This section contains general articles and items about health ethology and care of the dog

A Brief History of Dog Training

No-one knows exactly when the wolf came in from the cold and cautiously approached the fire. No-one knows when he started scavenging for scraps around the settlements of men. When did man first start feeding him? When did they first hunt together? When did the wolf, trembling and snarling, first allow the hand of the human to rest on his head, to stroke him, to tug gently at his ears? When did he start to welcome these caresses?

Estimates vary from 7000 to 14000 years ago, and possibly much longer ago. Archaeologists Davis and Valla, working in Israel in 1978, uncovered the poignant skeletal remains, dated at 12000 years ago, of a human being buried holding the skeleton of a small dog. Perhaps the dog truly became domesticated when fear turned to comfort, comfort turned to pleasure, and pleasure turned at last to love.

From these ancient beginnings sprang a cross-species relationship of trust, affection and commitment that is unequalled anywhere else in nature. Companion, guard and comforter, the dog is truly man’s best friend.

Over the centuries, the domestic dog, with man as the main selector, has evolved into a great variety of breeds, some of which date from antiquity while others are more modern. The distinctions between breeds originated with the discovery that some dogs were better at certain tasks than others. Some dogs herd, some dogs track, some dogs hunt with their owners, some dogs are guards and protectors – and some dogs are just for fun!

And with the evolution of the various breeds of dogs and their specialised capabilities came the evolution of training methods.

Dog training has been going on for almost as long as the dog has existed, but we’ll look specifically at the last century or so.

One of the best and worst developments in the dog world came with the discovery that the dog is in fact a genetically modified wolf. Yes, your Maltese Poodle is a wolf under the fluff! This discovery has taught us a great deal about the nature of the dog and how he interacts socially, but has also had huge disadvantages for the dog because findings in lupine behaviour have been extrapolated unchanged and unquestioned to the canine world.

Perhaps the most pernicious of these notions has been the one that a human needs to behave under all circumstances like a dominant, or ‘Alpha’, wolf toward his dog, and that doing this will miraculously solve all behavioural and training problems. This notion is faulty for a couple of reasons. In the first place, wolf pack theory has been badly misunderstood by most trainers, and in the second place, the social behaviour of the dog is now understood to be a fragmented and incomplete version of wolf social behaviour, with many differences, so that applying the ‘principles’ of wolf social behaviour directly to the dog is simply not appropriate.

Nevertheless, entire training philosophies have been developed based on the idea of dominance, and on the very dubious idea that your dog perceives you as another dog, and unfortunately, most of these methods rely on severe physical punishment to get their ideas across.

These methods probably reached their nadir with the publication of The Koehler Method of Dog Training, by William Koehler. First published in 1962, this book contains some of the most revolting examples of animal abuse ever to make it into print. Coupled with an almost total ignorance of the basic principles of learning theory, it is a primer on how to terrify and brutalise your dog into unthinking obedience. Sadly, Koehler’s methods are still popular with many trainers today.

But things are getting better…

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The Quick Fix Fallacy

It would be great if I could wave a magic wand and make all my problems – and all my dogs’ problems – just disappear. But I can’t. And neither can anybody else, whatever they may promise.

There are many dog training sites and dog books out there which promise exactly that, though – quick, one-stop treatment for deep-seated, difficult-to-handle behaviour problems such as fear-based aggression or anxiety. Their "treatment" is almost always a severe punishment, usually administered by means of some or other strangulation device. If that doesn’t work, they graduate to an electric shock collar, and if that doesn’t work, they shrug, say the dog’s temperament is faulty and recommend euthanasia.

Now let’s be clear here: there is occasionally a case for a judiciously applied, well-timed punishment, and the clicker training movement is done more harm than good by well-meaning individuals who swear off punishment completely because it’s "wrong". But what these "quick-fix" trainers are recommending is in nearly every case not punishment, but abuse. If applying physical pain to the dog is your only means of dealing with his problems, and if your only solution if that doesn’t work is to escalate the severity of the punishment, something somewhere has gone sadly wrong. And the worst part of it is that not only do these methods fail to improve existing problems, but they also worsen the current problem and often introduce many new ones. Coercion, as Murray Sidman would say, has fallout.

This is what one of these "trainers" wrote when I challenged him about his opinion of clicker training (excuse the language!):

"You have a GSD that is extremely dog aggressive. Someone accidentally lets your 11 year old Lab out and the GSD takes her to the ground by the neck and will not stop the attack no matter how loud your secretaries scream and cry. What would you do – click your little clicker until the Lab is dead? This happened last week at my kennel and I had to hit my stud dog over the head as hard as I could with a heavy shit shovel 10 to 12 times before he let her go. You people have your head up your ass. Your methods work fine for soft trainable dogs – don’t ever think you can use a clicker on dogs like I work with."

What this trainer failed to realise was that the problem with the GSD was largely of his own making! Abusive physical punishment (this trainer recommends punishments in increasing levels of severity as his sole intervention in behavioural problems) causes fear and anger, and often results in:

  • increased levels of aggression, especially in a dominant dog
  • the ‘only my husband can handle the dog’ syndrome, where the dog is too afraid to attack the person he perceives as dominant, but goes after lower-ranking members of the hierarchy whenever he gets the chance – this is quite possibly part of, but not all of, what this trainer saw with his labrador bitch
  • lack of warning signals because the dog has been harshly punished for them in the past, so he now attacks without warning

The goal of training and rehabilitation in a case like this would be to get the GSD to a point where he could control his own behaviour if inadvertently let out. The chances of success would depend on how badly traumatised the dog is, but many dog-aggressive dogs can learn to overcome the anxiety associated with the sight of another dog, and thus their behaviour. Needless to say, this trainer would not recognise that the dog requires rehabilitation.

An extremely illuminating case history sent to this particular trainer goes something like this:

"Thank you so much for all the advice in your training video. I trained my dog (a male GSD) according to your method and can report a great improvement in his obedience and discipline.

Lately, though, he has started developing an aggression problem and has bitten a couple of people who have visited the house. Please can you help?"

Well, surprise, surprise. Aggression breeds aggression – and this trainer’s methods are extremely aggressive!

I am not trying to suggest that all behaviour problems are the handler’s fault – far from it. A dog’s temperament is a complex, unpredictable mix of genetic and environmental influences. Under the same circumstances, in the same home, one dog may turn out as mild-mannered as you could wish for while another one may become dangerously aggressive.

But without a doubt, aggressive, abusive handling techniques will only make fear and aggression worse, not better, and may even create an aggression problem where none existed before.

Modification of problem behaviours is a slow, gentle, careful business which involves identifying and working with emotional, behavioural and sometimes medical problems. It’s not a quick fix, and clicker training is just one of the many tools in our arsenal. But going through this work with your dog, discovering your own reserves of patience and dedication, and seeing your relationship with your dog blossom, is truly magic.

"He is your friend, your partner, your defender, your dog. You are his life, his love, his leader. He will be yours, faithful and true, to the last beat of his heart. You owe it to him to be worthy of such devotion."
-    anon.