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Canine Training and Behavior

By: Dr. Nicholas Dodman

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For centuries, dogs have been valued for their roles of alarm-sounder and guardian, as well as for their hunting and herding skills. But owners do view all behaviors that their dogs engage as desirable. Sometimes dogs are aggressive, or urinate or defecate in inappropriate places; and sometimes they bark when it is not called for or steal things from the countertops. Long before the days of behavioral psychology, dog owners intuitively knew that rewarding a desired behavior and punishing an unwanted one would eventually encourage a dog to conform more closely to its owner's wishes and expectations. Those simple tenets now constitute the basic premise underlying any form of dog training.

Trainers and Their Methods

Some people seem to possess a natural affinity for training. Perhaps because of some innate gift of timing (of reward and punishment), perhaps through tone of voice or body language, or perhaps through some uncanny ability to know what the dog is thinking, these individuals can train a dog faster and better than most regular mortals. Trainers, whose unique abilities transcend species, are themselves a breed apart.

There are two completely different schools of thought for training dogs. One is referred to as "gentlemen's training" and the other as "ladies training."

In the past, for gentlemen wishing to train sporting dogs, the approach was more physical and coercive, entailing a significant amount of correction (punishment) for commands not followed. Punishment, though interspersed with praise, was nevertheless instrumental in the technique.

Ladies training, however, presumably for lap dogs and other purely companion dogs, entailed none of such brutish behavior and was based almost exclusively on what is now known as positive reinforcement (that is, reward-based training).

The Evolution of Training Techniques

During World War II, with the need to train service dogs a high priority, the U.S. Army co-opted military-style trainers (of the coercive variety) to train the dogs of war. The training used, while effective, was not for the faint-hearted and caused irreparable damage to some of the dogs. Postwar, these trainers became dispersed among the community, teaching owners to train their dogs using the only methods they knew, as they schooled another generation of same-style trainers. Though softened for the general public, coercive training, based upon dominating the dog physically by means of timely jerks or "corrections" applied to the dog's collar, became accepted as "the norm" of dog training for the next 40 years or so.

While all this was going on "ladies training" was slowly simmering on the back burner, employed by only very few trainers. In fact, this reward-based or "positive" training was slandered by choke chain aficionados who failed to appreciate reward-based training as anything other than a starting step. Referring to positive training as food training (which it largely was), conventional trainers dismissed its effectiveness, saying that dogs so trained would only respond while the owner was offering food.

This is untrue, but the mantra became widely accepted and training dogs with food treats and other rewards was largely restricted to the training of very young puppies. Positive training methods never really did take off until "Click & Treat Training" found its way onto the scene.

Click & Treat Training

Click-and-treat training is not new. Discovered many years ago by psychologists, Breland and Breland, "clicker training" faded into obscurity for the best part of a century before being rediscovered by dolphin trainers who, for underwater acoustic reasons, often used a whistle rather than a clicker. As anyone who has been to a dolphin show will know, the tasks that dolphins perform during shows are complex, and they are executed with a high degree of accuracy. Look around the next time you go to such a show and you will not see a choke chain in sight.

That a task has been completed successfully is signaled by means of a whistle, ("secondary reinforcer") and then the real reward, a piece of fish, can be delivered a short while later. The dolphin knows from the sound of the whistle that it has performed the task correctly and will return to the trainer to receive his reward.

Click and treat training radiated from dolphins to zoo animals and finally, through the work of a handful of pioneer trainers, to dogs. The reinvention of clicker training has revolutionized current dog training methods and is the training technique of choice for many dog trainers and dog training associations today. The beauty of clicker training is that it is fun for both the owner and the dog, and is eminently acceptable to owners.

To make positive reinforcement techniques, including clicker training, more reliably effective, neither the click nor the real reward is necessary every time the dog succeeds. Rather these rewards can eventually be supplied on an intermittent basis, which makes the dog will work even harder to earn the reward.

While the struggle for supremacy between coercive trainers and "total positive" (reward-based) trainers continues, with the latter group slowly gaining momentum, a separate controversy has emerged. That of training versus clinical behaviorism.

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