When it comes to training dogs, it seems like everyone and their brother has an opinion on the subject. Both dog owners and non-dog owners are quick to give you conflicting tips and tricks on how to train your dog and/or correct misbehavior. And it’s not just the amateurs who disagree. In fact, it is widely known that two professional dog trainers will only agree on one thing and that is that a third dog trainer is wrong.
So to whom do you listen to? And what methods should you use? Unfortunately, I can’t tell you because every dog is different and every situation is different. Working with your dog is a special relationship between you and your dog. And it really doesn’t matter what breed they are, what sex they are, or how old they are. Every dog is different and therefore the methods you use are entirely up to you.
But I do want to talk about the pros and cons of two methods that I’m familiar with and use every day. Those methods are positive reinforcement and calm-assertiveness. Unfortunately, there is a huge stigma attached to the calm-assertiveness approach. It is often described as dominance-training and it has been denounced by most positive reinforcement trainers because they feel it is cruel, abusive, and outdated. Some even say that this kind of method could even make matters worse. I’m not going to lie, calm-assertiveness is not for everyone. It is a complicated method that requires a certain mindset so if done incorrectly it WILL make matters worse.
With that said, calm-assertiveness shouldn’t be dismissed because it is about mimicking nature. The key is that you must be in touch with your animal instincts for it to be effective because it is using animal/dog psychology and not human psychology to communicate with your dog. It is about using methods that dogs are already familiar with and use within a pack in the wild. It is all about working with mother nature. This is why I have a real issue when people who do not understand nature call it “cruel” and “outdated.” That is like saying that nature is cruel and outdated.
Positive reinforcement, on the other hand, is using a reward system like food or play when a dog does something right and ignoring misbehavior. It is very effective when training dogs to potty train, do tricks, participate in agility events, or to do a job. It is a good method because dogs love attention and anytime they get the attention it reinforces whatever behavior they were just doing. But be warned because positive reinforcement can also be misused and it often is because it can reinforce bad behavior just as well as the good. Timing is essential when training your dog no matter what methods you use.
There are two famous people on TV who use these methods. You may have heard of them. Victoria Stilwell and Cesar Millan. Victoria is a huge proponent of positive reinforcement and opposes the use of “dominance-training” at all cost. Cesar Millan, The Dog Whisperer, uses calm-assertive energy to work with dogs. Victoria uses praise and treats to reward dogs when they behave. Cesar works with nature using its rules to correct unwanted behavior.
There is one huge difference between these two individuals that most critics don’t seem to understand. Victoria is a dog trainer, Cesar is not and he has never claimed to be. Cesar is a dog behaviorist. He works with unstable dogs who have often bitten and attacked both strangers and their owners. He’s not trying to get them to sit and stay. He’s not trying to get them to stop barking when the mailman stops by. Cesar uses the dog’s natural instincts to help individuals prevent their dogs from lashing out at people or other animals when on their walks or at home. He helps people correct behavior that can lead to dangerous situations. There is a huge difference between these two people and they really shouldn’t be put in the same category.
Dogs are animals. We need to remember that. Animals are ruled by laws of nature. They do not rationalize as humans do. They respond solely on instinct. And unless those laws have changed in the past 10 years, calling Cesar Millan’s methods “outdated” is unfair if not inaccurate.
With that said, his ways are not the end all be all. Even Cesar himself has often approached a dog using different methods. The key is to think outside the box when it comes to dogs because every dog is a unique individual. They are all different and they will all respond differently to different techniques. As long as you’re not hurting the animal, as long as you’re not abusing the animal, as long as you respect the animal, any method you seem fit, that gets your desired results, is the correct method.
The important thing is not to give up on the dog. Try different methods until you find something that works for you and your dog. Be creative. Do some research. No dog is beyond help. So there’s no reason to kill an animal just because the methods you’re using are not working. You have to be open-minded and you can’t give up.
I was moved to tears watching this one episode of It’s Me or the Dog. Victoria Stilwell recommended destroying a dog when she couldn’t help his aggression problems with her own methods. To me, that is the epitome of arrogance, selfishness, and irresponsibility. This poor dog was needlessly put to death because of this person’s pride. Her positive reinforcement methods didn’t work so in her mind she labeled the dog as having something seriously and mentally wrong with it and recommended it be put down. The poor family took her advice and had their dog put to sleep. If she had put asside her ego and approached the animal with different methods, that family would probably still have that pet with them today. Can we honestly say that destroying an animal is better than using an approach you may disagree with, but might produce results?
Positive reinforcement is a great tool, but let’s try to remember that it is a human invention that works against nature and animal instincts. Dogs are pretty smart and they can learn to work with the method, but, again, it has to be taught and they have to accept it. It just takes training, patience, and time. Nature already has a method in place for animals. I chose to use nature in my favor to correct unwanted behavior and I use positive reinforcement to reward my dog when training them to do things that don’t come naturally to them. To me, it makes more sense to work with those instincts than trying to reinvent methods that go against everything animals are used to? No matter how much training a dog has, no matter how much positive reinforcement your dog is exposed to, they will never be able to fully suppress their natural instincts.
We, humans, are amazing animals. We have skills that are unique to us. We can rationalize and use logic to solve problems and our emotions. Animals rely solely on instincts. Humans also have our own set of instincts. For example, when a baby is first born, we don’t need to teach them how to latch on to their mother’s breast. They just do. That’s instinct. Think about the first time you had a beer, your natural instincts might have rejected the beverage because instinctually bitter tastes are linked to poisons. We train ourselves to drink beer and to enjoy it. Others never develop a taste for it.
Fear of spiders is another example of natural human instincts. It’s a response that is ingrained in us that can take time and exposure to suppress and yet some people will never be able to fully suppress it. That is how strong instincts are. With positive reinforcement, we are asking dogs to suppress natural instincts and like people, some dogs will take to it, others will not.
We should feel free to supplement the laws nature has given us with our own methods. But let’s not dismiss natures laws and substitute them entirely. Nature has managed, successfully, for billions of years without our help. How arrogant of humans to think we can develop a better “humane” system in the short time we’ve been here.