Understanding Your Tools
By Hilton Butler
When it comes time to fill your dog training tool bag it can become confusing very quickly. Like a kid in a candy store the options and choices available are overwhelming. The internet does not offer much in the way of help. Sifting through all the opinions and trying to decipher fact from opinion is just about imposable these days. Do you go with “positive” dog training? Exactly how “positive” do you have to be? Or do you use “negative” reinforcement? What is “negative” dog training? I am going to try and help you sort through that information and make this decision as easy as possible.
There is no end to the tools and techniques out there, starting with magic collars all the way down to scientifically studied techniques. When it comes to training your canine just about everything falls into one of two categories. First are the things we want the dog to do. Commands such as “sit”, “down”, or “stay”. The second is all the thing we do not want the dog to do. Things like jumping up or pulling on leash. Where do you start?
For training the “yes” behaviors, you can find all the advice in the world. There is an ever growing number of books, DVDs and websites to teach you whatever method you prefer. Here are some of the tools I use and have learned over my career.
Lure Training entices the dog into the desired position by typically using food or a treat to lure the dog into the desired position. For example, the trainer lures a dog to sit by holding a treat just in front of the nose and moving it in an arch backwards over his head; the dog follows the treat into the desired position. This arching movement then becomes our hand command for “SIT.” Reinforcement is generally giving the food reward along with verbal praise at the completion of the desired behavior. Use this lure a handful (5 or 6) of times, just enough to learn the basic idea of what we want. If you use the treat more than that, you run the risk of the dog including the lure as a variable of the command. We have all seen dogs that are perfect when you have a treat bag in your hand. When you don’t have the treat, you might as well be invisible.
In compulsion training, the trainer manipulates the dog into a position by using physical placement. For example, the dog may be placed into the “SIT” by applying pressure on his hinds and pulling up on the collar. This is the method used by most people. The issue here is you are teaching two variables we will have to wean. Sit does not mean I’m going to push down on your butt and pull up on your collar. Reinforcement is normally verbal praise or a food reward.
Marker training is most known in correlation to clicker training. The trainer uses a sound, word, or click to “mark” or immediately indicate to the dog that a behavior is desirable. For example, the moment the dog’s rump hits the floor in a sit, a trainer would use his desired marker (click) to tell the dog that was the correct behavior. A marker is paired with a positive reinforcement such as food and/or verbal praise. The marker creates a brief separation between the treat and the performance of the behavior, so food is a reward, not an enticement. Behaviors can be either shaped, captured or lured using a marker—think of the bell and steak of Pavlov’s Dog.
On the flip side are the behaviors we want to stop or reduce. All the things we don’t want like jumping, biting, or pulling on leash. The two primary tools used by most are behavior replacement/redirection or extinction training.
Training a replacement behavior is the first approach for most reward-base or positive trainers use to fix undesirable behaviors. When your dog behaves in a way you wish to stop you show him a new behavior that gets the same goal. The new behavior both replaces and prevents the behavior the owner dislikes. For example, to eliminate jumping up to greet people, a dog might be taught to stand still or sit when the owner walks through the door. Both stand and sit are “incompatible” with jumping up. If he performs the good behavior, he simply cannot perform the other. Another example is pulling on a leash. In order to eliminate pulling on a leash, the dog is trained and rewarded for walking on a loose leash. If tension is placed on the leash the trainer simply stops walking and does not move until the leash is has slack. Loose leash walking is incompatible with pulling.
Extinction training simply means to employ an undesirable consequence. When a dog “knows” a behavior—that is, when the trainer has a reasonable expectation that the dog has been trained and has proved to recognize the cue and reliably respond appropriately—but fails to do so, a trainer then employs a consequence for this non-compliance. You might also use consequences to reduce undesirable behaviors when an incompatible behavior is not appropriate or has not fixed the behavior. The purpose of these consequences is to reduce or eliminate the likelihood of the behavior recurring.
Here’s an overview of the three uses of undesirable consequences:
Negative punishment is an approach where you remove something desirable to the dog. For example putting away the food treat or toy, removing the dog from an activity, placing the dog in his crate or removing attention from the dog are all negative punishments when a dog does not comply.
Positive punishment is when an undesirable consequence (to the dog) is immediately paired with the dog’s undesirable behavior. This includes such things as a sharp verbal reprimand, a low growl tone, citronella collar, electronic collar and the like. Collar “corrections” with a choke collar or pinch collar would be included in this category. The dog receives a collar “correction” when the dog engages in an undesirable behavior. For example, for jumping up to greet, the trainer might stand on the leash so when the dog tries to jump up, he receives a correction. For pulling on leash, a trainer using a pinch collar would simply stop moving and when the dog applies tension to the leash the collar would automatically correct.
Negative reinforcement removes something undesirable the moment the dog engages in the desired behavior—for example, using an e-collar and recalling your dog from a distance. You give the command “Come” and he does not comply; you would initiate the collar stimulation. This stimulation should be the same level as placing your tongue on a 9-volt battery—while some readers might not understand what this would feel like, but most males would understand. It should not hurt, but it’s not something you want to do for an extended period. As soon as your dog moves in your direction the stimulation would stop. These techniques are not the only approaches to reducing or changing undesirable behavior but they area some of the basic tools every trainer should have. You be the judge to the approach that’s best for you and your dog.
Professional trainers or novices may employ combinations of any and all of the above from time-to-time to teach both “do” and “don’t do.” It is the individuals training philosophy that defines the method or methods they use.
Consider this information when learning new techniques or trying new equipment. Research and find tools that are compatible with your personal philosophy, your needs and your dog’s temperament. The most important part of any tool is that it should enhance your relationship with your dog.