Sadly, this is not the straightforward task it ought to be. Finding someone who is well qualified and follows kind and ethical, up-to-date, science-based training methods is an absolute minefield because the dog training industry is currently unregulated. Scarily, anyone can set themselves up in business as a dog trainer or behaviourist, without the need for any accreditations, certifications or experience. Yes, you read that correctly, and this is why we have to be so careful when looking to enlist the help of a professional to entrust with our precious pooches. In this blog, I take a look at how you can protect yourself and your dog from falling foul of those who lack understanding and empathy, and whose training methods are
punitive and prehistoric.
This is one of the biggest myths and probably the most damaging in the industry. It continues to be perpetuated, despite being thoroughly debunked several decades ago. Unfortunately, the meaning of “dominance” in dog training has been blurred and misunderstood. Dominance theory is commonly thought to be based on the belief that a dog behaves in the same way that a wolf would; this belief stems from early, flawed studies carried out on captive grey wolves to demonstrate how they live and behave within their family unit. One of the first, most influential studies occurred in 1947 under Robert Schenkel of the Zoological Institute of the University of Basel in Switzerland. Although Schenkel’s study was very detailed, it was flawed; the wolves studied were not, in fact, a family unit, but adult, individual wolves that were contained in a small enclosure outside of their natural environment. As the wolves were unrelated, the dynamics and interactions between them differed greatly from those of a family unit living in harmony; the close proximity of other unknown wolves would have been a source of great tension. Schenkel interpreted this tension as competition for rank within the “pack” and, unfortunately, this soon transferred into dominance theory for those dealing with and handling dogs.
The results of this study are still drawn on today in order to justify certain dog training methods, and much poor advice is given. This includes, but is not limited to: always eat before your dog, do not let them go through doorways before you, do not allow them on your bed or furniture, all dogs want to be the “pack leader” and are in constant battle with you to attain this role, and so on. These outdated beliefs are very damaging to the relationship you share with your dog and can lead to fear, anxiety, and even aggression.
However, since Robert Schenkel’s study, further research was carried out, and in the 1980s, another influential study emerged from American biologist David Mech, which highlighted the flaws in the earlier pack and dominance theory. This study was substantial; it was carried out over the course of thirteen summers and reflected the true nature of the wild wolf pack being a family unit which lived peacefully, more akin to a human family.
Having delved a little deeper into this subject, it appears that dominance theory predates Robert Schenkel’s 1947 study, with many of these ideas actually originating from old gundog training methods from as early as the 1800s. In those days, dogs were not recognised as sentient beings; “breaking” them and submission was desired, and punishment was an acceptable way to achieve this. However, thanks to modern science-based training, we now know better.
We know that there is no reason to eat before your dog, as it makes no difference to them.
Going through doorways before your dog is only encouraged from a safety point of view and for the sake of manners, but has no bearing on how a dog views himself or his “status”.
It doesn’t matter what position he assumes on a walk, although it is useful to see what he is doing and to engage fully with him, so it is helpful for him to be beside or in front, rather than behind.
Ignoring your dog when returning home can cause him to feel stressed; it is much kinder to teach an acceptable behaviour such as a sit, or hand them a toy and then make a fuss.
Play can be initiated by either you or your dog. It is important to let him win so that he doesn’t become bored, or no longer wishes to interact. Playing tug and allowing him to win frequently can help to build confidence and resilience. It is also a great way to teach him to return a toy to you or take it from you, which can also help build pauses into play to regulate arousal levels.
Behaviour issues have frequently been attributed to “dominance,” but when investigated, they often stem from fearfulness. An example of this is the reactive, barking and lunging dog who at first glance appears to be aggressive towards others, but he is simply behaving in this way as a distance-increasing tactic to put space between him and the thing that he is frightened of. It could not be further from the label of “dominance,” and would be very damaging to the reactive dog for him to be regarded in this way, in terms of dealing with their fear effectively and kindly.
SOME POINTERS TO HELP WHEN CHOOSING A QUALIFIED PROFESSIONAL
Having identified some of the pitfalls caused by the lack of regulation in the industry, we need to outline how to go about selecting someone that you can trust to help you and your dog.
The most important point is to find someone who employs reward-based training methods, using food as well as toys and play. Even if a trainer is certified and accredited to a particular organisation, they should still be checked out, ensuring that the professional you hire is actually registered and adheres to the ethos of the organisation; a force free approach is essential. Professionals should be expected to keep their skills and knowledge up to date, so check for evidence of continuing professional development.
Always question what methods will be used to train your dog.
Be aware that “balanced” refers to using all four quadrants of dog training, meaning that they use positive reinforcement as well as punishment or corrections.
Avoid anyone who is derogatory towards the use of food in training.
Avoid like the plague if there is any mention of dominant dogs, alpha, pack leader, rank or hierarchy amongst dogs. Language use is very telling.
Ask what will happen when your dog does something right.
Ask what will happen when your dog does something wrong.
Beware of any references to “correcting” behaviours.
Beware of anyone claiming to provide results within a certain timeframe.
Read the trainer’s customer reviews for clues to how they train.
Check their social media profiles for clues and examine photos and videos for any aversives in use.
It is necessary to be a bit of a detective because it isn’t always obvious from social media pages and websites what training methods are employed. There has been a definite increase in the number of trainers using tools which cause pain and discomfort, such as prong/pinch collars, e-/shock collars, slip leads, choke/check chains etc, so you need to be on the lookout for those, but appearances can often be deceiving. The suppression of behaviours through the use of punishment, or over-exposing a dog to triggers, known as flooding, can seem to be an effective quick fix; before and after videos can be both appealing and misleading. Remember that suppression is not the same as behaviour modification. An ethical, knowledgeable trainer will not place your dog in compromising situations which will cause him stress in order to see an issue in action, and to facilitate the capturing of videos which portray apparent quick fixes. True behaviour modification takes time and should be unremarkable to the onlooker.
Scrutinise images and videos very carefully, checking what equipment the dog is wearing. Anything which can tighten, squeeze, or cause discomfort and pain in any way is a definite "no". Look at the body language of the dogs; what is their demeanour? Turn off the sound on videos to help you focus on what you are seeing. A flashy social media page with lots of followers, coupled with a trainer who talks the talk can be very convincing.
Trainers who value achieving obedience over protecting wellbeing and promoting a sense of safety have no understanding or respect for the emotional experience of the dogs. Empathy is an essential quality for any canine professional, and if this is lacking, they are not the right person for the job. Don’t be afraid to question anything that you feel uncomfortable with, and remember that you have the power to say no; be your dog’s advocate.
Although this all seems very worrying and overwhelming, it isn't all doom and gloom. There are some fantastic, highly qualified, experienced and ethical professionals out there who are waiting to help you and your dog. Why not check out the recently created National Institute For Canine Ethics, which you can find here: The National Institute For Canine Ethics | Facebook
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