About 25 years ago, somewhere in Italy, an idea took hold that would grow into a global movement: The “slow food revolution”. It started as an attempt to counter our ever increasing fast food, fast paced and unmindful lifestyles. It promoted “real food” – locally and ethically produced food and wine that was to be savoured slowly and consciously rather than gobbled up in a hurry to fill the stomach. What may be less known is that the initiative also targeted the potential risks of thoughtless consumerism after a greedy businessman poisoned hundreds of unsuspecting people with cheap diluted wine.
Our society’s hunger for fast and cheap products and services has resulted not just in a loss of conscious and mindful living, but also in potential risks to people from unscrupulous businesses.
I think it might be time for a “slow dog training revolution”. Rather than being just another chore, training our dogs can be an enjoyable and enlightening activity. It offers a unique opportunity to learn up close how another species experiences the world. It teaches us new things, opens our minds and ultimately brings us closer to our dogs. Taking a slow approach also means we become more aware of our own actions and behaviours and how they affect our dogs. It helps us to make smarter choices when deciding on training methods, getting professional help and allowing others to interact with our dogs.
What exactly is dog training?
First we need to understand what dog training really is. Dog training is the teaching of one or more new skills to a dog. It is a step by step process towards a specific training goal. It can also apply to the modification of existing behaviour which may require an even more incremental process, especially if the behaviour is controlled by underlying fear or anxiety.
Acquiring a new skill or changing one’s behaviour is rarely compatible with expectations of fast results or instant gratification. Just like humans, dogs need time to learn new things or to overcome their fears and phobias. Furthermore, many skills we want them to learn are either not in their natural repertoire or even go against their natural instincts. Without an understanding just how difficult it can be for our dogs to comply with our requests, we risk wasting our time, losing our temper and harming our dogs. Thoughtfulness is the first essential step in state-of-the-art dog training.
Apart from time and patience, good dog training requires knowledge, self-discipline and good observational skills from the human teacher and motivation and confidence from the canine student.
When time is running out, patience is running thin
Unfortunately when our dog’s behaviour turns into a problem we quickly feel stressed or under pressure. Maybe the dog is destroying the house or the neighbours have started to complain. The problem needs to be fixed – now. That sense of urgency can easily lead to hasty decisions, leave us vulnerable to dodgy advice and risk our dogs’ wellbeing. We might hand our dogs over to “boot camp” without enquiring exactly what will be done to them. We may take advice from a person who calls themselves “dog trainer” or “dog behaviourist” without checking their qualifications and methods of training. We get roped in by clever marketing or a trainer’s air of authority. This is how we and our dogs get hurt. The dog training industry has no shortage of misleading claims and promises of quick fixes and guaranteed solutions without any mention of the potential risks and side effects. The result may well be a change in the dog’s behaviour, but at what cost? And with the real fallout not always being obvious until much later, we are left with no one to blame but ourselves.
The path to safe and efficient dog training
Long gone are the days when people were intimidated by authority. These days we are more informed and educated than ever before. We ask questions, we demand explanations, we want to see evidence. Even the most time-pressed person has an interest in getting the best value for their money, but it does require some effort. Before we can evaluate a particular service we need to understand what to look for, how to interpret marketing language and what questions to ask. Without knowledge we remain at the mercy of salesmen. But, how to find the right knowledge? The amount of available information, vastly increased by the internet, is almost paralysing. Where to begin?
Well, we already know that dog training is the teaching of skills. This allows us to weed out any trainers whose methods sound like magic tricks or some form of secret business. Animal learning is a science. It’s not a matter of opinion or the dominion of people who believe they have special gifts. Animal learning deals with classical and operant (instrumental) conditioning, reinforcement and punishment. The Australian Veterinary Association (AVA) has an informative brochure on this which provides anyone who cares about their dog with a good understanding of the basics for dog training.
When trying to find a suitable dog trainer we may then enter something like “positive dog training” into our search engines. Unfortunately the phrase is as unreliable as the “organic” or “free range” labels on various food products. Anyone can claim that they are using “positive” methods. It doesn’t mean anything. When “positive reinforcement dog training” started to take off, many businesses jumped on the bandwagon and adjusted their marketing. But did they also change their methods?
A possible first step when screening a trainer could be to look for a formal qualification. I doubt anyone would send their children to a school where teachers are not suitably qualified. Or how about hiring a psychiatrist who doesn’t have a degree? Those professions have clear regulations for qualification, but sadly this is not the case with dog trainers. Even the term “behaviourist” is not legally protected. Asking lots of questions may help but only if one knows what questions to ask. Here is where relevant professional organisations can give a hand, such as the “American Veterinary Society of Animal Behaviour“. AVSAB has a very useful info sheet on how to choose a dog trainer which is essential reading for anyone looking for help with their dog.
With a proper understanding of what dog training is and how it affects our dogs – both short term and long term – we are able to take better control of outcomes. By investing some time in our dogs’ training we can all benefit – dogs, humans and the community. Well behaved and happy dogs are not just less likely to become depressed, aggressive and end up in shelters; they are simply easier to live with and can add a great deal of happiness to our lives. Apart from playing, cuddling and exercising with our dogs, training them can be another enjoyable activity if we allow it to be. All it takes it to slow down a little, so we can make the best choices for us and our dogs.
Reward Based Training – link to ‘AVA’ info sheet, PDF
How to Chose a Dog Trainer – link to ‘AVSAB’ info sheet, PDF
The Use of Punishment for Behavior Modification in Animals – link to ‘AVSAB’ position statement, PDF