Choosing a dog training method

N.H. Sunday News - Dog Tracks Column - 1/20/13
By: Gail T. Fisher

January is National Train Your Dog Month. This seems like a perfect time to write about the criteria I use to judge a method of training.

Over the course of my 40+ year career as a professional dog trainer, I’ve gone through two major changes of training method. The first was from “correction training” to a hybrid “lure” method. Then nearly 17 years ago, I was introduced to the shaping and marker method we use today. This approach, commonly (and misleadingly) called “clicker training,” uses a marker (usually a sound) to mark the precise behavior that has earned a reward—providing important information to the dog.

As I’ve studied dog training and instructing (teaching others to train their own dogs), and as I’ve learned about learning theory and dog behavior, I’ve solidified my training principles into a philosophy that seeks and uses training techniques to meet the following criteria.

  • First, a method has to work. That means that the dog learns how to perform the desired behavior using that method of training. This is, of course, a no brainer. Virtually every method of training “works” to some extent, or no one would use it, so meeting the remaining criteria is critical.
  • Next, the method must be fair to the dog. This means that the approach isn’t based on setting the dog up to make a mistake, and getting a “correction.” Such methods are unfair because until the dog has learned the behavior, he doesn’t understand how to avoid the correction. Fair methods focus primarily on teaching positive responses rather than avoiding making mistakes.
  • Third, the method must do no harm to the relationship between the dog and owner. A training method should instill trust and be based on cooperation rather than causing fear or using intimidation and domineering.
  • Next, the average dog owner, including children, must be able to use the techniques. This means that a training method cannot rely on a dog owner having exceptional talent, innate dog-handling skills, or training through physical strength or domination. And finally, the average dog owner must be willing to perform the training techniques. That means that a method must not ask or require owners to do something to their dogs that they find too challenging or objectionable.
    I well-remember a training seminar I attended years ago, featuring a well-known and extremely successful dog trainer. When my Mastiff did not lie down quickly, and was not responding to the things the trainer had me try (none of which I would use today, but ‘back in the day’ I did stuff I wish I hadn’t), she said, “You’ll have to hit her with a 2 X 4.” I laughed, certain that she was joking. Imagine my horror when she said she wasn’t kidding. At that moment I learned what “seeing red” means. I grabbed my dog and said, “If training means hitting my dog with a 2 X 4, I’ll have none of it!” and walked out. Out in the parking lot, I did what any self-respecting woman would do—I hugged my dog and cried.
    Looking back on my previous approaches to training, they did not fit all these criteria well. My first approach was based on dominance and physical skills, including timing of leash “corrections.” It was not always fair to the dog, and if used improperly, could negatively impact the human-dog relationship. My second training method, about which I co-authored two books, met all of these criteria, but in terms of number one—that it works—marker training blows everything else out of the water, while being in harmony with the rest of my philosophy.
    More on training next week. In the meantime, enjoy training your dog!
    Copyright © Gail T. Fisher, 2013. All rights reserved. For permission to reprint this article or suggestions for future topics, plea se contact us.