I have just been re-reading some of the Retriever training books which I acquired years ago when I started out training retrievers for field work. I used these books to plan and guide me in my training. In those days, the seventies and eighties most retriever trainers had never heard of operant conditioning, clicker training, classical conditioning, and, even if they had they hadn’t thought of applying the science to their training methods or even questioning what they were being taught by their trainers. These methods were often passed on from mentor to student over and over again.
Why is that?
I think it was probably because, harsh though they were, these methods worked. Trainers using these methods were winning field trials and working tests. There is also the belief that in order to compete at a higher level you need to be able to “correct” the dog for his mistakes. Mistakes that very likely came about as a result of inefficient, incomplete and outdated training methods. All this just goes to show what amazing animals our dogs are to put up with this abuse. Abuse at the hands of their handler who insists that he loves his dog!
What has prompted me to write this post is my re-reading of a book which is the handbook for many retriever trainers even now in the present day (the book was first published in the 1960’s). The author, to his credit, recognized that the work of Scott and Fuller about the Critical Period of Development in very young puppies was relevant to training any dog be it a family pet, guide dog for the blind, or a field trialling or hunting prospect. So, the first few chapters dealing with the training and socialization of young puppies is pretty nice. However, as the pup gets older and more is expected of it, “force” and “compulsion” rears its ugly head. You read such statements as “When he becomes downright ornery and stubborn, there’s only one way to straighten him out. Heaven protect me from the SPCA, but I’m going to say it. Thrash the dog. Do it with fervor, but with intelligence. I clip the dog with a folded leash until he cries out once”. This statement horrifies me for many reasons. Do dogs actually know what stubborn is? Do they know exactly what they are being punished for? Has the trainer made absolutely sure that the dog’s “stubborn” behaviour is not confusion or a lack of understanding of what is required? Has the trainer actually sat down and thought about what part he has played in creating his dog’s “stubbornness”. I think not…
The science of animal behaviour has come a long way since those days and we are learning that physical, corporal punishment is a very rocky road on the way to learning. As recently as 10 to 15 years ago, most dog training was done with compulsion and force. These days, however, more and more trainers are using positive methods as they have been found to be more successful and less traumatic for the dogs and puppies. We try to reinforce correct responses rather than punish incorrect ones. We raise criteria gradually. We split behaviour into tiny slices instead of trying to teach large complex lumps. We learn to observe what our dogs are doing and how they are responding. We keep our rate of reinforcement high in the early stages of learning and we look at our timing. It is this consistency and clarity that will create a more confident dog who has good manners around people and other dogs, trusts his handler and looks to his handler for all his needs. Bad behaviour only happens because it has, in some way been reinforced, either inadvertently by you or members of your family, or by something in your pup’s environment.
I’m not saying that we should be permissive dog owners – on the contrary, we need to teach dogs that there are rules to follow – these rules mostly require the dog to exercise self-control, which is always a good thing. The rules involve highly predictable behaviours for interacting and connecting with their handler. And these rules can easily be taught without any force or compulsion. It is simply a contract that you enter into with your dog; “You can get what YOU want if you give me what I want”.