I’ve gone through many different phases and methods of dog training over the years, running the full gamut from compulsion, old school, force obedience training all the way to trying out purely positive. I’ve come out on the other end learning from all of them and finding some use or lesson from each. I consider myself to be a well-balanced trainer with a vast toolbox of various tools at my disposal to help me TRAIN THE DOG IN FRONT OF ME.
My first dog training experience was in 4-H and doing obedience classes with my Doberman/Rottie mix in grade school, under a compulsion trainer. What I have learned from compulsion training was primarily a lot of what not to do. I don’t believe in training a dog by pure pressure, and not necessarily because of the discomfort a dog might face, although that is a valid concern, but because I don’t think a dog learns the desired behavior as well as they do from positive reinforcement. With force based training, the dog trying to shut the pressure off, doing so hurriedly because of their discomfort and not necessarily thinking it through. I don’t think these lessons learned sink in quite so well with these methods. However, corrections are sometimes necessary once the dog understands the behavior asked of them, and compulsion trainers have taught me about timing those corrections, and to how use them judiciously.
Later in life, I met some truly amazing disc dog trainers who introduced me to purely positive training and got me into the sport of disc with my Australian Cattle Dog Carly. I think there is a place for this, but I have never been 100% on board with this. While I went through a phase of using no “aversives,” I have never eliminated telling my dogs “no.” I have learned a TON about operant conditioning, and again, proper timing. Timing is equally important in dog training in BOTH rewarding correct behavior and in doling out corrections. This is why training is so hard for many pet people and even many trainers: timing on both corrections and rewards are hard to perfect. I gained a lot of knowledge from working with various positive trainers and still call myself a mostly positive trainer. I use operant conditioning and a lot of clicker work in introducing behaviors and laying foundations. I firmly believe dogs learn so much better with operant conditioning, whether it be through shaping or luring. Behaviors are learned in smaller increments and chaining, and the dog thinks more, puzzles out what is being asked in order to get the thing they desire. More thinking, reasoning, and logic is involved to help truly imprint the behavior. Once those behaviors are understood and well-practiced is when I will employ corrections to ensure they continue and to further perfect the behaviors. This is where my aversives come into play.
For a while, I really wanted to prove that pointing dogs can be trained and finished without e-collars, using mostly positive methods. This came about because the pointing dog world seems to be the last to come on board with recognizing and using positive reinforcement. I got so much opposition I became stubborn about it, and lost sight of really getting things accomplished with my dogs. I still think it can be done, but takes more skill, time, and patience than I have. I have still laid much of the foundation work with Sue with positive work, more so than traditional bird dog training. But I have changed my views on e-collars and finally own one. I’ve come round to see I shouldn’t dislike the tool itself, because it’s all in how the tool is used. I personally don’t think an e-collar should be used to the point it’s causing a dog actual pain and crying out, but I see it all the time in the bird dog world. ALL. THE. TIME. It pisses me off and it is everything that gives the tool a bad rap and turned me off from using one. If a dog is blowing off a correction on an e-collar, it’s pretty likely that your training is lacking and something in the chain has been missed by the dog. Putting the dog into pain is not going to fix that miscommunication between handler and dog, but may actually damage the relationship and trust.
But, so too can any other tool. I’ve seen dogs hit the end of a check cord to be jerked so harshly the dog flips on its back hard enough to have the wind knocked out of it. Hell, I’ve seen a clicker used as punishment—a “trainer” paired the clicking with physical corrections! Any tool can certainly be abused, but I daresay an e-collar has the greatest potential for misuse. A trainer loses his or her temper and all they have to do is turn it up and hit a button and they can unleash as much pain as kicking or hitting the dog. An e-collar holds a lot of power and requires self-control on the part of the handler, and more trainers should be mindful of that power they hold in their hand. We ask a lot of self-control and restraint from our dogs, we owe them that same courtesy.
I’m currently using an e-collar on Sue to reinforce his retrieve, and on his flank to get him steady on birds. The level on his flank is so low that I can’t even feel it when tested on my wrist. But the pressure is there to tell him to stop; the pressure stops when he does. In both instances, I introduced and taught the behavior using positive reinforcement. I trained a retrieve using a clicker, so he’s never been what I would call “force fetched.” He has had a trained retrieve. He was taught the behavior using a clicker, and once he fully understood fetch and hold, has had pressure and corrections to reinforce those commands. Same with “whoa.” Also with heeling—that was introduced through shaping and luring; now that he understands, I use a prong collar to reinforce and also to perfect his heelwork.
Now is this the case for every dog? Absolutely not. A good trainer must read and train the dog in front of her. I would never put a prong or an e-collar on my Australian Cattle Dog Carly; she doesn’t need it and would probably shut down under pressure. She’s incredibly food motivated and so eager to learn and work. At the same time, her work is very different than the primal driven work of a bird dog. Bird dogs we are asking them to work off of primal instincts hardwired and bred into them, but at the same time we ask them to show a lot of self-restraint and control to be steady. To get that control we have to override their incredibly strong motivation for prey: for the most part nothing we have is going to rank higher than wanting birds. No cookies, no toys. So, here is where pressure is needed. Not pain inducing pressure, but pressure to maintain control and assist the dog in restraint. Whoa work with Sue is a prime example. NOTHING ELSE is going to get him to restrain himself and stop when a bird flushes in front of him and is shot. He’s not going to reason that out and think, hey, if I stand still through this I will get a cookie. He doesn’t WANT a cookie. He needs that pressure to learn the lesson that bird flying = stand still. Some pressure is the only thing that will override his prey drive to chase the bird in front of him because that’s all that is in his brain at that point. No cookie or other reward can top that.
As a trainer, I am continually learning. Any trainer who thinks they have all the answers and it’s their way or the highway is delusional and not someone I want to train with. We should all be open to learning new methods and working to find the best ways to train each dog as an individual. That is one of the key factors to remember: each dog is an individual and a good trainer not only has a vast toolbox of methods and tools available to them, but is skilled in reading dogs to tailor what will work to bring out the best in that individual dog. It’s not the tools themselves that matter so much, but the ability and talent of the trainer holding those tools.