Where Do People Get Information About Dog Training?

Can people be blamed for dog training mistakes when there is so much erroneous information out there?

A happy Terrier wears a pink harness and lounges on the grass

By Zazie Todd, PhD

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). 

Dog training methods and side effects
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 (see how can I tell if my dog is afraid to get some practice). 

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 VerteAnd here is my own advice on how to choose a dog trainer. You might also like my book, Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy.

The good news is that the push for humane training methods is gaining momentum. 

Zazie Todd, PhD, is the author of Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy. She is the founder of the popular blog Companion Animal Psychology, where she writes about everything from training methods to the human-canine relationship. She also writes a column for Psychology Today and has received the prestigious Captain Haggerty Award for Best Training Article in 2017. Todd lives in Maple Ridge, BC, with her husband and two cats.

Useful links:
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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)  

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  1. What type of simple no-pull harness would be recommended? There are so many different brands/styles I find this in itself very confusing.

    1. Easywalk, Freedom Harness, Sporn. There are lots of options. Personally, I like the Freedom Harness, especially for deep-chested dogs. I recommend looking for something with a front ring to attach your harness to. Even better look for a harness that has two points of attachment, one at the chest, and one over the shoulder.

    2. Freedom, Urban Trail, Perfect Fit, and Balance Harness are all reputable brands.

  2. Great article with good reference sources, based on quantified surveys. I know trainers that have been working with dogs for 25 years and they tell me that positive reinforcement doesn’t work. Then they tell me “I work with imprinting, not with operant conditioning” and make me think how you would plug off learning laws form an animal`s head. It is like saying “I don’t like gravity” and then nothing falls because you say so… And those are certified experienced trainers. I have also been told “why would you work with positive reinforcement, your dog is not a dolphin” or “if the dog is tough, aggressive or dominant, you need a prong collar in order to show him who is boss”. Very sad.
    The no-pull harness is not the point. The point is that the leash is not what controls your dog, but your capacity of become his/her family, someone your dog wants to follow, someone that is more important that all distractions in the world. Then you don’t need a prong or any specific kind collar or leash. You just need a high quality relationship with your dog.

    1. Crying because the whole "I work with imprinting, not with operant conditioning" is hilarious to me. We seriously need to start requiring certifications and standards in animal training. If we can do it with veterinarians, we can do it with trainers and farriers. Farriers in my area can't trim or shoe without jabbing their tools into the horse's sides if the horse "acts up."

    2. "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?"
      People need to query trainers on where they got their education and what EXACTLY will happen to the dog if he gets an exercise right or wrong. Pet Professional Accreditation Board is an independent testing organization for force free trainers.

  3. Great article, but how do we educate the general public on the benefits of positive-reward based training and appropriate walking harnesses? It infuriates me that I can do nothing, other than to mind my own business when I see someone jerking their dogs neck with a prong collar or worse yet a shock collar. I even saw two boxers with both on. The dogs walked with rigid bodies, almost like soldiers. It was very sad and upsetting for me to witness. I surmise that most people reading this forum know the differences in proper dog training. What about the rest? We can talk about it, but what can we do to educate dog owners who are still using outdated methods?


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