Updated: Apr 14
What would you think if asked to consider not controlling your dog?
There are, of course, times when we need our dogs under control. When out in the world, around other people, dogs, and animals, we need to be sure we can keep them out of trouble and not let them cause concern or harm to others. A good recall is essential; if recall is a work in progress, long lines attached to the harness allows the dog more freedom while ensuring they can’t get themselves into some form of trouble or danger. This is not the kind of control under question. Perhaps the better way to phrase it is to ask if you have ever considered being less controlling over your dog.
Old fashioned dog training focuses very much on ‘teaching’ the dog what we want. A rote response instilled in the dog, like the long lists of monarchs and their dates of coronation and death that many British schoolchildren of the past remember having to learn and chant. Kids were (and in some places still are) expected to sit and absorb lists of facts for memorisation with little creative thinking involved.
This old-fashioned dog training was prominent in past years, with trainers on our televisions advocating sharp jerks on collars or (commonly) choke or check chains. The emphasis always on making sure the dog knows that the human is in charge, and their commands must be obeyed without hesitation or questioning. To not obey led to the human chastising the dog, often with lots of big, looming body language. Perhaps verbal punishment, shouting or scolding the dog. Sadly, also at times the use of physical punishment. A kick, a smack, a yank on a prong collar or a jolt from a shock collar. That appears far more like coercion, of forcing the dog to do what we want if they don’t want the punishment; because humans are in charge and that’s just how the world works.
To put a simple label on it, that kind of behaviour towards dogs is nothing more than bullying. In some cases, it’s more accurate to call it abuse.
To an extent, it can be said that little we do with dogs is ever entirely free from coercion. We are always manipulating the environment, the circumstances around the situation, so that the dog is most likely to choose what we want as it has a favourable outcome for them. They get something they want for doing something we want. That is the very definition of reinforcement in the scientific sense, after all. A favourable consequence for the dog in the form of a tasty treat or a game with their favourite toy means they are likely to do the thing that got them access to that resource again.
Coaching still uses rewards so yes, technically we can’t say that there is zero coercion involved. It is, however, a benign kind of coercion. We manipulate the scenario so that the dog gives the answer we are looking for and is rewarded with something they want and value. Coaching sessions are fun for the dog. They are also usually fun for the human side of the relationship as well, as working with a happy and engaged dog is a joyous experience!
Often in coaching we will set up the exercise so there is not necessarily a single correct answer, letting the dog suggest solutions to us in their behaviours. This is one of the real strengths of using coaching as a technique, as it increases choice for our dogs and increases their confidence by letting them discover answers for themselves. The more they do this the more confident they become, and a confident dog is a more resilient dog, happier in the world around them.
By using coaching and working through connection and cooperation, we don’t just increase the number of cues they recognise and the number of behaviours they can choose to display when we ask. We actively increase their confidence and their engagement with us. We improve the relationship, the bond between us. Make the aim of coaching sessions collaborating with your dog. Make it fun for them to be with you and problem solving together, and they will choose to be there, will choose to engage and take part.
Aim for a partnership, for a relationship based on connection and cooperation, not a dictatorship built on coercion and control.