Dog Theory Based Techniques positive & Traditional Dog Training – Better Understanding of Dog Behavior – Explains How Dog Training Techniques Work

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Though there are several dog techniques, these can be categorized by the way they address behavioral issues. Thus, there are two main categories: 1) Techniques based on learning theories; 2) Techniques based on canine ethology.

The former category focuses on behavior modification, usually disregarding typical and natural behavior of dogs. The latter one focuses on natural dog behavior and often ignores current learning theories.

In addition, techniques based on learning theories can be organized under three main subcategories: 1) Traditional dog training; 2) Positive training; 3) Mixed techniques.

Techniques based on learning theories

This category comprises techniques that use positive , negative reinforcement and punishment as main ways to educate dogs. Since those techniques are very different among each other, they are organized under the three subcategories mentioned above and explained below.

1. Traditional dog training

Traditional dog training was initially developed to train war dogs. It was very useful during World War I. This training technique was embraced by civilian trainers after , and quickly became the standard way to train dogs.

It seems that Colonel Konrad Most was the founder of this technique and, therefore, he is acknowledged as the father of modern dog training.

However, the main supporter of the technique was William R. Koehler. His book “The Koehler Method of Dog Training” could be the all-time best selling publication in the field.

Modern scientific principles of learning were not used to develop traditional training, so it is an empirical technique. Nevertheless, it seems that Konrad Most already understood the principles of operant conditioning on 1910, several years before those principles were published. So, this technique can be explained by operant conditioning principles.

Negative reinforcement and punishment are the main teaching ways of traditional training.

Negative reinforcement is the process that strengthens a behavior because an unpleasant situation is stopped or avoided as a consequence of that particular behavior. For instance, pushing on your dog’s shoulders will provoke an unpleasant situation for him. If the pressure over his shoulders disappears when he lies down, he will be more likely to do the same in the future, just to avoid that unpleasant sensation. Thus, your dog will be learning to lie down through negative reinforcement.

Punishment, on the other hand, is an unpleasant consequence of a particular behavior. Although punishment could weaken a behavior, it is not a guarantee that this will happen. Besides, punishments usually have undesired collateral effects.

An example of punishment would be if you hit your dog or yell at him because he climbed on the armchair. As a consequence you may get your dog off of the armchair, but there is no guarantee that he won’t climb again. Some possible undesired consequences could be that your dog bites you, he gets scared each time you appear or he gets phobia to armchairs.

Choke chains, prong collars and shock (electric) collars are common tools in traditional training and all its variants. Also, this kind of training is usually targeted to dog obedience exercises, disregarding behavioral problems.

Advocates of this technique often argue that traditional training provides reliable results which can’t be obtained with other techniques. They also claim that training collars (choke, prong and shock) are harmless because dogs have a high threshold of pain.

Detractors of traditional dog training argue that both the technique and the tools are cruel and violent. They also claim that the technique can cause dangerous collateral effects, such as fear biting and damages to the dog’s trachea.

2. Positive dog training

Positive training was developed under the principles of Skinner’s operant conditioning. While it’s not a new technique, it didn’t get enough popularity until the nineties.

Former students of Skinner, psychologists Keller and Breland, pioneered commercial applications of operant conditioning when they created Animal Behavior Enterprises (ABE) on 1942. ABE was the first company that offered positive training services.

The huge popularity of traditional training prevented ABE to succeed in dog training. So, the Breland’s company was forced to look for new niches and ABE got focused on training animals for TV shows and commercials. Keller and Marian also pioneered dolphin training for aquaria and US navy.

Positive reinforcement is the main teaching way of these techniques. Positive reinforcement is not the same as reward, though this is a common misconception.

Positive reinforcement is the process that strengthens a behavior because a pleasant situation occurs as a consequence of that particular behavior. For instance, if you give a food treat to your dog when he lies down, he will tend to lie down more frequently to get that delicious treat. Thus, your dog will be learning to lie down through positive reinforcement.

On the other hand, if your dog lies down and you reward him after 10 seconds, he may not associate the action of lying down with the reward. He may think you gave him the treat because he was looking up, or moving his ears. So, you rewarded your dog but you didn’t reinforce the desired behavior.

Some people think that positive trainers never teach to the dog that a particular behavior is unacceptable. This is a common and big misinterpretation. Practitioners of positive training do teach this to dogs, but they don’t use punishment or negative reinforcement for that.

Clicker training is the most popular of these techniques in many countries. It is the same technique used by Keller and Marian Breland, and was popularized by the biologist and dolphin trainer Karen Pryor.

The main difference between clicker training and other positive techniques is the use of a clicker in the former. A clicker is just a small device that emits a click-click sound when squeezed. It is used to mark the exact moment in which the dog performed a desired behavior.

The absolute absence of negative reinforcement, punishment and training collars (choke, prong or shock) make of positive dog training a very friendly technique for both dogs and owners. This could be the main advantage of this kind of training.

Other advantages are that this kind of training is easy to understand and fun to carry out. Besides, these techniques are not only focused on obedience exercises. Instead, they are widely used to solve behavioral problems.

Detractors of these techniques claim that dogs trained in a positive way won’t be able to respond properly unless they can see (or scent) a food treat. These people also claim that positive trained behaviors are not reliable under variable circumstances.

Although very common, those claims are not true. The efficacy of positive training is demonstrated each day by hundreds of service dogs for disabled people, police dogs, competition dogs and performing dogs.

3. Mixed training techniques

Mixed techniques use both positive and negative reinforcement. While choke collars are common tools, it seems that mixed techniques are friendlier to dogs than traditional training.

Several champions of canine sports have been trained under a mixed approach using positive as well as negative reinforcement. These techniques are more frequently used in sports that include attack/protection training, such as Schutzhund, Belgian Ring, Mondioring, etc.

Perhaps the main reason for the use of mixed techniques in those sports is that some behaviors, such as leaving an attack sleeve, are very difficult to train without negative reinforcement.

Although trainers who use mixed approaches also use positive reinforcement, they usually avoid using food as a reinforcer. When they have to use a positive reinforcer, they tend to prefer games over food.

Techniques based on canine ethology

Ethology is the science that studies behaviors of a species under natural situations. Therefore, it studies instinctive and non-instinctive typical behaviors of a species.

Techniques based on canine ethology take into account those behaviors that are natural in dogs, but usually ignore the principles of learning theories.

The fundamental premise of ethology-based techniques is that the owner should become the of the pack. This premise is also known as the or paradigm of the alpha dog.

According to the alpha dog paradigm, dogs establish dominance hierarchies in the pack. Thus, you should achieve the higher hierarchy, the alpha dog status, in order to maintain a good relationship with your dog.

Though it is not clear when the paradigm of the alpha dog appeared, it is well known that it gained popularity in the eighties. Jan Fennell and Cesar Millan are two of the most famous practitioners of these techniques. The latter is perhaps the most famed trainer at these days, because of his show “The Dog Whisperer” broadcasted by National Geographic.

Some authors say that these techniques are based on scientific studies of wolf packs. Others say the techniques were developed after studying the social behavior of dogs for several years.

Unfortunately, ethology-based techniques are very different from one another and there’s no standard for these techniques. Besides, several of them seem to be based only on popular beliefs and not on real studies about dog behavior.

These techniques alone are useless to teach obedience commands. For that reason, many trainers don’t accept them as real training techniques. Moreover, it is also frequent that practitioners of these techniques don’t consider themselves as dog trainers. Instead, they claim they are people who can communicate with dogs by a deep understanding of dog behavior and proper body language.

Advocates of ethology-based techniques claim that these techniques provide a natural way to communicate with dogs. Some of these people also tend to use non-violent procedures. However, the degree of violence in these techniques is highly variable and depends on the methods used by the trainer.

Detractors claim that there is a lack of solid arguments in these techniques. They also claim that these techniques are based on popular beliefs, which could be true for several techniques of this category.

Same detractors usually question the alpha dog paradigm and argue that there’s no need for a model based on dominance hierarchies.

Biologists Raymond and Lorna Coppinger are among the few people who carried out extensive scientific studies on social behavior and evolution of dogs. Their studies reject the paradigm of the alpha dog, and these scientists say that wolves and dogs have very different behavior repertoires. Therefore, studies on the behavior of wolves shouldn’t be useful for a better understanding of dog’s behavior.

Perhaps further studies on canine ethology could lead to a better understanding of dog behavior. Meanwhile, ethology based techniques can’t provide clear and precise guidelines for dog training; even when there are some really successful “dog whisperers” like Cesar Millan and Jan Fennell.

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