, dog parents have an even bigger and more difficult choice when it comes to choosing the right dog trainer.
Choosing The Right Training For Your Dog And You
Look for training classes that offer you what you want
That may seem obvious. You are looking to find a trainer to help your dog but different trainers have different skills and offer a variety of services. To really narrow down your specific needs and wants, here are some questions to ask yourself which will help you decide the best training for your dog and you:
Do I want a group class or individual training?
Each has its benefits. For someone with a new puppy, a class with other puppies offers essential opportunities for socialisation. Plus, classes are less expensive than individual training. With individual training, however, you’re more likely to get personalised attention and have your specific needs addressed.
Am I looking for general training or do I need help with a specific problem?
Am I looking for short term training opportunities to help my dog become a happy member of my family, or do I have specific long term goals such as obedience or agility competition?
Some of us look for training classes because we love dog sports and spending time with people who are as enthusiastic about their dogs as we are.
Explore The Different Training Methods
Trainers use a variety of techniques and methods. Most of the techniques do “work” to change behaviour, but not all are gentle, kind, and necessarily humane or with an approach you are comfortable with. When choosing a trainer, it is essential to understand which training methods are both humane, effective and that you agree with. We explore the different training methods further on in this guide.
Get To Know The Trainer And Their People Skills
A trainer is of course there to help your dog but with to be a good trainer so many different skills are needed. They are part teacher, part therapist, and part communications expert, and the right trainer will help you even more than they will help your dog.
Of course most people who become dog trainers do so because they like or even love dogs, not because they are love people and are experts at working with people. So how will you know if a trainer who works well with dogs will really be able to teach you?
A really good way to see for yourself is to go and watch a class and observe the students and their dogs. Do they appear to be relaxed and enjoying the experience? Do you understand the trainer’s explanations?
Are suggestions offered to students in a way that you feel good about? Are problems handled so that all involved appear satisfied? Or do the students look puzzled or frustrated?
Most important, however, is that the trainer is able to make it clear to you what is working and what isn’t and what specifically you can do to fix problems. This takes observation skills, communication skills, and diplomacy.
Find Out The Trainers Level Of Experience
The length of time a trainer has offered professional services doesn’t determine their ability, but it is a gauge that should contribute to your decision. Someone who has less professional training experience but good skills, for example, may be great for a basic training class. In fact, newer trainers often bring to a class enthusiasm, energy, and creativity that a trainer who has taught for a long time may have lost.
However, a less experienced trainer may not be the best choice for a class that offers specific activities that require overall behaviour knowledge and experience. Take off the lead “play time” as an example. During off lead socialisation, even with puppies, a trainer really needs to be skilled at reading canine body language, predicting interactions, and intervening appropriately when necessary.
This takes specialised skills. And a trainer without extensive experience and knowledge might not be the best choice for serious problems such as aggression.
But how can you assess a trainer’s experience and knowledge? Ask how long they have worked as a professional trainer and how they learned to train. If your dog has a specific behaviour problem, ask if they have dealt with this problem before. Ask as many questions as you can, how did they deal with the problem?
Do they have examples they can share with you? Remember that a good trainer will be more than willing to share previous ‘cases’ and acknowledge what they don’t know, as well as what they does know.
Most importantly, trust your instincts. If the trainer “feels” like a good match, they probably are. On the other hand, if you do not have full confidence in a trainer’s ability to help you and your dog, you will be less likely to follow their prescribed plan of action and less likely to have success.
Personality and Cost
This may seem obvious but cost will come into your decision if you have a tight budget and can afford a certain number of sessions or a certain trainer. Try and talk to the trainer and find out what they really can help you and dog with in the time frame and cost given.
Personality is key. How your dog and you respond to a trainer can make a big difference in what you achieve during your time with them and then put into practice away from training.
You don’t have to love your trainer that is not the purpose of the sessions, there may even be times when perhaps they will point out the ‘mistakes’ you are making with your dog. It is how they deliver this to you that will most likely be important to you and either make you want to run a mile or take it all in and not feel belittled or stupid.
Again talk to a trainer and watch a lesson before you rush into making a decision. You and your dog must feel comfortable with the trainer.
Different Types of Dog Training Methods
Dog training methods have evolved a lot over recent years. It can be a mind field trying to understand the different training methods used by dog trainers and of course it is so important you are comfortable and in agreement with the type of training used.
From positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement to science based methods, listed below with an explanation and example are the main types of dog training methods you will encounter in present day.
Positive Reward Based Training
Reward based training is a training method where the dog is set up to succeed and then rewarded for performing the ‘good’ behaviour (positive reinforcement).
Reward based training is enjoyable for the dog and positively enhances the relationship between the dog and handler. Rewards may be in the form of a food treat, favourite chew toy, or verbal praise such as “good dog!” in a kind, enthusiastic tone of voice, to be given when the dog performs the ‘good’ behaviour.
Reward based training also involves generally ignoring any ‘unwanted’ behaviours. In this way, the dog is not rewarded for any unwanted behaviour. If dogs are not rewarded (receives no attention or treats) for a certain behaviour, then they tend to stop doing it.
Reward based training is the most humane and effective way of training dogs and addressing any unwanted behaviours. Reward based training does not involve physical punishment or the assertion of dominance over the dog.
An Example of Reward Based Training
A dog jumps up to greet people: the dog’s parents owners have tried pushing the dog down or tried to brush them off with their knee. This has not worked, in fact the dog now jumps from further away to avoid the knee.
The dog should be ignored if they jump and only receive attention (including eye contact) when they have four paws on the ground. Only when they are standing or sitting should they be rewarded with attention and treats.
As soon as four paws are on the ground, reward the dog with a tasty treat and praise.
The dog will most likely jump again with a little less effort and again reward them as soon as those paws hit the floor.
Soon the dog will discover that it is NOT the jumping up that is being rewarded, it’s the standing or sitting. The dog will then start to volunteer the behaviour that you want, four paws on the ground in anticipation of a reward.
Negative Reward Based Training
The word ‘negative’ here doesn’t mean bad and it certainly doesn’t mean being abusive to your dog. ‘negative’ is referring to taking something away, and ‘reinforcement’ means trying to increase a behaviour. Negative reinforcement is therefore taking away something undesirable to increase a behaviour.
Negative reinforcement is a difficult one to describe as most times it can also be seen as positive punishment. The same action could be either depending on the view taken and the desired outcome.
An Example of Negative Reward Based Training
When walking with your dog and using a head halter, if they try to walk right and you gently pull to correct them to the left:
Your dog doesn’t like the feel of the tug on their head, therefore to relieve it, they comes back in line. The bad stimulus of a strain on their neck was removed and the behaviour of walking in line with you is reinforced.
Positive punishment: You applied a tug to prevent them pulling left. Therefore you added a punishment to prevent a behaviour.
Science Based Training
In science based training, a deep understanding of dogs, their nature, behaviour, operant conditioning, classical conditioning, punishers, reinforcers and much, much more besides comes into it.
Science based dog training is very similar to positive reinforcement training in that pressure, force, and physical punishment are never used to train good behaviour. Unlike dominance theory training where a dog obeys out of fear of being punished, or positive reinforcement training where a dog obeys in order to be rewarded, science-based training relies heavily on research by veterinarians and animal behaviorists with an understanding of dog behavior and cognition.
Modern science, for example, has proven that dogs are sentient beings, capable of thought and with an ability to reason and problem solve. While a dog’s range of emotion is not as broad as a human’s, it has been proven that dogs are capable of feeling love, fear, happiness, and depression, among others.
Scientific research has also proven that, in addition to the basic necessities to sustain life, food, water, shelter, and air, dogs have psychological needs and are capable of communicating those needs to humans that understand them.
In a scientific approach to dog training, rewards are given for appropriate or desired behaviours, but, unlike the strictly positive reinforcement method where bad behaviour is ignored, if an inappropriate or undesired behaviour is performed, rewards are taken away.
In oversimplified terms, science based trainers teach through effectively communicating with the dog in ways they comprehend. A variety of methods are used, including positive reinforcement, shaping, teaching by example, and negative reinforcement, among others.
An Example Of Science Based Training
If you are training your dog to walk nicely on a lead, without pulling you down the street using the dominance theory method, you would use a choke or prong collar and give a quick lead jerk every time your dog pulled their lead. Over time, your dog would stop pulling simply to avoid the punishment.
Alternatively, to lead train your dog using only positive reinforcement training, you would ignore your dog pulling on the lead and instead reward with treats or praise each time they walk nicely, without pulling.
Over time, your dog would stop pulling in anticipation of being rewarded. While both methods essentially work to end lead pulling, neither method truly communicates to your dog what the desired behaviour is.
The dominance trained dog is obedient for fear of being punished, while the positive trained dog is obedient for the possibility of reward, as long as that anticipated reward is more exciting than whatever they may encounter at the end of the lead.
On the other hand, to train your dog to walk nicely on a lead using science based training, you would either use a no pull harness that applies slight pressure or redirects your dog away from their intended target when they pull, or you would stop and hold the lead when your dog pulls, indicating to them that as long as they pull, they will not reach what they are pulling towards.
Only when your dog stops pulling will they be allowed to move forward. This way you are both rewarding good behaviour (not pulling) and communicating when behaviour is bad.
Operant Conditioning Training
Operant conditioning is a method of dog training based on controlling the environment so that a behaviour results in either pleasant or unpleasant consequences.
If your dog performs a certain behaviour and something good happens, the likelihood is the dog will perform that behaviour again. However, if your dog performs a behaviour that results in a bad consequence, over time they will learn to decrease that behaviour.
By ‘punishing’ bad behaviours the aim is to decrease them, and by ‘reinforcing’ good behaviours the aim is to increase them.
There are 4 components to operant conditioning:
Positive reinforcement: Increases behaviour by adding something the dog sees as pleasant.
Example: Giving high praise or a treat if your dog sits when asked.
Positive punishment: Decreases behaviour by adding something the dog sees as unpleasant.
Example: Your dog jumps up and you turn away and ignore them
Negative reinforcement: Increases behaviour by taking something away that is unpleasant.
Example: Pulling up on your dog’s collar until they sit. When they sit you release the collar. So an unpleasant thing is removed when the wanted behaviour is performed.
Negative punishment: Decreases behaviour by taking something away that is desirable.
Example: You want to play fetch but your dog repeatedly jumps up and tries to grab the toy. You can hold the toy in such a way that they know they will not get it until they stos and relax. They will learn you will only play fetch when they are calm and patiently waiting, thereby reducing jumping and grabbing.
Traditional Dog Training
The term “traditional training” also known as dominance thraining is used to describe methods predating the modern ‘science-based’ methods that almost everybody uses today after dramatic increases in the knowledge of how dogs think and learn.
Traditional dog training makes use of aversive training (relating what you want the dog to stop doing to an unpleasant consequence), punishment and physically forcing a dog into desired behaviours.
Most of the theory comes from dominance theory and wolf pack theory, both of which have been proven incorrect by modern science. Traditional training allows a dog to make mistakes and then punishment is given to lessen the behaviour in future.
The theory goes that dogs behave badly because they’re trying to assume a position of dominant rank and the trainer spends time asserting to the dog that the trainer is the more dominant ‘alpha’ one and must be obeyed.
Traditional trainers use corrections such as a sharp snap on the lead, pinches, grabs and ‘alpha rolls’ when a bad behaviour is seen, though most do combine this with praise and maybe rewards for reinforcement when the correct behaviour is given.
An Example Of Traditional Dog Training
You want your dog to stop pulling on their land. To achieve this using traditional dog training, a choke chain or prong collar is used. Every time your dog pulls, they chain or collar will hurt their neck and become tight. Your dog will not like this feeling which can be painful and therefore will stop pulling.
Clicker training is a very effective and highly popular type of marker training, where the clicker is used as the marker. Clicker training uses a little hand held device to create a sound that you use to ‘mark’ the point at which your dog completes a desirable behaviour.
It’s easier to more accurately mark where a desired behaviour ends with a click than it is with your voice. Therefore communication between you and your dog is much better, which leads to more effective training.
So how does it work? First there’s a little classical conditioning where you mark a good behaviour with a click and then treat your dog with a reward. After many repetitions, your dog soon associates the click with a reward, and the click itself soon becomes rewarding enough so the treats can be phased out.
An Example of Clicker Training
Teaching your dog to sit with a clicker.
When your dog is sitting as soon as they put their behind on the ground, click and treat. Repeat this whenever you see them sitting and as they are in the act of sitting, say “sit” and click and treat when they have sat down.
When your dog understands the meaning of the word “sit” you are ready to ask them for the action. Ask your dog to “sit”. As soon as your dog puts his behind on the ground, press the clicker and immediately follow with a food reward.
Training your dog offers a healthy balance of learning manners, encouraging sociability and providing your dog with the right kind of outlets to ensure their success in life. Sadly people who fail to give their dogs the education they need to be a happy, confident, well socialised dog may end up have problems in the future.
The learning process does not have to be costly or intense, and the more enjoyable it is for the both of you, the better the results will be. It is important you take the time to find the right training classes for you and your dog, ones that you are comfortable with and ones that will be enjoyable, rewarding and show results.