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Love Your Pets: Tips On Training
Comments () | Published February 21, 2012

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."

"The more tools you have in your tool box, the better, because every dog learns differently."     

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.

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