The Great Debate: Training Tools Part 2

There are few conversations that are as controversial as dog training tools and devices. Dog trainers go back and forth with this argument all of the time and this subject is arguably the best way to rile a group of trainers. The first thing we have to remember is that any device or tool that is physically applied to decrease behavior falls under the quadrant of positive punishment, there is no getting around that regardless of what some trainers would like you to believe. I am not implying that all corrections are treated equal but I am saying that what is traumatic for one dog, may not be traumatic for another and only the dog can decide that. When applying a correction be sure to pay attention to your dog’s response and how quickly they bounce back. Adjust your plan accordingly.

It is extremely important to note that before any correction is applied you should give your dog a command and give them the chance to comply, this of course means that you have first taught the command. If they do not comply, you must give your no reward marker “Eh-Eh”, “Uh-Oh” or “Whoops” immediately followed by your correction and the very moment your dog does do what you asked, you must heavily reward the correct choice.

Squirt Bottles: This seemingly benign training option can be great as an interrupter of unwanted behaviors. Be careful though because some dogs are so terrified of water that giving your dog a squirt could actually be traumatizing.  This is the worst thing I can do to my Doberman Pinscher, so I don’t ever squirt her.

Compressed Air: This is a small container that you can spray in your dog’s general direction, never directly at them, to interrupt poor behavior. Some even contain a calming pheromone to give this correction a little more umpf. There are pet specific brands that can be bought at your local pet store, no you cannot use keyboard spray!  In most cases I would consider this a step up from the squirt bottle but I have seen plenty of dogs not respond to it at all or be so traumatized the very site of the can sends them into a quivering mess. Once again, you will need to pay close attention to your dog’s reaction and adjust your training plan to fit their needs. For many families I have helped, cans of compressed air was a godsend, that helped to stop dogs from humping, licking, barking, chewing and so on.

Front Clip Harnesses: Designed to curb or even eliminate dogs from pulling on the leash the front clip harness is very easy for dogs to get used to wearing, in fact I have never seen a dog dislike one, but this is about where the benefits of this device ends. Front clip harnesses can prove to be useful in some dogs to curb leash pulling, however, there are several safety risks involved. Simply having the harness on, with no leash attached or pressure applied can do damage to dog’s biceps and supraspinatus tendons. The harness also works by applying pressure to the dog’s back, unlike traditional harnesses that apply pressure to the chest. Dog’s have a natural opposition reflex that causes them to push against what is pushing on them. This is why dogs will seemingly choke themselves when walking on flat collars. The pressure from the collar against the dog’s throat literally tells the dog to pull harder. Having the pressure from this harness on the back tells the dog to push back, this can cause some dogs to slow down, however, prolonged use of this device can cause some dogs to become dependant on feeling that pressure in order to walk nice, making weaning your dog off of the harness very difficult.

Head Halters: Head halters are devices made of two thin nylon strips that go around the dog’s muzzle and behind the ears. This is not a muzzle device; dog’s wearing a head halter have full use of their mouths, they can eat, play and pant normally. Head halters are designed to give owners more control of their dogs by being able to direct the dog’s head. There are many times I have seen this device be of a wonderful benefit to dogs and the families that have to live with them. I have seen Great Pyrenees walk beautifully in seconds, so much so, that small children were able to safely walk the dog. There is real wonder and “magic” in how great this device can be for some dogs. Other dogs do not have so much success. Many dogs will tear their faces open with their dew claws trying to get the device off, rub their faces on the ground and thrash wildly at the end of the leash. For most dogs there is a pretty major desensitization process that has to take place before they are comfortable wearing, let alone, working (training) with the device on. Head halters also rely on the dog’s opposition reflex, applying pressure to the back of the head causing many dogs to push back, essentially causing them to slow down. Like the front clip harnesses, if head halters are used in excess this can build a dependency to the pressure. There is also real risk for injury with the use of head halters. Dogs that thrash wildly at the end of the leash or dogs that have been given a harsh jerk from the leash while wearing the head halter (which should NEVER be done) can suffer neck injuries that can require chiropractic care.

Choke Chains: These are long chains with rings on either end. They are meant to be slipped over the dog’s head and remain loose until the trainer, owner or handler applies a correction by snapping or popping the collar with the leash. The only benefit of these collars is that the dog can’t build a dependency to pressure like front clip harnesses and head halters but that is where the benefits end. In order for the correction to be powerful enough to send any real message to the dog, it needs to be up high on the dog’s neck directly behind the ears, because the device is designed to slip over the dog’s head there is nothing keeping it where it needs to be.The collar tends to fall down to the base of the neck, where the neck is it’s strongest. Most dogs barely register a correction there. There is real risk in the dog getting an injury while wearing a choke chain. If the dog pulls excessively and the owner/handler is not skilled in giving a proper correction the dog could literally choke herself out or suffer from a collapsed trachea. NEVER leave this device on if you are not training or walking your dog. It can get caught on something and your dog could be strangled.

Prong Collar: This is a step up from choke chains. Prong collars are designed to be fitted snugly; if you can slip your prong collar over your dog’s head, it is not fitted properly. The snugness of the collar and the prongs help keep the device up high where it is meant to be. It can slip down slightly but if fitted properly, slippage will be minimal. Many dogs adjust quite easily to prong collars and their is real “magic” in how quickly and effectively these devices work, however, I caution you against allowing your dog to “self correct”. Self corrections are where the dog pulls against the device and because it gives a foreign sensation the dog will slow down. It won’t be long before your dog becomes desensitized to the sensation and will begin to pull like normal; their necks get “hard” to the collar. As with flat collars and choke chains if your dog is allowed to pull hard against this device or if they are wrenched hard by the leash with the collar on you can run the risk of causing a collapsed trachea. NEVER leave this collar on when not training or walking your dog, it can get caught on something and the dog can be strangled.

Electronic Remote Collars: This collar has the worst reputation of all of the training collars and even has a horrible and misleading nickname… “shock collar”. While yes back in the late 70’s and early 80’s these devices were horrible, giving dogs nasty shocks, and unpredictable, picking up transmissions from other devices leading to inconsistent corrections, the devices of today are actually quite safe and most certainly do not deliver an electrical shock to your dog, it does however, give a surface skin stimulation, meaning that your dog will feel a sensation on their skin. The higher end collars offer multiple settings ranging from a tone, vibration or stimulation and the stimulation can range from sensations humans can not even register to much higher. The higher settings are generally only used in extreme cases or in emergency situations, however in general training these settings are absolutely not necessary. Because a leash is never attached to this device, rather a flat collar in conjunction with this collar, the incidents of a dog becoming dependent on pressure of a collar to walk nice is greatly reduced. As with all tools there are risks when using electronic collars. The collar should NEVER be left on when not training or walking your dog. Remote collars, will cause open wounds to develop if left on more than eight hours at a time. If the collar is in the hands of someone unskilled in it’s use dogs may be given too frequent of corrections or too high of a correction that can cause dogs to go into learned helplessness. An act of literally doing nothing in order to avoid another correction. Dogs in learned helplessness will appear sad and will walk with a cautioned gate, with head and ears lowered. This is not proper training. Dogs should be happy to work and learn and should be encouraged to work through problems, not corrected into submission.

In no way am I telling owners to run out and buy a correctional device. In fact I believe the majority of training should happen without the use of any training tool to ensure communicative understanding and bonding between dog and owner, however, should you feel that you need a correctional device I would seek a trainer that can show you how to use one properly.

When considering correctional tools, we should recognize that damage is undoubtedly a possibility, regardless of what device you choose to use. Our goal should not be to hate, fear or ban any individual tool; we should be weighing the pros and cons of each tool, while considering the behavioral benefits of each tool. We should be a) pairing the correct tool with an individual dog, family and situation and b) working hard to get owners interested in training enough to not need the dependence of a tool at all. Tools can make great training aids and can even be necessary in the training process to ensure dogs do not rehearse unwanted behaviors but nothing can replace solid training.

Logical Argument:

There are two main arguments spouted by trainers that will not correct a dog for misbehaving. The first one is, ‘if marine animals can be trained for shows without the use of leash corrections or “force” than what makes us think we can’t train dogs the same way’?  For all of those people who use the training of marine animals as a reason to train dogs without any form of correction or “punishment”, I would like to give my readers a very real and serious message. Those animals are kept in tiny tanks (maybe not tiny to you but definitely tiny to that animal), they are depraved of social interaction from their pods and families, they are kept in very sterile environments with other members of their species but not their immediate families. This has, in many cases, proven to be detrimental to the safety of all animals involved, including the humans that work with them. Wolves that were studied in captivity, who lived in similar conditions had many altercations and it is proving to be the same with Orca as well. The animals are depraved of all meals unless working to help ensure compliance, which doesn’t always work and they are never given the chance to perform behaviors that are natural to them and would otherwise be very mentally stimulating (i.e hunting, migrating, mating and so on). This is such inhumane treatment it is hard to even think about. Any animal loving person in their right mind wouldn’t dare keep their dogs like this, so why compare the lives and training of marine animals to the lives and training of our dogs?

If the treatment of the animals is not enough to convince you that we should not be comparing marine animals to our dogs, let me give you more food for thought. Orca, dolphins and other marine animals do not live in our homes and neighborhoods. They do not share living space with us, our pets or our children. We don’t have to walk them, handle them or trust them with our kids, other pets visitors and so on. Our neighbors do not have to hear them, smell them or fear them. Mail carriers do not have to worry about one being loose and so on; I think you are getting the point. It is such a ludicrous comparison that I can’t believe it has stood up in the face of reason for so long.

We are in a world where we track down and kill a shark or bear that attacked a person, who, of their own volition, entered the natural habitat of that animal yet people coexisting with dogs can not choose what tools to utilize for training or containment (electric fences) for fear of being called abusive, even if all tools are utilized properly and in conjunction with proper training protocols. Ridiculous.

The second argument is, ‘you wouldn’t do that to your children’! This is usually spouted as a defensive argument against the use of prong or electronic collars. Well, we also don’t crate our children for long periods of the day, put apparatuses around their faces to control their heads, we do not feed them from bowls on the floor or euthanize them if they bite someone. The list can go on and on. While great parallels can be made between the raising of dogs and children there are some very significant differences and it is a plain and simple fact that people are simply not as forgiving of dogs’ mistakes as they would be of children’s, especially if that dog posed a risk to the safety of a child. Suddenly no one would care what training methods were put into place or even what happened to the dog so long as the child was safe. Am I saying it is right, not at all, but it is reality.

As with all of my blogs I put a strong emphasis of having cooperative relationships with our dogs. Absolutely we should be treating all of those charged in our care with the same loving respect that we would our children but every species has different rules all of their own and they should be treated and cared for in a species specific manner. As with our dogs, they need to roam with their pack, to hunt/work, and to have strong social interactions. That means we need to walk them, play with them, teach them to work for things that they want, hide toys or treats and encourage them to find them and in general be having strong, genuine interactions with our dogs. We need to make time for them and their needs. Correctional devices can make some of these things easier and more enjoyable for the human involved and when the human is enjoying themselves they are more likely to do more with their dogs.