Ain’t Misbehavin’ : A Balanced Approach to Dog Training
“If your puppy growls when you try to take his bone away, grab him by the scruff of the neck, flip him onto his back and hold him down until he submits to you.” When I was a young veterinarian fresh out of school, this is an example of “puppy training” advice I’d offer my clients. Mind you, I’d received no animal behavior training in vet school – everything I thought I knew about dog behavior I’d learned from reading articles or from my boss at the clinic.
At the time, popular theory asserted that a dog’s behavior is patterned after its wild ancestors. This meant that in order for a pup to learn its proper place and grow up to be a well-mannered adult dog, you’d have to demonstrate who was the “alpha dog” (you!) of his pack.
While this theory seemed perfectly reasonable to me at the time, it turned out to be based on incorrect assumptions about pack behavior gleaned from studies of captive wolves rather than in the wild. Leading wolf expert Dr. L. David Mech writes in The Canadian Journal of Zoology, “In the wild, the typical wolf pack is a family, with the adult parents guiding the activities of a group in a division-of-labor system;; dominance contests with other wolves are rare, if they exist at all.”
Looking back, I now realize that my pack-centric advice actually resulted in some puppies becoming fearful, withdrawn and even aggressive as adult dogs. Certainly this was not the outcome I was expecting as a committed and compassionate young vet.
Up through the 19th century, the prevailing attitude was that dogs, like horses, had a wild nature that needed to be “broken” by whatever means necessary. A more enlightened approach began to develop in the early 1900s;; and in 1952, Training You to Train Your Dog by Blanche Saunders was published, and became the “bible” for dog trainers into the 1970s. The basic message advocated praise, but no treat rewards. Ample use of choke collars and physical force was necessary if the dog did not behave as desired.
In the early ‘90s, I was lucky enough to pick up a copy of C.W. Meisterfield’s book Psychological Dog Training. His approach discounted the theory of dominance, and used only positive reinforcement techniques, which he believed “fosters a relationship of mutual trust and respect without fear.” It was a revelation for me, and completely changed the advice I’d give to my puppy- and dog-owning clients. Meisterfield and a host of other behaviorists, including veterinarian Ian Dunbar, popularized “dog friendly training,” which has become a concept supported by the majority of trainers today.
Old ideas, however, have a way of coming back. In his 2007 best-selling book Become the Pack Leader, Cesar Millan (of the popular Dog Whisperer TV series) states, “We’ve gone from the old-fashioned authoritarian extreme—where animals existed only to do our bidding—to another unhealthy extreme—where animals are considered our equal partners in every area of our lives.” His methods are essentially a return to the “alpha dog” approach, where rewards are almost
never used. After watching his show a few times, I began to notice that the audience never actually sees the real training, just the before-and-after. It made me wonder what really occurred behind the scenes.
While most trainers today stress a positive approach, many would also agree that negative reinforcement can be appropriate in certain situations if used properly and compassionately. I know numerous people who make good use of invisible fencing to keep their dogs safely confined on their property. Certainly, a mild shock when the dog approaches the fence could be considered “negative;;” however, it serves to save the dog from running off and potentially being hit by a car.
In the end, a balanced approach to training a dog is best, and it depends on the dog and the situation. Longtime Applegate dog trainer Cary Voorhees puts it this way: “How I prefer to train is to work on the relationship between the dog owner and the dog. To teach the owner what the dog likes, how to get what you want from the dog and how to have a give-and-take relationship just as you would with any other member of your family. This involves treats, toys, attention and exercise. If the dog has undesirable behaviors, then the dog needs to learn self restraint, be redirected or learn about consequences for those unwanted behaviors.”