When I put myself into the shoes of the average dog owner... and from my own first venture into dog training, I would say this: It is my belief that most folk, when they get a dog, simply think along the lines of, “Well, I don’t want him to pee on the floor, I’d like to be able to take him for a walk without having my arm ripped out of it’s socket and maybe have him come back when I call.” When it comes to training, most people simply do not have any idea of what they should expect or even what is possible. Because most people want to “do it right,” when it comes to their dog, sooner or later they run headlong into the conflicting ideas of what constitutes good dog training and what they should be doing.
Before we, as trainers, get into the “how to” questions, I believe we must address the “what is” question. If we can first decide and agree on what it is that we are trying to accomplish and what we should expect as the final outcome, then we will be in a better position to look at how we might accomplish those goals. Therefore, lets focus first on the question: what is training? and, what should one be able to reasonably expect from a trained dog? How would you recognize a trained dog (from a behavioural point of view)?
These days many of the people that call me will ask, “After we complete your program, what will my dog have learned?”
Back when I started, as is the case today, there were many different methods and techniques for training dogs. Some approaches used primarily praise and corrections while other methods included treats and toys. Any given exercise could have numerous ways to teach it and there were a wide variety of training aids and tools to draw on. However, regardless of approach or methodology, the training itself would be known best by the results it produced. All training approaches had – and continue to have – their own set of pluses and minuses but there was a generally agreed upon standard against which all training could be measured. Indeed, in many cases the motivation to develop different techniques was to overcome certain training obstacles and thus improve upon the results. This was true for any given exercise. Sometimes when some enterprising trainer grouped together a collection of these evolved techniques it would often end up labeled as a “new” method.
I remember going to some of those early obedience trials and watching others work. Some exhibitors were very good and when we saw someone that did an exceptionally good job, we all wanted to know the same things:
Where had they trained - what school were they from? What method were they using? And how long had it taken. Students always reflect their school.
All dog training, regardless of the approach used, shares a number of common factors. First we have the combination of a dog, someone that wants to train it and a source of information and help – possibly you, the trainer. Once we know what will be addressed through training, we will proceed with our plan which will include the use of a motivating stimulus, shaping a response to that stimulus, timely effective feedback (consequence of some sort) and we will stress the need for consistency of application. We will provide for enough variety in training experiences to complete that particular learning task. Some methods will be primarily reward based some will be more correction based and some will seek a balance somewhere on that continuum. We will look a bit more closely at some of these approaches a little later on.
Before we go any further however, I believe it is important to define training. Here are two definitions for training that I view as particularly relevant.
1: activity leading to skilled behavior [such as the preparation or grooming for a later role or job]
2: the result of good upbringing (especially knowledge of correct social behavior) To teach and form a particular skill or type of behaviour through regular practice and instruction designed to impart proficiency or efficiency; to educate; to exercise; to discipline; as in training the exercise.
It is therefore a systematic process of developing knowledge, skills, and attitudes for current and/or future endeavors.
We know that there are many different breeds of dogs designed to perform many different kinds of work. Training these dogs is really the process of making them “job ready” to herd, hunt, guard, pull etc. The list of jobs that dogs may be required to do is long but somewhere in that list is the very important task of being a companion. Regardless of the training task, the outcome of training is the specific desired behaviour that is observable, measurable and, most important, reliable. The trained behaviour must reflect the knowledge and skills that have been taught.