Last resorts?

By Lynn –

Another little tidbit that is thrown out when working with any dog, particularly for the first time, is to use only the least amount of force necessary in order to get the job done. It’s a good concept, and something everyone should keep in mind when training a dog, but the motive behind this advice is a little…off, shall I say.

As an aside, perhaps “force” is the wrong word, as it evokes images of rough handling, harsh corrections and micromanaging. However, since my brain cannot come up with anything more appropriate at the moment, “force” it shall be.

The truth is that this is not just a tidbit, this is…truth. Any dog subjected to rough, harsh or heavy-handed training of any type will not be one with which you have the best relationship, or at least one where the dog willingly responds out of respect for your authority and desire of your appreciation so much as it does out of fear of the negative consequence. In the words of a recent FHotD blog, “If the dog is scared shitless, it’s not training!” (Please pardon my French…I try to keep such language to a minimum as a professional courtesy, however it’s appropriate use is not out of the question. In this specific instance, the quote is merely a rephrasing of another person’s use of the word.)

What’s funny about this, is that the Positive Reinforcement/Operant Conditioning types are using this “least amount of force” argument as a plausible reason to never use a training collar, unless it is the last thing between keeping the dog and euthanizing it or surrendering it to a shelter (and let’s not forget that many trainers would advocate euthanasia than ever use “those collars”!). Not only that, but they must be used gently, as if the dog will crumble into a pile of dust and blow away in the wind if it were subjected to a correction it might consider motivational.

Of course, these warnings and imagery are pushed forth by such people because we all know that once those collars are put on the neck, it’s all but free reign to yanking, jerking and shocking the dog up one tree and down another.

Sometimes my sarcasm has trouble communicating itself across the internets, so in case you missed it, that last sentence was indeed an effort at witty sarcasm. Enough with the applause now!

I prefer to think of it differently, and thankfully it seems that I’m not the first one to think of it this way, which also means that I’m not alone in my sentiments. Many hat tips and props to those who first made me think about this and want to write about it, with Ruth Crisler being the first to plant the seed with a single sentence that bears much elaboration.

Training a dog is not only about helping the dog connect commands with positions and basic motions, but it’s also about modifying behavior that might be causing the owner some distress. The fact is that learning, when taught in a very low-distraction environment, can be done easily on a plain buckle collar for some dogs. The fire is lit under the crucible, however, when the dog needs to learn to perform these commands under levels of varying distraction. It’s compounded even more if the dog has behavioral problems that require correction along with training.

And then, unlike some in the PROC movement, most balanced trainers have no problem pulling out something like a pinch collar, slip collar or, heaven forbid, an e-collar, and even within the first training session to boot!

“But he just needs to learn to pay attention to me around other dogs! I don’t want to be shocking him or pulling him off his feet with those collars!”

To begin with, who said that we were going to be doing such a thing?

The absolute brilliant thing about any type of training collar is that it can be used as lightly as necessary, or with as much motivation that is necessary without actually causing the dog to shut down due to being overly harsh or rough. If a dog is not responding on a buckle collar and just needs a few steps up from that, then any astute trainer will realize that corrections such as those given to an aggressive dog will be inappropriate for this dog, and hence make them much lighter…but because they are given on a training collar rather than a flat buckle collar, the message is much clearer, and the dog is rewarded once it makes the right decision.

Perhaps the best collar, although one of the most maligned, is the e-collar. Having just invested in a new Dogtra 280 NCP Platinum, I was finally able to get a feel for what constituted a level of stimulation that was just a smooth tingle. (My Dogtra 175 NCP, doG bless it, had its good days, and unfortunately bad ones as well…the rheostat had started to degenerate over the years and along with some anecdotes of stim problems from other trainers, I figured it was time to retire it. The Last Day came when my dog received a stim high enough to make her yelp, when all I wanted to do was bring her back in toward me. To say that I was more hurt than my dog is an understatement.)

Now some will argue that, no matter what level is used, we are still, by any definition, “shocking” the dog: an electrical current is being introduced through one probe and leaving through the other probe, and the dog is feeling this.

Of course, if you want to get technical…the dog is being “shocked,” and I will not deny this.

What these people conveniently forget, though, is that the dog’s reaction to a low-level stim such as what I feel at 20 is going to be significantly different than the reaction to the maximum stim level of 127. Think of it the difference between a small shock from scuffing your feet on the carpet in the winter versus sticking a coin in a live outlet (I still laugh at the poor soul who did this in my 5th grade class) or even the trauma of being hit by lightning. You’re still being shocked in both situations, no? Yet your reaction is going to be very different in each of them. It’s the same way with dogs, and by no means would I even consider working with, nor even putting in a good word for, any trainer who insists on putting an e-collar on a dog and turning it all the way up to the maximum stim on the first go, unless the situation is nothing short of dire and/or extreme.

But what about some other types of training tools? Where do they fit in the spectrum of “force”?

Let’s take a look at headcollars, such as the “Gentle” Leader (which which I have the most hands-on experience).

The problem with the “Gentle” Leader is, if you have not read any of my previous posts on the topic, is that the design by default automatically exerts the most force on the dog, and that’s before we even start pulling on the leash or torquing the neck around. By virtue of the tight fit advocated by the people who perfected the design, the dog is already experiencing constriction behind the ears and underneath the jaw, which interferes with breathing (and I do wonder what it does to blood flow behind the head as well!), along with a snug nose strap which is putting pressure directly underneath the eyes and preventing the dog from opening its mouth all the way. (Bugger what the propaganda says: I have personally seen dogs with “properly-fit” neck-twisters that cannot hold even a standard tennis ball in the mouth, yet when the nose strap is removed, the ball magically shrinks–or perhaps the dog’s mouth grows?–to be engulfed completely in the mouth.)

We are deluging the dog with physical constriction in areas where there normally is, and should be, none, and it’s about at this point that the dog begins to resist: paws come up over the muzzle, frantic dances are done on hind legs, the face is rubbed against any stationary object from the ground to even a sympathetic person, in an effort to get rid of the feeling of Something That Is Where It’s Not Supposed To Be. As stated in a previous blog, resistance is only one theoretical antonym to the clear communication that any trainer desires with a dog.

Yet here’s where one little conundrum comes into play (that’s Definition 2b, thank you much…we are not solving riddles or throwing puns about here): many owners, at least the ones I have met, do not fit their “Gentle” Leaders as recommended in the packet, and when I enlighten them in a friendly way–never admonishing, just more of an “FYI” thing and I explain my situation at school–on it’s proper fit, I receive some rather horrific looks and gasps as to “We would NEVER put it that tight on him.”

So perhaps a looser fit would exert less “force” on a dog?


However, on the dogs I have seen with loose fits have their own problems: they may walk nicely, but that is all they do. All one has to do is either drop the leash or even take off the headcollar, and the dog will suddenly act as though it has never learned to “Sit” ever before in its life, much less “Heel” or “Come.”

Not to mention that they still pretty much despise the strap that is still over their nose and close to their eyes. The rubbing and the pawing might not be so vigorous or present when the dog is walking, but it is there when the dog is occupying herself with things other than a walk: people petting her might elicit some facial rubs (mistakenly seen as “Aw-how-kyoot” by the petters and passers-by), or a relaxed roll in the grass turns into a pawing session as the dog discovers that her feet can be doing more productive things at the time than walking.

And let’s not forget, this is all before we attach the leash and begin pulling the dog around by it’s muzzle, torquing it’s head back with considerable leverage, even when done “gently” as admonished by the literature, and exerting a somewhat significant amount of force (a much more appropriate use of the word) on the delicate occipital/cervical junction by merely pulling up or forward with the leash.

Another type of headcollar, the Halti, has a much looser fit which dogs tend to find more comfortable, but here again we have the same issue: there is a strap over the nose, and dogs will again notice that Something Is Where It’s Not Supposed To Be. There is also another style of which I’m aware, where the leash attaches to a ring that is placed on the back of the skull rather than under the jaw. While the design here is slightly less dangerous and probably less likely to cause cervical injury, here we have not a headcollar, but what can be described as a headharness. The fact that the leash is in the back makes the job of pulling easier for the dog, who can now put his head down, tense up his neck muscles, and pull away. And again with the strap across the nose.

OK, so if headcollars are bad, what about those no-pull harnesses?

Here, we encounter a different set of problems.

The most widespread kind of no-pull harness is the type that has fleecy-covered strings that run under the dog’s armpits and create tension when the leash is pulled. The problem here isn’t that it creates too much force, but that it is not a natural type of correction for the dog to understand what is wrong. Most animals out there are smart enough to learn of pressure and its release, however the issue is when the dog doesn’t even heed the pressure to begin with. Perhaps the fleecy coverings are too soft and comfortable, when instead what the poor brutes need is really a thin parachute cord to really make them understand why their armpits are hurting when they pull. (Please, let’s not make this a reality…I’m perfectly fine with wearing and experiencing a correction by a prong or e-collar, but I’ll not ever stand to having cords placed under my arms and yanked. As an aside, I also refuse to experience the effect of hitting the end of the leash on a headcollar, even if being “gently redirected.”) When pressure is used to manage a behavior rather than train against it, here is where I take issue: a dog walking on such a contraption is learning to not put pressure against the leash no matter where he walks, even if he is far out ahead. These types of harnesses do nothing to encourage focus on the handler, which in turn places the dog in a proper “Heel” position, and by virtue of the position, eliminates the need for the dog to pull on the leash. The cords that lead to the leash attachment are frequently quite long, so that any attempt to keep the dog walking by one’s side results in reaching way far back to give a “correction.” Not very useful in my book.

Aha, but what about the other kind that is gaining popularity?

The front-clip styles which have gained in popularity are geared more toward the hands-off type of trainer, as such a device allows very little physical control of the dog by itself, even less so than a traditional harness. For a matter of force, it is actually one of the tools that doesn’t use much of it, but the problem comes when the lesser amount of pressure (I’ll use this word in place of “force” for now) equals less effective results in training because the dog is able to ignore it or given no reason to respect that pressure. So of course, in the rankings of how much pressure the front-clip harness exerts on the dog, it ranks around that of training collars…however, the efficacy of the tool when used as advised and in the right hands, is much much less than that of training collars. The fit is somewhat iffy on some dogs, as the front straps are supposed to sit flush with the shoulders, and some dogs are that “in-between” size that prevents a good fit. Those dogs and the small breeds are the ones that are more likely to be seen with the front straps hanging low on the chest and possibly interfering with the front legs.

Humane? Probably. But is it effective? I’d put in my vote for a solid NO.

Similar to headcollars, the no-pull harnesses of all types are designed to do one thing: stop pulling. And just like headcollars, that’s all they’re good for. Take a look at any high-level dog competition, and there is a good probability that a majority, if not all, of the dogs you see were not trained on headcollars or no-pull harnesses. There’s a reason that those dogs trained well can also do the very basics such as holding a reliable long down and come on command when called the first time. There’s a reason good sportdogs can think for themselves and do protection routines with barely a command from their handlers. There’s a reason real herding dogs can work over long distances with unpredictable livestock and bring everyone home safely. There’s a reason tracking dogs, even those in SAR or police detective work, have the confidence and ability to do their job, whether for titles or to find that lost person in the wilderness.

It’s because they were trained with tools right for them and their chosen professions, not physically manipulated and led around by their faces or taught through pain. Overkill shuts down dogs, just as much as underkill maintains status quo.

I was recently told that the basic concept of driving a race car can also be applied to the normal, everyday driving we do on the street to make us all safer drivers and better care for our cars and their inner workings. Funny, because what works in the working dog world transfers well to the pet dog world too.

/I’m bad at stupendous conclusions and couldn’t find a way to end this with such, so…The End?