Dog training: Respectable profession or weedy business?

Face of Cavalier being skeptical about the dog training profession: "What's that? You want to train me? Excuse me if I'm skeptical."

If you have ventured a little further into the world of dog training, beyond watching the occasional TV show or asking your vet for advice, you are probably aware that there are differing views on the methods used.  This can give the unfortunate impression that dog training is akin to removing stains from your clothes or killing weeds in your garden rather than a profession like plumbing or dentistry.

If you have unwanted plants in your garden, you may choose to spend a Sunday afternoon pulling them out by hand while enjoying the sunshine and the birds and the rich smell of healthy soil. You could also prevent or smother weeds with pieces of carpet or plastic sheets or annihilate them with vinegar, baking soda or vodka (yes, I agree there is a much better use for vodka, especially after you have discovered that the toxic carpet chemicals have leached into your formerly healthy soil). Maybe you are more the strategic type who sends ground covering plants to the front line to fend off an invasion by unwelcome visitors? Or maybe you attack the perceived enemy with poison, either selectively or agent-orange-style. Lastly, you might have your own secret recipe and think everyone else is an idiot. All those methods seem perfectly valid. Are they equally valuable? You decide.

Actually, thinking of it … this does sound a lot like the current state of the dog training industry.

On the other hand, dog training is a field of teaching & behaviour modification. It deals with the behaviour of sentient beings and therefore must be governed by the scientific principles of animal learning, animal welfare laws and ethical considerations. A practitioner in this field cannot simply focus on an outcome. They need to have the education, integrity and skills required to deliver the best solution available in regards to short and long term effects on dogs and humans.

Well, that’s the theory at least. The problem is: No one enforces this. Industries are not very good at regulating themselves and with the lives of dogs and potentially humans at stake maybe self-regulation shouldn’t even be considered a viable option.

Sadly, the ones thwarting the quality and progress of the industry are not just indifferent government authorities and trainers with outdated philosophies and techniques. Sometimes accidental sabotage comes from the ranks of trainers striving for a more humane approach in dog training. This is because good intentions alone are not good enough. We need good education, clear thinking, excellent skills and an ethical code of conduct. Without it we will continue to see blogs, articles and websites that are lacking in accuracy, appropriate language and valuable information and only add to the confusion of the dog loving public.

Imagine you have just started to get a grasp on how dogs learn via classical and operant conditioning. You understand that counter-conditioning is a form of classical conditioning and describes a process in which an animal’s emotion towards someone or something is changed from negative to positive (or vice versa). Then you are told by a professional trainer that counter-conditioning doesn’t always work. Um, isn’t that like saying that growing vegetables doesn’t work? No doubt, attempts at counter-conditioning can fail just like trying to grow vegetables can fail. But we wouldn’t dismiss the fact that vegetables grow just because we stuffed it up. If a dog’s emotion doesn’t change during a program, then it is not because counter-conditioning didn’t work, it’s because counter-conditioning didn’t happen. The logical course of action is to take a good look at the behaviour modification plan, adjust it where necessary and make sure one is aware of the common pitfalls.

The principle of animal learning that seems to come under most frequent attack though is positive reinforcement: Allegedly it doesn’t work with some dogs or certain types of dogs or certain types of behaviour. Just like counter-conditioning, positive reinforcement describes a process and an outcome. Positive reinforcement has occurred when an individual engages in the relevant behaviour more often than they did before because they have been repeatedly rewarded for the behaviour. It happens all the time in all sorts of animals and there is absolutely no doubt that it works.

Does positive reinforcement alone change every behaviour we don’t like in a dog? Of course not. Solutions are frequently a mixture of management, reinforcement and punishment. The form of punishment used by modern reward-based trainers however is never harmful to the dog. It works by withholding or removing something the dog wants and a skilled practitioner will use this technique prudently. Unless you think that learning should be scary or distressing for the subject and you are willing to risk unwelcome side effects, you want to stay clear of using physical and/or psychological force to change a dog’s behaviour.

To give the impression that a fundamental principle of animal learning is just another “method” that may or may not work in a specific case supports the idea that dog training is an open playing field for anyone who wants to have a go at it. It ignores the importance of a solid scientific basis for behaviour modification and it allows hacks and quacks to cheapen the dog training industry.

That animals learn via classical conditioning (by forming associations) and operant conditioning (through reinforcement and punishment) – in addition to a simpler form of learning called “habituation” – is solid science. Whatever a trainer does to successfully change the behaviour of a dog, whatever solution they come up with, whatever name they give it, they will always utilize one or more of those fundamental principles of animal learning, even if they are unaware of it.

When we have professional trainers who are committed to humane training but have muddled thinking or are careless with their language, we have little hope of elevating the dog training profession to a valuable and respectable field of expertise and many people will miss out on reliable access to quality training for their dogs. It has to be in everybody’s interest to assist with creating a better standard in dog training.

If you are looking for help with your dog: Would you prefer to take advice from someone who has gone through a proper educational process, can prove their competence and clearly explains to you their methods, intended outcomes and possible side effects? Or do you trust a person simply because they are convincing or charming?

If you are a professional dog trainer: Are you proud of being a highly skilled practitioner with expertise in the relevant scientific disciplines and a commitment to employ the most up-to-date training methods to deliver a service that is in the best interests of your human and canine clients? Or are you in the weed killing business?


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9 thoughts on “Dog training: Respectable profession or weedy business?”

  1. There needs to be…oh, let me say that again…there NEEDS to be balance in training. Not all forms of teaching work with every human student. Not all forms of teaching work with every single dog. A respectable professional should be trained in and competently know all forms of training and be able to pair the best method with the individual dog. If that turns out to be (what you are not calling) positive only…great! But if it happens to be prong or e collar, so be it. I would never hire a trainer on the basis of their charm. Or on the basis of their negative stand against certain forms of training if that is indeed what my dog needs.

    1. Thank you for your comment, however, I do not agree that there is ever any need for physical or psychological force when training an animal. The focus should be on cooperation, not coercion. Countless animal trainers have proved that force-free and reward-based training works.

  2. And this is the Round-Up of articles, killing off those who you might see as weeds, but are hard-working individuals who do help dogs and their owners and are always striving to do better.

    Individuals who learned the hard way, un-learning old methods as we went and saving up to afford whatever continuing education opportunities were available, trying to learn from books and online resources.

    Yeah, some have made mistakes in terminology as they were learning. What they don’t need is another smug article from someone who had an extra $5K to spend on an online academy while they slogged away in the trenches, struggling to make ends meet, and learning as they went. They need more support from like-minded pros to reinforce the things they are doing right and help guide them when they get things wrong.

    And, as anyone who understands learning should know, mistakes are part of the learning process. Articles like this, shaming trainers for making mistakes, are punishing those who are trying. So, while you may consider yourself “a highly skilled practitioner with expertise in the relevant scientific disciplines and a commitment to employ the most up-to-date training methods” with dogs, you are using aversives to suppress the behavior of those who may be amazing handlers, empathetic consultants, and on their way to being incredible practitioners of modern methods.

    You want to weed out the bad practitioners? Start by learning how to encourage the growth of those who are on their way. Otherwise, this sort of poison is going to kill off the good that is mixed in with the bad.

    1. Thank you for your comment and I’m sorry you feel personally attacked by this article. My goal is not to shame trainers who make an effort to become better trainers. We all learn all the time. If you are continually educating yourself and strive to use the most humane and science-based methods available, then you are one of those trainers I applaud (I never compared trainers to “weeds” as you suggest by the way; the analogy was between methods used for killing weeds and the methods used for training dogs). The goal of everyone who cares about the welfare of dogs should be to help create an industry that has the highest standards (which ultimately can only be achieved through regulation). Mandatory licencing, as has been introduced in other countries, can be the first step. It does not require everyone who is already working in the field to get a formal qualification, but it does make sure everyone employs sound and humane practices. Without it we will continue to see animal abuse in the name of dog training.

  3. Hello. The term “industry” applied to biznesses related to dog training is very disturbing . I see it more like a craftmanship working with living creature. Industry Would be describing pet food producers, toys manufacturers, crates… Any item used. But dog training as such is every Time a single humain-dog relation. Each Time unique, Even in the bizness model of a franchise. Industry lowers the value of the profession. It gives the idea you can replicate, taylorises the training process. On the contrary you have to adapt to the dog and to the ower. Industry is not a term Nobel enough in my mind.

    1. Regardless of the uniqueness of each dog and the dog-human relationship, all animals with brain cells learn via classical and operant conditioning. It is this understanding of the basic principles of animal learning – together with a solid science-based understanding of dog behaviour – which needs to be a minimum educational requirement for anyone training dogs.
      If dog training had to adhere to government regulated standards (no matter if you call it an industry, a field, a profession or whatever), we would have less animal abuse, less behaviour problems in dogs and generally much happier dogs and dog guardians.

  4. I have had students come to class with their dogs on prong collars, choke chains or even worse shock collars even after I have told them I want dogs to be on regular collars or specific body harnesses. I have been told, “But this is what the person in the pet supply store told me to use.” As long as these aversive tools exist and there are people who want quick fixes, force free trainers continue to have an up hill battle. I try to find subtle ways to ask people who have allowed an unacceptable behavior to go on for months, sometimes years, why they expect they can change that behavior overnight.

  5. I’m just a breeder of working German Shepherds who also trains, rescues and rehabs. While I am in agreement that there are harsh corporal punishments that I refuse to employ in favor of a more cooperative trust relationship, I really believe it’s all about balance…each dog is an individual. There are no cookie cutters in my line. I deal with a variety of drives and personalities so that while something firm with stern disappointment in my voice works for 1, another WILL require a prong collar and strong arm to reinforce my words and actions.

    Keep in mind that many flowers WERE weeds before someone decided to make them flower acceptable. And some weeds are very beneficial. Lets put the pendulum back on balance. That’s what dogs need. Now while trainers have long said they train owners not the dog, prrhsps it time to train trainers back to thinking like dog HANDLERS not trainers.

    1. Thanks for your contribution, Debbi. Sadly, your conviction that some dogs need a “strong arm” is a legacy from traditional dog training methods that view the relationship between dog and human as one of dominance and submission. Fortunately this is slowly changing and my post addresses the need for dog trainers to catch up with the latest canine behavioural science and modern animal training practices. If we coerced other animals in captivity, such as zoo animals, the way we coerce dogs, it would be considered animal abuse. For some reason people still get away with in dog training.
      No animal has to be subjected to manhandling, intimidation or pain for the sake of training. Animal training is not about a battle of wills. It’s not a power struggle. It’s about teaching an animal skills so they can share their lives with us. This requires knowledge, patience and respect for the animal.

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