This is an unregulated industry. I personally believe that anyone who calls themselves a Professional Dog Trainer should have to take classes regularly to keep up to date on the science of dog training. It has evolved quite a bit in the last 30+ years that I have been involved, and anyone using antiquated methods should be culled from the field, in the same way that your Electrician should not be utilizing knob and tube wiring, and your Primary Care Physician shouldn’t have a bucket of leeches hanging around. Yes, I am aware that leeches are used in specific medical practices, but they are no longer used for bloodletting, headaches, heart disease and nervous disorders!
I use very little of the skills I learned more than three decades ago, as much of it was compulsion and punitive, and to be perfectly honest, it wasn’t much fun for me, or the dogs. Because science evolves, there is a good chance that the skills and protocols I use now will be obsolete in a decade or two. There are many professions that require ongoing education (CEU’s) and I believe it is especially important for folks in this industry to first, do no harm.
When I first meet with a new client, I take a history. I ask a whole host of questions to help me identify why a dog might have a sudden change in behavior, or why a maladaptive behavior might be reinforcing to the dog. I might ask if someone moved in/out of the household? Did they introduce a new pet/or did one pass? Has your dog been to the veterinarian to rule out a medical cause for a change in behavior?
The next step, is to consider environmental factors that are influencing behavior, and what might be done to prevent the behavior from happening while we work on the behavior. For example, your dog has become increasingly more hyper-vigilant while looking out the window at people who pass by on the sidewalk. He used to just notice and maybe bark once, but now he carries on, and you are unable to get his attention, or he has destroyed curtains and furniture in an attempt to get to the passerby. The more the dog rehearses the behavior, the more difficult it is cure. Your first course of action is to use management techniques to prevent this behavior from continuing.
Then comes Positive Reinforcement (+R) is adding something the dog wants (food, toy, praise) that will increase the likelihood of the desired behavior happening more frequently in the future. Positive reinforcement is the least intrusive way to modify behavior and it’s always going to be my first plan of action. The very worst that can happen is that a trainer forgets to fade out treats which can lead to a dog that only performs with rewards. It’s easy to fix that issue, and no real harm is done. This is what is used to get wild animals in zoos to allow blood to be drawn, and other cooperative medical care activities to be utilized. If a zookeeper can get a full grown tiger to hold still for vaccines, you can get your dog to come when called.
Sometimes having your dog offer an alternate behavior fixes the problem behavior. A dog who jumps on visitors can be a huge liability, particularly to the elderly and children. It is also be terrifying to folks that are fearful of dogs, or people trying to keep their clothes clean and free of rips. Instead, you can teach the dog better manners. You might have your guests reward your dog with treats and praise when he sits, remaining neutral and aloof, until the dog does the desired behavior.
Lastly, if needed, we would use Negative Reinforcement (-R) which is taking away something the dog likes to decrease the behavior from happening in the future. For instance, your new puppy keeps mistaking your fingers as chew toys. Giving the puppy a brief timeout is an example of -R. An example of Negative Punishment (-P) would be to stop walking/“Be a tree” when your dog is pulling you on a walk. As soon as there is no tension on the leash, you continue on the walk which is rewarding to the dog. In essence, pulling on the leash/tight harness is uncomfortable (something the dog does not want) and the slack on the leash relieves that pressure and the walk moves forward (something the dog wants) .
An extinction scenario might go something like this…your dog has never been asked to sit politely to put the leash on and consequently it’s the equivalent to trying to wrangle a soapy ferret. Go ahead, try giving a ferret a bath! You will need about 5-6 extra hands, and that might be exactly the number of hands needed to leash your dog!
When you pick up the leash, your dog does her usual zoomies, maybe she barks excitedly as she runs by you and expects that you attempt to catch her. This time, you just stand there, bored and neutral, maybe with no eye contact. A minute or two (which can feel like an hour or two!) goes by and now the dog is becoming increasingly more confused and frustrated. She expects to be caught and leashed and then to go for her walk which is rewarding to her, but you are just standing there. She may even amp up her behavior in an attempt to get you to join in the usual game. This is called an extinction burst. You remain quietly aloof. Finally, she starts to tire herself, and comes to you quietly and inquisitively. She may even offer a sit, at which time you quietly leash her, praise her, and head out for you walk , which is a reward. Each time you do that, she will settle down more quickly to be leashed. In some cases, extinction can be quite stressful to the dog which is why it, along with -R and -P, is not the first choice in training and behavior.
Finally, a word on Positive Punishment (+P). It is one of the four quadrants of Learning Theory, and it can work; however, it is the least effective quadrant and it can cause great harm to your dog. It also has the potential for the behavior to come out sideways, which can erode the trust your dog has in you. I personally don’t like it because it makes the human focus on the bad behavior rather than the good behavior. Many moons ago, I did use positive punishment, including shock collars and quite honestly, I am not interested in these methods any longer– especially when we have a clearer understanding of canine behavior and motivation.
I have personally witnessed the fallout from positive punishment, and I don’t want to be the source of this trauma. I do not, and will not, use tools that are meant to cause pain– it’s that simple. If, for some reason, I am unable to help your dog, I will refer you to one of the brilliant Veterinary Behaviorists or other skilled professionals that I work with regularly, as opposed to using punitive measures.