Canine Training and Behavior

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.

Training involves training a dog to respond to audible commands and hand signals. It is, for a dog, like going to school to learn language, in this case, English as a second language, and obedience. Behaviorism, however, is based on fundamental psychological research and the study of dogs in the wild (ethology). It involves something more than training and is akin to human psychological counseling. Behaviorists attempt to understand a dog's unwanted behavior, recognizing atypical or aberrant behavior, and employing techniques ranging from environmental modification and programmatic shaping of behavior to address behavior problems. In addition, veterinary behaviorists address underlying medical concerns and may prescribe mood and behavior-modifying drugs.

Trainers and behaviorists rely on principles and techniques that cross each others' domains, but there are fundamental differences, too. While trainers may make good teachers and family counselors, behaviorists are best suited to unraveling complex problems and modifying unwanted behavior.

Even if no behavior problems existed, training would still be necessary. Dogs, like children, need to learn how to behave in human society in order to be socially acceptable. To have dogs running rampant is unacceptable, and proper training is what is required to teach the dog acceptable alternative behaviors.

Acquiring the right interspecies communication skills is an important part of training and is necessary to secure the rudiments of an appropriate human-animal bond. Most of the problems in dogs are the result of poor training. The trainer's function is to provide such instruction to assist in the healthy behavioral development of pups and juvenile dogs and to teach owners how to train their older dogs to perform new behaviors. (And yes, you can teach an old dog new tricks).

If every dog was genetically sound and his owners followed through with the instructions of a knowledgeable trainer, there would be no behavior problems to plague us, but unfortunately this utopian situation does not exist. Instead, dogs are too often bred for the wrong reasons, acquired for the wrong reasons, are raised inappropriately and are untrained.

Despite a few hundred years of selective breeding of dogs and at least a hundred years of "modern" dog training, the leading cause of death in dogs is still behavior problems that owners erroneously believe to be irresolvable. To be a little more specific, the number of dogs dying as a result of behavior problems is approximately three times the number that die from cancer, and half the dogs in the United States do not see their second birthday for the behavioral reasons.

Fortunately the American Veterinary Medical Association has seen fit to accredit a college of Veterinary Behaviorists. This new college will provide board certified veterinary experts to help train the veterinarians of the future and, through continuing education, to educate the ones of the present. This should help ease the problem considerably. Also, the Animal behavior Society of the United States now certifies Applied Animal Behaviorists, all members having a further (research) degree, and many of whom pitch in to help deal with this major league problem. Behaviorists spend most of their working time trying to resolve behavior problems in dogs using a Sherlock Holmes-like approach. It requires taking a detailed history, making a diagnosis of the problem, and establishing whether the behavior is a normal behavior or a truly abnormal behavior.

The behaviorist then employs all measures likely to help resolve the problem for the owner and the dog. Fortunately, in many cases, many of the formerly unmanageable problems are now resolvable, though different problems respond somewhat differently to the various therapeutic interventions.

The Bottom Line

Dog trainers may snipe at behaviorists as being a white-coated brigade who sit behind desks and do a lot of talking, handing out instruction pamphlets without actually touching the dog, and behaviorists may look down on trainers as less well educated, poorly grounded counterparts. The fact is that both groups need to work together to resolve the multitudinous problems facing today's pets and their owners. Rather than a territorial approach, it would be more effective for the groups to work together towards a common goal of improving the lot of pet animals and strengthening the human-companion animal bond.

To use an analogy of the human medical system, which has in its ranks the family counselors, the psychologists, and the psychiatrists. Family counselors address domestic problems and train us to communicate and live together harmoniously. The canine therapy equivalent could be the dog trainers.

Psychologists advise us when we have seriously detrimental behaviors that are self-destructive or problematic for others. The equivalent here would be the certified applied animal behaviorists.

Finally, in human behavioral management, there are the psychiatrists, who deal with chemical imbalance situations and medically related behavior problems that may require medication. The only group qualified to intervene at this level, regarding canine behavior problems, are the veterinary behaviorists.

All puppies need to be trained otherwise there will be behavior problems for the owners, at least. All the behavior problems need to be and can usually be addressed by either a trainer, certified applied animal behaviorist, or veterinary behaviorist, depending on the level of the disturbance. Hopefully, these latter expert groups will combine their forces and refer one to another, to solve the massive problem now facing the pet dog population and the many devoted dog owners.