Training: Traditional methods

By | Oct 4, 2018

This article is straight forward and fairly neutral in its explanation of traditional dog training. For more on the subject, there are additional reading links at the bottom of the page.

Traditional Dog Training Methods

by Lisa Mullinax, CPDT

Since the 1960’s, dog training has undergone significant changes. Where most dog trainers and owners believed that dogs should work out of fear of punishment, many enjoy having a dog that works in cooperation with the owner because it is rewarding to do so. Top agility and obedience competitors now understand that aversive training methods dampen a dog’s enthusiasm for training and affects performance in the ring.

Understanding the difference between traditional training methods and positive training methods is important when choosing a trainer, behavior consultant, or even when choosing how to address problems at home.

In 1906, Colonel Conrad Most began training police dogs. By the 1940’s, he used his knowledge to teach trainers of guide dogs. In 1910, Colonel Most wrote Training Dogs, one of the first dog training books ever published. Colonel Most popularized the idea of letting a dog make a mistake and then punishing him for it.

Up until the end of WWII, Bill Koehler trained dogs for the military. The “Koehler Method” of training, was popularized over the next 40 years, and is still used by many trainers today. Koehler’s training classes were designed to prepare students for competitive obedience work.

Both of these men used compulsive methods, also known as positive punishment and negative reinforcement. By delivering an unpleasant or even painful consequence (when the dog performed an undesired behavior) and pairing praise with the end of the discomfort (when the dog performed the desired response); the dog learned that praise indicated the end of (or avoidance of) pain or discomfort. This is the definition of negative reinforcement.

While all trainers today acknowledge the many contributions these men made to dog training as we know it, including the importance of timing of punishment and reinforcement, these methods are no longer considered necessary to train dogs for companionship or competition or to address mild to severe behavior problems.

BEHAVIORAL FALLOUT: when training methods backfire
Positive trainers frequently see dogs with behavior problems that are the result of aversive methods, whether at the hand of the unwitting owner or at the hands of a “professional.” The risk of causing or exacerbating unwanted behavior is high with punitive (*) methods for the following reasons:

Negative Association – All punishment runs the risk of creating a negative association to the trigger (dog, person or object), environment or handler that is present when the punishment is delivered. A recent study in Germany measured the Cortisol (stress hormone) levels of dogs trained with shock collars. In the dogs that received random, poorly timed shocks (much as would be delivered by the average dog owner), the Cortisol levels increased over 300% just by entering the room where the dogs had been shocked one month after the training had taken place.

As stress is the main underlying cause of most behavior problems, increasing the dog’s stress levels runs the risk of causing behavior problems that were not present or exacerbating existing problems. One example of how these methods increase stress involved a dog that suffered severe diarrhea at each training session with her former trainer, a man who used severe collar corrections that caused the dog to cry in pain. Shortly after her first training session, the dog severely bit a man who was visiting the owner.

Sensitization – Because traditional behavior modification methods involve setting the dog up to exhibit the undesired behavior and then punish it, the dog must be repeatedly exposed to the trigger that incites the behavior. The more a dog is exposed to a trigger and has a negative experience, the more likely the chance of sensitizing the dog, making the dog more sensitive to that trigger.

Positive training methods, on the other hand, work towards desensitizing the dog through carefully controlled, limited exposure. Each exposure is paired with something pleasant, often food, which changes the dog’s association to the trigger. At the same time, the dog is taught an alternate, more acceptable behavior to perform when the trigger is present, such as looking at the owner instead of lunging or barking at another dog.

Warnings – Barking, growling and snapping without making contact with the skin, even an inhibited bite that does not break the skin, are a dog’s way of warning us and an attempt to increase distance. Warnings have nothing to do with dominance, or even aggression. If the dog were “aggressive” there would be no warning and a bite would inflict serious injury.

When a dog is punished for issuing a warning as a means of changing the behavior, it creates extreme conflict and stress in the dog. Stress moves the dog closer to the fight/flight response. Having no ability to warn a person or dog that it is feeling threatened, the dog is left with only one defense – biting.

These are the most common causes of problems in dogs trained even for basic obedience using traditional methods. When applied to behavior problems, the fallout can seal the fate of the dog.

The methods used by Most and Koehler were originally developed for police and military dogs, dogs that had been carefully bred and selected for their temperament and working ability. Dogs that exhibited nervous or aggressive temperaments did not undergo behavior modification training, they were destroyed. The traditional methods were designed to train sound dogs for specific obedience work. And train privately-owned dogs for obedience competition. The methods were never designed to address serious behavior problems such as aggression.

However, in those days, these were the only known methods for working with dogs. While B.F. Skinner (The Behavior of Organisms) had started training marine animals with positive reinforcement (and clickers) by the 1950’s, these methods were not yet being applied to dogs. So, when trainers such as Koehler were presented with a behavior problem in a privately-owned dog, they were stuck with the only methods they knew.

Today, there are many trainers who still use traditional methods, including the Monks of New Skete (who first popularized the “alpha wolf” model of dog training) and The Dog Whisperer. Although wrapped in a new and more appealing package, they are still based on the same methods first developed more than 60 years ago, and have not been adapted to current knowledge of behavior problems in dogs.

Frequently, the trainer appears to have success because the punitive (*) methods suppress behavior; the dog ceases the behavior in that moment. While this is great for impressing a paying client or television viewer, suppression of behavior does not equal long-term change. One can take a cigarette out of a smoker’s hand and physically prevent him from reaching for another cigarette until, exhausted, he gives up. That does not mean, however, that he has decided to quit smoking forever.

The contributions of trainers such as Most and Koehler are not to be dismissed. It should also be said that there are some incredibly good, ethical traditional trainers still around today. These trainers understand how to work with minimal discomfort for the dog and “corrections” are so well timed that the trainer has to use very few to get the desired response.

However, if a trainer must continually use corrections or must repeatedly increase the level of correction (such as switching to more and more aversive collars), causes injury to the dog, or causes the dog to yelp or scream in pain or fear, then dog is not learning and is not being trainedThis is when dog owners need to step in and protect their dogs from further abuse and seek a second (and even third) opinion.

Many of the professional trainers who originally learned through the use of traditional methods (some as much as 30 years ago) have since switched to the use of positive reinforcement methods and of those, many speak out against the use of traditional training. In training circles, these trainers as known as “cross-over” trainers, those which crossed-over from punitive to positive methods.

While there can be a place for aversive methods in dog training in some situations, they should be used sparingly and only after less invasive methods have been attempted. Once again, if these methods are implemented correctly, they should only be necessary for a brief period of time to change the behavior.

However, if the same level of accomplishment can be achieved using positive methods, why not try positive methods first?

**Positive punishment and negative reinforcement. By delivering an unpleasant or even painful consequence (when the dog performed an undesired behavior) and pairing praise with the end of the discomfort (when the dog performed the desired response); the dog learned that praise indicated the end of (or avoidance of) pain or discomfort. This is the definition of negative reinforcement.

Additional Reading:

Dog training: A divided profession

Dog training: Positive reinforcement explained

Myths about Positive Reinforcement —

Leave a Reply