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'What Happens If My Dog Gets It Wrong?'

Looking for a trainer to work with, whether for standard life skills like loose lead walking and the cues they need to know to have a safe and happy life, or to help with some kind of behavioural issue that is impacting on your life together, can feel like an absolute minefield. Everywhere you turn, you can see lots of trainers of all different types, and it can be incredibly difficult to work out which type is the best if you don’t have an understanding of the different training methods that are used.

  • Those seen frequently on social media, the ones with lots of followers and subscribers but little description of exactly how they work with dogs.

  • The ones who rarely advertise and you will generally find locally through word of mouth.

  • The ones who talk about working on your relationship with your dog.

  • The ones who promise to ‘fix’ your dog fast (sometimes even in a single session).

  • The ones who talk about getting your dog to respect you as the ‘pack leader’.

  • The ones who talk about things like agency, choice, and living in harmony with your dogs.

  • Some who are a combination of the types mentioned above.

(Hint: numbers 3 and 6 are absolutely the best kinds of trainers, and number 2 can be great, but a little more caution may be needed to find out exactly how they work with dogs.)

In all honesty it can feel almost impossible to feel that you are looking for the right things in a trainer. There is one question above all others that can help you tell how the trainer works with dogs and if they are likely to make things better or worse.

‘What happens if my dog gets something wrong?’

The answer to this question really will indicate what kind of trainer the person is. Do they talk about ‘corrections’, ‘respect’ and being the dog’s ‘pack leader’? Or do they talk about trying again and setting the dog up for success?

We have scientific evidence of the effects that different forms of training have on dogs. Studies have looked at dogs trained using kind and force free methods (using rewards like treats, toys, praise, and other things the dog likes to show them the behaviours we like) and compared them to dogs trained using verbal and physical punishments (shouting, lead jerks, smacks, kicks, using aversive equipment like choke, prong, and shock collars). 

It is not surprising to those of us committed to using force free methods that the use of rewards proved at the very least as effective as training that used verbal and physical punishments, or tools like those mentioned above. And given that training using these aversive stimuli, things that cause discomfort, pain, and fear, is only ever about as good at getting the dog successfully and reliably following the cues as the kinder force free methods at best, there is absolutely no reason to use anything other than force free training and management methods.

The answer you should be looking for to the question posed here is that the trainer will set the dog up to try again. If they still can’t offer the desired response, a good trainer will then look at changing the situation to make the task easier for the dog. Maybe change the environment to a less distracting one or start with a simpler behaviour before increasing the complexity.

Below is a video of a recent walk with one of my dogs. She’s an 11-month-old Border Collie and had her first season a few weeks ago. She is right in the middle of a development period that is full of fluctuating hormones and brain reorganisation. This means she can have a short attention span and is easily distracted by stimuli out in the world and can throw the switch into hyper behaviours quite easily. In all honesty she is very straightforward for an adolescent Collie but that really does not mean life with her is without challenges!

You can see at 1 minute 50 seconds that she completely failed to respond to the recall whistle and my response to that may seem surprising at first as I laughed but, if you listen carefully, you can hear me talking to her and acknowledging that the failure was in fact mine – my timing was off as I should have seen that she’d caught a scent and was moving to investigate the scent further when I whistled. Because of that, I sent her on and watched to make sure she wasn’t distracted before giving the whistle to cue the recall again. This time she came straight back, because she’d been given another chance and was set up for success.

No punishment for not doing what was asked, a simple recognition that a good sniff could easily distract a dog (and it's important to give dogs opportunities to carry out this most important natural behaviour), particularly an adolescent teenage dog, whose concentration span can be short and who can find the world a fascinating place.

This is the kind of thinking you are looking for in a trainer, one who will give your dog every chance to succeed and uses kind and ethical methods that will not force, scare, or hurt your dog. A trainer who focuses on connection over compliance and control, and on creating a harmonious relationship and way of living for you and your dog.

Because once you have found that connection and harmony with your dog, you will never want to live any other way with the dogs in your life, and your dogs will definitely thank you for it!

An excellent way to find a trainer who will help to set both you and your dog up for success is to look for members of particular organisations or who are clear about the ethics of their training methods. 

Pet Professional Guild (PPG) members must agree to use ethical methods, and use of aversive methods and tools is not permitted. PPG Facebook page

The National Institute for Canine Ethics (NICE) also requires members to use ethical methods and force free training. The site link at the beginning here goes to the NICE blog which has some fantastic articles and it's well worth spending some time having a read. The NICE Facebook page also has links to blogs as well as some great infographics.

(If you are reading this and you are a trainer, I'd highly recommend joining both organisations. Both give great opportunities for CPD with webinars, and joining NICE and passing the exams there can give access to the ABTC register.)

You can also look for the badge below to find a trainer who follows the Do No Harm protocol. The Do No Harm public Facebook group is a great place to get information and access to fantastic force free trainers to learn more about working with your dog in a force free and harmonious way.

All of these will lead towards being able to find a force free trainer who will be able to help with any problems you may be having, without hurting or scaring your dog and without doing any damage to the bond and relationship between you.

To help in understanding why using punishment and aversive techniques and methods is not recommended, you can check out the on-demand webinar ’Punishment and Why to Avoid It' on the Programs page of the site. You can also find all kinds of dog-centred slogans on clothing and accessories at the Good Guardianship store to help spread the force free and harmonious message!

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