Whenever the issue of training tools or equipment comes up in an online discussion, trainers who advocate for a vast and varied range of methods always throw out the following argument:
“If used properly, *insert chosen tool* doesn’t hurt/harm/cause stress to the dog.”
The more dogs and people i work with, the more i am realising that this argument is not enough to justify the ongoing use of potentially harmful equipment, whether the potential for harm will be physical or psychological.
My professional experience and ongoing continuing education lead me to use and recommend training methods based on the principles of learning theory and behavioural science. Current best practice(1,2,3) in the world of professional dog training is to use reward-based training methods and thoughtful environmental management to encourage the learner to make desired behavioural choices.
Training is a skill that we humans have to practice, and humans make mistakes! When i make recommendations for equipment or methods, i want to feel confident that even if my client completely buggers it up their dog will not suffer from the mistakes of their handler. If your treat-delivery and timing is off, training won’t be particularly effective but your dog is unlikely to suffer any long-term stress or discomfort (except perhaps obesity if you’re not accounting for treats in their daily food intake). If you haven’t got the hang of your front-attach harness, then your dog will still be comfortable while you figure it out. If you stuff your Kong too tightly, your dog might experience some frustration (or they will walk away).
The ethical dilemma lies, in my opinion, with equipment that relies on avoidance in training. Aversive training relies on the dog wanting to avoid or relieve an unpleasant sensation or experience(4). That could be a raised voice, a jab with a finger or foot, or a specific training collar. Not all of these things necessarily hurt your dog, but they have to be sufficiently unpleasant that your dog wants to avoid them or they would simply not work.
A dog trainer with exceptional timing might deliver corrections at such a level that the dog makes the desired association and the target behaviour reduces, however it is important to remember that a trainer has years of practice to be able to work as effectively as possible with the equipment they choose to use. What happens if the timing is off or the level of correction is wrong? This is something i see frequently when dog owners try to follow recommendations of some professionals and use aversive equipment on their own dog.
A leash kept short and tight can increase stress, create negative associations, and gives a dog no opportunity to learn loose lead walking. A choke or prong collar that is applying near-constant pressure is causing ongoing discomfort in response to a wide range of stimuli. A electric barking collar that is inconsistent in timing, or causes a dog to scream in fright or pain, is not effectively reducing barking. But what’s worse, if aversive tools continue to be used with poor timing or execution, the potential for long-term stress and discomfort (or even injury) is great(5).
Dogs make strong associations with their environment depending on how they feel. If they learn that the appearance of other dogs, people, vehicles, etc consistently result in them feeling uncomfortable then you may end up with a more serious behavioural problem than you started with.
By definition, if a behaviour is being reinforced it will increase – you will see more of it. If a behaviour is being punished it will decrease – you will see less of it. If you are working with a trainer, or on your own, and your dog’s behaviour is persisting without change, then it is time to stop and review the plan! When you are using reward-based methods you will feel frustrated if nothing is happening, but if you are using correction-based methods then your dog’s physical and psychological well-being may be at risk.
“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result” – Albert Einstein
As a professional dog trainer, my goal is to equip you with the tools and methods to allow you to work happily with your dog towards training success. I want both you and your dog to enjoy the process! Remember, training is a skill that takes practice to master. By choosing a force-free trainer you are investing in long-term behavioural change for your dog, using scientifically-proven methods that will improve communication and teamwork between you and your furry friend.