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Positive vs. Aversive Training

I was watching a video this morning from a K-9 trainer in a different state. It was one of his professionally produced “Before and After” demo videos telling you why you should hire him as a trainer. In the “Before,” he was working with a large Great Dane puppy, telling the dog to sit, over and over. The dog didn’t sit. Then he told the dog to get onto a platform. He tried to drag the dog onto the platform, but the Great Dane resisted and pulled back away from him. The trainer told the viewers how stubborn the dog was. The dog was looking away from the trainer, avoiding his eye contact, and had his tail between his legs, trying to move away. The poor pup was scared and super stressed out.

The “After” video showed the same dog lying in a “stay” on the platform with the trainer running around the dog, yelling and waving his arms, bouncing a ball over the dog’s head, and riding a bicycle past him. Then he told us how obedient the dog is now. The dog was on the platform, lying very still, with a shock collar around his neck. Afraid to move. We call this “learned helplessness.” The dog knows if he makes a mistake, he will be shocked. These training methods are used at many “board and train” centers, so the owners don’t see what methods are being used to “train” their dog. Your dog comes home after two weeks, and is very obedient, walking like a little soldier on the leash (just keep the collar on).

Is the dog obedient? Sure. Does this training work? Sure. But the stress that the dog will carry will eventually be released. Even if the shock is never used after the initial training, there is a vibration or a tone that lets the dog know that if they don’t do what they’re told, a shock is on the way. It’s like someone walking with you that has a weapon pointed at you. He’s not going to shoot you, so take a deep breath and try not to think about the weapon. And don’t make a mistake. I’m sure that was stressful to read. It wasn’t fun to write, but I wrote it for a reason. Last week I visited a dog who had been to training classes, but was “reactive to people and new dogs who come near his home.” The dog barked and lunged at me for the first 15 minutes I was there. He would have bitten me if he wasn’t being held back by the leash. I had trouble talking with the owner, because the barking drowned out our conversation. I would try to toss a treat when the barking paused, but there weren’t very many pauses, and the dog wasn’t very interested in treats. So I stepped back a bit, and showed the owner how to play some pattern games with the dog. I taught them some focus exercises, and the dog seemed to relax. We made a game of the dog looking at me and then back at the owner, and getting reinforced with a treat for doing it. He was starting to relax, and looking over at me became a game he could play – turning the anxiety into fun, plus every time he looked back into his human’s eyes, you could see him relax even more. After a while, he was okay with me being there, and ready to think and work. I want dogs to be happy, thinking learners – like kids. They don’t have to be like little soldiers. They can have personalities, have fun on walks with tails wagging and owners smiling. Dogs love games, and dogs love learning when the training is fun. Reward your dogs for being good, and they will be good. Back to the story: At the end of our session, I asked the owner where her reactive dog had done his previous training. She told me the name of the training center – a trainer in another state. It was the K-9 trainer in the video.

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