Consumer Beware!

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Consumer Beware!

(Dog Training Options - An Ethical Perspective)



The vast majority of people who call asking for dog training information have a few questions in common. Usually they want to know how long it should take to train their dog so it will be a good companion, they want to know how much it will cost to train and they want to know how reliable the training will be. The often-expressed desire to go about their normal daily activities together, with the dog off leash, is an indication of the reliability they seek. What is being asked seems straightforward enough and anyone offering such services should be able to answer clearly and honestly.  When these questions are left unanswered, the unsuspecting dog owning public is denied accurate information on which to base their decisions.  


Using a very traditional "balanced" approach, the above training program would be in the neighborhood of ten to fifteen weeks. The cost for such a program would be dependent on a few variables (location, private vs. group etc.) but the consumer would be able to get a number they could then use for comparison. However, in recent years there has been a movement toward much longer training processes which can cost the consumer more than ever before.


Trainers promising "purely-positive training," and "no force/pain training" sell a very romantic image of training that is “warm and fuzzy” and fun, fun, fun. But some have taken a process that should take around twelve weeks and stretched it (and the cost to you) to several times that which it should be. Often claiming to use "Operant Conditioning," these disciples of the "new wave" in reality only use half the tools Operant Conditioning provides for. Their main tool is the clicker. The more zealous among the followers will ascribe almost magical prowess to this little noisemaker. 


Clicker training can be fun and even useful under certain specific conditions - but first do both yourself and your dog a favor (before jumping on the clicker bandwagon) and establish a proper working relationship based on mutual respect and trust.  This you can do much quicker and at a much lower fee and then you can go click your heart out if you want to.  Clicker training teaches that a reward is coming for each "correct" response.  That reward motivates the dog but it does not teach the dog anything about roles.  It ignores a bad response.  A "Real Training" approach teaches the dog to respect and listen to you; the relationship itself is the reward and the motivating factor.  If you establish the role of alpha, "attention" from you is the reward for the dog.  You are the boss and in the canine world the boss is always respected and listened to.


To be clear, I do not take issue with any individual training tool and while I do have my own preferred method of working dogs, it is not my intention to condemn others who might use a different approach. I do however, have concerns and decry any process that would leave dog owners with unsatisfying results, leave in its wake untrained or poorly trained dogs, and may cost more in the process. In the worst cases, some of these dogs will be needlessly destroyed because their behaviour will never be adequately addressed or changed by such an ineffective process.


A dog owner seeking information wrote to a couple different schools.  Once he decided to train with me, he provided me with samples of the responses he was sent. These serve to illustrate the messages the general public are hearing all too often. He asked:


"I am writing to trainers in our area looking for some information about training for a Labrador puppy to get a CD. Sometime toward the middle of next month I will be picking up my new Lab pup and I want to train him for at least his CD and maybe further. I am looking for classes in the west part of ________ or ____________ area."


What he got was a varied collection of responses; some indicating it would likely take anywhere from 22 weeks or lessons up to (possibly) years!  Some suggested he’d need two or three levels of puppy classes; to be followed by various beginners programs to be followed by more advanced programs and then “fine tuning” classes.  Some suggested he might want to repeat some of the classes so that the lessons would not have to be drilled and the learning could be done at a more leisurely pace – the first time through would only be for basic manners and a few simple commands.  A training friend of mine sometimes refers to what this client was experiencing as a process culminating in a, “now you can trust your dog off-leash because he’s too tired and old to run away from you anyway” class.


Even though he clearly indicated he wanted obedience, some tried to convince him he should add agility to the array of never ending classes.  Some even tried to convince him he should forget about his obedience training and go totally with the agility because they claim it is more fun.  The cost for training (excluding the agility) averaged $550.00.   Some trainers said they couldn't say how long the training would take, or how much it would cost, because some dogs could take years to get ready for competitive obedience! 


Why, in the 21st century, does it take so much longer to train a dog than it has say 40 - 50 years ago?  Answer - IT DOESN'T or shouldn't - if the dog is being trained "correctly."  Why should it cost more or take longer to get less?  Is the answer inflation?  What is really at work here?  


Finally I cite the example of someone who started with a very traditional approach many years ago and got excellent results. This person is an obedience competitor, trainer and judge. A testimony to his success is the number of Obedience Trial Champions he has trialed and High in Trials he has achieved. About fifteen or so years ago he switched to purely positive training. He has continued to trial his dogs but so far has not been able to duplicate his earlier accomplishments.  His story is not unique.  Recently several surveys were conducted among top-level North American obedience competitors to determine if any were able to succeed at the most advanced levels of competition using only a purely positive approach.  None were.  In addition to the surveys, substantial prizes have been offered to any who could make the claim of having won at this level using no aversive control.  So far the surveys have found no one and none have come forward to claim the prize money.


The following statement was made by Gary Wilkes (of Click and Treat fame and one of the pioneers of clicker training) at a seminar and was carried in a seminar handout he gave all participants. It states:


"By definition, operant conditioning is "behavior that is determined by its consequences." To create a performance that is precise, crisp and unfailing, there must be consequences that maintain that level of performance. That means pleasant consequences for success, and unpleasant consequences for failure. While it is often suggested that "all positive" training can create such performance, I am not aware that anyone has ever actually done it with dogs in obedience competition. For performance animals, I include another step in my order of training – aversive control for failure."


In order for you to get the best program for your dog, there are some steps you can take to insure you get good value for your money.  Before you lay out your hard earned cash or sign on the dotted line, here are some things you can check on:


How much does this trainer care about the relationship between dog and owner?


Are they rigid or flexible in their formats?


How willing are they to meet with you and discuss your dog before signing up?


After you have spent those hundreds of dollars "having fun," - are they there for you to address any "problems" or behaviours that need modifying? - How much more will you have to pay for this?


Ask what you will have when training is complete.  Will I have a reliable, well-trained, obedient dog that respects me in an alpha role?  If not - why not?


Ask them why they are training and how long they have been doing it?


Have they trialed or participated in other events?  If not - why not?


With dog training, as with everything else, it’s buyer beware.  At the end of the day results speak the loudest.


All the best in your training endeavors,


Roger Hild