On many occasions I’ve been asked what fascinates me the most about canine pack behaviour. After years of filming, observing and documenting countless packs, the answer remains the same: I’m fascinated by the manner in which a balanced dog will correct another dog and the level at which these corrections are made (the type of correction and degree of correction will depend on the infraction committed by the dog being corrected, and the level in which he/she committed the infraction).
On the flip side, equally fascinating is the manner in which an unbalanced dog will react to and/or will correct another dog in a given situation. Here we are likely to witness no variation in correction and we will notice that the infraction (and its level) leading to a correction is almost always a negligent factor with unbalanced dogs.
So, let’s dissect this a minute… First we have the balanced dog: a sentient being having the intelligence (when fully grown) up to or equal to that of a 6 year old child. This dog was left with its mother (also balanced) long enough so that he/she learned proper correcting techniques at varying levels of correction. They also learned varying degrees of reward for proper behaviour. Once in the hands of their human(s), the owner(s) continued on with their dog’s balanced education.
Next we have an unbalanced dog: also a sentient being having the intelligence up to or equal to that of a 6 year old child (when fully grown). Presumably this dog didn’t learn proper correction techniques from its mother… either because the mother was unbalanced or the pup didn’t remain with its balanced mother long enough. When in the hands of a human, this dog may also have been traumatized by human(s) and/or they may not have been exposed to enough external stimuli from the age of 3 to 5 months old (this is the period when a dog learns to accept external stimuli).
In either case, we as dog owners have an extremely important task to undertake when we choose to become doggie parents. We should take this responsibility seriously. Just as we can rehabilitate an unbalanced dog, we can also take a perfectly well balanced puppy and set him on the fast track to being an unbalanced adult because of the manner in which we correct and train him/her. So when it comes to finding a sound trainer and actually training your dog yourself, there are two key points to keep in mind. Firstly, based on what I pointed out above, it is clear that dogs learn behaviour from their “leaders”. In other words, your dog will learn to correct other dogs (and possibly humans) based on how you correct them. If you are correcting unfairly and with a heavy hand, your dog will too. Secondly, based on all I’ve observed, unbalanced dogs will correct other dogs with no variation in correction and will almost always correct at a high and exaggerated level. It stands to reason that if you train your dog this way, your pup will deem you unbalanced. He/she will not respect you or want to follow your lead, and more than likely they too will become unbalanced as a result.
Keeping these two points in mind, let’s get back to training techniques and the dangers of using only one technique, all the time, at the same level, for every dog personality type.
Apply what I just explained to the manner in which many trainers teach their human students. Many students are being taught one technique for every situation using one degree of correction. They – the human dog parents –are emulating how an unbalanced mother teaches a pup. Let’s take this concept one step further. When a dog sees their owners as unbalanced, they will take the reins and try to become the pack leader. Don’t forget, this will be an unstable leader forced to take control of his/her pack by default. This is the weight of the world on a dog’s shoulders. Often these dogs can’t enjoy just being dogs because they are too busy taking care of the pack. It’s a sad situation and one that can easily be avoided with the proper training (human and canine). Like humans, most dogs are not born leaders however in western culture we see so many dogs trying to be pack leaders. There’s a problem with this scenario.
So let’s get to the crux of it all. What exactly are we missing? And more importantly what do we do to assure our training techniques and/or corrections won’t damage our dogs?
What most people are not taught in various canine training schools is to observe their dog’s body language. We have to start looking at how our dogs are reacting to both reinforcement and correction and make adjustments accordingly. Believe me when I say this will be the difference in making or breaking a dog (our goal is to make a dog and to never break a dog). I always tell my clients to look at their dogs when going through training techniques. We should be constantly evaluating (and reevaluating) what our dogs are telling us through their body language. For example, is a certain level of positive reinforcement making them too excited to focus on what we are asking of them? If so, it is time to tone down the reinforcement. Are they shying away from a leash correction? If so, the correction is too harsh – go softer the next time. The opposite also hold true. If we find ourselves using 20 consecutive leash corrections to obtain a mediocre result to a command, we are actually desensitizing our dogs to that specific correction. As such they’ll never learn to comply with a verbal command on the first try and eventually even an extreme correction will beinsufficient. In this case we have to augment the degree of correction. We have to find the balance where our dog is comfortably accepting either reinforcement or a command without loosing focus or their good spirit. The moment your dog feels they have to do something for you rather than want to do something for you, is when the training has to stop and be reevaluated. That sweet spot where your dog is focused, unaffected yet happy to please you is what we’re looking for. Your dog should love learning from you and love bonding with you. Training should therefore always be deemed fun – a game of sorts – even if it is work.
To give you a more specific example allow me to share experiences I’ve had with two clients of mine. The first dog is an adult male, neutered lab mix, approximately 80 lbs. “Spot” is correction sensitive, doesn’t trust many men and is overly protective of his female human. He was taught obedience by a male trainer who teaches a lot of protection techniques and uses a dominant, and heavy hand when correcting. “Spot” was a puppy when he was trained. Any trainer who uses a heavy hand on a puppy will get immediate results. Many times the human owners are extremely impressed with this, so they use the same heavy hand. Let me be crystal clear; what one is witnessing in these cases are submissive, fear based results. When a puppy trained this way grows up, and gains power, it will have learned to correct dogs (and perhaps humans) in that same exaggerated way. I can’t tell you how many dogs I’ve had to retrain that were originally trained by this one particular trainer (the one who trained “Spot”). These dogs all had the same behavioural problems as adults; an extreme mistrust of men, they were over protective of their humans and all were correction sensitive. It says a lot, doesn’t it? The beautiful thing is “Spot” doesn’t react this way when he’s with me. Once he came to trust me and felt I would actually take care of him and any other dog that was with me, he stopped trying to control everything and everyone around him. Now when he is in doubt about a situation, he doesn’t succumb to his discomfort. Rather, he’ll look at me for guidance. Whenever I see this it means that the dog in question is capable of following and relaxing – they can learn to … well… just “be”; more so, they crave it. And if they can be this way with me, they can certainly be this way with their human.
My second dog, “Fido” is a female mini Doberman pinscher, just over a year old, spade and all of 8 lbs. The first time I used a leash correction on her I went softly (regardless of the type of dog, I always work my degree upward). It turns out that little demure “Fido” is one tough cookie; I really needed to put some elbow grease into the correction before she’d even pay attention to me, and when she did, it was a sort of, “yeah, what’s up” type of look. She was unfazed. Where as with “Spot” the maximum degree of correction I came to use was a slight wiggle of the leash or a slight cluck of the tongue and this alone was enough to gain his attention.
All of that being said I am a strong proponent of positive reinforcement, and as such in most of my training I will use positive reinforcement 99 % of the time. Make no mistake, even when using positive reinforcement we are using correction techniques (as we should – dogs do correct dogs, do they not?) Many positive trainers themselves believe that there are no corrections in positive reinforcement techniques. This belief is unequivocally counterfactual. The moment we place a collar on our dog and attach a leash to the collar, we are constantly directing our dog to focus, listen and eventually comply with we want. The instant we place pressure on the leash so that it is felt by our dog, and this stops them from moving beyond the length of the leash voluntarily, we are correcting them. Furthermore, many of us, (including positive reinforcement trainers) are constantly correcting our dogs with the tone of our voice, our gaze and our posture without even realizing we are doing it. Dogs are in constant communication with us and with one another through their body language, their tonality and their gazes. It stands to reason that they are constantly reading us this way as well. Don’t let any trainer try to convince you that positive reinforcement never involves correction nor should any trainer try to convince you to never use the word “no”. For every command I teach my dogs, they know the exact negation of that command. It’s not the word, “no” that poses the ultimate problem. Problems stem from how (and the tone) in which we use the word, “no”.
Regardless of the techniques being used, I’ll use varying degrees of reinforcement and/or correction depending on how each individual dog responds to said reinforcement and correction (notably, I will always try enticement prior to corrective techniques). The reinforcement and correction level, as well as the specific technique I use to train a spade or neutered, submissive, sound sensitive, public-wary pup will be completely different to how I will train a 6 year old, in tact, dominant, possessive, protective dog.
To my surprise, when I studied various training techniques (IE. Positive reinforcement, positive correction, negative reinforcement and negative correction) at various obedience and behavioural training schools, few schools reflected how the degree of reinforcement and correction should be taken into account. And almost none mentioned the importance of reading your dog’s body language. It is my opinion that in any type of training this is absolutely essential. Notably, most work training schools (those where assistance dogs, police dogs, search and rescue dogs, detection dogs, military dogs, etc, are trained) take the choosing of possible candidates into account by the manner in which each individual dog reacts to both the training and corrections. Dogs showing signs that they are uncomfortable with their training are immediately dismissed as potential candidates for that particular kind of work. How do the trainers decide who is comfortable enough to stay in the program? Through the dogs’ body language. The trainers will continue to evaluate the potential candidates throughout the program and if at any moment the candidate becomes skittish, the responsible trainer will dismiss this dog from further training. Keep in mind, allowing a dog showing signs of discomfort to continue on with this type of work related training could lead to the eventual loss of life. So, as you can see, watching a dog’s reaction to training and correction is more than important; in many cases, it’s vital.
All of this to ask…
What differentiates a good trainer from a mediocre or bad trainer? Whether we’re talking about obedience training, behavioural training, protection training, detection training, search and rescue or recovery training – in effect – any type of training, in my point of view the exceptional trainers keep one goal in mind…
“How can I as a responsible trainer get this dog to a point of balance, while pushing him/her to their full potential without pushing to the point where their spirit is broken – that is to say, forming, retaining and strengthening the human/canine bond?”
If you find a trainer with these values, they’re a keeper.
Be clear, concise and calm – the most balanced dogs always are!