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No more crying wolf

Bev Truss
Bev Truss

IN recent times, the dog-owning public have been bombarded with dog training entertainment programmes. Some, worryingly, have a “do not try this at home” warning. Pet dogs are being subject to all sorts of training and behaviour modification techniques borne out of wolf pack, dominance theory and now DIY TV programmes.

Our domestic dog, canine lupis familiaris, is the most diverse species on earth and not a small wolf in the house. We have manipulated dogs both physically and behaviourally according to our needs, therefore up-to-date methods of training and problem solving looks to the breed’s need for reinforcing rewards.

Many traditional trainers use dominance, rank reduction and pack theory techniques, based on flawed observations of captive wolves, canine lupis, in the 1940s.

Typically, punitive/traditional trainers use confrontational techniques and equipment, delivering an unpleasant or painful consequence to a disagreeable behaviour, called positive punishment. Studies have shown that it is no longer acceptable or necessary to use such outdated and abusive techniques. Science has proven you don’t have to, to train dogs.

Dominance theories establish relationships based on force, aggression and submission. If a trainer continually uses “yank and yell” techniques or has to repeatedly increase the corrections and/or uses harsher training, with dangerous equipment such as choke chains, shock or prong collars, the dog is not learning, therefore is not being trained. Animals showing signs of or being denied any of the five freedoms cannot be in a state of mind to learn.

A recent study (Schalke in 2005) showed cortisol levels (the stress hormone) in dogs that received mild collar shocks at unmethodical timings, like an owner may use for training, rose an average of 327.78% when entering the room where they had received the training, one month later.

Punitive methods suppress behaviour for that moment, which is great to impress a client or a quick fix on the TV but does not guarantee long-term change and does little to increase the bond between the pet and its owner. Remember, the real world does not have a cutting room and you can’t edit actions.

Trainers such as the late John Fisher, Professor Raymond Coppinger, Patricia McConnell, Dr Ian Dunbar and Karen Pryor, to name a few, have proven coercive and punitive training techniques damage dogs. Dogs trained to a “calm submissive state” are more likely to be shut down and distant (learned helplessness). Positive rewards and clicker training has the scientific background to support a much better understanding of how emotions have a huge impact on our companion animals while learning.

Research has also shown that neither dogs nor wolves use aggression to become top dog. Both in pet dogs and wolf packs, leadership roles change according what is needed at that particular time. Canine aggression has nothing to do with hierarchy but everything to do with fear – nurture not nature.

So where do we as veterinary professionals refer an owner with a problem pooch?

Make sure the trainer working on behalf of the veterinary practice has the relevant qualifications and has kept up to date with current positive methods. Trainers and behaviourists must be skilled in canine body language and learning theory. Up-to-date trainers recognise that to be effective, learning has to be enjoyable for both dogs and their owners. Rewards can be used to motivate and produce a consistent reliable response to a command. By using food rewards, at least if your timing is lousy, all you’re going to get is a fat dog.

For advice and a recognised qualified professional, visit the Association of Pet Dog Trainers Ireland (APDT Ire) – www.apdti.ie.

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