I have a big issue with people who push an opinion based on no knowledge. In an attempt to help, they actually hinder. In fact, the impact of their unfounded spoutings reaches farther than you would ever imagine in terms of dog welfare and the quality of life of a dog and its owner in unison.
Today I want to delve into the subject of what is made out to be, by the uninformed to be the dark side of dog training. The side of dog training you should never venture into with your dog. The side of dog training which is negative reinforcement and punishment.
Before we look at the practical application of such approaches, I wish first to have a look at why these terms get such a bad rep. Why do people have such bad assumptions about these techniques and why, more often than not, once you understand the real facts, you are very likely to dramatically improve your dog’s life, mindset and the overall positive gain will far outweigh thousands of times any negative that you applied?
Ironically, it is more often than not the very people who use these approaches in training who unwittingly arm the naysayers with their negative opinion and the reason this happens is because across all approaches to training most trainers aren’t skilled enough when dealing with a dog and certainly lack when it comes to educating owners. Now, if a purely positive trainer fails to educate an owner correctly then the only real outcome is that the dog carries on being badly behaved and possibly puts some weight on. If a trainer who uses a more balanced approach fails to correctly educate the owner then the potential for things to go wrong, in a way which will pull on human emotions is greatly increased. When this happens, as is human nature, the whole community get the wrap rather than the individual trainer.
So, what is it that most balanced trainers do that create the wider opinion that their craft is so morally wrong? They take a go hard, go harder, go home approach both in terms of the training and the way they handle the client.
When it comes to training the dog, balanced trainers have a tendency to first go firm, if that doesn’t get results they get firmer and they keep getting firmer until they get a result. This can be seen most commonly with a progression from a half check collar to a full check to a prong collar to an electric collar – each step up is not motivated by what is right for the dog or owner but rather which will get the result. How do I know this happens? Because I meet clients who have been elsewhere and have used many of these tools, got short term results and then it’s all fallen apart and they have to come to me to get sorted. You wouldn’t believe the number of dogs we have taken off tools which were completely inappropriate for the dog and owner but had been chosen on the recommendation of a previous trainer.
At WKD, we don’t get firmer, we get more technically correct and teach the dog a deeper level of understanding. It doesn’t matter how big your hammer is if you aren’t even hitting the nail!
What about how they deal with the owner then? Well, the problem here is that most dog trainers are just that. They are dog trainers. So many people end up working with animals because they aren’t huge fans of people. There is a big difference between training a dog and effectively training a person to train a dog. Most trainers are impatient with owners and to be completely honest, I used to be exactly the same. The problem is unless as a trainer you have patience, understanding and the ability to skill an owner then you are almost certainly setting up problems down the line both for the individual dog and owner but also your chosen approach to training in the wider sense. If a trainer turns an owner back onto the street using negative reinforcement or punishment techniques without having either the required ability or level of understanding because they lacked patience with either the owner or the dog then, of course, anybody who witnesses what happens next will develop a negative mindset.
I strongly believe that there is a place for negative reinforcement and punishment in dog training BUT there are a whole load of considerations to be made when choosing the appropriate ones for the dog, the owner and the trainers approach in general.
For me, when working with a dog and owner I first consider their mindset, both the owner and the dog. Some owners want (need) a quick fix to make life bearable, some owners would prefer to take time. Some owners want to really get stuck into training, other owners simply can’t. The biggest part of being a good trainer is being a good people person. It doesn’t matter how good you are with dogs if you can’t motivate the person to do the right thing and keep on doing it!