Training without Pain

(Note: this article was written for a magazine called Dobe Capers during a period when I was the consulting behaviourist for the Dobermann Club of the Cape, so it refers a lot to problems training Dobermanns.  The theory which it attempts to explain is, however, completely relevant to other breeds, and in fact other species!)

If you are reading this article, you have probably trained (or tried to train) a Dobermann at some stage in your life.  Perhaps it was easy and enjoyable.  On the other hand, perhaps it was a constant battle of wills, a battle between you and a powerful, intelligent, strong-willed animal who loved you, but did not particularly want to do what you wanted him to, and resisted all (or most) of your efforts to make him.  Anyone who has been towed along by a Dobe supposedly obeying the command to “heel” will, I think, recognise himself or herself in this description.

Perhaps you have a dog who is loving and affectionate at home, but bored and resistant in class.  Perhaps he avoids you when it’s time for practice.  If he gets bored and resistant enough, perhaps you eventually lose your temper with him, shout at him, and try to force him to respond.  He becomes even more resistant, and has to be physically hauled into any posture you want him to adopt, which he abandons as soon as you let him go.  If you’ve gotten tough enough with him, you may even have been bitten.

Perhaps you’ve tried to do competition obedience with a Dobermann, and have watched your (naturally!) superior animal being easily outstripped by Border Collies, GSDs and other, well, nice dogs.  Frustrating, isn’t it.

Training like this can quickly become an unpleasant and distressing task, which is easily abandoned.  (Any trainer can tell you what the dropout rate from obedience classes is like).  When your dog loves you and is so affectionate at home, why go through the misery of fighting with him week after week?  It’s much easier to find an excuse not to go to class.  The fact that you end up with an unreliable and disobedient dog from a guarding breed with a high potential for aggression is just the cross you have to bear.  Dobermanns are difficult, and that’s all there is to it.  

If this has been your experience, don’t feel alone.  There are many others like you.  I have vivid and embarassing memories of…er…training my first Dobermann, a rather plain but fortunately extremely good-natured chap called Billy.  I was young at the time (this was 30 years ago) and Billy was very intelligent indeed; he certainly outwitted me every time he tried!  I did basic and advanced obedience, tracking, agility (which in those days was aptly named obstacle work) and eventually manwork with him.  It was uphill most of the way.  He learned everything under considerable duress, except the odd exercise which he enjoyed; those he learned quickly and happily.

At the end of his training, Billy was like the little girl in the nursery rhyme; when he was good, he was very, very good, and when he was bad, he was worse than horrid.  When he was good, he would work on hand signals from 100 metres.  When he was bad, he wouldn’t walk at heel.  When I did a right turn, he would do a U-turn and go and lie down somewhere comfortable.  He was trained, but he certainly wasn’t obedient.  Ring any bells?

Will power, stubbornness and resilience to punishment are characteristics of the Dobermann.  If its superb intelligence can be harnessed, it is capable of being an outstanding working dog – one of the best in the world – but it is by no means an easy dog to train, and this has led to the German Shepherd being preferred as a police dog in many countries, including South Africa.  In 1956, the New Zealand Police Dog Unit was established, using German Shepherds as the dog of choice.  Its founder and Chief Trainer, Inspector Frank Riley, actually kept two Dobermanns as pets (clearly a man of taste), but had this to say about their use as police dogs, having worked with them in the UK:

“This dog makes an excellent police dog, but matures slowly and for the best results needs an experienced handler who may have to experiment a little in his training methods. “

(from: Born to Obey, by Valerie and Colin Salt, Collins, 1972)

Ring any bells?

Top Cape Town obedience trainer Sandy Lombard says that the Dobermann is far more resilient to punishment than the GSD.  A Dobermann will stubbornly resist a series of harsh corrections which would permanently traumatise a GSD, and come bouncing back for more.  This determination and hardness of temperament is a wonderful characteristic for a police dog to have, but is offset by the difficulty of training such a dog. 

Although individual Dobermanns have performed exceptionally well at obedience, the breed does not dominate in the competitive obedience world, largely because of its stubbornness.  Dogs such as GSDs and Border Collies are far easier to get results with, and are thus often the choice of competitive handlers.     

Dobermanns can be managed after a fashion.  As I have grown older, I have become more authoritative, and am better able to persuade my dogs that I mean what I say.  They listen a bit better.  But I have to admit that I don’t really enjoy doing obedience work with them.  I don’t like speaking forcefully, correcting sharply, being in any way harsh with my lovely, affectionate dogs.  In fact, I’m really rather half-hearted about practicing obedience with Slug (my current male), and so is he.  It’s a frustrating state of affairs, because I really love my dogs and enjoy spending time with them.  Wouldn’t it be wonderful, wouldn’t it be marvellous, I have often thought wistfully, if Dobermanns were like Border Collies, always looking for work, always waiting for the next command, always eager to do what you ask them to?

Well, actually, they are. 

Actually, it is easy to harness all that will power, determination and superb intelligence and persuade your Dobermann (yes, that stubborn, recalcitrant you-know-what) to apply it in looking for work, working out what you want him to do, and doing it eagerly, just like a Border Collie, and with no harsh corrections whatsoever.

Does your dog have a reliable “sit”?  By a reliable “sit”, I mean that the dog is commanded to sit, sits promptly and does not move until given the next command, no matter what the distraction.

Slug doesn’t have a reliable sit.  He sits when told, but moves as soon as something distracts him.  As he’s extremely affectionate, if I tell him he’s a good dog in a pleased, excited tone of voice, he leaps around me in great excitement, trying to hurl himself into my arms and lick my face.  So I decided to teach him to sit until released.  As I have a fairly strong background in psychology, I designed the exercise myself.

Within three minutes of starting the exercise, he was sitting, while I praised him, told him what a good boy he was, how clever he was, sending him dilly with delight.  His entire bottom was waggling, his eyes were shining, his ears were up – and he was quivering with the effort of holding himself in the sit!  Being a Dobermann, of course, with all that intelligence, will power and stubbornness, he succeeded.  I used no correction at all.  In fact, he didn’t have his lead on, and I didn’t touch him once during the exercise, except to praise.  For the next 15 minutes, he followed me around begging for the next command!  Even one of his archenemies barking in the road outside my house failed to distract him.  I could not believe my eyes!

Just like a Border Collie?  Streets ahead!

At this juncture, you are possibly harbouring a suspicion that I was under the influence of some or other interesting substance while writing this article.  Not at all.

The method used to achieve this happy state of affairs is called operant conditioning, and has been used by animal trainers for centuries.  You have probably heard the term positive reinforcement somewhere along the line.  It is a term used extremely loosely and casually, but applied in its strictest sense as a training method in conjunction with the other concepts of operant conditioning, it gets results that seem little short of miraculous.

Needless to say, I am by no means the first person to have thought of training a dog this way.  (In fact, it took rather a long time for the penny to drop with me.)  Dr C.W. Meisterfeld, an American canine psychoanalyst who is the first ‘dog psychologist’ to have been certified as an expert witness by the US judiciary, has been developing a dog training method based on positive reinforcement since 1944.  In 1957 he entered the competitive world of American Kennel Club obedience to prove that these principles could be successful in training a German Shorthaired Pointer which others considered (at that time) a breed that was far too stubborn (ring any bells?) for competitive obedience. On November 10, 1957 at the Southern Michigan Obedience Training Club show, Meisterfeld’s bitch "Baroness Meisterfeld" received her third leg and the Canine Distinction Award for AKC obedience for earning an average score of 196-1/2 at three consecutive shows inside of seven days.  In 1962 "Baroness Meisterfeld C.D.X." won the National German Shorthair Pointer Retriever Championship with a (considered impossible) perfect score of 500 points. She retained the championship for 1963 and 1964 where she also won the 1964 National All German Pointing Breeds Championship.

And using similar methods, other trainers have achieved such titles and awards as:

  • Delta Society National Service Dog of the Year
  • Australian Police Dog of the Year
  • America’s Most Versatile Collie
  • World Record for Speed Weave Poles (set right here in South Africa!)

…and many more.

Beyond belief?  Not at all.

End of part one.  For a discussion of how the method works, see the next issue of Dobe Capers, which will appear in about three months time, or possibly later, depending on how busy the committee are……….

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