Dogs are being studied across all areas of health and behavior, making it possible to apply scientific insights to the way we train. As a result, new conversations are taking place among professional dog trainers at conferences and seminars. Here’s the lowdown on a few of these important discussions.
How can the six-week class be improved?
The six-week-class format was designed to be convenient for the owner’s schedule and budget: same place, same time, same price each week. Unfortunately, this model is proving to be insufficient, as many dog owners find themselves with unmet expectations at the end of the course. Day training (dropping the dog off for the day to be trained without the owner), smaller class sizes, online classes, private lessons and email check-ins are on the list of new options.
As to improving the class experience itself, we’re realizing that the common practice of allowing dogs to socialize for a few minutes before class can accidentally create unfocused and hyper adult dogs who pull toward every newcomer. Many trainers now believe that it’s better to save socializing for another time and place so that dogs and their people can practice improving skills and strengthening focus in class.
Should dog owners be taught management first and training second?
In dog training, “management” means to proactively arrange an environment or situation so that dogs do not have opportunities to do things we don’t want them to do. Trainers agree that owners who master the skill of managing their dogs’ behaviors can both avoid creating behavior problems and strengthen obedience training.
Because training new skills takes priority in class, many owners don’t realize how critical management is, or how easy it is for an unwanted behavior to become a behavior problem solely through mismanagement. Most of the time, solving a behavior problem consists of training an alternative that is incompatible with the unwanted behavior, as well as using management to prevent the unwanted behavior in the first place. For example, a dog who jumps up can be taught to sit when people come to the front door, but is always managed with a leash during training. While learning to practice a sit-stay is engaging and fun, a good obedience class will teach owners to spend equal time preventing long-term problems through management.
Are group puppy classes laying the foundation for calm and confident adult dogs?
The term “one-trial learning” describes a form of learning in which a brand-new experience is viewed by the dog as either positive or negative for the rest of the dog’s life. Since the negative effect of a single bad experience may never go away, owners need to be impeccable in choosing a puppy class. Classes that allow uncontrolled puppy play sessions can easily exacerbate the very issues owners want to reduce in their adult dogs, including fear, aggression, inattention and hyperactivity around other dogs.
Most of us want pet dogs who are social and polite. We want to raise confident puppies so that as adults, they do not have phobias or act aggressively. What we’ve learned from both experience and research is that raising a well-socialized dog depends on the quality of the experiences, not the quantity. A good puppy class should educate owners about the dangers of putting puppies into situations where they are easily aroused. Owners should feel free to opt out of having their puppy passed around by strangers or taking part in group play.
No good puppy classes nearby? No need to worry; people are fully capable of “home-schooling” their puppies when given accurate and in-depth information on socialization and management by a well-qualified trainer. A dog’s early learning experiences should be safe and fun, centering on repeated exposure to a variety of people, places and things. As an alternative to group puppy play, trainers can help owners find puppy-friendly adult dogs with whom to socialize.
Is it possible to train a puppy or adult dog to control bite pressure?
There is a strongly held belief that a puppy learns bite inhibition (to moderate the strength of his or her bite) from playing with other puppies in a group setting, or from the owner through training. However, evidence suggests that bite inhibition is a matter of genetics and the first 10 weeks of sibling playtime. There is no scientific evidence to support the idea that it can be taught by owners later on, or by other puppies after the dog leaves the litter. While a dog can learn to have a soft mouth in many situations, telling dog owners that they can train their puppies to have generalized bite inhibition creates a false sense of security. It’s good to keep in mind the mantra “Every dog can bite,” which makes appropriate socialization, positive exposure to a variety of situations and public education even more important in reducing the odds that a dog will feel the need to bite.
Should owners facilitate grooming procedures?
“One-trial learning” is also creating conversations about grooming and veterinary visits. Sadly, a single instance of poor handling can give a dog a reason to be conflicted and develop a negative association. Dogs who aren’t sure what will happen once they’re restrained will become cautious about being handled. This is a bigger deal than it may sound like. Cautious dogs will run and hide, or worse, growl and bite. Even simple procedures, such as administering ear or eye drops can take an hour (or more) if the dog is too fearful to cooperate.
If something does go wrong and the dog becomes fearful or phobic, a trainer will look for the best ways to help the dog work through the trauma. Current options include medication or sedation, counter-conditioning, teaching an alternative behavior, or using two or more of these methods in tandem.
There’s a new game in town, however, seminars that teach us how to train dogs to understand that they have a choice about participating in grooming and vet visits. Dog trainers are learning and teaching two new programs: “Ready … Set … for Groomer and Vet” and the “Bucket Game.” Both involve teaching dogs how to calmly accept grooming and vet care.
Dog owners who want to learn these techniques should hire a private trainer. While a few minutes may be spent on these skills during training classes, the puppy or dog is often asked to tolerate the entire procedure before the preliminary training steps have been completed. If the dog or puppy is uncomfortable and the owner is the one doing the restraining or the nail-clipping, the dog may infer that the owner is not always safe. Instead of risking this, while training is still in progress, owners should invest the time needed to find the right team to whom to outsource this aspect of dog care. Many groomers and vets are learning stress-free handling techniques from courses such as those offered by FearFreePets.com or DrSophiaYin.com (check these websites to find accredited practitioners). Options such as mobile grooming and in-home veterinary care are also now available in every state; while they are often inherently less stressful for dogs, it’s still a good idea to ask the care providers if they practice stress-free handing.
Is asking dogs to “sit for greetings”creating arousal and frustration, as well as joint stress?
Training a dog to “sit for greeting” is a common method used to teach self-control. Recent data now suggests that self-control (in both humans and dogs) is a limited resource, and if we require it in one situation, the human or dog has less of it to spend on tasks or undertakings that come afterward.
In a study by Miller et al.*, dogs were asked to do a series of tasks and evaluated on how focused they were in completing them. The researchers found that dogs whose first task was to hold a sit or down position while their owner left the room rapidly lost their focus and gave up on subsequent tasks more quickly than dogs whose first task was to wait in a cage while their owner left the room.
Of particular interest to owners, the study took the inquiry further, walking both sets of dogs into a room with an aggressive dog locked in a kennel. The dogs who had been asked to hold a sit-and-stay position for their first task were more than twice as likely to approach and engage in aggressive behavior with the caged dog as the group of dogs who did not have to use self-control to hold a position.
Often, when we tell our dogs to “sit” in social situations, they would like the freedom to back away, even if just slightly, which they are unable to do while sitting. Dogs may squint, lick their lips, yawn, shuffle their back feet, scratch, sniff the ground or whine when they feel uncomfortable. Asking a dog to choose between personal comfort and obedience is something positive dog training strives to avoid.
Another downside to all this sit training is that not all breeds can do it easily. Canine physical therapists have weighed in on the stress sitting puts on a dog’s knees and hips over a lifetime. The AKC lists more than a dozen breeds with a genetic predisposition to luxating patellas (floating kneecaps), which are not helped by sitting. Also, being asked to repeatedly sit, especially on hard or slippery floors, can impose considerable stress on long-backed breeds such as Basset Hounds and Dachshunds.
Knowing that self-control is a limited resource has persuaded many trainers to propose that dogs be allowed to stand in instances in which sitting makes them uncomfortable.
Can the equipment we use cause physical or behavioral problems?
Until recently, no-pull harnesses were considered safe and gentle solutions to leash pulling. But, as many canine sports medicine specialists and physical therapists have pointed out, recent studies show that these harnesses restrict a dog’s natural movement even after the harness is removed, and that restricting a dog’s gait can have a negative effect long-term.
Head halters are also debated. While most dogs will instantly try to rub them off (an obvious sign of discomfort), many dog trainers feel that taking the time to train the dog to enjoy wearing one will create a positive walking experience for both dog and owner. There have been documented incidents of back and neck injuries as a direct result of head halters, so owners should review the safety procedures (such as not using them with retractable leashes) before using them on a walk.
Is leash walking a good way to tire out a dog?
Taking a dog for a walk has long been prescribed as a way to release the dog’s energy and curb bad behavior. However, increases in leash aggression and surgical ligament repairs have dog trainers asking if leash-walking some dogs could be doing them more harm than good.
A friend once said in passing, “It’s impossible to wear out a Labrador on a leash.” I looked this up and it turns out that many of the working and herding breeds run an average of 25 to 80 miles per day when working—distances rarely achieved on standard neighborhood walks, even long ones. Further, new evidence suggests that dogs can experience a “runner’s high” similar to that of humans. This means that in an attempt to wear out your dog by running together for miles each day, you are training a canine athlete, one who is becoming physically stronger and will tire less easily. Instead of wearing the dog out, owners can accidentally be building their dogs’ endurance and lighting up their brains with endorphins when they run together.
Additionally, being walked on a short leash and not allowed the freedom to stop and sniff can itself be stressful, and stress releases cortisol into a dog’s system. Smelling, one of a dog’s natural displacement behaviors, reduces tension and anxiety. Oftentimes, training to resolve behavioral problems with other dogs and people includes allowing the dog to sniff them or areas where they have been.
Trainers are thinking of new and enriching ways for people to tire out their dogs mentally on-leash. Canine parkour, K9 nosework, geocaching and other variations on leash walking are often effective alternatives for dogs who overreact to things in their environment.
New discussions arise regularly in the world of dog training, and owners need to be involved in them. The International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants, the Association
of Professional Dog Trainers and the Pet Professional Guild all offer free and updated information about trending dog-training news and information on their websites and social media accounts. Bookmark them in your browser and visit often to stay informed.
*Miller, H.C., C.N. DeWall, K. Pattison et al. Psychon Bull Rev (2012) 19:535. doi:10.3758/s13423-012-0231-0