Training your dog should be enjoyable, not stressful for him

The other day I saw a lady training her young puppy.  She was teaching him to walk on leash by pulling him around, while he was attached to her waist.  She was using leash yanks and contact with her foot to “correct” the dog for trying to sniff, explore, and be a normal puppy.  It seemed to me that she was trying to do what she had been taught by her dog trainer, but it bothered me that the  puppy was being treated this way, knowing the negative effects this type of training could have on him.  As discussed in previous articles, the first few months of a puppy’s life are a critical time for shaping his future temperament or the way he will relate to people, other dogs, and his environment.  Early negative experiences and the associations the dog may form can contribute to behavioral issues, such as fear, aggression, and reactivity. Our dogs have no choice in how they are treated and trained, yet they are greatly impacted by our decisions.  It is our responsibility to ensure that our dogs are well adjusted, safe and secure.  As their guardians, we certainly don’t want to cause unnecessary distress for them.

My purpose in writing this article is not to criticize other trainers or negatively judge people who are just trying to do what they have learned in an attempt to train their dogs.  Instead, I am asking all dog guardians (and trainers) to think about the training methods they are employing with their dogs, and to question whether or not the dog is subjected to stress or discomfort as a result.  I think we would all agree that it is not ethical or humane to intentionally subject another living being to unnecessary stress and discomfort as part of teaching or training.   Our parenting styles reflect this, but the treatment of our dogs often seems to have escaped this consideration.  In fact, the lady I watched working with her puppy had her children present, observing the negative example she was setting through using physical corrections to enforce arbitrary rules.   If dog guardians were aware that many of the training methods they are using cause a great deal of stress for their dog, I am confident they would not choose to treat the dog this way, and risk the potential damage this may cause.

I know this from personal experience.  Years ago, I began my dog training career using correction-based methods which focus on stopping what the dog is doing “wrong” and often employ physical “interruptions”, force or coercion to get the dog to comply.  At the time, I thought I was doing what was best for the dog.  It was only when I learned more about canine communication and body language that I recognized the dogs were feeling stress, pain and fear of being harmed, due to the methods I was using.  This, of course, led me to change the way I worked with dogs.  One of the hallmarks of correction-based training methods is that there is very little attention paid to the dog’s emotional state, body language or signs of stress.  Instead, the focus is on control and enforcing compliance. If you do not recognize that you are causing your dog to experience stress, you will continue to subject your dog to this unfair treatment.

Please look objectively at your dog to assess whether he is comfortable or experiencing stress when you are training him.  There are many obvious signs of stress:  visible whites of the eyes, whining or vocalizing, ears back, tail tucked, low and tense body posture.  Some more subtle signs of stress include lip licking, paw lifts, yawning and shake offs.  Plenty of literature is available regarding canine stress signals if you are interested in finding out more.  Many positive reinforcement-based dog training schools offer seminars on this topic.  Becoming more knowledgeable in this area and being able to read the dog’s body language and understand what the dog is communicating will make us much better trainers and guardians, and improve our relationship with our dogs.

I strongly encourage all dog guardians to think about the effects of your choice of training methods on your dog, and avoid “correcting” your dog if at all possible.  Using aversive training tools such as pinch collars, choke collars, shock collars, and even compressed air sounds intended to interrupt behaviors by frightening the dog is correction-based training.  While these tools may appear to “work” by suppressing the dog’s problematic behaviors, thus fixing the problem for the people, there can be damaging results for your dog and your relationship with him.  (This will be discussed in more detail in next month’s column.)

When we realize that our dog is not intentionally doing “bad things”, and that there is likely a very good reason for his behaviors, we can give up the role of enforcer and the need to quell any perceived challenge to our authority.  When training our dog, we should try to understand his motivations and teach him what we would like him to do instead, using non-confrontational methods that do not cause him stress and discomfort.  Positive reinforcement training allows your dog to make choices, motivates the dog, and encourages him to work with you rather than against you.  It not only results in well-behaved and well -adjusted dogs, but is also much more enjoyable for both the dog and its guardians.  If you would like to learn how to train your dog using positive reinforcement methods, please contact a Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT) in your area.