The most beneficial thing you can do for your dog

Why is there often conflict, confusion, or frustration in the dog-human relationship?

Whether it’s training, husbandry, enrichment activities or just going for a walk, we are often entirely focused on the human perspective,  we generally go about these tasks with our entire focus on what we want.  We want to keep walking so we pull the dog away from interesting scents, we purchased an expensive enrichment toy and are disappointed if the dog doesn’t engage, we want the dog to sit and if they don’t, we often use coercion to gain compliance.

Forcing human perspectives onto dogs is somewhat unfair and counterproductive.  A dog cannot understand why we wouldn’t want to stop and sniff.  They cannot hope to understand that we think it looks good when they obey our commands or requests.  Dogs don’t have our well-developed sense of foresight. We might know that we are going to a new dog training class and we know what our objective is when we begin training a new behaviour, but how does the dog see things?  Are they confused and unsure? are they excited to see other dogs? frustrated they can’t play with them? fearful due to suddenly being surrounded by dogs? distracted by the overwhelming environmental stimuli? or stressed by us seeking compliance of illogical (to them) behaviours in a hostile environment?

If we are to have a mutually beneficial relationship with animals then we need to consider their perspective of the world.  Forcing our own perspective onto dogs is surely denying them their true nature in an attempt to remove the dogness from dogs.  The most beneficial thing you can do for your dog is to consider how they might see the world from their canine perspective.

Dying For a Walk

I’m sitting at home working on my dissertation literature review. I’ve hit a brick wall, I don’t know how to develop the current argument.  Time for a break and in my house, that normally means going for a walk.  Harnesses on, leads on, and off we go.  It’s dark outside so I’m just doing a lead walk around the local housing estates.  I’m about 1 mile into the walk when I spot a dog on the opposite side of the road. It’s a wirehaired vizsla (one of my favourite breeds).  With the dog are two (mid-twenties) adults and the man is telling the dog to sit, which he does on the third time of asking.  I’m always cautious when people start giving commands as we near each other; It makes me think they are worried or unsure about what their dog’s reaction might be.

I continue on my side of the road without changing pace.  The guy continues talking to the dog, “wait, stay there, don’t you move”.  The constant chatter tells me that he isn’t at all sure that the dog will stay.  Suddenly the dog bolts across the road towards me and straight into the path of an oncoming car.  Fortunately for the dog, the car driver was (at that moment in time) an awesome driver and somehow managed to avoid hitting the dog.  The dog was friendly and just wanted to say hi to my dogs but you may be wondering (as I was) why wasn’t he on a lead?

I’ve seen off-lead dogs run into the road many times. I’ve seen dogs fatally hit by a car on 3 occasions and on 1 occasion, I was the driver. Why do some people choose to walk their dog by the road without a lead?


Image courtesy of Mighty Dog Graphics

I can think of only 2 reasons:

  1. Ego:  Could it be ego driven? ‘look how great I am’, ‘my dog doesn’t need a lead’, ‘I’m such a great dog trainer’, ‘everyone must think I’m awesome’.
  2. Lack of understanding: The dog seems perfectly fine off-lead and stays close to their human. The human doesn’t realise the consequences of distractions or something spooking the dog.

To walk a dog off-lead by the road is to gamble with their life.  We don’t know what’s around the corner, we don’t know what set of circumstances are about to unfold.  Had I been happily plodding away on my dissertation, it wouldn’t have happened.  Had I left a minute earlier, it wouldn’t have happened. Had the car driver left one second earlier, the dog would almost certainly be dead.

Please don’t gamble with your dog’s life.  As animal guardians, just like with children, we are responsible for keeping them safe.  Believe me, considering your dog’s safety and using a lead, makes you look far more impressive than walking along without a lead trying to project superpowers which you don’t have; plus you get to keep your dog.






The Current Situation

There is a standing joke in dog training which goes something like this; what’s the only thing two dog trainers agree on? that the third dog trainer is wrong.  Any dog trainer who uses social media couldn’t miss the animosity between the various factions.  Animosity between groups of people is nothing new.  We’ve been waging war on one another other since the beginning of time.


Greater understanding of the scientific principles of learning theory and shifts in ethical thinking has led to very distinct training methodologies.  This has created the groups.  There are those who train only with positive reinforcement (or as far as is possible) and there are those who see nothing wrong with using physical punishment to teach a dog what he needs to know.  There are also (of course)  many positions between these two standpoints.


A Brief History of Dog Training

It was not very long ago that the use of harsh chastisement was the norm. Konrad Most (1910) was perhaps the first to set out systematic training methods in his book, Training Dogs.  Konrad was actually a forward thinker, he described reinforcement, generalisation, association and shaping long before the influences of Burrhus Frederic Skinner (considered to have developed the science of operant conditioning).  However, Most’s use of physical force largely set the standard and had enormous influence on the future of dog training.  Such was the book’s influence, that in 1954 (44 years after publication) it was translated from German and reprinted in English.

In the 1960’s harsh punishment was still pretty much the norm. William Koehler was the trainer of Wildfire, the Bull Terrier in the Disney film, It’s a Dog’s Life.  The dog was awarded, ‘Animal Star of the Year’. Koehler’s book The Koehler Method of Dog Training (1962) is largely based on positive punishment and negative reinforcement (applying and ceasing an aversive).  Harsh punishments were not restricted to animal training.  Human behaviour was also very often met with uncompassionate, cruel and barbaric acts, for example, those carried out in mental institutions of the 1960’s.

Other huge influences such as The Monks of New Skete (who became prominent in the 1970’s), further promoted the idea of physical force.  Although they emphasised the need for a good relationship between people and dogs, they also used harsh correction techniques in a bid to establish and maintain their perceived hierarchical position.

Anyone around in the 1980’s (in the UK) could not have missed the huge presence of Barbara Woodhouse (TV dog training personality). Barbara made dog training an everyday, normal thing to do. She must have influenced millions to have a go at training their pet dog.  She was, however, quite forceful (with people as well as dogs) and promoted the use of choke chains to give, in her words, a short sharp jerk.

I don’t think of any of these people as bad people, in fact, they all contributed to the development of dog training to some degree. But you could say, they were of their time in regard to using punishment.

However, other methods were also developing. William Campbell (1975) in his book, Behaviour Problems in Dogs was probably the first person to truly consider the root cause of behaviour problems, considering such things as, environment, health and nutrition.  Ian Dunbar (1981) began to emphasise the importance of early socialisation and promoted lure and reward training. Although Ian didn’t have the same level of impact as Barbara Woodhouse, his influence grew and grew. Today he is largely credited with introducing a kinder and more gentle approach to dog training and remains somewhat of a superstar amongst dog training geeks.

We then have the enormous influence of Karen Pryor who united the science of operant conditioning and dog training.  Pryor’s influence is probably the greatest of anybody in the dog training world. Shaping, clicker training and behaviour modification without the risk of side effects associated with positive punishment, exploded during the 90’s as a direct influence of Karen’s ability to unite science and dog training.

There are so many others who have influenced us, I could literally write a book on the subject, it’s so large.  But the point is this; Not everyone has read the same books. Some people have not read any books. The most famous dog trainer in the world (Cesar Millan) has stated that he learned about dogs from watching them, not from reading books.  Even if we had all read the same books our understandings would vary.


The Problem With Getting Along

Group behaviour

It is hardly surprising, given the history, that people may have very contrasting views about dog training methodology.  People also like to belong to groups, groups are everywhere you look, religious groups, football fans, national patriotism, Conservatives, Liberals etc.  We then tend to defend our chosen group passionately.  In evolutionary terms, belonging to a group may give an individual an advantage (safety in numbers).

Cognitive dissonance

Cognitive dissonance occurs where one idea conflicts with another idea.  For example, we may find it difficult to accept that positive punishment is ethically wrong if we already believe that we are a good person and we already use positive punishment training methods.  It conflicts with what we already believe.

Confirmation bias

Confirmation bias is a flaw in human thinking.  We basically look for evidence which confirms what we already believe and we disregard anything which conflicts with it.  Ever tried convincing somebody not to be religious, support a particular football team or change their political allegiance? I wouldn’t bother!  This seems like a small thing but even great scientists can struggle with confirmation bias.

Social media

We now have the influence of social media.  In real life, we address our boss, our family, our friends, our wider acquaintances differently.  On Facebook, you are more likely addressing everyone in the same way, there is no natural differentiation taking place, the same message goes to everyone.  We’re also unable to extend the subtle social facial expressions, body language and tone, which all change how communication is received.  Added to this, we feel safe. Just like people feel more able to hurl insults in the safety of their car, so it is with social media, only more so.  Social media is really where all the animosity takes place.  We are not walking past each other’s training hall shouting ‘YOU’RE DOING IT ALL WRONG, YOU MORON’ through the window, are we?


We develop group mentality, cognitive dissonance, confirmation bias and shout at people around the world like a Tasmanian Devil with toothache in a traffic jam.

We are all on different paths. I haven’t walked yours and you haven’t walked mine.  I dislike forceful training with a passion, but the majority of trainers who use such methods are not the monsters we’d like to believe they are. They are just people on a different path doing what they believe is best.  I bet they even cry when their dog dies, just like we do.