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This post is meant for educational purposes. I am not supporting or refuting any specific dog trainer or organization in this area. I am simply providing resources and information so that pet owners can be well informed when they try to find training/behavior help.
This post is separated into four sections:
1. Finding a good trainer
FINDING A GOOD TRAINER
Fun fact: ANYONE can call themselves a dog trainer by law. There is no one regulating body for dog trainers. There are many independent certifications and organizations that certify trainers. Each organization has its own requirements and code of ethics.
If you've ever been referred to a "behaviorist," a behaviorist is someone with an advanced degree in animal behavior. Think ChemIST, BiologIST, etc. There are certifications that exist such as "behavior consultant" but it is not the same education that a behaviorist has received. A veterinary behaviorist is a certified veterinarian and behaviorist. They are very rare!
With any dog trainer that has letters after their name, look up their credentials and find out what those letters mean, just as you would a doctor or therapist! A dog trainer with no credentials isn't necessarily bad, but you might have to do more research or ask very specific questions about what methods they use.
Dog trainers will use all sorts of attention grabbing words to gain your business. How many of you have seen the terms "fair, balanced, relationship building, positive"? Look beyond the words. Ask a trainer what they specifically will be doing to your dog. Here are some common terms you might come across:
"Balanced" means they will use a mix of positive reinforcement (treats, praise, toys, petting) and positive punishment (choke chain, prong collar, shock collar, leash corrections, etc.). *note: positive punishment is a term from psychology/operant conditioning and what an average person think of as punishment, correction, and discipline.
"Fair" is pretty synonymous with balanced from above.
"Guarantee" and "promise" are two red flags. A good trainer should clearly and honestly lay out a plan and outlook for your goals or problems, but make no guarantees -- dogs are living creatures and the extent to which any training or behavior modification plan will work is dependent on so many factors. Certainly, no guarantees can be made until the dog is seen and worked with. Any trainer who makes guarantees or promises before even meeting your dog has an ego that is hopefully backed up by sound training techniques, and not a 'one size fits all' approach.
"Dominant" and "alpha" implies the trainer does not subscribe to science based training and uses corrective techniques. See the section below on "dominance."
"Positive" is nice. But a lot of trainers with very heavy handed training are starting to use this word. For example, "building a positive relationship with your dog" sounds nice but says absolutely nothing about the techniques they use.
"Force free" means the trainer will not use positive punishment or put their hands on a dog forcefully (ex. alpha roll, pushing a dog or using the leash to force a dog into positions)
"Humane" implies the above but is very subjective.
"Science based" implies the trainer has an understanding of operant and classical conditioning and favors positive reinforcement based training.
Example: I have NO affiliation or personal experience with this facility and am using it as an example. Take a look at this nicely built website: https://sitmeanssit.com
Here is what they wrote for methodology: "Sit Means Sit uses a cutting edge approach to dog training and behavioral modifcation. Our training approach encompasses a number of different training tools and approaches depending on the unique circumstances presented by our clients and their animals. At the core of the Sit Means Sit method is Attention-Based Training. This broad approach to training allows Sit Means Sit trainers to use a variety of attention based tools (leashes, collars, food, toys and notably our Sit Means Sit Collar) to achieve the goal of attention to command around distractions to suit the situation."
Transparency: "Cutting edge" is a red flag word - very attention grabbing without any substance. "Attention-Based Training" is a fancy and nice-sounding term. But what I see is a lot of marketing and not a lot of objective information. "Sit Means Sit Collar" sounds nice. I know for a fact it is a shock collar. They just don't want to say it because that wouldn't make this ad sound approachable. So in summary, they probably (I'm sure every branch/trainer is different) reward good behavior with treats/praise/play and punish unwanted behavior with leash corrections and shock collars. There is nothing cutting edge about this at all.
Anecdote: Now, I am sure many folks have had great results from such a large and successful dog training franchise. But an acquaintance of mine used a trainer from here (they have many branches) and he used treats as well as a shock collar. After the trainer left, their dog ran and hid in the bathtub. Videos of training done at Sit Means Sit facilities, under their name, show dogs in prong collars.
This trend has come and hopefully it will go away soon. Any trainer that uses these terms also uses force, correction and punishment in their training. . . some use it exclusively. An article above describes a tragic situation in which a dominance-based trainer killed a little puppy by accident -- there is no excuse for such a mistake to be made in the name of training. Dominance theory comes from outdated research done on a population of captive wolves.
Here is a wolf biologist, who has worked with the biologist who originally came up with "alpha", stating that dominance is no longer a valid way of interpreting WOLF behavior. http://www.davemech.org/news.html
So dominance-based trainers have been basing their techniques off of a mistake, and thousands of dogs have been subject to this invalid and abusive methodology. Thousands of well meaning owners have been made to feel inadequate and pit against their dogs in a constant struggle for imaginary status.
This doesn't mean leadership isn't important. . . It is! But leadership is not about your tone, how strong you are, or whether you go through doors first. You are already a leader because you control all of your dog's resources such as food, water, access to freedom and other dogs, etc. "Dominance" is all about access to resources. But you can be a leader without pinning your dog to the ground, too.
Punishment works. But is it humane and fun for the dog? That is up to the owner to decide. Research has shown that positive punishment (hitting, yelling, shock collars, prong collars, choke chains, etc.) can increase aggression in dogs. The following are links to scientific studies, just a couple out of many:
Why does this happen? Because dogs make associations outside of our control. If you hit a dog for barking at another dog, are you correcting the barking or is your dog associating the hitting WITH the other dog? If your dog gets shocked for running towards another dog and not coming when called, is your dog associating the shock with not-coming, or with the other dog?
Why does it work/why do we use it? Because no one likes to feel bad or uncomfortable. Yelling, hitting or uncomfortable sensations make dogs and people feel bad. It sometimes works in making animals not doing things again. But sometimes doesn't. Sometimes spanking a dog will teach it not to pee in the house, sometimes it teaches the dog to pee when you're not looking. Sometimes a speeding ticket or being thrown in jail teaches a person not to break the law, sometimes it makes people more wary of parked police cars or even more violent. There is no black and white answer. Sometimes punishment is faster. You can spend months rewarding a dog for good behavior around other dogs, or violently yank and pin the dog to the ground every time it barks at another dog. . . The latter may stop the barking faster but also create a dog (or human) aggressive dog. Sometimes it feels good for a person to punish a weaker being, and the sense of control and authority that comes with it.
I have my own biases and my own preferred methods, but I hope this post helps you make an informed decision when it comes to choosing a trainer. Your dog's well being depends on it!
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