I did a Google search for “dog training methods” this morning. There were over 14 billion hits. Page 1 of the search included a variety of headlines such as: “Positive Reinforcement Training.” “The Koehler method of dog training.” “Positive reinforcement vs Alpha Dog.” “Fastest Dog Training Method.” It’s enough to make anyone’s head spin. So I thought I’d explain why I train the way I do.
I began training over 20 years ago using choke collars and prong collars. I attended a dog training school and learned how to do effective and efficient collar corrections on dogs. I was good at it. I started my dog training business with the idea that food was a crutch, and I trained dogs for several years with this philosophy. If you had asked me if the dogs I trained were happy, I would have said, “Yes.” They were happy, willing, obedient family members. Life was good.
I continued to grow my business and one morning, I stumbled upon the Association of Pet Dog Training, now the Association of Professional Dog Training (APDT), website. I decided to join and attend the APDT conference hoping to learn more about dog training. I hated it. I sat in session after session learning about using foods, clickers, and positive training methods. I thought everyone was crazy. I left the conference thinking I had wasted my time.
I returned home with a skeptical attitude, but in the quiet of my own home decided I would test out clicker training with my own dog, Sierra. Sierra was my dog who already had a couple obedience titles. However, I could not get her to retrieve. Admittedly, I couldn’t teach her this behavior because I was not able to do an ear pinch on her. I attributed her inability to retrieve to my own weakness as a trainer because I couldn’t inflict pain on her, rather than to any inherent problem in the training method. Much to my surprise and relief, within three days, Sierra was retrieving a dumbbell thanks to clicker training. At that point, I conceded that the clicker had some application as a tool for the rare and occasional trick. I did not adopt it for all training.
My next attempt at using the clicker was while I was volunteering at the shelter and with a few rescue groups. Some of the dogs I encountered were so fearful that getting the choke collar on them was sometimes impossible. How could I train them if I couldn’t get the leash on them? I thought about trying the clicker. Voila…I could clicker train a dog to accept the choke collar. Then I proceeded to train them using my standard choke collar training methods, but noticed a significant change in the dog’s attitude between the clicker-training portion of my work and the choke collar training of the work. I attributed this to the fact that the dog had a poor temperament and not to the method of training.
Over the course of about 18 months, I continued to experiment with the clicker in rare situations when I ran out of ideas on how to use the choke or prong collar (remember that at this point I was still very heavily biased against using food so the clicker was always my last resort).
Through this period one thing I did notice was that with clicker training owners tended to have more fun. And this fun, equated to training for longer periods of time. That translated into more money for my business. So being the savvy business owner, one day I decided to do an entire puppy class with the clicker. I figured, once the dogs were older we could easily switch to the choke collar. I wanted to encourage families to have fun with their dogs and continue training them. At this time I wasn’t expecting the clicker to be the final training method, I just thought it would help open the door to future, more serious training.
It was this experiment that eventually opened my eyes to the real strength of clicker training. At this point in my business, I had several obedience classes: Beginner, Intermediate and Advanced. In my advanced class I began “off-leash training.” This was an entire series of classes to systematically teach a dog to respond without the leash and collar on. The goal of the class was to get the choke collar off the dog and still have the dog respond to the owner.
As fate would have it, in one particular advanced class, I ended up with a mix of dogs who had trained with me using a choke collar right from the start and dogs who had been trained with clicker training. These were all my clients. These were all dogs I loved with dedicated families who were doing their best to create wonderful family pets. They all had the same level of obedience skills.
The only difference in these dogs was in the method of training I had taught the families to use.
What happened in that class remains a huge “light bulb” moment for me as a trainer for two reasons. I first noticed that the clicker-trained dogs already had off-leash skills. In my advanced classes, they were the star students. They didn’t need all the series of steps to get them used to working without a collar and leash because for those dogs, the training was never about the collar and the leash the way it had been for the dogs trained on the choke collars.
Second, and far more humbling to me, was the realization that the attitude of the dogs was very different. I believe all the dogs were happy. However, the clicker-trained dogs were markedly different in terms of their attitude and energy level toward training. They seemed eager to perform, happy to learn, and loved the class to a much different degree than the dogs who had been trained using the choke collars. I’m not saying the dogs trained with the choke collars were miserable. They weren’t. They were happy and willing to work. But they just weren’t as happy as the other dogs. This difference in attitude is something I have always struggled to explain to people. I am not sure I would have seen it had I not had two sets of dogs, both of whom I had trained for several months, right in front of my eyes. I believe the clicker trained dogs were happier and at this point in their training, their skills were far ahead of the rest of the class.
So finally, after two years of dabbling with the clicker, I grasped the power of positive training. I have used clicker training methods ever since (over 20 years). I continue to attend conferences, I’m still a member of APDT(actually, I’m currently the Chair of the Board of Trustees for the Association), and I try to remain humble enough to learn from new ideas…even if I am initially skeptical about them. But this is the reason I train dogs the way I train dogs.
Why do you choose to train using the methods you are using?