20 min read

If Everyone Did This, The Shelters Wouldn't Be So Full of Dogs

<p> Cuda The Pit Bull </p>

I'm not a dog trainer. I feel like I'm batting a thousand if I successfully teach my dogs to sit.

In 1988 I answered an ad on the supermarket wall for free puppies and went home with a 16-week-old Rottweiler/German shepherd/Doberman mix. I took her to puppy kindergarten where she promptly bit my arm while we were teaching our dogs to lie down by yanking the collar toward the ground. At the time I thought the worst: This dog was deranged and perhaps I couldn't keep her.

I talked to my vet and he told me about "something for something," as he called it. He told me that I should make her follow a command before I gave her anything, that nothing was for free. I told her to sit before I fed her, gave her a toy, bone or affection. I had no idea until more than 20 years later I was practicing positive, rewards-based training.

The author in 1988 with her willful puppy Roxie, who turned out to be a great dog.Julie LeRoy

The author in 1988 with her willful puppy Roxie, who turned out to be a great dog. | Julie LeRoy

Roxie was also a leash puller. She was growing fast and growing big. I went to the pet store and was advised to purchase a prong collar. It squeezed her throat every time she pulled, and to this day I don't even recall if it worked. It looked like such a medieval contraption but I didn't even give it a second thought. It was all I knew. Again, I would find out more than 20 years later that this was a method of alpha training.

What are the differences between positive reinforcement training and dominance-based (also known as alpha dog) training? Positive reinforcement training is based on rewarding a dog for desirable behavior and withholding a reward for negative behavior. It can also involve clicker training. You essentially mark the dog by tapping the clicker and offering a treat at the time the good behavior is observed.

Types of clicker training toolscultivatedtraining.com

Types of clicker training tools | cultivatedtraining.com

The belief is, you are maintaining the dog's good spirit and trust by avoiding harsh reprimands or physical force. Your dog learns through trial and error that responding to the owner's commands brings positive reinforcement. Failure to respond to the command results in something good being taken away.

Dominance-based dog training involves reprimanding in a harsh voice and using tools that cause discomfort such as pinch collars and shock collars or subjecting the dog to something he doesn't like. In large doses or with particularly severe methods, it can create a submissive dog.

prong or pinch collar
dogingtonpost.com

prong or pinch collar | dogingtonpost.com

Star Mark collarpetco.com

Star Mark collar | petco.com

Choke collar
fordogtrainers.com

Choke collarfordogtrainers.com

A popular collar that seems to mimic the effect of a choke collar with less discomfort is called a Martingale collar.

Martingale collarpawfectmanners.com

Martingale collar | pawfectmanners.com

For instance, in training a dog not to jump on you, two methods are commonly used. Since a dog's desire to be with his human is so strong, simply turning your back to a dog who is jumping reinforces that jumping will not give him what he desires - your attention. As soon as the dog stops jumping, turning around, rewarding with a treat and keywords such as "yes" or "good" teaches the dog that keeping four paws on the floor brings him your attention.

The trainer who uses the dominance-based method will lift a knee to the dog's chest when he jumps, creating a negative and uncomfortable experience for the dog. The dog learns that jumping means pain. Dominance-based training is said to have its roots in German military dog training.

Do both methods work? They can. But some people who practice positive, rewards-based training feel that a dog becomes fearful of the owner when the punishment involves dominance. Cesar Milan is well known for using dominance-based dog training to show the dog that if he ignores commands, he will be subject to harsh reprimands and physical force. This method of training is highly controversial - as is the theory that dogs maintain a pack mentality in the household in which the owner can emerge as the alpha.

A study conducted in 2010 by Roberto Bonanni of the University of Parma was based on observation of free-roaming dog packs. The idea of the alpha dog wasn't so much one dog dominating all of the others with fear but several older, more experienced dogs taking turns leading the pack without exhibiting dominant behavior. Another theory against the idea of dominance by the human comes from when a dog doesn't submit to commands. That dog may be labeled as unsuitable to live in a human home when in all reality the dog may have simply shut down out of fear. A fearful dog may also react with fear-based aggression and again, that dog may then be considered unadoptable.

When I became the animal care manager for my local shelter in 2012, I learned that the trainer there went to a school that promoted the use of prong or pinch collars. There were several dogs on which they were used, including Whitney, a white pit bull mix who pulled so hard it was like you were water skiing and she was the boat. The prong collar didn't even affect her.

WhitneyUlster County SPCA

Whitney | Ulster County SPCA

There were only a few volunteers who would even attempt to walk her and she presented horribly for adoption. She had been at the shelter for three years. A new director came in and immediately banned the use of these control collars at the shelter, Whitney included. Soon after, I attended an internship at Animal Farm Foundation and was introduced to the sensation harness.


SoftTouchconcepts.com

SoftTouchconcepts.com

With the sensation harness and similar products, the leash is attached to a loop on the front of the chest rather than between the shoulders or on the neck like traditional harnesses. When the dog pulls, she feels a gentle pressure on her chest. The dog tends to pull herself around rather than forward and it doesn't create the tension between the leash and the handler like a forward puller can. I bought one and tried it out on Whitney. Instantly, she was manageable. I had never seen anything like it. Not everyone agrees these harnesses are effective, but I've seen the difference they make firsthand.

Another distinct difference between positive reinforcement training and dominance-based training is the use of the handler's voice. I admit I loudly reprimanded my dogs, stood over them and shunned them when they misbehaved. It was really a reaction to my loss of control. The dogs usually cowered and turned from me, stopping the behavior momentarily. But in time it became clear that I conditioned my dogs to fear me instead of trust me. They began to cower when I was speaking loudly in general or when I was arguing with my husband.

Using a happy voice when a dog successfully completes a task is the standard with positive, rewards-based training. Ignoring a dog by turning your back to him is a way to show that you are not OK with your dog's current behavior. No harsh words or shouting are used. With dominance dog training, harsh words, loud voices and stare downs are standard tools.

Kristin Greene is a shelter volunteer in California who has 20 years of experience working with dogs exhibiting behavioral issues. She feels that dogs are "black and white" and capable of processing information and making the right decisions for themselves. Kristin believes that they must accept their position in the pack and respond to the pack leader's direction. She believes that they will test the pack leader, but with consistency from the pack leader, the dog will learn to respect and enjoy the rewards from following direction.

She uses choke and pinch collars and insists when properly fitted, they do not cause pain or injury. She feels that people who simply buy them off the shelf without an experienced trainer's assistance are the ones who cause harm to the dog. She also says that the timing is key when using these collars - at the time of correction, so that the dog feels the pinch of the collar when being corrected. The handler should release the tension once the desired behavior is achieved.

Kristin is not against rewards-based training. She uses it during the basic training - the sit, stay, down experience. She says praise is essential when using both types of training methods. Kristin feels the bottom line is placing these dogs safely into good homes, and by preparing these dogs for success instead of failure, their chances are increased tremendously.

Kristin Greene's dogs Louis, Vanda, Kussen and OzzieKristin Greene

Kristin Greene's dogs Louis, Vanda, Kussen and Ozzie | Kristin Greene

Carla Dussel, an active rescue advocate and owner of Good Karma Canine in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, once used prong collars. She says the appeal of them was they promised to "fix" the problems swiftly. She practiced with the collar to make sure she was using it correctly and that her timing was proper during the correction. Rather than fix the problem, she found her dog, Karma, began to associate the pain of being corrected with other dogs because the correction would take place only when she reacted to other dogs. Carla stopped using the collar after just a month but says that it took two years of counter-conditioning for Karma to overcome the results of prong collar training. As a professional trainer, Carla says the number one reason she's contacted is because of reactive dogs and that the majority of those dogs had been previously trained using shock or prong collars.

Carla Dussel and KarmaCarla Dussel

Carla Dussel and Karma | Carla Dussel

Jacqueline Bedsaul Johnson works for Best Friends Animal Society in Kanab, Utah. She once used dominance methods until she was asked by a trainer why she would want to use pain to teach a dog anything. That resonated with Jacqueline. She feels dogs don't learn helplessness behaviors with positive, rewards-based training. They become an active participant in the learning process. "How cool is that?" she says.

Jacqueline Bedsaul Johnson with Victory Dog, Ray, at Best Friends Animal SocietyMichael Kapin

Jacqueline Bedsaul Johnson with Victory Dog, Ray, at Best Friends Animal Society | Michael Kapin

Whether it's our own dog or a shelter dog we volunteer with, we want to see the dog succeed. Dominance-based training was the only type of training offered until positive, rewards-based training was made popular within the last 10 years by professionals such as Pat Miller, Victoria Stilwell and Karen Pryor.

I felt learning how to implement positive reinforcement training was more difficult than simply applying a prong collar or yelling at my dog. I learned it wasn't more difficult for the dog; it was more difficult for me because I was the tool in the training and not simply using a tool.

Most of the people who gave me input for this article believe that the most important outcome is a happy, responsive dog who finds a home or stays in a home. Most of the people I spoke with had used methods of dominance-based training previously and some still feel using both methods is effective, depending on the needs of the dog.

Either way, it is essential to start working with your dog immediately, whether he comes home as a puppy or an adult. Seek out assistance when needed and find what works for you. Many adult dogs in shelters find themselves there for behavioral issues and so many are euthanized because they've been deemed unadoptable. None of us sets out to bring a dog into our home only to realize we have can't keep her because she's out of control, so be open-minded and understand that training is the kindest thing you can do for your dog.