What every owner must know when training their dog.
There’s a lot of incorrect dog training advice on the internet, which makes it hard for people with dogs to sort out which advice is good and which is not.
Does it matter? Some of the time, despite using methods that aren’t recommended by professional organizations, you can get away with it. Maybe you will have a well-trained dog or maybe you will muddle along. Maybe your dog will actually be a bit afraid that you won’t notice (people aren’t very good at recognizing fear).
But unfortunately, for some dogs, there will be issues. And perhaps, instead of blaming the method, you’ll blame the dog.
Here’s what one scientist concluded after reviewing the evidence on dog training methods (Ziv, 2017):
“it appears that aversive training methods have undesirable unintended outcomes and that using them puts dogs’ welfare at risk”
Dog training is not regulated and so trainers do not have to be transparent about how they describe their methods. Typically, they don’t call them aversive even if they are.
But there is one piece of information about dog training that will help many people start sorting out the good from the bad. Granted, it’s not the only thing – when it comes down to it, dog training can be quite complicated – but it is a vital thing to know.
But first of all, can you guess what it’s not?
What’s not as important in dog training as some people think
Even though some people still believe it to be the case, dominance, being the pack leader, or being the alpha (however you want to phrase it) is not the most important thing in training a dog. In fact, it’s not even important at all.
One of the problems with dog training based on ideas of dominance is that it can lead to the use of confrontational methods (such as alpha rolls). Confrontational methods risk an aggressive response (Herron, Schofer and Reisner 2009) and aversive techniques may affect the dog-owner relationship (Deldalle and Gaunet, 2014). A review of the scientific research (Ziv, 2017) says these methods are not recommended because of concerns about animal welfare.
Another problem with dominance dog training is that it can mean dogs miss out on fun learning opportunities. And it is simply a distraction from people learning about modern dog training methods.
I won’t go into details here because it’s not the focus of this article. But if you want to know more, including what scientists think about dominance, see my article on problems with dominance training.
So if dominance isn’t as important as people think, what is the thing that matters?
The one thing every dog owner should know
The one thing every dog owner should know about dog training is this: Use food.
It sounds very simple, doesn’t it? And it’s not exactly a secret: Modern dog training uses food.
Use food to reward your dog for doing things you like, such as sit or wait or drop it when you ask.
I’m not saying food is the only reward you would use with your dog. There might be times when you use a game of fetch, tug on a rope, lots of lovely petting, or even life rewards like the opportunity to go chase a critter.
But for most dog training situations, food is the easiest way to deliver positive reinforcement because it is so quick and efficient. And scientists have found that food is a better reward than petting or praise (Fukuzawa and Hayashi, 2013; Okamoto et al 2009).
The reason I wish more people would know to use food is that it would make it easier for people to find a good dog trainer and to weed out bad dog training advice.
For example, if you go to a dog trainer and they recommend a prong collar, well, a prong collar is not food.
A shock collar is not food.
A leash correction is not food.
Yet these are all methods some dog trainers will say are “kind”, “humane”, or even “gentle”, even though from a technical perspective there is no way to describe them other than as aversive (positive punishment or negative reinforcement).
Stuff about relationships and respect and energy is also not food.
Unfortunately, there are a lot of weasel words used to describe dog training and it makes it difficult for dog owners because one thing we can safely say about dogs is that everyone has their own opinion.
But we can see with our own eyes whether these methods use food or not.
So if you go to a dog trainer, or you’re reading dog training advice on the internet, and the advice does not involve using food, think about it very carefully even if it is described as kind.
If you’re using food in dog training, you are avoiding some of the biggest mistakes you can make, and you’re using modern, reward-based training methods (Yay!).
The ways to use food in dog training
There are two main ways to use food in dog training, and they relate to how dogs learn.
We use food as positive reinforcement in operant conditioning, which is when we are teaching a dog to do a particular behavior. The dog does the behavior and we reward them quickly with the food, so that next time we ask for the behaviour they are more likely to do it again. (If they don’t do it, they don’t get the food, and we try again – maybe going back a step in the training plan to make it easier).
The other way we use food is in classical conditioning, when we want to change how a dog feels about something. For example, the dog is afraid of the brush, but we want to teach them to be groomed. Dogs love food, so we can help them learn to like the brush by quickly following every presentation of the brush with lots of yummy food. With a gradual training plan, and being very (very) careful to only work at the dog’s pace, we can help the dog learn to like the brush. (Note that, in contrast to operant conditioning, the dog doesn’t have to do anything – it’s the brush that predicts food).
Those of you with fearful dogs will know that trying to get rid of fear is a long, slow process that may not be completely successful. It’s better to try to prevent fear in the first place, if possible.
What you need in order to use food in dog training
Strictly speaking, all you need is some pieces of food hidden away in your hand. Having it on your person makes it easier to deliver food quickly – although there may be occasions when it’s more appropriate to run to the fridge for it.
Little cubes of cooked chicken are an ideal food reward, but there are lots of other choices. Find something your dog likes and that you are happy with. Kibble is generally not the best idea for training; something that is tasty and adds variety to the dog’s diet will be more motivating.
If you’re going to be doing a lot of training, it will make life easier to get a treat pouch of some sort. You can get one that is literally just for the food rewards, or one that has extra pockets for your cell phone, keys, and poop bags.
You might also want a clicker. For some types of training (when you need to reward fleeting movements) it is essential to use a marker – which could be a verbal marker or a clicker – because it marks the exact moment of the behavior and buys you time to get your food reward out. But for most basic obedience, it’s up to you whether you use one or not. (Some people love to use the clicker, some people don’t. One study found no difference between the use of a clicker, verbal marker or neither (just food rewards) (Chiandetti et al 2016) and this is something we are likely to see more research on in the future).
But really, that’s it. The most important thing is the food.
Some of the technical aspects of dog training…
Of course, it’s not as simple as just using food. But nonetheless, behaviors that are reinforced will get repeated, so if you keep rewarding your dog for a particular behavior (like sit), the frequency of that behavior will go up.
When we talk about technical aspects, we can mean something as simple as the speed of delivery of rewards. It’s important to deliver the reward very quickly (or mark it, if you are using a reward marker such as a clicker), so the dog knows which behavior is the one that earned the reward. Have you ever trained a very bouncy dog whose bottom only briefly touches the ground when you ask them to sit before they jump up and start bouncing around again? If you were too slow, you could be rewarding them for the wrong behavior, like bouncing.
And while we’re talking about speed, another thing you can do in a dog training session if you’re using food rewards is a lot of repetitions (e.g. ten a minute). Of course, it depends on the dog, but if you’ve got the level of the training plan right, that’s what you should aim for (yep, ten a minute – try it! If that’s too tricky, just try to fit more repetitions in than you were doing before).
A few of the technical things we need to get right are covered in my article on positive reinforcement (scroll down to the section on ‘why isn’t positive reinforcement working?’).
Following a training plan will also really help. A very common mistake is to proceed too quickly for the dog, and expect too much of them all at once. That can get frustrating for both of you. If you follow a plan with gradual, incremental steps, you will actually make faster progress.
Luckily, there are some excellent books that will help you get started. If you want to learn more about the technical aspects of how to train a dog, I recommend Culture Clash and Train Your Dog Like a Pro by Jean Donaldson, and The Power of Positive Dog Training by Pat Miller.
You may also like to find a good dog trainer and take a class or private lesson.
A couple of caveats
By now, some of you are probably thinking “what about no-pull harnesses?” They aren’t food, and they are okay.
They are indeed okay: a study found that dogs on flat collars or on no-pull harnesses did not show signs of stress (Grainger, Wills and Montrose 2016). So a harness is a great choice for walking your dog, and may even mean you don’t have to train loose-leash walking. Where does food come in? Well, the first time (or first few times) you use one, you might like to use food to help your dog like the harness. You could also use food to train your dog to walk nicely on a harness if the harness itself doesn’t do the trick.
And what about those dog trainers who sometimes use food and sometimes use corrections? They are often referred to as ‘balanced’ trainers. Well, they get the food part right, but unfortunately not the other part.
The key is to not overthink the training process and to use treats (or food) as a reinforcement tool.