Is Dog Training an Animal Welfare Issue?

My January blogs have been focusing on National Train your Dog Month. In my mind, dog training is not really about pets, it’s an animal welfare issue. Over the years, many trainers have crossed over from more traditional, older school training methods to science based, positive reinforcement training. However, many dog lovers are not familiar with the various styles and how our dogs are affected, both short and long term, by different training techniques.

Traditional training methods are about getting dogs to behave in a certain way so that they fit into our human world in the manner we desire. This often involves teaching them commands that imply, “Do it or else”. An example would involve the use of a leash “jerk” on the collar to correct a dog’s non-desired behavior (i.e. the dog pulling on the leash). Other ways to correct would include the collar itself, i.e. choke chain, prong collar, or shock collar. If the dog is behaving in an undesirable way, the human applies enough pressure that causes momentary physical pain to the dog so that the unwanted behavior stops. In other words, we are telling the dogs, walk politely on a leash or else you will feel pain. The physical pain may be short term and the desired behavior may improve, but the long term results often show emotional scarring that result in other undesired behaviors.

Science based, positive reinforcement training creates partnership with our animals and can be used effectively with any species. Certain behaviors result in pleasant consequences and all other behaviors result in no consequence, inspiring the animal to think creatively on their own. Behavior is a function of its consequences. Observation is given to what animals do naturally, the behavior is marked at the exact time it happens (i.e. with a click, “good boy” or “yes”) and is reinforced with a reward (i.e. treat, toy, praise). Cues are added when you have a reliably built behavior. And the food consequence is phased out or given intermittently while praise and verbal commands and/or hand signals remain.

As Karen Pryor says in her latest book, it is about “Reaching the Animal Mind”. Many people consider Karen Pryor to be the inventor of clicker training. She is the founder and CEO of Karen Pryor Clicker Training. Clicker training is an animal training method based on behavioral psychology that relies on marking desirable behavior and rewarding it.

Clicker training is a system of teaching that uses positive reinforcement in combination with an event marker. Desirable behavior is usually marked by using a “clicker,” a mechanical device that makes a short, distinct “click” sound which tells the animal exactly when they’re doing the right thing. This clear form of communication, combined with positive reinforcement, is an effective, safe, and humane way to teach any animal any behavior that it is physically and mentally capable of doing.

Next: Dog Training Video plus interview with Karen Pryor

In a recent conversation with Karen, she said, “I didn’t invent clicker training, mother nature did. I first stumbled across the info as a dolphin trainer in the 60’s. A scientific article came out about B.J. Skinner’s lab in Harvard, back in the early days of reinforcement theory. Animals are always looking for news in their environment. There is an equal amount of opportunity for animals to look for good news as bad news. Think about what is reinforcing a behavior. Why is the animal pulling away? Why is the animal digging? The animal isn’t the cause of it’s behavior. When people look at what is really going on in an animal’s mind, it gets them off of the punishment kick.”

I learned so much in both my interview with Karen, and at my attendance at Clicker Expo last weekend in Newport Beach. Here are a few of my questions she answered:

LS: How does clicker training help our domesticated animals?
KP: It liberates them from being passive, obedient creatures and brings them into the world as conscious partners. We are creating different relationships with them that is built on trust, because the humans have become predictable and reliable.

L.S. How are they learning?
K.P. We have been making animals do stuff since we first started domesticating them. This is a different agreement. We are now saying to them, if you can make me click, I will pay you and I will pay you something you really like. This is very different from traditional obedience. While it looks like humans are training animals, it’s really the reverse. If you teach a cat to touch it’s nose and the cat is interested, in five or 10 minutes the cat can train you to jump through a hoop. Many cats have trained me to hold up the embroidery hoop.

L.S. How would clicker training help to solve a behavior problem?
K.P. In most cases, either the human or something in the environment has been reinforcing the undesired behavior. That enforcement needs to be stopped and then an opposing behavior added.

LS: Could it be as simple as this? A dog jumps up on greeters at the door. At one time or another, they’ve been rewarded with attention, even if it was negative attention. Create a desired behavior such as “sit”, marked with a click, and rewarded with a treat. A dog can’t jump and sit at the same time and when he gets rewarded more for sits than for jumping, he’ll want to create more sits, of his own choice.
KP: Yes.

LS: Why do you not recommend the use of prong collars and training collars (choke collars)?
KP: As soon as you go to punishment, your animal is in a different place. Dogs will work to avoid punishment, but it also can ruin dogs that can’t take it. You will just get a different dog than one that isn’t exposed to aversive training methods.

LS: How has this helped other animals besides dogs?

KP: Clicker training works with all animals and all species. In my opinion, nobody should be allowed to get married and have children without first clicker training a chicken. Clicker training has swept the US and beyond in Zoos in the last 10 years. It is even allowing us to give better care to them, especially medical care. In the past, when an animal needed antibiotics, you had to put them in a squeeze cage causing panic and danger, or drop it to them chemically. This could be dangerous because it is very difficult to estimate the weight of a polar bear, so that was always the last resort. Now any keeper willing to pick up the clicker technique can treat any animal in a safe and humane manner. I once was heartbroken when I saw a rhino die because she couldn’t receive the medicine she needed. Now, lots of rhinos in zoos are being trained with operant conditioning. As a by-product, instead of the animal being afraid of the keeper, the keeper becomes some known quantity over which you have some control. The animals are still wild, but even a crocodile has been known to say, “Hi, how are you? Good to see you.” Enough learning takes place that I don’t know where the bottom line is.

Next: More about the Clicker Expo

Click here to read a story by Karen Pryor Academy Certified Trainer Casey Lomonaco on how “Click to Calm” training sessions helped a dog with aggression issues.

Kathy Sdao, a certified applied animal behaviorist, presented several fascinating sessions at Clicker Expo. Here’s her viewpoint on what dogs are telling us. “We’ve been waiting a long time for you to understand what we are saying. And we are thrilled you are finally listening.”

Victoria Stilwell and Lisa Spector

Another highlight of the expo was hearing Victoria Stilwell‘s presentation. She is the dog training star of Animal Planet’s It’s Me or the Dog. Victoria is so passionate about spreading the word about positive reinforcement that she started a program for trainers called Positively. I’ve loved her on TV and even more so in person. This was an extra delight for me because she has played Through a Dog’s Ear music on her show when working with dogs with anxiety issues. I finally was able to thank her in person.

Clicker expo in Newport Beach was such an educational, enlightening, fun experience for me. Fortunately, it was close enough that I could drive and bring Gina. I’m so eager to learn more that I’m tempted to fly to Chicago in March (sans dogs) for the next one. While I thought I attended  to improve my dog training and my relationship with my dogs, it went well beyond that. While there, I realized that it only appeared to be about dogs. Positive reinforcement really relates to our interconnectedness with all beings of all species and our ability to create loving partnerships with our loved ones. Everything I learned at clicker expo can be applied to the children, friends, and partners in our lives. I naturally tend to focus on the positive aspects of life. Clicker training attracts me because it does the same. And if we all could do that in every area of our lives, the world would be a better place, I’m sure.

During the course of the expo, we “tagged” people with raffle coupons when we noticed something good they were doing. That is a key principle of clicker training and of tag teach. Consequently, what happens is that you start noticing more positive attributes in people, they get rewarded for them, and they do more of them. Funny, that’s exactly what Ian Dunbar said at the end of my interview with him…Reward the behaviors you want and you’ll get more behaviors you want. That seems to work cross species.

What do you think? Is dog training an animal welfare issue? Are there benefits of using positive reinforcement across species? Thanks for posting your comments below.
Image: Sanchez in a Down Stay

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By Lisa Spector, Canine Music Expert, Juilliard Graduate, and co-creator of Through a Dog’s Ear.


W. C
W. C2 months ago

Thanks for the article.

William C
William C2 months ago

Thank you for caring.

Past Member
Past Member about a year ago

Your website is terribly informative and your articles are wonderful.
dog training lessons

Christine J.
Christine J1 years ago

Just in case you read this Diane L. It's taken me this long to calm down. Why do you find it "shocking" that I'd never heard of prong collars? Where I live they are ILLEGAL. Just as they are in most of the civilized world. Just because something occasionally works, that doesn't mean it's ethical to use it. I could get someone to do what I wanted by threatening them with a gun. That doesn't mean it's the right thing to do. There is no way to use a prong collar "properly". You're wrong, and the majority of the world thinks they are disgusting. History will show the truth. I'm sure you'll continue doing what you want, but I thank my lucky stars I'm not your poor dog.

Elena Poensgen
Elena Poensgen1 years ago

Thank you

Jenny H.
Past Member 2 years ago

I love the way you write your post. Each and everything is simply perfect. Thanks

Chris G.
.2 years ago

Remarkable blog! I have no words to praise, it has really allured me.
Who's Walking Who

Diane L.
Diane L5 years ago

Yes, Christine, all different, and all kinds of different training "methods" may or may not work even with the same dog on a different day. You said you were "shocked" to hear about "prong" collars. I find that "shocking", actually. I'd never used one until I got my present GSD, but I was shown how to use it "properly" when I worked with a professional trainer to help deal with her high energy and issues. I've already explained what those were. When you have a very large animal that outweighs YOU, has had no previous training and your own safety, as well as that of others is at stake, sometimes you can't rely on just "positive reinforcement". The "prong" worked in some situations, but not all. One thing rarely does.

Christine Jones
Christine J5 years ago

Dogs are as different as people. I've had dogs that would take to their beds if I so much as lowered my voice, and others who would cheerfully continue digging up the rose beds no matter what I did, looking at me quizzically as if to say "what's the problem?" Much depends on their breed and past treatment. I use positive reinforcement, and was horrified to hear about prong collars, which I'd never heard of here in Australia. I was pleased to hear at least one positive thing to come from Skinner's work. For those unfamiliar with him, he was a sadistic ghoul who delighted in torturing animals in labs, with his charming inventions such as the "rape rack" and the "pit of despair". If there is a hell, this man is surely there. On a lighter note, thank you for the hyaena video, which was truly amazing.

Carrie Anne Brown

thanks for sharing :)