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If you ask ten different people on the street their opinions on how to train a dog, you’ll surely receive ten different answers. How you approach dog training is a personal decision, but before you decide what method is best for you and your pup, understanding the thinking behind each is important.
Traditional Dominance Training
The most popular and widely used method employs the philosophy that dogs behave poorly because they are trying to obtain dominance or gain higher rank over their owner or trainer. Traditional trainers will use physical stimulus such as yanking a leash to get a dog to heel or firm verbal commands to grab the dog’s attention away from distractions. Popular dog trainer Cesar Millan’s “wolf pack” method draws on dominance theory and establishing “alpha influence” in the trainer in order to exert dominance over the dog. Good behavior is rewarded with praise and positive reinforcement while bad behavior is punished. While touted as successful by many, critics say the result of dominance training is that the dog’s behavior is suppressed and the dog’s personality becomes more subdued in order to avoid disciplinary action. It’s also important to note that the wolf pack theory has come under scrutiny in recent years based on the fact that dogs are an entirely different species than wolves and that most canine problems are a result of insecurity and/or a desire to seek and maintain safety and comfort – not from a desire to establish higher rank and dominance.
Many veterinarians and animal behaviorists promote “science-based training,” which is guided by the philosophy that dogs are hardwired to want to “please” their owners. Therefore, science-based training first teaches the dog desired behaviors using rewards and then, when the dog behaves badly, the reward is taken away. For example, if you’re playing a game of fetch and your dog jumps to nip your hand before you toss the toy, the disciplinary action would be to clearly hold the toy away from him so he understands that he will not get the toy if he continues this behavior. Once the dog sits calmly and waits, you toss the toy back and continue the game. This method does not rely on force or coercion, but rather encourages the trainer to “work with” the dog by removing a perceived award so dog learns unwanted behavior is not tolerated.
Positive Reinforcement Training
This “humanistic approach” relies strictly on positive reinforcement. The dog is never reprimanded; rather only rewarded for good behavior. Bad behavior is ignored under the philosophy that while you your dog may behave badly at times, they require unconditional love and care. A good example of this method which you may have heard of is “clicker training,” is a method based on behavioral psychology that relies on marking desirable behavior and rewarding it. However, critics argue that only employing positive reinforcement is not effective because the dog doesn’t know which behaviors to avoid. Moreover, this method can often lead to even worse behavior because dogs are confused as to right and wrong. For example, if the dog is continuously barking and the trainer ignores the barking and instead pets or hugs the dog, the dog can easily misconstrue your distraction as encouragement or a sign that you want to play.
Whichever direction you choose, there are a few overarching concepts that apply to any/all successful training – strong communication, positive feedback, exercise, motivation and boundaries. It’s also important to have a plan and set expectations for yourself and family members up front. If any of these methods interest you, research the various proponents and equip yourself accordingly with the skills and knowledge necessary to move forward.