Easier than what, you ask? Training with leash-corrective methods, like choke chains. Let’s face it… we’re Americans. We’re always looking for ways to make life easier, aren’t we?
This musing is really not intended to be disrespectful or a slam on anyone. My honest opinion is that choke chains aka slip collars are challenging to use. You must have exceptional timing to effectively change your dog’s behavior through positive punishment (adding punishment to change unwanted behavior). And two, you must be of sound physical strength and stature to use this training tool, as intended.
Before we get to the real issue here, let’s go back one step. A good friend and colleague had said recently that it was refreshing to see a new generation of dog owners come through her obedience classes, one where individuals have no idea what it means to make a collar correction. If you fall into this category, congratulations! Sometimes ignorance truly is bliss. But a reader in this generation might want to understand where we’ve been to understand how far we’ve come.
Once upon a time, the most recommended tool for training was a choke chain, or a metal collar that tightens around a dog’s neck when tension is applied. For example, in order to teach loose leash walking, the dog should walk next to the trainer. If it ventured, forged ahead, or became distracted, BAM! There is a short, sharp, tense thrust of the leash (held tightly in the trainer’s hands) in towards the trainer. The correction would normally catch the dog off-guard and then physically draw the dog in so as to regain focus. Another piece of equipment often used similarly is the pinch collar.
An additional technique for training an unruly dog was the controversial alpha roll, where a dog is physically rolled onto its side and held in place until it submitted to the trainer. Not only are both of these techniques a challenge to someone who might physically compromised, but lots of research shows that they may also hold a plethora of undesirable behavioral implications for the dog.
Behavioral effects aside, let’s think for a moment about who that might leave out of the potential “training pool.” Kids, seniors, people with physical disabilities, multiple sclerosis, or someone who might have bad knees… and the list goes on. And that’s too bad, because I know that 1) many of these folks could really be helped by the benefits of canine companionship and 2) the list of potential dogs adopted from shelters and rescue facilities might increase if this perceived training barrier didn’t exist (especially large dogs).
Fast-forward to today. Today, we have positive training role models like Karen Pryor, Patricia McConnell, Sophia Yin, Ian Dunbar and Victoria Stilwell who do not advocate for corrective tools or techniques. In fact many, if not all, of these icons prefer a 100% “hands off” approach. The approach instead might be instead to a) lure the desired behavior b) capture a dog’s good behavior by marking it with a signal like a clicker or c) shaping behavior, where small incremental movements towards the goal are marked until the final behavior is achieved. All three of these scenarios end with the dog receiving a reward for the desired behavior. Unwanted behavior can be either ignored until it is extinguished, or positively interrupted and redirected.
However, the point is that if the modern and more effective method of training is hands off, then this opens up the opportunity for people who may have previously been left out of that training pool. No more was this clearer to me when I recently had shoulder surgery on my right and dominant arm…. (Hey, how did the “D-word” get in here?)
My shoulder had been “loose” for some time and susceptible to partially dislocating at random occurrences. It was time to fix this. The surgeon told me that it might take 4 months to get back my range of motion, and I’m working really hard at to meet that goal, currently a little over the halfway point. Because surgery isn’t cheap and because I value the fine work of the doctor, nurses and physical therapist, I chose to refrain from accepting dog training clients for several weeks.
But could I have trained a dog one-handed with positive methods? Yes, and definitely more easily than using corrective methods. Actually, I did train my dog lots of new things while recovering, both at home and on walks. I know the neighbors think I’m crazy to have walked my dog almost every day in a sling for 4 weeks. In fact, it took a lot of work just to teach him to walk on the opposite side from his norm. As a bonus, he’s also learned a wicked automatic sit. Equipment used: A finger clicker, a treat pouch, kibble-sized treats, an anti-pull harness and a run-walk belt to tether him to my waist… a complete hands-off setup.
There you have it. If a one-armed girl can do it, then the sky’s the limit, right? No. Safety is the number one priority. If it’s not deemed safe for someone to train by doctors, parents, guardians or otherwise, then absolutely, it must be avoided.
However, I’ll leave you with this. One of the main concepts of positive training is about setting the dog up for success. In other words, a requested task at any given moment might be challenging, but not too challenging that it becomes unattainable and frustrating for our dogs. So what does it say about trainers if the same value isn’t applied to our human students, too?
I believe that all dog trainers, regardless of their methods, probably got into this business because they have a sincere passion for helping both dogs and people. We all want as many dogs to find homes as possible. And we think that everyone should have at least one dog… Okay, really four or five! Most importantly, we want everyone to succeed with their dogs, otherwise, they’ll end up right back in the shelter.
Which begs the question… Is the dog trainer that you choose setting you up for success by teaching easily attainable and reliable methods? Happy positive training, everyone!