Marie Miller, author, behaviourist, Tellington TTouch Instructor and a founder member of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers (UK), gives an insight into modern non-punitive reward based training techniques for dogs, based on her own experiences.

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When I had my first puppy we could not join a dog class until she was at least six months old. Young puppies found it hard to cope with the harsh, old fashioned training methods. It was common practice to punish dogs by pulling and jerking on a choke chain, rather than teaching the correct behaviour and rewarding it. All dogs wore choke chains and owners were shown how to jerk the lead to stop dogs pulling. Some dogs learned to brace, accept the check but keep pulling and dogs used to be pushed into the sit position. They had commands like ‘stay’ bellowed at them and were jerked back into position. Many complied to avoid the yank on their neck and the heavy hand pushing or slapping them into position. The reward for getting things right was the removal of the aversive and some verbal praise – not the most pleasant way to learn or build trust in relationships. Those who did not pick it up quickly or who were resistant were labelled dominant and the owner got the lecture about being weak and the dog becoming pack leader.

Looking back I realised most of us did not question the trainer’s methods. I was lucky to have a young golden retriever, Cindy, very sweet and smarter than I am! She grasped it all and trained herself without the need for me to yank and shout. More unfortunate members of the class got blamed when their dog did it wrong and we frequently heard “There are no bad dogs, only bad owners” or “This is how it’s done!".  If the dog had become dominant then the owner had to show their strength by shouting, jerking, pushing and pulling. It was also claimed that it was sometimes necessary to perform an ‘alpha role’ because allegedly that was what the alpha wolf in a pack did in the wild. Thank heavens the delightful Cindy never challenged me so I was never called upon to attempt this!

Next came my huge male golden retriever Toby. He was 13 months old and had sorted out his previous two female owners by growling, biting and chasing them when they tried to get him to do something that he did not want to do. When I went to meet him he was delightful and the lady said that his first owner had parted with him because she’d had a baby and couldn’t exercise him enough. This lady was also parting with him because he had to be left alone too long digging up her garden and barking. This didn’t seem like a problem, Cindy was pretty well trained and I could take him along to dog club and would soon have him trained.  I soon discovered that when Toby was ‘good’ he was very, very good but when he was ‘bad’ he was scary! Guess who was the ‘bad owner’ in class now?

Toby had already learned that if he growled and snapped the person who was trying to make him do something would back away. He was huge and there was no way I could physically make him do anything. The dog had become scarier to me than the trainer! This reactive behaviour came from a place of fear so I had to find a way for us to build a relationship on trust. We discovered liver treats, playing with toys and where Toby loved to be stroked and cuddled so that I could let him know when he got things right. It was important to set boundaries and keep him safe so he did not panic and I taught him everything from scratch again, as if he was a puppy. Initially misunderstood, he was a fabulous dog who went on to share our family life for many happy years.

mal-image2cpOver the years it has been a joy to watch trainers shift from the old training methods. It has been brilliant to learn methods like TTouch and Clicker Training which help puppies and adult dogs alike. It has been exciting to see this ethos spread and grow around the country and the old military style training become less popular.

Unfortunately, things seem to have gone back at least a decade with people claiming that their dogs are dominant and challenging to be pack leaders again. This seems to have come from television programmes and books written by celebrity trainers. They appear to be about  dog training and solving problem behaviour with quick fix
solutions. Sadly what isn’t made clear to viewers is that they are cut and edited to make “good television”. Trainers offer plausible explanations but in reality the methods have gone back to the dark ages. Choke, pinch, spray and electric collars have been used on screen. Trainers have been seen dragging, pinning and throwing missiles at dogs to interrupt behaviour often with poor timing and scant regard for the dog’s emotional welfare.

It is very sad to see these methods dressed up to be effective and trainers playing to the cameras. If in doubt about whether training you are watching is kind, fair and effective, turn down the volume to cut off the trainer’s rhetoric and read the dog’s body language. That will show whether the dog is being motivated and trained or bullied and shut down.

Have a great time with your dogs and remember – you don’t wake up every day in a perfect mood and behave consistently with every person you meet and in every situation. That being the case – cut your companions some slack too if they are having an off day. They may not be human but I bet they are more consistent than we are.

To contact Marie Miller, please visit www.pawsnlean.com