Over the years I have learned and tried a lot of training strategies or styles. I am totally making up the names for these, but I am going to talk about the benefits and struggles with each.
- Firm Hand
- Treat and Hope
- Calm Control
And as I talk about these, I want to talk about the very different collection of dogs I have trained throughout the years, because that has a bearing on the merits of each of these. So here is a brief introduction to my doggy pals:
- Patch: stubborn, brilliant Aussie Cattle Dog; food-motivated
- Zeus: nervous, neurotic, and not very brilliant but desperate (more than eager) to please; Boxer; not food motivated
- Panda: dog-aggressive, independent but insecure, mellow but disobedient Alaskan Malamute rescue; food motivated
- Hero: clever, wiggly, over-enthusiastic, distractable Springer Spaniel; food-motivated
- Harvey: American Staffordshire Terrier rescue pup who waxes and wanes between bullheaded and eager to please (like many 9 month old pups); leash-reactive; quick learner; food motivated
And in addition to all these there were a few other family dogs and a guide dog pup, but those are the 5 I spent the most time working with.
When I was about nine, I started doing dog-obedience through 4-H with Patch and she excelled at it. Grand Champion ribbons, the State Fair; there was nothing that dog couldn’t do in my eyes. But training her did not build her confidence and it was not easy. Firm hand was force training at it’s finest. Every person used a training collar (more commonly known as a choke collar) and we were taught to yell “Out!” at the top of our lungs to stop particularly bad behavior (like fights or barking) and to push them into a sit. You know, typical, old-school force training.
Everything I taught was a battle with Patch and I lamented about teaching higher level skills. How on Earth was I going to teach this dog to retrieve a dumbell when she didn’t even want to hold it? But all in all, when the woman who taught that left and the next year was a whole new trainer who used treats and praise and flat collars, I watched the carefully organized, controlled realm of 4-H dog obedience disintegrate and I was not impressed.
Why? Dogs were out of control and all the tugging and treating in the world wasn’t going to change that because the reality was, we were not taught to control our dogs without a firm hand. That next instructor had more of a treat and hope strategy than anything, and it didn’t work for me, or my dog (and it didn’t really work for too many dogs). It was going to be a while before I realized there was a better way and that this is NOT what positive reinforcement should look like.
It took another dog to get me to realize that force training was not the answer. Sadly, I didn’t realize it until long after he was trained. Enter Zeus. After looking at a few rowdy boxers needing rehomed, I fell in love with that pathetic, depressed looking little dog. He was so insecure, he piddled in the car on the way home. And I trained him, with a training collar and forcing, and a whole lot of impatience, and he was a rockstar….anywhere but in the ring.
To this day, that is the most obedient dog I have ever owned. But, he was limited. With those methods he was so stressed about learning. It was so hard for him that one day I threw in the towel and said, “this is all you’ll ever know.” He would heel off-leash to the mailbox perfectly. He sat and laid down and stayed and he had the peppiest “finish,” flipping to my left to get in heel position. And that was about it.
Even with those, I had the best behaved and coolest dog of all my friends. Everyone loved him and he was happy to do those few tricks he knew. He was also intensely insecure, with separation anxiety, and a whole list of other neurotic tendencies. Although he was the best behaved, he is also the dog I trusted the least around small children. He was known to attack lawn mowers, vacuums, and mercilessly killed our farm birds (ducks, chickens, geese). He was not a socially well-adjusted dog, not due to lack of exposure, but due to lack of a confidence-inspiring training regime. He had little trust in the world, and that was my fault. And I had no idea how to teach him to be better, because you can’t force train those things.
Enter Panda. When I was a small child, I fell in love with a picture of an Alaskan Malamute in my dog calendar. I really wanted one and my parents got me one for Christmas….it was a stuffed animal. So when I was 17 and wanted a second dog and one showed up at the shelter where I volunteered, my Mom was willing to cosign and home I came. She ended up being dog aggressive, incontinent, and fearful or just about everything. How I got away with not being forced to take her right back to the shelter I will never know, but I kept her.
Anyone who has trained an Alaskan Malamute knows that force training doesn’t work. Now by this time, I had somehow slowly morphed into some combination of Treat and Hope and Firm Hand because I love my dogs, and forcing them doesn’t make me feel any better than the next guy. Plus, I had raised a guide dog by that point and picked up on gentler methods. And all of this worked out okay.
Panda went through one year of 4-H, dog aggressive or not, she passed her temperate test and we did it. This dog who hid behind the couch the first time she met a 7 year old became a gem with small children, gentle and confident. She got on well enough with my parents’ dog and my sister’s dogs, and Zeus of course. She learned to sit and stay and do all the things I expected, though she never heeled. And she wasn’t trustworthy with any of these things. Leave the house and all her skills were unreliable at best. I had found a better way than pure force training, but I didn’t have a strategy that truly worked yet. And in an instance of dog-aggressive craziness, I was not great at calming her down. Thankfully she never really wanted to engage, because all her aggression was fear-based.
So when Panda and Zeus had both died and I was now married and we were ready to get our first pup, I drove hours to pick up Hero. I was tired of trying to fix dogs that came to me broken. Because even though I take some blame, Zeus was already a nervous nelly at 5 months old and Panda’s story speaks for itself. A little context, Zeus died 2 days before I brought Hero home. I literally started looking as soon as we euthanized him, found a single remaining pup from a litter about a 5 hour drive away and off I went to get the agreed upon Springer Spaniel pup.
Hero was left for a reason (probably). He is a confident, dominant, self-involved dog, though he has a couple very Spaniely insecurities that rear their ugly heads now and then. After the other two, I was desperate to create a confident, self-assured dog who lacked fear-aggression and separation anxiety. I outdid myself. I also made some classic mistakes that apparently are very common with first time Springer Spaniel owners.
Springers are PURE ENERGY and my mistake is that outside our house, his energy is focused on everything but me. Dogs, cats, blocks of snow in the road. Any stimuli must be investigated. And I made that happen. I was so focused on getting him used to everything around him, that I didn’t get him used to focusing on me. I pay for that mistake a lot, and have had to do a lot of work to change it.
Hero was of course trained with a combination of Luring, Treat and Hope, and Firm Hand. I can’t call it force training here because I have never forced Hero to learn a thing. He has been lured with a treat since day one. However, when he was being unruly or obnoxious, that is when that old firm hand came in to play. Holding him still, sometimes in a “submissive” position. It never worked. The loud “Out!” might work for a second, but then it is all over and the barking or whatever it might be starts all over. This was the first truly “dominant” or confident dog I had ever owned, however you would like to brand it and he just needed something different. Popping his collar to get him to heel has ZERO effect.
Sadly, Harvey has shown himself to be just as, if not more dominant than Hero. And like all my other rescues, has issues, mostly with leash reactivity to unlearn. He postures, is a pushy bully, and in the event that there is a conflict, is impossible to get to relax. So here is where we get to the real meat of what I do. Luring, is virtually ineffective with both my dogs in the event that there is a high-interest stimulus around. They wouldn’t notice the treat if I shoved it up their nose. So what do I do?
Dominance theory is mostly junk, in my opinion. Partly because so much of it is based on a human idea of dominance. The dominant one is the one who wins. That is not a very doggy way to think of things. And these are not wolves either. Plenty of research suggests that social structures which dogs follow are very different than wolves, and plenty of wolf research suggests that our typical vision of Alpha is pretty skewed as well.
Here is the only dominance that matters: CALM. A proper alpha, as evidenced by our goofy old shepherd mix who used to tell Patch what was what, is calm. They are relaxed in everything they do and quickly and confidently deal with a problem without losing their cool. I read once about a wolf alpha who let the pups eat before him and although I do try to eat before my two dogs (because they are food obsessed), I don’t think it is necessary to be seen as the boss.
And does it matter if you are the boss? Nope. Only if you have a problem dog, and I do. So it matters for me. But the boss is not bossy. The boss is the one you look to if there is a problem. I want my dogs to look to me for their signals. To say, “is it okay to go chase that cat?” This allows me to give them the yes if it is and the no if it isn’t. So how do I make that happen?
- Training, often and everywhere
- Mark and Reward some of the time (learning new behaviors especially – lure them to the correct behavior, mark when they get it with a click or a yes, and then treat)
- Treat free, loose leash walking – Look to Me
- If they are not with you, stop and walk the other way…..eventually they start being with you (some dogs will take a long time)
- Don’t look at them, you want them to look to you for a signal, not have them thinking you are looking to them. Rely on your peripheral vision.
- Barking, growling, lunging, and other “threat” reactions
- Indicate that you’ve noticed the threat it is no big deal (yes this may mean get up and go look). Call them away as you turn your back on it. At first you may have to pull them away with you. It takes a while, but it has worked. My dogs bark SIGNIFICANTLY less than they used to and I’ve been at it a short while.
- Run through some tricks they know
- Body block: if you watch dogs often enough you will notice that they physically put themselves in each others spaces, I put my body between my dogs and a stimulus until they look and get a signal from me. If they are really amped up, I may put a hand under their collar to hold them calmly (over is more threatening and may amp them up more), or walk them away to increase distance before body blocking and calmly holding. Don’t talk to them at all, just wait them out. Emphasis on doing this all calmly. Sometimes I have to breathe deep….calm is not natural to me.
- **Strong personality dog rules – for those of us with tougher dogs
- You do not get to be in my space unless I invite you. No leaning on me, putting your head in my lap, rubbing on me, sitting on my feet, etc. Of course if invited, you can do this briefly and then I would stick to curled up at your side.
- Feed training – feed handfuls of kibble when they complete a requested task instead of feeding from the bowl (I only do this a few times a week)
- You may have to institute a no furniture rule.
Things you never need to do:
- Yell – never is a strong word choice….if your yell is enough to distract in a tense situation, like a dogfight, use it. It is not enough in my household….which is why they make air horns. Otherwise, yelling adds stress to situations and should be avoided. If you are going to yell, one loud low “Out!” is effective. FYI – this comes from Momma dogs and is similar to how one dog may tell another to back off (if you have an older dog and younger dog you have probably seen it).
- Force into a submissive position (like on their back)
- Use choke, prong, or e-collars, pinching or other harsh methods (more commonly seen with hunting dogs than pet dogs).
I hope there was something useful in here. Let me know if you have some other strategies or techniques I missed. 🙂