Part 2: The Way We See The Problem Is The Problem
If you haven’t read part one, you may want to check it out first. It explains our approach to tools and methods, whereas this post aims to provide insights into what can be accomplished with a few of the tools we have selected.
A lot of these tools garner criticism. Some people even want to criminalize them, as has been done in several other countries. But it’s important not to let the improper use by a few ruin the possibilities for the rest of us. As we mentioned in part one, it’s necessary to have an open mind when it comes to dog training because it can make all the difference to the animal.
Remember, we’re not here to tell you which tool or method you should use, only to show you that anything can become useful when utilized productively.
Many trainers like to declare their abilities without the need for anything other than a basic method, which is wonderful. But unless you can transfer those skills to the client, it means nothing. When owners spend time and money for you to train their dog, they want results. They don’t have the patience to wait for your method to work. If you need to get to the 10th floor, and you have the option of the steps or the elevator, you’re probably going to take the elevator. Does that make you a bad person? No, it just means you used the most effective means to get the desired outcome.
“The only question that really matters in considering a tool is, “Can I use that to help the dog?” If the answer is “no” or “not right now,” then you move onto something else. But eliminating a method completely just because you’ve heard negative feedback from others is not constructive.
We ask that you consider the tools we’ve listed below with the least amount of bias possible. Just because we favor certain ones doesn’t mean we’re against the alternatives. These nine are not a comprehensive list, but they should give you an idea of the thought process behind why we use particular ones over others. The most important point is that we don’t let the potential negative effects outweigh the benefits. Making sure you know the right way to use a tool (not the tool itself) can be the difference between success and failure*.
Negative Effects - It has the potential to be overused and becomes harmful when applied incorrectly. You can end up with an obese dog whose life you’ve shortened, and who only listens when he knows he’ll get fed.
Does that mean you should never use it and even go as far as advocating against it? Of course not.
Why We Use It - Keep in mind, we use a ton of food in our training (see our first post about the value of positive reinforcement), but we make sure it’s productive and not hindering the progress we’re achieving in other areas. When used correctly, food helps shape a dog’s behavior and teaches him the right way to behave.
These are tremendous tools when used appropriately.
Improper Approach – It’s very easy to turn the dog’s face at the wrong time with too much force, injuring her neck and causing more damage than good. For example, if you let the dog lunge at another dog and then quickly pull back, you risk jerking her neck and harming those muscles.
This doesn’t make it ineffective; it only reinforces the need to use it correctly.
Why We Use Them – If a dog is fixated on something, you need to get her attention. Head halters allow you to gently redirect her focus by turning the nose and head away from the trigger. It takes timing and awareness of the amount of pressure needed, but the results can be amazing.
To be honest, we don’t use harnesses very often. If you don’t teach dogs to walk with you, you’re teaching them to pull. The harness may prevent them (aversive) from pulling but doesn’t teach them how not to pull. You either end up with a dog that only walks nicely while in a harness or one who treats you like a sled and drags you everywhere, even when they’re in the harness.
You can cause permanent damage to the dog’s shoulders by allowing this behavior to continue. Considering this, the tools you’d normally consider aversive (prong collars, remote collars, choke chains) can’t cause the same extent of injury as a harness. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be used in a beneficial manner.
While other tools have proven more effective to us in teaching, harnesses can still be useful for a well trained dog.
FLAT BUCKLE COLLARS
Negative Possibilities - These may seem like one of the safest options for training a dog, but they can still inflict so much damage that you need a vet. When you’re coming up to a corner and hear a dog on the other side choking before you even see him, he’s usually wearing a flat buckle collar. When your dog pulls, direct pressure is applied to his throat, throwing his entire weight onto his larynx or trachea, and this can have long term effects.
You Still Need Them – Cities and counties generally require your dog to have a license as well as a rabies tag on them whenever they are out in public. Flat collars are useful for this identification. And, just like the harness, a flat collar is perfect for your dog once you have him trained to walk on a loose leash and listen to you.
Why We Use It - The whole theory behind these is for a dog to feel a little pressure on his neck when he starts to walk away from you so that he comes back. And it works! As long as you take the time to teach the dog what the pressure means, they’re excellent.
Negative Effects - Unfortunately, an untrained dog can still pull and choke himself. Does that mean the tool doesn’t work? Or that more training needs to be done so the dog understands what you’re asking?
Watch this video to gain an understanding of how we utilize pressure. A prong collar is shown, but the same concept applies to slip leads, martingale collars, and “choke” chains.
Criticism – Along with the remote collar, the prong collar is probably the most criticized tool. There is a widespread belief that it harms the animal, and a dog that behaves with it on is only doing so out of fear from harsh corrections. Some even assert that it can increase aggressive tendencies and cause a trainer to backtrack rather than progress.
Most of this bad rap stems from a lack of awareness of how to properly utilize these collars.
Why We Use Them - The prong collar avoids the problem encountered by the flat collar because it has multiple contact points which all create the same amount of pressure when a dog pulls. The ones we use** have rounded points. They don’t hurt the dog and actually allow you to apply more gentle pressure than with a slip lead. This is arguably the easiest tool for a client to use because it doesn’t require as much skill in communication as some of the others.
The Wrong Approach - Can you shock a dog into compliance? Sadly yes. This is the “old school” way of using the collars. They were originally much more powerful, you couldn’t adjust the intensity, and they were used mainly to punish the wrong behavior. They were truly “shock” collars.
Unfortunately, while the tool has changed with the times, the stigma attached to it has not.
Why We Use It – Can you use a remote collar in a way that makes the dog enthusiastic about listening to you? Yes! Watch our videos, and see how we use them. This one with a three month old puppy is a perfect demonstration of how we’re not hurting the dog, but instead setting him up for success. We’re reinforcing what we have already taught him using other tools and methods.
Perception – You might think a whip will scare a dog, cause him to lash out, or even hurt him. You can definitely use a whip in a negative way. There’s no need to list the many ways you could harm a dog with a tool like this. Even though they’re thin, whips potentially pack a punch if you don’t use them in a beneficial manner.
Our Approach - If you’ve seen our Periscopes showing socialization sessions, you’ll see that we have dressage whips in our hand. Just hearing that we use whips may give you the wrong impression but through watching, you’ll see that the whip is only an extension of our arms. They allow us to advocate for nervous dogs and control the direction of others. We never hit the dogs, and they never learn to be afraid of them. We’re not threatening to harm them, merely redirecting them away from whatever has their attention.
See this video for an example. In this case, the dog needs more space because of his aggressive tendencies and the whip allows us to create that space while still having many other dogs around him.
The Negatives – There has been a lot of debate about treadmills. They are seen as the lazy man’s walk. They can be dangerous if you leave dogs unmonitored or don’t keep an eye on how they’re doing. Dogs can overheat (same as any other walk) or get hung up by a leash if the trainers don’t pay attention.
Our Approach – We use the treadmill to introduce structure into the dog’s life. When a dog is constantly moving, he can’t react to his surroundings the way he can when he’s not focusing on work. The treadmill provides concentrated exercise where it’s easy to show what is expected while also introducing new stimuli which might have previously caused problems. As you’ll see in this Periscope, we try to keep the stress as limited as possible for the dog, and it helps him realize that being calm is the best approach.
There are many other tools like body language, your voice, other dogs, etc. which can assist your training. Even with all these at our disposal, we realize that there is no perfect tool. However, when you limit the tools or methods you’re willing to try, you essentially tell the dog, “Sorry, but I can’t help you; this is as good as it’s going to get.”
But if you can help more dogs, why wouldn’t you? Just because a tool can be used negatively doesn’t mean you have to use it that way. A knife can be used to harm people, but that doesn’t mean you’re going to use a fork instead to try and cut your steak. If you keep an open mind, the possibilities are endless.
*Disclaimer – It’s easy to use the listed tools incorrectly. If you’re not sure how to use a certain one, a trial and error approach is not fair to your dog. Make sure you consult with a trainer who is familiar and successful with them before you try for yourself.
**We use the Herm Sprenger prong collars at our facility, and they are set up with the same mechanism as a martingale where the part of the collar going around the neck is attached to a triangle at the top which prevents it from being tightened past a certain point.