Friday, November 13, 2009

Science and Dog Training

Here is quite a long article posted at, on the fact that sicence is on the side of positive training and not the "dog whisperer." That's not news to those of us who have been preaching positive training, though the number of scientific studies cited in the article is impressive.
But the article also raises a point I have been trying to address for some time: positive does not mean permissive. I think those who have declared themselves "purely positive" have done a great disservice to the effort to move dog training in a positive direciton. It has simply added fuel to those who criticize positive training as being "permissive" and "without boundaries." One person commented on a dog-oriented list that she no longer attends a specific positive dog training event because the many dogs there (presumably positively trained) are not under control. And that is a truly terrible thing.
I have never claimed to believe in purely positive. I have always said that I use clicker training and lure and reward training and, when necessary, negatives or, if you prefer, punishment. I have pointed out that because my training is based in positive methods, my negatives are very mild compared to what is commonly thought of as "force training." My dog reacts to a simple "att" as if he were being beaten. . . and that's not because I have repeatedly flicked him in the neck, a la Cesar Millan, before uttering the "att." It seems to be a cross-species inherently negative sound, and it has the desired effect. No need for choke chains or tossing the dog on his back or any of the other less-than-wonderful variations of punishment.
By using a small measure of punishment, my dogs understand that there are consequences for not following the rules. The rules exist mainly for the safety and well-being of the dogs, and occasionally for my sanity. (For example, I work at home, and I simply would not tolerate a dog who barks whenever I pick up the phone.) They are mostly benign (you may not jump out of the car until released to do so) and easily complied with.
My dogs behave so well in public that I have been told (by people who should know better) that I am an over-anxious owner and there's nothing wrong with my dog's confidence (he and I both know a lot better than that). I don't put him in circumstances he can't handle, and he trusts me to provide that measure of safety for him.
So if anyone reading this is a trainer or speaks to dog owners about training, please consider the point -- purely positive is not the name of the game. Teach first so the dog understands, then add consequences for misbehavior. That is the path to a happy, well-behaved dog and a tight and pleasant human-canine bond.

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