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Why first-time dog owners should not use the “whatever works” dog training method

How many times have you seen new pet owners buying or adopting a new family member, and never dedicating time to train the pooch, thinking that the dog will learn things on her own? Likewise, other dog owners will opt for training a pooch in their own way, using the “whatever works” method of dog training. Is this approach that much better though?

Put five dog trainers in a room and ask them how to deal with a dog’s behavioral problem and you will likely get five different answers. But this does not mean that four are wrong and one is right. Like most things, there are a variety of ways to approach dog training, and different methods work for different people and different dogs.

As a professional trainer, my job is to figure out what will work for you and your dog. The difference between making this decision yourself versus having a professional make it is that the professional dog trainer is reading your dog’s behavior, hence determining the best course of action based on that specific canine. If you’re training your dog on your own, it is imperative that you understand some training basics in order to choose the most appropriate and most effective training method for your dog.

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“Whatever works” approach does not work for a puppy

Despite varying opinions in the industry, almost every dog trainer will tell you that positive reinforcement is the only way to train a young canine. That being said, many dog owners are not aware of positive reinforcement training, and there are two most popular ways of “whatever works” approach used among many first-time pet parents.

First and most popular option – fear. It’s very likely that a new owner can indeed scare their puppy into doing what they want her to do at first, but the owner will end up creating a world of anxiety and distrust which never works long-term. Not only has negative reinforcement been proven as something that rarely works, but a dog owner who uses scare tactics on their pet will also decrease dog’s ability to learn new things and increase dog’s anxiety, cause confusion, induce aggressive responses, and maybe even cause physical injuries.

On the flip side, a dog owner can also simply shower their puppy with love and affection, and never set rules or boundaries. This, too, comes with its own set of problems, because dogs that live without structure and routine develop all sorts of other behavioral issues down the road. All too often I work with clients who let their sweet, cute little puppy get away with anything and everything. The puppy then becomes an 80 lb. dog so out of control the owners have no idea what to do.

How you begin training your dog matters a lot. When training your puppy, you need to use tried and proven techniques. Reward your puppy for doing the right thing to build good behavior, confidence and trust. Dogs want to please their owners, and your praise means the world to them. If you want to have a confident, well-adjusted, trusting dog, you must begin your relationship on the right foot.

“Whatever works” approach will not fix an adolescent dog, either

When puppies get to around seven to nine months old, they begin to test their owners, much like teenagers do with parents. You can use a variety of methods to get results, but you must understand the long-term impact each of those methods will have on your dog, and on your relationship with the canine.

It’s true, you can probably put a shock collar on your dog and scare him into submission, but what works in the short term does not necessarily yield the desired long-term results. I worked with a client recently who had put a shock collar on her dog to stop him from pulling her toward other dogs. Just two months later, I observed that the dog had developed a fear of other dogs and displayed this in the form of aggression.

This is a classic example of how you can use an approach and achieve short-term results, only to discover that you have caused long-term damage to your Fido’s mental state, and now you’ll have to spend a lot more time and money to fix any behavioral problems that come out of this. You can still choose a strictly positive reinforcement technique, or you can introduce some collar corrections for bad behavior. The effectiveness of each of these depends on the temperament and mental state of your dog.

Fully mature dogs definitely do not respond well to “whatever works” methods

This “whatever works” approach to dog training will not do any good if a pet owner has a fully mature dog either. Let’s take the example of a dog that is showing aggression. You could put a shock collar on the dog and stop the issue. You could also muzzle the dog so they are unable to do anything. Or, you could simply avoid other dogs altogether.

While all those things might work in the short term, they do not address or solve the issue, and ultimately they may cause more severe behavioral problems. If you are experiencing a serious issue such as aggression, you must start educating yourself on proper dog training methods and start applying them as soon as possible before the problem becomes a disaster. Alternatively, a skilled and experienced trainer can help you find the correct way to handle your pooch, or at least set you off on the right foot.

Ultimately, know that if you are an inexperienced dog handler, or if you are new to this type of problem of dogs misbehaving, just picking a method that works for the wrong reasons will only lead to bigger issues.

Dog training is about reading and understanding your canines and the behaviors they display. There are lots of different ways to train your Fido, many of which will work (at least short-term), but not every method is suited to every dog.

Think carefully before deciding to use harsh training methods. Immediate results may lead to bigger long-term issues if you take the “whatever works” approach. Scaring a dog into submission may yield short-term results, but in the long term will cause fear and anxiety in your dog. Continual repetition of poorly chosen techniques will cause psychological damage. Finally, ignoring the problem is also not an option, and will leave you with a constantly misbehaving dog.

When you take on a pet, you’re taking on more responsibility to care for and train the animal for your own benefit, and for the benefit of the society you live within. Motivating your dog through positive reinforcement and praise helps build a strong bond, and yields long-term results.

References:

Polsky RH (1994). Electronic shock collars – are they worth the risks? Journal of the American Animal Hospital Association, 30 (5), 463-468 [link]

Brammeier et al. (2006) Good trainers: How to identify one and why this is important to your practice of veterinary medicine. Journal of Veterinary Behavior, 1, 47-52. [link]

Mendl, M., (1999). Performing under pressure: stress and cognitive function. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 65, 221-244 [link]