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Love Your Pets: Tips On Training
Which methods work best? Here’s helpful advice on how to teach your dog to behave.
Hold your hand with all four fingers pointing toward the ceiling. Your thumb should be tucked under your chin. Move your hand away from your mouth and back again.
Illustrations by Pete Sucheski.
Trainer, behaviorist, positive reinforcement—the lexicon of dog training can be baffling. To complicate matters, there’s debate within the training profession about which methods are most effective. Add in the fact that there are no state or federal legal requirements or agreed-upon standards for what constitutes a dog trainer or behaviorist—anybody can claim to be qualified.
What should dog owners in need of professional help do? To start, there’s a growing body of literature on the topic to consult—see some recommendations on the next page. Before hiring a trainer or behaviorist, talk to their references and consult your pet’s veterinarian. But not unlike making parenting decisions, finding solutions to dog behavioral problems depends largely on personal preference.
Dahlia Awad’s life changed on a freezing day in December 2010. She had arrived home from work and let her two Siberian huskies into her yard, which backs up to Lake Barcroft near Falls Church. When she went to let them back in, something was wrong: “They were standing and staring at the water.”
Realizing that her huskies were watching a dog struggling to get out of the lake, Awad ran to the water and managed to pull the skinny, shivering rottweiler out. She brought her inside, where she made a bed in front of a heater. The next day, she took the female dog to the vet, who said the dog’s uterus was infected and had to be removed. Awad agreed to pay for the procedure. Though she and her husband hadn’t planned to add a third dog to the family, they were now invested financially and emotionally in an animal they knew nothing about. They named her Molly.
Molly spent the next few weeks medicated and resting. She seemed like a sweet dog and got along with the couple’s two huskies. But once her recovery was over, it was a different story. Molly barked and lunged at visitors and was aggressive toward other dogs. “When we started to get to know her,” says Awad, “we realized we weren’t equipped to deal with this animal.”
David Lesser and his wife, Nancy, hadn’t planned to get another dog, either, when they called the springer-spaniel rescue group where they volunteer and asked if any dogs needed a ride south. The Lessers, along with their own springer spaniel, were about to travel from their home in Bethesda to their Florida beach house. It turned out one of the group’s dogs, Henry, needed transportation to a foster home in Hilton Head, South Carolina.
“By North Carolina, we had fallen in love and decided we should foster him,” says David Lesser. By the end of their one-month stay in Florida, the couple had decided to keep Henry. However, they’d started to notice troubling behavior. For instance, if Henry was sitting by Nancy when David approached, the dog would growl.
Months passed and things got worse, particularly at night when Henry would steal and guard items such as shoes, socks, and books. “If you came anywhere near him, he would get this glazed look and growl ferociously,” says Lesser. “We didn’t know what to do.”
Awad and Lesser had both stumbled into owning dogs they weren’t prepared to manage. They loved the animals and were committed to helping them, but they ultimately relied on opposing methods to address Molly’s and Henry’s problems.
At a friend’s recommendation, Awad called Pam Nashman, who runs All About Dogs, a training business in Woodbridge. Nashman considers herself a trainer as opposed to a behaviorist.
Though neither term has a clear-cut definition, a trainer is generally someone who teaches dogs new skills and ways of communicating with people—for instance, that certain hand gestures and commands mean to sit or stay. A behaviorist is more focused on modifying behaviors and uncovering the psychology behind them—for example, whether a dog is acting out because he’s fearful.
Often, dogs with more serious emotion-based problems such as aggression or separation anxiety require a behaviorist, whereas dogs that simply need to learn manners can make do with a trainer.
However, the line between trainer and behaviorist can be blurry, because most trainers agree that to be effective they need to understand a dog’s motivations and emotions.
One profession that’s easily definable is a veterinary behaviorist. This is a vet who has undergone advanced training in animal behavior—essentially, a canine psychiatrist. Only two of these are in the Washington area, Dr. Kathy Meyer in Gaithersburg and Dr. Marsha Reich in Rockville. Veterinary behaviorists can also prescribe psychotropic drugs.
Though Pam Nashman says she primarily focuses on behavior modification, she calls herself a trainer to avoid confusing consumers. She and the ten other trainers who work at All About Dogs use only positive-reinforcement techniques.
According to this method, owners should focus on rewarding and reinforcing good behavior rather than on punishing dogs for misbehaving. Positive-reinforcement trainers don’t believe in using tools such as pinch, prong or electric shock collars, which are used to cause dogs pain or discomfort when they fail to follow commands.
Dahlia Awad says the choice to use positive reinforcement was a no-brainer: “Molly was a needy, special dog. Think of a kid that’s been neglected. To me, the only way you’re going to rehabilitate that kid is through love and trust and discipline. A dog is no different.”
To start, Nashman did six hourlong in-home sessions with Molly to help with her anxiety around visitors. Awad’s neighbors would come over to play the part of “friendly strangers.” When they came in, everyone would ignore Molly so she wouldn’t feel challenged and act aggressively.
Once Molly and the neighbors settled in, Nashman coached Awad to begin feeding the dog treats. The goal was to teach her to associate visitors with something positive—in this case, a tasty snack. For other dogs, positive reinforcement can range from belly rubs to playing with a favorite toy to hearing the sound of a dog clicker, a popular tool among trainers that creates a sound that appeals to dogs.
Awad says Nashman also taught her to read Molly’s posture and facial expressions and to keep the dog’s attention focused on her—all techniques to help Awad maintain control. During the sessions, Molly would eventually get curious about the visitors and walk over to greet them calmly.
The in-home training curbed Molly’s reaction to strange people but not to the dogs she often met on walks. That would require even more work.
Henry had created chaos in his new home.
David Lesser and his wife had brought the springer spaniel to a series of specialists, including a veterinary behaviorist at the University of Pennsylvania. They all recommended medicating Henry in addition to using positive-reinforcement behavior modification. Lesser tried four antidepressants, including Prozac, in the hopes of stabilizing Henry’s mood. Neither the drugs nor the behavior modification worked.
Years earlier, Lesser had hired another trainer, Kristina Carmody, who runs Liberty K9 in Waldorf, Maryland, to work with his other dog, Rawley. Rawley pulled on his leash during walks and didn’t consistently come when called. Carmody trained Rawley using an electronic collar, which shocked the dog’s neck or made an unpleasant sound when he didn’t follow commands. It’s the kind of technique that makes positive-reinforcement trainers cringe.
Lesser admits he wasn’t entirely comfortable with the collar at first. “We treat our dogs like babies,” he says. “We were very reluctant about it.” But after Rawley spent a week at Carmody’s training “boot camp,” Lesser says, he was “terrific, like a changed dog.”
Still, Lesser had assumed the collar wasn’t the right answer for Henry. All of the specialists who had treated Henry advised against the shock collar, because using force on an aggressive dog can escalate the problem. But feeling he had run out of options, Lesser called Carmody this past fall, three years after Henry moved in.
When it comes to training dogs, Carmody—who also uses positive reinforcement— says, “the more tools you have in your tool box, the better, because every dog learns differently.”
She took Henry to her training facility for four days, and when she brought him home, Lesser says, Henry was “a new dog.”
Because Henry’s behavior problem—stealing and aggressively guarding objects—happened during a specific time in the evening, Carmody taught him to go to his bed on command. By being forced to stay in one place during the time he usually acted out, Henry would keep out of trouble.
Carmody showed Lesser how, if Henry didn’t obey the “go to bed” command, she would transmit a light shock to encourage him. Henry now obeys without the shock. Says Lesser: “So far, the stress is gone from our house.”
Even positive-reinforcement trainers don’t deny that force-based techniques are effective.
“You will never hear me say those methods don’t work,” says Pat Miller, owner of Peaceable Paws Dog and Puppy Training in Fairplay, Maryland, and author of The Power of Positive Dog Training.
Miller herself used those methods until her dog Josie decided she’d had enough. Miller was teaching Josie to retrieve a dumbbell in preparation for an obedience competition. She’d pinch Josie’s ear to make her open her mouth, then pop the dumbbell in. One day when Miller got out the training supplies, Josie hid under the deck and refused to come out to train.
The incident convinced Miller to quit training for two years while she learned about positive reinforcement. She’s now one of the nation’s leading advocates of positive training. She says that even though force-based techniques can yield quick results, using them can deteriorate the relationship between owners and their dogs.
“The dogs are afraid to do anything; therefore, they’re well behaved,” she says. “But they’re not creative, they’re not willing, they’re not eager.”
Though much of the training-and-behavior profession is lining up behind Miller’s point of view, it’s still divided.
The official position of the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior is that training should focus on “reinforcing desired behaviors” and that punishment should be used solely as a last resort. The Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers—the only international certifying body—requires anyone who takes its exam to sign a code of ethics that includes promising to use “positive reinforcement-based techniques to the maximum extent possible.”
Recent research has challenged—many dog experts would say debunked—the popular “alpha dog” idea that underlies force-based methods. The theory, which says dog owners need to show dominance to become the highest ranking member of the “pack,” is based on studies of captive zoo wolves from the 1930s and ’40s. Modern-day wildlife research biologist L. David Mech has since studied wolves in the wild. His key discovery was that wild wolves don’t compete for dominance as zoo wolves do, because wild wolves live as a family with a natural hierarchy.
The position of the International Association of Canine Professionals is that trainers should be able to use force-based tools such as choke chains, prong collars, and electronic shock collars. “We don’t mind what tool you use as long as it’s humane and doesn’t physically or mentally damage the dog,” says executive director Martin Deeley.
In response to critics who contend that any use of such equipment is damaging, Deeley says: “I can remember my dad saying, ‘Don’t touch the stove—it’s hot.’ He goes out of the room, I touched it. I learned more from the experience than I did from listening to my dad.”
Dahlia Awad continues to work with Molly on her aggression toward dogs. She signed up for Pam Nashman’s “Relaxing Rowdy Rovers” group class at All About Dogs. The class teaches owners to hold their pets’ attention even in the presence of other dogs.
Awad is seeing results. Molly no longer reacts to the neighbor’s dog, though she still has trouble going directly past other dogs on the street.
Awad has signed up for two more months of classes. “It’s been good for Molly,” she says. “It’s been good for me.”
See all Love Your Pets articles.
This article appears in the February 2012 issue of The Washingtonian.