Animal training methods

Whether you're going to hire a dog trainer or teach your dog yourself, learn the 3 approaches for training a dog.

So you decided to add a dog to your family. Congratulations. And you've finally gotten settled with young Fido, but now that you've been able to spend some quality time with him, you realize that there may be more to pet-ownership than you considered.

Training a dog can be one of the most arduous tasks of pet-ownership, but it's necessary in order to keep your family and your dog happy - and you, sane! There are a few different approaches families can take to train a pet. We spoke with Dr. Sophia Yin, applied animal behaviorist and executive board member of the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (ASVAB), and Dr. Mary Lee Nitschke, president of Owner Trained Individualized Service Dogs (OTIS), about how to train a pet.

Every celebrity dog trainer and pet manual seems to advocate a different style for teaching your pup. Though it seems confusing at first, they all boil down to three main techniques: the traditional dominance method, the scientific method and the positive reinforcement method. The first two are the most widely used methods, and science-based training is becoming more popular, as veterinarians continue to research and understand dogs and what makes them tick - and wag.

Traditional Dominance Training

According to Dr. Yin, the traditional method of training became popular around World War II, when the military used force to train dogs and ensure that they followed commands. Usually, trainers "make the assumption that dogs behave badly because they are trying to gain higher rank [than the trainer]." Instead, Yin argues, trainers are putting dogs in a "conflict situation", where the dog "is likely to make a mistake". Traditional trainers will use corrections such as yanking a leash when attempting to get a dog to heel or using a shock collar to assure a dog stays within limits.

Yin notes that when this method is successful, "it's usually only successful for the one person in the household who is strong enough or intimidating enough" to control the dog - generally, the male of the home. This traditional method has come under scrutiny in recent decades however, because "the actual result is often that the dog's behavior is suppressed and the dog has a more subdued personality since it lives to avoid the corrections, " says Yin.

The Koehler method, developed by William Koehler and Diane Baumann, is the most steeped in traditional training, as it encourages punishment or physical stimulus (like pulling on a leash) to grab the attention of a distracted dog. While this method does use reinforcement in the form of praise, it differs from science-based training, which uses negative reinforcement as opposed to punishment. The two differ because negative reinforcement refers to taking away a negative stimulus, while punishment involves adding something aversive to the situation to decrease the likelihood a certain behavior will be repeated.

Similarly, popular dog trainer Cesar Millan would probably fit best in the traditional training category, as he uses dominance theory in his training methods. Dominance theory draws much of its principles from information gathered from studies done on wolf packs, and has become somewhat controversial since Millan's show, "The Dog Whisperer", has brought more attention to it. Some argue that dogs and wolves are very different, and therefore information gathered on wolves is inapplicable to dog training methods. Furthermore, many opponents of this method point to studies showing that wolf packs don't have "alpha " individuals at all. On the other side of the fence, many swear by this method and Millan's philosophy has gained popularity and a strong following by many dog owners.

Scientific Training

Dr. Nitschke argues that "there are more effective, quicker, more humane techniques, based on the appropriate control of resources, use of good communication interaction patterns and positive techniques, which are more effective and have better durability." In the science-based method, rewards are given when the dog performs adequately and taken away for unwanted behaviors. This kind of training is reminiscent of the behavioral perceptive of B.F. Skinner (a noted American psychologist and behaviorist), in that negative reinforcement and positive reinforcement are applied. Nitschke says this method involves trainers working "with the dog" instead of simply commanding the dog.

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