Have you heard the one about how wearing a harness will teach your dog to pull? Me too. I mean, it kind of makes sense, right? Harnesses make it more comfortable for your dog to lean in, so your dog continues pulling you down the street, or toward another dog, or maybe into the grass to sniff a discarded pizza crust.
The truth is that humans, and not harnesses, teach dogs to pull. How? By letting dogs pull us. Dogs pull because it works to get them where they want to go. Some equipment is designed to make pulling uncomfortable—choke and prong collars, for example. And you can also buy no-pull harnesses. But I bet that, like me, you’ve seen dogs on all of these devices pulling their humans down the street, sometimes at the expense of choking and coughing and, in some cases, incurring serious physical damage. They are pulling, because it’s still working for them, and the discomfort caused by the collar or no-pull harness does not override their desire to explore their environment.
I prefer a harness precisely because it is more comfortable for the dog, and not because it encourages or discourages pulling. In fact, when I’ve got a strong puller, I want a harness so that the dog isn’t choking himself.
Once I’ve got a properly fitted harness (Balance Harness is my current fav), I start teaching the dog to keep a loose leash. In other words, it’s not the harness that’s teaching the dog to pull or not. It’s me.
For years I have successfully used the method demonstrated in this series of videos by Helix Fairweather. Try it and see what you think. Again, I prefer to use a harness, but you could use this approach on a flat buckle or martingale collar. There is, in fact, a lot of good information available about how to teach leash manners (there is also a lot of terrible information). If you need help, hire a qualified positive trainer, or join a class. Most basic manners classes include instruction in leash walking. You might even be able to find a class devoted solely to leash walking.
But don’t be fooled by someone who tells you harnesses teach pulling. It’s simply not true. If that person is your neighbor or your cousin, nod and smile. If that person is a trainer, you may want to take your business elsewhere, especially if his method of choice is anything aversive. You don’t need to hurt your dog to teach him to walk politely on a leash (or to teach anything else).
Last, here’s a screen shot from a video I took last week on a walk with Franz and Maria, both of whom are wearing harnesses. (Maria has a Balance Harness, and Franz has a Hurtta.) Maria spotted a dead bird and wanted to investigate. We weren’t close enough for her to make contact, but that didn’t stop her from being curious. I stopped and waited for her to check back in with me. I was also reinforcing Franz, the ultimate good boi, doin me a voluntary check-in. In the bottom right, you can see the loose leash on Maria, even though she is super interested in that dead bird.
Friends and readers of this blog will recognize Arlo in the photo on the right. I took this photo a few days ago when we ducked into the Admissions building on campus to wait out a rain shower. I work on a pretty dog-friendly campus, but even so, I was conscious of the fact that I was in the lobby of a building where visitors who may not love dogs might be coming and going. I needed him to be on his best behavior, and he was.
What I love about this photo is not just the goofy expression, but also that his engagement with me is voluntary. It wasn’t initially, of course. Over time I reinforced check-ins and eye contact, and now those things are just part of our conversation when we’re together.
Why am I writing about this? Because recently, in another online conversation, I encountered a comment that I often hear when people want to justify punishment-based training: “Different tools, same results.”
Why? Because it depends on what you mean by results. The comment in question was about a particular behavior that had been trained with +R. I think the results are only the same if what you’re looking at is the end behavior.
Let’s say you want to teach your dog to walk by your side on leash. Trainer A begins teaching this behavior by reinforcing the dog whenever the leash is loose. Trainer B begins teaching this behavior by putting a prong collar on the dog and delivering “corrections” when the leash goes tight. Different methods, same desired behavior.
But what are the two dogs learning? Dog A learns to associate a loose leash with good things—not only the food coming his way, but also the person delivering the food. Maybe even the other dogs and people and motorcycles passing by as the food happens to be delivered. So reinforcing a loose leash helps to strengthen not only the likelihood that Dog A walks on a loose leash, but it also strengthens the relationship between Dog A and his person, and possibly also Dog A’s associations with other things in the environment.
What about Dog B? Well, every time the lease goes tight, he feels an unpleasant sensation–a pinch (or worse) around his neck. He feels his person yanking on the leash. He senses his person’s frustration and maybe hears his person yelling No! or Heel! Sometimes those things also happen when he rushes to greet someone (he enjoys meeting new people) or barks at a passing dog.
Dog B, it turns out, is no dummy, and after some trial and error, he figures out that by walking next to his person the yanking or yelling stops. So, in order to avoid the bad things, he continues to walk beside his person. He stops trying to greet new people because they have also become predictors of unpleasant things.
Are these two results really the same? If the goal is a dog who walks beside you, then you could reasonably conclude different tools, same result. But of course that’s not all you get. A dog walking on a loose leash because he associates that behavior with good things is really not the same as a dog walking beside you to avoid punishment. What the dog associates with the behavior is different, and thus the end result is different.
Our relationships with our dogs are about so much more than getting a specific behavior, or about end results. Sure, there are different ways to get a given behavior; but dogs are not unthinking, unfeeling machines and different tools have different results. Why not take the path that gets you the desired behavior and also the better relationship?
Recently I shared a video on FB that got me thinking about reasons why someone might decide positive training “didn’t work.” As a trainer, I will admit, that statement makes me crazy. My first thought is usually something like then you’re doing it wrong. But as I was re-watching the video, I thought about how easy it could be for someone to try a version of positive training, not get results, and then give up.
Here’s the video, taken a couple weeks ago at the shelter where I volunteer. In it, I was getting to know Ash, a 6 month-old lab mix puppy. In the hope of getting some footage to advertise the shelter’s training program for its canine residents, my friend Maria (kennel tech and enrichment coordinator at the shelter) was recording our session. She asked me to explain what I was doing to teach Ash to sit. I wasn’t expecting the question, so my reply was off the cuff. But how hard could it be to explain teaching a dog to sit? It’s just sit, right?
But rewatching this video I realized that there is more going on than my answers to Maria’s questions explain.
At 00:22, Maria asks me what sound like pretty straightforward questions—could I explain when I click? when I treat deliver? and why I toss a treat? My response tells part of the story:
I click when his rear end hits the ground.
If he doesn’t do it on his own, I give him a hint.
And I toss the treat to reset him.
If you’re new to positive training, you might reasonably ask why? in response to each of those statements. Or you might not think to ask why and instead just try what you observed in the video. But your dog might not respond the way Ash does, and so what you see in the video might not work, and you might then reasonably conclude that positive training doesn’t get results.
So, if you are new or otherwise wondering why, here’s a fuller explanation than offered in the video.
Why click when his rear end hits the ground? I’m using the click sound paired with something yummy to mark the behavior of bum-on-ground. Dogs, like humans, learn by association. So Ash is learning, first, that click = something good (i.e., the food reinforcer). And, after enough reps where sit is followed by the click which is followed immediately by food, to associate sitting with something good. Could I teach him to sit without a clicker? Yep. In that case, I would pick a word to pair with the reinforcer (e.g., super!). So why use a clicker? A clicker is not required to teach this behavior, or for positive training more generally. There are actually a lot of reasons positive trainers often use clickers, but that topic could be the subject of a separate post. I’m using one here because the sound of the click is distinctive—moreso than my voice. Notice that I am talking a lot in the video, but he’s tuning out most of it? The click stands out as a unique noise.
Why not say sit and push his rear end down? Because he could learn that the cue for sit is my hand on his rear end, or the verbal cue “sit” + my hand. I think it’s clearer for the dog if my hand isn’t involved at all. Plus, dogs (again like humans) have what is called an opposition reflex. If I push on his back end, he’s likely to push up instead of sitting down. (ETA: Since publishing this post, eileenanddogs has published this very interesting post on why “opposition reflex” is actually a problematic term.) Last for a young puppy like Ash, a lot of pushy, handsy behavior from me might seem like an invitation to play and wrestle rather than sit.
Why give him a hint? Like a lot of positive trainers, I will try to capture or lure a behavior. Capturing means that I reinforce a behavior the dog does on his own. Luring means that I use food to get the dog to do the behavior. My “hint” (hand above nose) was a lure. Many dogs, especially young puppies, will offer a sit as they look up at you. Ash did that a few times before we started recording. Then he stopped. I lured to help him out and also keep him in the game. By holding the food just above his nose, I was hoping that as his nose went up, his butt would go down. Which is what happened. The thing with lures is that you want to fade the food quickly so that the food itself doesn’t become the cue.
Why toss the food? I give one reason in the clip, but if I think about it there are actually three and a half.
(1) I wanted to get additional reps. In order to sit, he has to be not sitting. Tossing food gets him up and moving. (That’s what I mean by “resetting” him.)
(2) Chasing food is fun for most dogs. Sitting gets old fast. So alternating sits with food chasing = more fun.
(2a) Not a conscious reason, but still important: As a trainer, when I see my dog having fun, I am positively reinforced and want to keep going!
(3) I wanted to see whether, on returning, he might sit on his own. Then I would know I could fade the lure. But he didn’t sit which is why I lured again. After a few more reps with the lure, I would want to check again to see if he’d offer sit on his own.
If you’re new to positive training, I hope I’ve offered a fuller explanation of what I was thinking as I was working with Ash. These aren’t all of the questions that can be asked, so please speak up (or ask another positive trainer) if there are more things you want to know. If you are an experienced positive trainer, all of this is fairly basic (and you’ve probably stopped reading at this point, anyway!). But thinking about why-I-did-X is a good way for me to remind myself that there is often more to positive training than meets the eye, and that handing someone a clicker and a bait bag might not immediately—or ever—translate into a love of positive training.
Last if any local friends are still reading (!) Ash, the puppy in the video, is unbelievably still available for adoption at Camp P in Stroudsburg. He’s listed as a lab mix, and could easily be the cover dog for an Orvis catalog. Srsly, he’s that handsome. And as you can see from the video, he is an eager learner. I suspect he’d be a wonderful partner for walking, hiking, or camping and for all kinds of dog sports.
Last Sunday I needed some high value treats for Nose Work class, so I decided to give my new silicone pan a try. (File this post under things you can do once final grades are in.) The results were excellent: hundreds of healthy treats and three very happy dogs. These pans are popular now for making dog treats, and there is a lot of information available about which ones to buy and what recipes work best. A good place to start is the Pyramid Dog Treats page.
Here are some photos from my kitchen.
The “correct” use of punishment (positive punishment or negative reinforcement) involves causing enough pain to the dog to stop a behavior. That is not something I want to do to a dog or my relationship to a dog. And I don’t care if that is a dog living with a loving family or dumped in a shelter for behavior problems. There are better (more humane) ways to communicate with dogs than causing them pain. Period.
But, just for the sake of argument, let’s look at a rationale that I have heard many times from those willing to use force, pain or intimidation: If a [insert painful method of choice here–shock collar, prong collar, finger jab, etc.] is used correctly, it works! In other words, you’re doing it wrong! But here’s the thing that those people NEVER say: that argument also applies to positive training. In other words, when done correctly, positive training also works. Moreover, unlike punishment-based approaches, there is no risk of harming the dog physically or emotionally, or harming your relationship with the dog.
Saying positive training doesn’t work is like saying that that the laws of gravity don’t apply to you. All beings repeat behaviors that work and avoid ones that don’t. If positive training “isn’t working” for a particular dog, there is something wrong with the training plan or the trainer’s skills. And of course you can say the same thing about punishment–if it’s not working (e.g., if a dog continues to pull in spite of multiple collar corrections, or when wearing a certain type of collar), then it’s the training plan or the trainer’s lack of skill. But here the thing: when punishment doesn’t work, trainers typically increase the level of punishment (e.g., the low setting on the shock collar isn’t working? let’s turn it up a few notches).
The problem–and the reason why I don’t use aversive tools or recommend them to clients–is that punishment has fallout that is very hard to predict. There is no guarantee that the dog will associate the discomfort of, say, crossing the barrier for an electric fence with crossing the barrier. He could, instead, associate the pain with dogs walking by. Why? Because every time he approaches the barrier to chase off other dogs (a common and normal, although not desirable, behavior for dogs left alone in their yards) he receives a painful shock.
Whenever these conversations happen about whether it’s okay to hurt a dog in the name of training, people often turn to the most extreme example–a dog who will be euthanized for aggression. If that is your concern—if you have such a dog–then you need a certified behaviorist, not a shock collar.
Any knowledgeable trainer will tell you that dog training is not a matter of opinion about this or that approach. It should be based on the most current behavior and canine science. And all of that research says you will get results when punishment and reinforcement are correctly applied. That research also says that using punishment comes with the risk of creating new problems (e.g. aggression) or exacerbating existing ones. Why take that risk when there are humane and effective methods you could use instead? You will sometimes hear that “different things work for different dogs.” And that is true—again, a good trainer is always monitoring your dog and willing to make adjustments to the training plan as she goes. But saying different things work for different dogs is not the same as saying that the laws of learning (+R, -R,+P, -P) apply differently. The laws of learning affect all animals (humans included) in the same way. We repeat what works. We avoid what doesn’t. And we know that from a long history of peer-reviewed scientific research. Zazie Todd at the Companion Animal Psychology Blog keeps an excellent, up-to-date bibliography of resources on dog training. If you want to understand the science behind punishment- as well as positive-reinforcement-based training, go take a look.
Please don’t believe anyone who tells you he has a “quick fix,” or the “secret” to some behavior problem. Or that hurting your dog is the only way to save your dog. It’s simply not true. Training is a process. Problems aren’t fixed overnight, or in a 1-hour television show, or with a single, magical tool. Training your dog is about building trust and relationship, and that can’t happen if your dog is hurting, intimidated or afraid.
Like a lot of you, I am not sorry to see 2017 come to an end. It was a difficult year. One option for this first post of the new year would be to look back and try to gain some perspective. Another is to try and move forward. I’m going with the latter.
So, first, I’ve merged my old training website with this one. Anyone interested in training can find more information here.
Second, if like me you are spending more time than usual inside because outside it is FREEZING cold, you may want to check out the training fun happening all over the internets in honor of the APDT’s National Train Your Dog Month–an annual event that happens every January. For more info, visit the APDT website here.
Third, earlier this week, I had the opportunity to meet some very wonderful Camp P dogs who are waiting for their forever homes. Locals, if you are looking for your next family dog, let me introduce you to Ringo, Lindsay, Lacey and Joe Wilson. Each of their photos below includes a link where you can find more information. These are not the only great dogs at Camp P–just the ones I was lucky enough to meet this week.