Recently I saw a man walking a German Shepherd. Even from a distance it was clear the dog was nervous: his posture was low to the ground and the way he was walking made me wonder what kind of equipment he was on. As I waited at the traffic lights, I got a chance to see: a prong collar, tight, positioned high on his neck.
There are easy alternatives, the simplest being a no-pull harness. I began to wonder: did the man not know there were other approaches? Did he not want to invest time in training loose-leash walking? Or did he think it looks good to have a big dog on a prong collar?
While I don’t know his line of reasoning, we do know something about sources of training information. A recent survey of canine behavioural problems by Pirrone et al (2015) in Italy included a question about where people got information on dog training. 55% of respondents gave the answer, ‘myself’. This was broken down into two groups: 13% of dog owners who got their information ‘instinctively’, and 42% who got it from the web, TV or a book.
The internet is a great source of both information and misinformation about dog training and animal behaviour. The same applies to TV shows and books, some of which are wonderful and others not so much. It’s hard for readers and viewers to separate fact from fiction, especially when there is so much conflicting advice.
The other interesting thing to note about this answer, ‘myself’, is that it suggests most people do not discuss their dog’s behaviour with others, whether that is friends, family or vets. (In fact only 0.5% reported asking other dog owners).
35% of people said they got information from a dog trainer, and 6% from a veterinarian. So are they safe if they ask a dog trainer? Sadly there are no standards in dog training, so responses could vary from dire to excellent. It’s not a surprise that vets came low on the list, as a study by Roshier and McBride found vets can miss opportunities to discuss behaviour problems with their clients, and many clients think this isn’t an appropriate topic for the vet.
An earlier study by Herron, Shofer and Reisner included questions about people’s source of information for particular techniques and also found ‘self’ rated highly. Looking specifically at choke and prong collars, however, 66% said it was recommended by a trainer, while 21% credited themselves and 15% a friend or relative with the idea. In fact this was the second most common piece of advice to be credited to a trainer, after forcing the dog down with a leash at 70%. Both of these methods were categorized as "direct confrontation" by the authors. (More positively, the reward-based techniques of clicker training and teaching ‘look’ or ‘watch me’ were third on the list as trainer-recommendations).
So is it lack of knowledge that causes people to use aversive training techniques? An Australian survey by Branson, Cobb and McGreevy found that only 6% of trainers of working dogs have a formal certification and 52% have no training at all. In other words, half of the trainers who responded to the survey do not even have on-the-job training. These are people training dogs for a range of law enforcement, protection, customs, search-and-rescue, farming, sports, and service roles.
The same survey found the use of correction and electric shock collars was far more common amongst those with no training certification. Those with better education levels were more likely to use positive reinforcement.
Learning theory is a dog trainer’s bread and butter – or at least it should be. How can you do a good job of training without an understanding of how dogs learn?
Another issue is that people may genuinely not realize when their dog is stressed. Wan et al found experience with dogs is an important factor in people’s ability to recognize fear. When Deldalle and Gaunet compared the effects of positive reinforcement versus negative reinforcement (which uses aversives), they found dogs in the latter group were more stressed and looked less at their owners. The signs of stress included lowered body posture, lip-licking, and yawning. These could be missed by people who don't know what to look for.
Which brings us back to the beautiful German Shepherd that was showing all three of these signs. There is a real need for better education about dog training. Without it, people will continue to use out-dated, inappropriate and even dangerous methods. If you’re looking for a dog trainer, here are some questions to ask from The Academy for Dog Trainers, as considered by three excellent trainers: Maureen Backman, Lori Nanan and Helen Verte.
The good news is that the push for humane training methods is gaining momentum.
References:Branson, N., Cobb, M., & McGreevy, P. (2009). Australian Working Dog Survey Report Australian Animal Welfare Strategy Deldalle, S., & Gaunet, F. (2014). Effects of two training methods on stress-related behaviors of the dog Journal of Veterinary Behavior, 9 (2), 58-65 : http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jveb.2013.11.004
Herron, M., Shofer, F., & Reisner, I. (2009). Survey of the use and outcome of confrontational and non-confrontational training methods in client-owned dogs showing undesired behaviors Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 117 (1-2), 47-54 DOI: 10.1016/j.applanim.2008.12.011
Pirrone, F., Pierantoni, L., Mazzola, S., Vigo, D., & Albertini, M. (2015). Owner and animal factors predict the incidence of, and owner reaction toward, problematic behaviors in companion dogs Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research DOI: 10.1016/j.jveb.2015.03.004
Roshier, A., & McBride, E. (2012). Canine behaviour problems: discussions between veterinarians and dog owners during annual booster consultations Veterinary Record, 172 (9), 235-235 DOI: 10.1136/vr.101125
Wan, M., Bolger, N., & Champagne, F. (2012). Human Perception of Fear in Dogs Varies According to Experience with Dogs PLoS ONE, 7 (12) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0051775
Photo credit: Terry Watt (Shutterstock.com)