Why I Train Dogs the Way I Train Dogs

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.

Purebred White Swiss Shepherd with newspaperI 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.

Light bulbIt 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.

Happy familySo 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?

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24 thoughts on “Why I Train Dogs the Way I Train Dogs

  1. Dogs were always in my home when I was growing up. I don’t know but I never had a problem training my dogs. I always trained my dogs with treats. I worked for a prong collar trainer for a while. At first it seemed like magic. After some time had passed I didn’t feel comfortable putting a prong collar on every single puppy or dog. I watched how many dogs would just shut down. I would ask the trainer questions on different subjects. Most of the time she wouldn’t answer them. I thought she didn’t want to reveal her secrets to me for free. I kepted thinking to my self there has to be a better way. I began looking for some dog training books. I read them as fast as I could buy them. That’s when I relized that trainer had no clue how to train a dog without a prong collar. A trip to Best Friends in Utah, joining APDT plus ABC school put me in the direction I was looking to go. That trainer is still in buisness. She even makes a profit pretending to do Service Dog Training. I would love to see her not train any more. I tell all my clients you can’t wear any chains in my class. We’ll not be man-handling him because we’re going to teach your dog how to use his mind . Clicker is my choice for training.

    • Thanks for sharing your story, Marion! It’s great hearing about how others have discovered different methods.

  2. Robin,

    Thanks for sharing this. Why do I train positively, primarily because of you! You introduced us to +R training as a way to work with our fearful dog who had bitten a child and was aggressive towards other dogs. If it hadn’t been for you, Molly would not have had a chance to improve. Ultimately, I believe her early puppyhood and temperament did not allow her to completely overcome her anxiety and aggression, but what we learned from her has given us many happy, fun, positive years with our other dogs. I am so grateful for your guidance, friendship, an mentoring. For a more detailed (and perhaps scientific response) see my blog: http://apositiveconnection.com/2013/07/why-be-positive-or-whats-wrong-with-a-correction/

    This and and several other of my blogs expound on the ideas you first introduced to me.
    Thank you!

  3. Hi Robin,

    I’ve been training for almost 8 years…so I started out learning only Positive Reinforcement. In reading your comment about how you didn’t want to teach your dog to fetch using the “ear pinching” method….what exactly is that? Im not saying I want to use it, but want to learn about what sounds like a negative training method, as sometimes I encounter clients who have used negative methods that I am unfamiliar with…so just want to know for my own learning purposes.


    • Hi Andrea, The ear pinch is one way to teach a dog to hold something in it’s mouth. Basically you apply pressure to the ear (by pinching the ear usually) causing the dog to yelp, and then quickly put a dumbbell or object in the dog’s mouth. When the dumbbell goes in the mouth, the ear pinch stops. So the dog learns “hold something in my mouth = no pain”, “have nothing in my mouth = pain”. If you are familiar with the four quadrants of learning you could classify this as negative reinforcement: you are stopping something bad (the ear pinch) in order to increase a behavior (the holding of the dumbbell). I couldn’t stand the thought of hurting my dog to teach him to hold the dumbbell so I opted out of that part of my dog training class, but didn’t know another way to teach it until several years later. Hope that helps.

  4. Welcome to the light. Thank you so much for writing about your transition to positive methods. Let’s continue to spread the word and maybe one day, dogs will no longer be subjected to pain in the name of training! Kudos to you!!!!

  5. I grew up in Missouri. The Show Me State. I still find it amazing to believe some think choking or hurting a dog is the way to train it. I rescued my dog Dru while doing mission work at a housing project. I taught her by slowly teaching her basics such as sit and fetch. She is a mixed breed and very quick to learn. I only reinforced what I wanted her to do. NEVER have I had to use pain. She started with treats and now does everything by praise. As the old TV show said , I guess it really is “different strokes” for different folks.

  6. Love hearing about your transition to clicker! I have been clicker training now for 10 years and tell people I was a ‘reluctant’ clicker trainer. I learned to train with choke collars, lots of praise, no food, and my dogs loved working with me. Like you clicker training was something I tried as a last resort when I was working with a noise sensitive dog that zoned out in large enclosed places. I had no doubt that clicker training worked; I knew the science it was based on, knew that it was sound, just didn’t want a ‘gadget’ between me and my dog. I began to click/treat my dog when he showed any sign of coming out of the zone. I was so impressed by the results that I began playing around with clicker with both my dogs. I decided to shape them to roll a ball. My eldest sheltie caught on quickly and in no time was batting it all over the living room. When I ended the session the look in her eyes was a look I had not seen since she had first begun training as a puppy, and that’s when I was sold!

  7. Thank you so much for sharing this. I’ve got a keeshond and I were never really ‘bad’ to him, but on the other hand I wasn’t that positive like I thought or wanted to be. When he was a puppy, I wanted to train him not to eat up things from the street. I knew the technique, but I got more ‘stringent’ when he did not understand what I wanted from him. I asked a friend of mine and she told me the exactly same way to do it, but one little sentence made the difference: handle it like a game. It took me a few days (what a shame…) but then I figured it out – a game is fun, you don’t get upset!

    He is 1 year and 5 months old now and I train him only with force-free and positive methods. We got absolutely no problems – and if something indicates I can handle it so fast with all these techniques… it’s just great. My dog is happy, and so am I.

    Greetings from Germany (sorry for my bad English)
    Sadako & Enno

  8. I am new to training for competition. I have had dogs all my life, but we never got past the cute tricks. Now I have a dog who LOVES to work with me. I say, lets go work and the excitement just springs into action. Having said that, my experience with training has been limited, however, included two extremes. My first comp obedience instructor is very much about the prong collars and pops of the collar to get the dog to simply comply, in an effort to not get popped. I wouldn’t put a prong on my dog, and that put me at odds with the trainer. A martingale was our compromise, but the pops were still there. That worked for a little while, it worked enough to get by and see some qualifying scores, but not perfect scores that I wanted. I also didn’t feel like my dog wanted to be in there with me. Then I took a seminar “play with a purpose”. It was eye opening. We can PLAY with our dog to teach it, AND get high scores? WOW!!!!! We went from several scores in the 170’s to a 197 the first trial after putting some of this “play” to use. Since then, my dog is more engaged, loves to get in the ring with me and overall we just have fun. I learned a valuable lesson in all of this. Not just that prong collars and pops aren’t helpful, but to be more aware of what is being trained and how it is being trained. To do the best for our dogs and just because someone is a trainer, it doesn’t mean that they have the final say in how things are done. 🙂

    • Great comments, Chrissy! Thanks for sharing that story and glad you found the best thing that works for you and your dog!

  9. I am what some would call a “balanced” trainer, as in I understand and utilize the applications of all 4 quadrants. I train the way I train for many reasons – ultimately, many of my clients (persons with disabilities) are unable to physically “handle” their dogs (to give a correction or to give a treat). Positive reinforcement methods utilizing a verbal reward mark and/or negative punishment are tools that my clients can utilize.

    Generally, I believe that task introduction is best accomplished with R+, but as training progresses, I need for those dogs to be able to work through stress. Significant stress. “My-owner-crashed-through-a-table-and-is-unconscious-on-the-floor” kind of stress. I can certainly create some stress with R+ (newbie clicker trainers inadvertently do it all the time), but each dog is stressed differently by different things. I can utilize all 4 quadrants to produce low-level stress (and gradually increase the criteria/level of stress to work through) to help my clients generalize the ability to work through stress of all sorts. Does the average pet dog need that ability? No. Does the average pet dog handler have the skill and desire to approach training that way? Certainly not. I suppose my bottom line is the right tool(s) for the right person for the right dog for the right job. It’s an equation with TONS of variables.

    As an aside, I generally don’t use clickers so much as verbal reward marks. I’m usually not caught without my voice, so I can mark behavior I like no matter where I am and what I’m doing! My pet dog clients (and my assistance dog clients) are not necessarily dexterous enough to juggle leash and treats and clicker with timing good enough to really be efficient anyway, so my beginner classes have ditched the clicker in favor of the verbal reward mark.

    I very much appreciate the tone with which you write. I enjoy your blogs and articles very much!

    • Thanks for your feedback, Beth. I can certainly understand what you mean and, like you, I do understand the 4 quadrants. I think we all use all four of them at some point, although admittedly I like some more than others. 🙂 I also do think it’s hard for people to use clickers sometimes. I often use verbal makers as well for those who prefer not having an extra training tool in their hands. I know it’s especially hard for those with disabilities. Thanks for all you are doing to help dogs and pet parents!

  10. Though I wasn’t yet a trainer, I was exposed only to choke, pinch & shock training. When I got bit personally by the dog training bug, you were presenting at the very first conference I attended about dog daycare. It was a fork in the road for me, I could have gone on to learn either method. You’re presentation set me on the path to reward based methods & I’m forever grateful!

    • AWWW…thanks so much for saying that, Jody! I had no idea. I respect all you have done so much and love what you are doing. I am humbled to be any part of what you are now doing! Thanks for letting me know!

  11. Great article – thanks

    Like you I’m a crossover trainer. The dog I mainly trained prior to clicker tends to lack enthusiasm for training though he is much better since I started clicker training. The other one, who was only subject to a couple of years of pre-clicker has caught on really quickly and loves it. He only has to see me get the clicker out to start bouncing around in anticipation of some training. I now try and pass my experience on to others.

    I would strongly recommend that everyone gives it a try

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