Monday, May 11, 2009

Advancements in Dog Training

What if everyone in the medical field decided that they have learned all they needed to know about veterinary medicine and all new research and advancements stopped?

This question was posed during a recent seminar I attended at my clinic. Of course this would never happen in veterinary medicine, but it got me thinking about dog training. Most pets owners would avoid taking their pets to a clinic that had not updated its practices for 15-20 years, however these same pet owners are taking their animals to trainers who do just that.

Despite new research and information on pet training promoting safer and more effective techniques for changing behavior, a large percentage of trainers are still practicing methods that are quite outdated. Traditional training places a lot of emphasis on using punishment and aversives(something the animal finds unpleasant) to stop behaviors. Dominance training works in a similar vein. The idea being that the dog is always striving for a higher rank, harsh techniques and fear are often used to "put the dog in his place". These techniques can be harmful and scary to the dog. They can also be dangerous to pet owners as many dogs do not tolerate being treated harshly.

Many trainers argue the fact that these older methods are still effective in changing behavior, so why fix something that's still working? Let's go back to the medical analogy for a moment. Say you are offered two different drugs to treat a migraine. Both medications help to relieve the pain, but one drug works for longer and has much fewer side effects than the other. Which one would you choose? It is the same in dog training. While many traditional training techniques can work(trainers would not be continuing to use them if they didn't), there is more of a chance for side effects. Using punishment has many drawbacks, for instance it can create negative associations and damage your relationship with your pet. In a recent veterinary study, it was found that many punishment based methods actually elicited aggressive responses in the dogs. In other cases punishment only suppresses behaviors. So while it may appear to be fixed initially, the underlying cause was never addressed and the behavior may resurface again at a later date.

In recent years training techniques have surfaced that are not only more effective, they are gentler and safer for both you and your pet. Positive methods such as clicker training are backed by current research and studies and have very little chance of side effects. Newer training looks to change the underlying cause of a behavior, instead of just suppressing it. There is more focus on creating a relationship built on trust and understanding with your pet, instead of using fear and punishment to keep them in line.

So what does this mean as a pet owner? When looking for a trainer you will need to do your research and choose carefully. Don't be afraid to ask questions. Did the trainer attend any type of schooling or certification course? Do they belong to any professional organizations such as the Association of Pet Dog Trainers? Do they continue to attend seminars and workshops and keep up to date with new training information? These questions should help you get an idea of whether the trainer is right for you. If there is anything about a trainer's methods that make you uncomfortable, let them know. It is up to you to speak up for and protect your pet. There are too many better alternatives out there for you and your dog to suffer through harsh and outdated training.

For more info: For a list of great dog trainers around the country, check out the list of Karen Pryor Academy graduates. The Karen Pryor Academy is an intensive certification course for dog trainers that emphasizes techniques that are current, humane, and effective.

The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior has released position statements regarding topics such as punishment, dominance, and choosing a good trainer. These statements can be found here.

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