In Part One of this series we looked at dog trainers and in Part Two, took a look at behaviorists. In Part Three, we’ll try to help you sort through all the noise and know what to be on the lookout for. In the next installment, we’ll help you know what questions to ask when talking to a professional.
As we talked about in Part One, dog training lacks a common language, and the lack of regulation in the field means it’s wide open for people to say whatever they want. Because we sit firmly on the science- based, force-free, reward-based, positive reinforcement side of the fence, we use a language different than trainers who sit on the other side: where the language is based primarily in pack theory. By the way, I also think it’s a problem that we force-free trainers use different terms for what we do, and that this adds to the confusion that the average dog owner experiences when trying to choose a professional. Unfortunately, words get twisted or co-opted, so we are often left with making the choice that we feel fits best. At YPBY, we have chosen “reward-based” because it seems to best encompass what we do. Are we science- based? Yes, but so are others, though they don’t use the same terminology (and, honestly it doesn’t seem that some of them are even aware that science has anything to do with training.) Are we force-free? Yes, but the term has been co-opted by a trainer who uses it in a very different way than we do. Do we use positive reinforcement? Yes, but so do others. So, reward-based covers more bases: we use primarily positive reinforcement techniques, but we use other techniques whose techie terms are less well-known to people. Those terms include things like negative punishment, DRI (Differential Reinforcement of an Incompatible Behavior, also known as “alternate behavior”) and DS/CC (Desensitization and Counterconditioning). Are those terms ever going to become mainstream and more widely known? I don’t know, but as more dog owners gain awareness of their options in terms of choosing trainers, perhaps they will gain knowledge of the terms and techniques their trainer is using.
Because we sit on the side of the fence we do, there are certain terms that raise red flags for us. If you are new to learning about reward-based training, you may be more familiar with terms like: pack, dominance, Alpha and corrections. Those are the terms I was most familiar with prior to crossing over. The language of pack theory is deeply entrenched in the way many of us think about dogs and though much has changed, we still have a long way to go. Part of why this language is so problematic is that we have learned so much about the way dogs learn and terms like pack simply don’t apply. A pack is a nuclear family of wolves. The Alpha is not the strongest or the most dominant: the Alpha is a parent. Researcher David Mech be-bunked his own work and explains very well why the term Alpha is problematic.
Not only is the use of certain terms out-dated, they are potentially dangerous. Dominance is not a character trait. Dogs are not dominant, though they may express dominance behaviors, and these are typically resource-related. For dogs, this may mean that one has priority access to things like toys, affection or food. In sound dogs, this dominance is gained via deference or appeasement- not violence or aggression, though there may be some showcasing of teeth or growling to let the other know to back off. Most dogs don’t resort to aggression unless they feel it is absolutely necessary. Which leads to another problem: if a dog is behaving aggressively, why would we meet that behavior when we can counter it? Pack theory espouses techniques like alpha rolls, scruff shakes, leash corrections and sometimes worse. These techniques can actually increase aggressive responses
The reason that we get away with it so often is dogs are generally pretty forgiving and allow us to abuse them (see Ian Dunbar video in Part One) or they shut down when under the extreme stress the techniques can cause. Cortisol levels can literally go off the charts when a dog is under extreme stress and the body’s response is to shut down. Many people think this shutting down means the dog is being submissive or back under control. What it really means is the dog is not functioning.
But, why are we doing things to dogs simply because we can get away with them? Surely, we can do better than this. I have no doubt that we all love our dogs. Let’s do right by them. Let’s stop “correcting” them and start teaching them. Let’s stop spraying them with water or shaking cans at them and start teaching them an alternate behavior (DRI) to the unwanted one.
Some of the language you may hear or read when researching trainers is what we call “aversives-cloaking.” Words like tap, stim, corrections usually mean the trainer is going to use some manner of not-so-nice stuff in the name of training. Your praise is not your dog’s highest reward in most cases. Praise is not enough to motivate a great majority of dogs to continue to engage in the training process. Words like energy can be red flags, though there is no denying that we can influence our dogs behavior. If we are tense and angry, our dogs likely know it and it can escalate a situation, but we don’t use some kind of magical energy to train dogs.
Other terms or phrases to be aware of are pack leader or leader, as that can imply the need to treat dogs harshly, so they “respect” us. Does that mean all people who use those phrases are going to use harsh techniques? No, but they may, so in the next piece in this series, we’ll talk about what questions to ask so you can be sure that you are comfortable with what your trainer is suggesting. And, being comfortable with what is being suggested is important. If you aren’t comfortable with using a technique on your dog, you can bet your dog won’t be either.