“Different Methods for Different Dogs”?

By Lynn –

It’s no myth that every dog is different, and I would hope that no one (well, who doesn’t have dollar signs dancing in their collective eyeballs) would perpetuate that myth by using a one-size-fits-all approach. Heaven forbid their approach fail: the consequences could range from absolutely no change in behavior (and hence a call for euthanasia because the dog is “unfixable”) to an extreme opposite in presentation, with maybe a few successes in between.

The problem comes when people try to justify that dogs with different personalities, temperaments and drive require different METHODS in training.

I’m as bad with intriguing lead-ins as I am with dramatic endings, so I’ll start with the obvious conclusion: Different dogs don’t require different METHODS as much as they do the VARIANCE of one basic technique.

It irks me when trainerettes (hat tip to Linda Kaim for the term) insist how pure positive is the way to go for many dogs, but others could benefit from some use of aversives (provided they are applied GENTLY so as to not cause the poor pup any lasting psychological damage), while still others are beyond help and worthy of nothing but a quiet, humane ending.

Then there are the myth-perpetuators who insist that if their method fails, there is no hope, none whatsoever.

It’s at this point I call bull plop.

These are extreme examples, but then again the industry is filled with some extreme ideas in this era. What these people are missing is that, for all the different methodologies and techniques out there, they are still training a basic animal: a dog. After acknowledging what is on the end of the leash, we must now look at what breed or type or dog: is it a herder? A hunter? A retriever? An independent Spitz-type dog? One must have SOME idea of the type of dog on the end of the leash in order to use potential drives and desires to the best of one’s ability, as well as knowing approximately what general temperament should present itself. Knowing the individual personality is going to be a definite plus: is this particular dog neurotic and shy or nervous? What about the one that is cocky and doesn’t mind flipping the bird now and then? Do you have a paper tiger on the end of your leash or a real one? Now let’s think again why the dog is in training and what particular problems exist, both to be solved and to be learned. The question is not “What METHOD would be best for this dog?” but “What VARIANCE of technique will be the right fit for this dog?”

The above paragraph has the unfortunate effect of looking like a formula, and while some parts of training are procedural, the actual teaching and learning are anything but formulaic (although they might become repetitive!). Most of you can probably zip off the buzzwords by heart now, all together now: Exercise, discipline, affection. (However, this is not training as much as it is a way of life, but it’s still an oft-repeated concept.) Behavioral researchers have attempted to turn what is really an art into something that can be measured and categorized, and while a small part of this is beneficial to the industry, it’s actually more of a disservice to what true trainers consider is an art.

Now, I don’t mean “Art” as in the class where you got to get dirty with clay and glaze, use fancy watercolors, pretend to get high with markers, or splash around in the darkroom. It’s fun to think about, though. I certainly miss those days.

The art of dog training is to first know, for example, the basic language, instincts and motivations of dogs. I’m not going to explain all that, since theSecrets of a Professional Dog Trainer! book goes into detail with that quite nicely in the first section. But once one understands how dogs WORK (to use a rather general word), the question arises: “How can I use dogs’ own workings with the right technique and vary that technique to suit this individual dog?”

The average pet-owner is taught to think in terms of positive and negative, and I’ll completely drop the psychobabble here, Positive will mean good, happy, kittens-and-rainbows etc while negative will mean bad, aversive, thunderclouds-and-death kind of things. Of course these things are usually placed in linear mode, so that the Bad is on one end and the Good is on another. The average owner is taught to think in terms of a sliding scale: if you are not using enough Good in your training, then clearly you are using more Bad than necessary, and must use less Bad and more Good or else your dog will hold a grudge and hate you for life. (Which might be true for serious yank-n-crank techniques used on the wrong dogs!) They’re taught that, by using enough Good, they can stamp out that awful, evil Bad, just like in the movies. And if they DO in some way/shape/form have to use any Bad, it must either be used gently and/or as an ABSOLUTE LAST RESORT because if it doesn’t work, your dog must be euthanized or rehomed to a farm where it can have all the room it wants to run around.

If only it were that easy. To make it easier on me, I’m going to keep using Good and Bad just so I’m not using the more Biased And Confusing Behaviorism Terms.

In situations regarding basic training and obedience, I do not accept the sliding scale, nor do I accept the “All dogs need different methods” argument. The sliding scale is just unrealistic, and the “methods” argument is just a way to appease people who may disagree with the fact that you have no problem using such a thing as a pinch collar when training your dog. The truth is, when someone uses a different “method” on a dog, they are not reinventing the wheel…just making it more refined to their needs.

Someone who drives a race car is going to need a specific type of wheel. The off-roader riding in the ATV is definitely not going to use those same wheels. An average city driver is pretty much not going to have any use for either of the aforementioned types of wheels. Yet, if you remove the wheels, even just one, NONE of these vehicles are going anywhere. But it’s the same thing moving them forward…just different types.

And so, I come to my dramatic point: training involves using the SAME METHOD on EVERY DOG, but varying the degrees to which we use our Good and Bad.

An extremely soft, insecure or underconfident dog might need a whole truckful of reserved, calm Good and not a lot of Bad. A hyper dog going a mile a minute might need a lot of Good and and a little bit more Bad to teach control and restraint. A stubborn dog might need a lot of Good and some Bad in order to teach that when asked to jump, one must do so. An extremely aggressive dog (whether handler- or dog-aggressive or anywhere in between) might need a lot of Good along with a lot of Bad to teach that any aggression is absolutely unacceptable in any situation.

What passes as Good for one dog might be Bad for another: not all dogs enjoy a high-pitched happy voice, a hearty thump on the ribs, or even the consistency of a clicker and treat. Some might find them too boring, too scary, or just not motivational enough to keep going. Our shy dog might suffice with a treat, some calm physical contact and soft “Good.” The hyper dog, is, of course, going to thrive off attention and maybe find Good in the throwing of a ball. Our aggressive case we might not use happy praise either: for this dog, Good might simply be communicated through the lack of Bad (which should not be interpreted to mean “lack of praise”).

What passes for Bad as some dogs might be WAY Bad for another: a stern look for our shy, insecure dog will more than suffice, while our aggressive case will just throw us the finger and proceed as usual. However, it we gave a heavier correction to even our hyper dog as we would give to the aggressive dog, that would be a little too much–and let’s not consider what it would do to our shy dog. Underkill would result in no change from status quo, while overkill results in total shutdown.

I hope everyone noticed the pattern on our respective dogs: they ALL receive Good in some form, whether it’s from praise, food, or play. However, they all also received varying levels of Bad based on their temperaments and individual needs, and whatever FORM that Bad takes is up to the dog: does it require a stern “No”? What about a collar correction, and if so, to what degree? Is there a particular stimulus that is NOT right for this dog? (Case in point: My dog wears an e-collar. I do not stim her. She is too soft even for a lower-level stim, but responds to the pager just fine. She also will wear a pinch collar occasionally. A light tug is all that is necessary. Anything higher will shut her down.) THIS is training. Remember that Exercise, discipline, affection thing I wrote earlier? Training is not a lifestyle, and this particular lifestyle is something that I do recommend in that order for every dog.

Between using a balance of Good and Bad along with a proper relationship with your dog, there is no need to use any other “method” to train. What’s important is not how you appear to others: anyone with a pinch collar on their dog is automatically assumed to use it in the most severe manner, and anyone with an e-collar is assumed to be lighting up the poor animal like a Christmas tree. Others are not the one living with your dog, vetting your dog, or sharing a healthy dog/owner relationship with your dog. If you are training your dog in a balanced way that the dog understands and that gets you consistent, reliable and reasonably quick results, then the only worry others should have is how come THEIR dog won’t respond to commands after watching yours do so flawlessly, with a wagging tail, a spring in his step, and the willingness to do it all over again.

And their worries should start at the source: choosing a trainer who specializes in the ability to vary a single, traditional, time-tested technique (and the tools used, if necessary) to suit the individual dog. There is no such thing as a “different method.” There are only different dogs.