The two most asked questions from neophyte dog owners or owners with training problems are usually what is the best way to train my dog, and how do I get my dog to do what I want him to do and not do what I don’t want him to do?
The answer to the first question is there is no one best way that applies to all dogs, but for each individual there will be a way that is best or at least better suited to that individual dog. Find that way and you have the answer to the second question. And that is where dog training becomes an art.
There are two schools of dog training. One is the “Be the leader.” This is also thought of as the top dog approach because “leader” has come to mean the dominant one in the dog/person relationship. The idea is the dog simply does exactly what it is told or consequences follow.
This training is the military style—you do it now, quickly, without question, or you’ll wish you had. There is little or no thinking involved. The dominant one tells his subordinate who tells his subordinate who is left to kick at the stones on the path.
In dog training this is variously called breaking, force training, force breaking, negative/positive learning, negative/negative and various other descriptive names. This type of training is preferred when the dog must adhere to strict rules of performance such as field trials, field tests and most dog sports where the situation is as nearly identical for each dog as possible.
It is generally micro-management of the dog’s actions, like not being allowed up the stairs first, out of a door first, having to sit for several minutes with his food in front of him but not allowed to eat until told to and other mundane, “show him who is boss” scenarios.
The other type of training is reward-based, directed trial and error, or conditioning based training. In this type, the dog is rewarded for everything he does perceived as being correct. Errors or mistakes are ignored and simply not rewarded. The theory behind this training is, if a behavior or a response is rewarded it will tend to be repeated the next time the situation is encountered.
Those behaviors or responses not rewarded will tend not to be repeated and disappear, referred to as extinguishing. Presumably, the dog will weigh his options and continue only those things that are rewarded and discontinue those which are not. Names like shaping, positive reinforcement training, cognitive learning, positive/positive training, and other names, all implying a “paid for work done” situation.
This type of training promotes rapport between dog and trainer and so is preferred for companion dogs and service dogs and those hunting dogs that will never compete in trials and tests. The dog understands what he is doing and why. He uses his cognitive powers to solve problems. Most importantly, the dog learns how to learn and problem solve.
A friend in Germany spent some time every evening teaching his dog to bring things he named such as “my slippers,” among many other things. One evening while hunting he returned to his car across a bare field, but when he wanted to unlock his car he had no keys. He remembered he had pulled his handkerchief from his pocket out in the field and figured he must have dropped the keys at that time.
He told his dog to bring his keys. She had never heard the word keys before or retrieved them during house games. She left him in the dark and returned after a very long time holding the keys in her mouth. This is inference learning, the sort of thing that has only been ascribed to humans. The dog heard a name she never heard before and when she found the keys smelling like her person and it was something she had never seen before, she inferred the name “keys” referred to the things lying in the field and brought them.
Had she not had all the training that taught her how to learn, she would not have been able to add up all the things and get the right answer. The more positive training a dog gets, the more he will be able to learn and solve problems on his own. Such a dog will be worth his weight in pheasant breasts when hunting wild birds in the Midwest.
Which of the two basic techniques is best suited to your dog is still dependent on what you want your dog to be and the temperament of your dog. If your dog is from field trial/test lineage with a ton of ribbons and championships behind him, and if you want to have him excel in dog sports, your best bet is the no-nonsense, strict training approach.
The dog will have little room for problem solving. He will be the perfect machine for what you want. These are the professional athletes of dogdom. An example of this type of training I saw was used to keep a dog out “searching for a duck” for the desired 10 minutes. The dog, wearing an e-dollar, was sent out into swimming depth water ostensibly to find a shackled duck which had been released out there somewhere.
The dog swam out about 50 yards encouraged by low level shocks. Each time the dog turned toward the handler it got a noticeable shock. As long as the dog swam away from the handler there were no shocks. After 15 or so minutes of swimming the dog was called in. Having been shocked several times it quickly learned to stay out in the water until called in. The dog passed the test the next day, had perfect scores and was invited to the versatile championship testing.
If your dog can’t handle force training, or you are not into competitive dog sports, the positive approach would be best. This training doesn’t require perfection. Approximations are satisfactory, at least at the start.
Any step in the right direction is reinforced with a reward. Mistakes are ignored and never rewarded. The reward can be anything the dog likes.
In this type of training the dog is working for a payoff. Whatever the dog is rewarded for will be repeated; what is ignored and not rewarded drops. The reinforcing rewards are gradually discontinued until they are off the table and the performance alone becomes the reinforcement for the dog (and for the handler, of course) with only the occasional treat or pat or hug.
The training technique, with all the variations, that you use will be the handler/trainer’s call, keeping in mind what is wanted for the dog and his person, the temperament of the dog, and importantly the temperament of the owner/trainer. But the biggest consideration in all this must be the dog and what works best for him.