Under pressure: The fall-out of heavy-handed training

We are all looking for a quick fix. We want (and hope for) the magic pill that will make us lose weight quickly, get out of debt in an instant, and give us a perfect golf swing and well-trained dog. But is this reality?

Years ago, it was common to have a choke chain handed to you when you joined a training class. You were shown how to give a leash correction and if the dog acted up or misbehaved, the leash pop got more intense until the dog complied. But at what cost?

Fast-forward to an age of instant access to training theories and methods. We should all be able to follow the maxim “When you know better, you do better.” There is no excuse for using the old-style heavy-handed methods. So why are we seeing a sudden influx of harsh training methods, and what does this mean to the dogs and our relationship with them? Is this the magic pill?

The question should not be can our dogs be taught this way, but should they. Most dogs can be taught various skills by using coercion, but does the end justify the means?
Dogs do things for one of two reasons. The first is to get what they want. Increase the reward and the behaviour is more likely to reoccur. The second is to avoid something they don’t want. To justify the use of tools and techniques designed to create discomfort during the teaching process, it has been said that a little “pressure” will suffice. The fact is, in order for the technique to work, it has to be uncomfortable enough to make a difference to the dog.

The repercussions of heavy-handed training can be blatant or subtle. Blatant is easier to recognize. A dog that has shut down to avoid his lessons will show signs of stress such as licking his lips, holding his tail and body low, moving slowly, and panting. Severely stressed dogs will refuse their favourite treats. It is important to be able to recognize signs of stress in your own dog.

Drive and desire

One problem could be the image we have of a well-trained dog. I remember being at a pet trade show a few years ago. In a fabulous Frisbee demonstration, the dogs came out and loved the action, jumping and running and even jumping up on their handlers out of sheer joy for what they were doing. The audience loved the show but seemed slightly overwhelmed by the exuberance of the performers.

The next demo was of using a shock collar (now commonly referred to as an e-collar) to teach a dog to retrieve. The demo dog was a lovely Labrador Retriever that seemed very compliant. He was put through his paces of retrieving and obedience, and the crowd loved him. The problem was that the audience could not see the subtle details of this dog’s attitude. He seemed compliant, but to the trained eye he looked resigned. He showed no enthusiasm, his tail was low and he moved slowly and methodically… and the joy had left his body. He looked obedient, but is that all we want in our companions? It’s odd that drive and desire are positive attributes for people, but are seen as lack of training in dogs. We know that learning theories generalize among creatures with a brain stem. This means that theories used for people can be applied to dogs. Having taught learning theory to psychology students at the University of Toronto for over five years, I can see first-hand the similarities. We know that punishment eventually proves counterproductive in people; that harsh discipline and standard coercive practices do not work in human society. We also know that using these methods may provide a quick, short-term fix. It has been noticed that free-roaming dogs are social beings with ritualized displays of behaviour to prevent conflict. And it is the displays of submission that are most effective in keeping the peace. The leader dogs control the assets more than they control the individuals. This is important to know when dealing with our own pets. Armed with the knowledge that it is not personal when your dog growls, you can sort out your dog problems without the use of force, which often ends in an escalating scene with you and your dog battling it out. The fallout is sure to be lack of trust. You will not trust your dog, and your dog will not trust you – not the sort of relationship you hope to develop.

Bad management

Why is it, then, that people want to dominate their dogs? Teaching methods based on maintaining control are energy intense. The human team member needs constant diligence to keep everything in line. The need to micromanage becomes exhausting. Most humans also lack the timing and accuracy needed to effectively deliver the peacekeeping signals dogs understand.

Take a close look at some of the dogs used on television these days. Don’t confuse these dog-training shows with anything other than just that, a television show meant to attract viewers. Watch for signs of stress, especially avoidance of eye contact. To the dog, the message is clear – “When I look away it might be because I’m overwhelmed and can’t concentrate.” Knowing that, think twice before popping the collar and calling out “No sniff.”

Distinguishing between stress and naughtiness can be a tricky line to walk, but understanding stress can help you convey your message effectively. Small amounts of stress can be productive, but keeping your dog constantly under your thumb is unnecessary.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for rules and guidelines. The word “positive” has been overused in the dog-training community. It was brought on board years ago to distinguish trainers who chose methods that were a bit more progressive. It does not mean “permissive.” “Respectful and motivational” would be more appropriate. Teach your dog in a respectful way and show him how to be a motivated, keen student.

Can you train your dog using harsh methods? It is possible, but the question is why would you choose that method? Why are more people questioning the use of food in training than questioning the do-it-or-else teaching style? You can always wean your dog off food rewards, but it can take years to rehabilitate a dog that’s been over-corrected. Those factors alone would make me stop and think about how I was raising my dog.

There should be no reprimand before learning. Let’s get the joy back into our dogs.

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