Understanding Popular Dog Training Methods

Whether you're going to hire a dog trainer or teach your dog yourself, learn the 3 approaches for training a dog.

dog training

So you decided to add a dog to your family. Congratulations. And you've finally gotten settled with young Fido, but now that you've been able to spend some quality time with him, you realize that there may be more to pet-ownership than you considered.

Training a dog can be one of the most arduous tasks of pet-ownership, but it's necessary in order to keep your family and your dog happy -- and you, sane! There are a few different approaches families can take to train a pet. We spoke with Dr. Sophia Yin, applied animal behaviorist and executive board member of the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (ASVAB), and Dr. Mary Lee Nitschke, president of Owner Trained Individualized Service Dogs (OTIS), about how to train a pet.

Every celebrity dog trainer and pet manual seems to advocate a different style for teaching your pup. Though it seems confusing at first, they all boil down to three main techniques: the traditional dominance method, the scientific method and the positive reinforcement method. The first two are the most widely used methods, and science-based training is becoming more popular, as veterinarians continue to research and understand dogs and what makes them tick -- and wag.

Traditional Dominance Training

According to Dr. Yin, the traditional method of training became popular around World War II, when the military used force to train dogs and ensure that they followed commands. Usually, trainers "make the assumption that dogs behave badly because they are trying to gain higher rank [than the trainer]." Instead, Yin argues, trainers are putting dogs in a "conflict situation", where the dog "is likely to make a mistake". Traditional trainers will use corrections such as yanking a leash when attempting to get a dog to heel or using a shock collar to assure a dog stays within limits.

Yin notes that when this method is successful, "it's usually only successful for the one person in the household who is strong enough or intimidating enough" to control the dog -- generally, the male of the home. This traditional method has come under scrutiny in recent decades however, because "the actual result is often that the dog's behavior is suppressed and the dog has a more subdued personality since it lives to avoid the corrections," says Yin.

The Koehler method, developed by William Koehler and Diane Baumann, is the most steeped in traditional training, as it encourages punishment or physical stimulus (like pulling on a leash) to grab the attention of a distracted dog. While this method does use reinforcement in the form of praise, it differs from science-based training, which uses negative reinforcement as opposed to punishment. The two differ because negative reinforcement refers to taking away a negative stimulus, while punishment involves adding something aversive to the situation to decrease the likelihood a certain behavior will be repeated.

Similarly, popular dog trainer Cesar Millan would probably fit best in the traditional training category, as he uses dominance theory in his training methods. Dominance theory draws much of its principles from information gathered from studies done on wolf packs, and has become somewhat controversial since Millan's show, "The Dog Whisperer", has brought more attention to it. Some argue that dogs and wolves are very different, and therefore information gathered on wolves is inapplicable to dog training methods. Furthermore, many opponents of this method point to studies showing that wolf packs don't have "alpha " individuals at all. On the other side of the fence, many swear by this method and Millan's philosophy has gained popularity and a strong following by many dog owners.

Scientific Training

Dr. Nitschke argues that "there are more effective, quicker, more humane techniques, based on the appropriate control of resources, use of good communication interaction patterns and positive techniques, which are more effective and have better durability." In the science-based method, rewards are given when the dog performs adequately and taken away for unwanted behaviors. This kind of training is reminiscent of the behavioral perceptive of B.F. Skinner (a noted American psychologist and behaviorist), in that negative reinforcement and positive reinforcement are applied. Nitschke says this method involves trainers working "with the dog" instead of simply commanding the dog.

Many veterinarians and animal behaviorists now use this science-based method. As Yin says, "With this approach, animals are taught the desired behaviors first using rewards, but also taught that the unwanted behaviors don't work. For instance, a dog may jump to grab a toy you plan to toss. Instead of giving a leash or verbal correction, as a traditional trainer would, the science-based trainer holds the toy in a way that it's clear the dog will not get it." While Skinner believed in "negative reinforcement" (taking a negative stimulus away) in this case, you're using "negative punishment" by making removing the toy, as you're taking away a perceived award for his behavior. "Then when the dog sits, as it has been trained to, the trainer tosses the toy," says Yin. "So the dog learns that the unwanted jumping behavior does not work, only the polite sitting behavior works. And force and coercion are not needed." The polite sitting behavior is rewarded with a toy, which leads to what Skinner coined "positive reinforcement."

Positive Reinforcement Training

The final method of training is one where the dog is supposedly never reprimanded and only ever rewarded for his actions. Unwanted behaviors are simply ignored. Trainers who use clickers and only positive reinforcement without applying any negative reinforcement would fall into this category. This sort of humanistic approach follows Carl Rogers' ideals of "unconditional positive regard," meaning that you may not always like the behavior of your pooch, but you will always love and care for your dog himself. Yin tells us that this method doesn't work effectively because it can't teach the dog that he is doing something wrong. "This method fails to help dogs understand which behaviors they should avoid and worse, by ignoring unwanted behavior, it allows the dogs to actually get rewarded for these behaviors." An example could again be taken from a dog jumping up in excitement -- if a trainer turns quickly away or gives the dog attention by petting it, the dog may think you're playing with him or encouraging him.

While Victoria Stilwell of "Greatest American Dog" and "It's Me or the Dog" advocates for science-based training, she would probably fit best in the positive-only camp, as she rejects the dominant-based and traditional methods in favor of an approach that uses positive reinforcement.

In general, a healthy medium between positive reinforcement and clear rules is best, found in the science-based method and what is recommended by veterinarians today. There are a few concepts that do pervade all schools of thought, however. Nitschke indicates that the trainer needs to have the skill and knowledge necessary to provide "guidance" for the dog. She says that "positive feedback and strong communication between all parties involved" is the best route to take. Yin follows up on this, stating that every dog needs "exercise, motivation and rules," all of which can be provided by a smart and caring trainer.

Jennifer Eberhart recently completed her master's degree in museum studies from the City College, New York. She has many years of experience in the arts through writing, video production and art history, and can be reached via Twitter at @egyptologist. Her work can be found here.

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Comments (1)
Laura P.
Although Dr. Yin suggests a "healthy medium between positive reinforcement and clear rules" is the best type of training, she suggests this can only be found in science-based training. I believe in a different type of healthy medium. It is called the balanced method of dog training.
Balance training basically means teaching a behavior using whatever positive reinforcement tools are available (capture, lure, model, shaping). Then, once a dog has a clear understanding of the correct response for a cue, introduces corrections and escape/avoidance.
The balance lies between positive reinforcement and correction. Balance training continues on past the point where positive reinforcement trainers stop. The idea is making the dog accountable and responsible, with increased reliability. The dog learns consequences of choices, and a solid work ethic. It is not about making a dog do something they hate, but making a dog take the work seriously. When a person's life can hang in the balance; they cannot truly afford to have a dog who thinks it is perfectly okay to make a choice not to work. Dogs are not robots or machines obviously. They are fallible just as humans are. Still we have a greater compliance if the dog is working for work's sake instead of for an anticipation of reward.
Posted: April 09, 2013 at 9:17 PM
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