There was a time where dog training took a page from wolf behavior research and pack theory. With the modification of pack theory research, dog training has dismissed it’s relevance to training, and positive reinforcement has replaced it long ago. However, there is a certain appeal to this type of dog training, not helped by the rise of a certain reality TV star with ZERO dog training certifications. As I’ve mentioned before this is in part due to the fact that there is no regulation in the dog training world and anyone can claim to be an expert trainer. So then what makes me the expert? I’m not, and you should be wary of anyone that boasts about their expertise. I learned decades ago in my IT career that the person claiming to know everything was not the person to go to for answers. Rather a consensus from the people who have repeatedly demonstrated past knowledge and skill would usually help me decide the best path forward. I’ve applied that same logic to my career as a dog trainer. I’ve provided an excellent article from the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior and a link to an excellent video called Tough Love. Note that most of trainers and behaviorists in this video came from a background of domination and punishment training. After all, that is how dogs were trained 50 years ago – with a stick. I know that some of you reading this loved Cesar or have been taught by someone still believing in dominance and pack theory. If you feel the necessity to rebuke my stance, understand this first; I’m not saying that dominance or a pack mentality doesn’t exist in the dog world. I just don’t think it is necessary in dog training. In fact I believe reward based training works better. It may take longer, but in the end I have a dog that truly understands which behaviors are appreciated and which are not. I also have a dog that is less likely to have developed unwanted fear or aggression and is my buddy. I think dominance training will serve you well if you’re looking to have a confrontational relationship with your dog, but that is not what I seek, nor is what any of my clients have asked for.
Some trainers are okay with using punishment because it often works faster, but it’s hard on the dog. They come out looking like stars at the dog’s emotional or physical expense. My personal opinion is that positive punishment is animal abuse. If you read my answer to which training program is best than you know I tried positive punishment. I’ll always carry that guilt, but at least I know I’ll never recommend it to a client. I recommend finding a trainer that is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT) or working towards their certification. Just to sit for the CPDT exam requires 300 hours of hands on training. CPDTs are primarily focused on positive reinforcement.
The key to finding a good training program is to find a good trainer. Unfortunately, training is not regulated in the United States, so anyone can be a self-proclaimed dog trainer. However, some trainers do seek certification. Currently, the gold standard certification in the industry is through the Certification Council of Professional Dog Trainers. Achieving certification through the CCPDTs requires a deep understanding of how dogs think and learn, at least 300 hours of training experience and the recommendation of another CCPDT trainer. You should also know that punishment training although still popular on TV is not the best initial approach – ever. All CCPDT trainers must agree to LIMA, which specifies “least intrusive, minimally aversive” techniques be tried first before introducing punishment. However, some certified trainers may still suggest punishment. Trainers that use positive reinforcement and punishment are referred to as balanced trainers. Personally, I have never found the need to use any positive punishment training methods.
This is one of the easier questions to answer. Start training ASAP. Seven to 16 weeks of age is the best time to begin training, but if you can start earlier while the pup is still with its mother and liter mates that’s even better. If your dog is an adult and you have unwanted behavioral issues, start training ASAP since the behavior is self-reinforcing and will continue to become stronger each day that you wait to start training.
Basic obedience is important for so many reasons it’s hard to decide what’s at the top of the list. Of course, most of us imagine training results in a dog that is well behaved and obedient, but the truth is that basic obedience is a spring board to so much more. Dogs that bark and lunge at other people or dogs when they’re out on walks often missed the opportunity to socialize as puppies, an overlooked and under emphasized component of training. In fact many behavioral issues that develop throughout a dog’s life are preventable with training and socialization. A couple of important points about basic obedience: 1) You should start at 7 – 8 weeks. From 7 – 16 weeks your puppy’s mind is like a sponge. You can fill it with knowledge about what you do and don’t like and teach your dog all kinds of skills with training. Without training your dog will do as he pleases and begin to develop behaviors that most of us don’t appreciate. 2) If you missed that ever so important window, it’s not too late, but every day that you delay training is another day your dog’s unwanted behaviors become stronger, since most are self-reinforcing. So just start as soon as you can.