Choosing a Dog Training Philosopy is Serious Business
Dog training philosophies are about how you treat your dog … indoors, outdoors, while having fun, in tough situations, when solving problems, in training and in life. So, it is important to understand the dog training philosophy you choose to use.
Not all dog training philosophies are the same, nor are they all equally advantageous. Just like there are better and worse ways to treat human beings, the way you train your dog has implications on his psychology, his behavior and his relationship with you. So, choose wisely.
Our dog trainers in Denver, Colorado, will bring you a cohesive, tested and proven approach to humanely training, living with, managing and handling your dog. Our tested and proven approach is simple to understand and applicable for nearly all aspects of dog ownership, from obedience training to solving behavior problems quickly.
Our approach to bring our dog training philosophy to you has three key ingredients:
- Teaching our clients to academically understand what an effective and positive human-canine dynamic is.
- Modeling that dynamic both in our dog training and in our work with the client.
- Coaching our clients to help them discover and achieve that dynamic with their own dogs.
Since our founding in 2009, we have gone from being dog training generalists to specialists, our expertise and focus shifting towards difficult dogs in difficult environments. We also have evolved from being novices to national leaders in one of our specialties – positive gun dog training. Thus, our approach to training dogs has also been refined over the years.
We are proud of the contributions we have made to bringing a much more positive approach to the difficult dogs and demanding training niches we specialize in. In striving to keep discomfort-inflicting equipment and overly harsh methods out of our training protocols, we have raised eyebrows around the country, and we frequently travel throughout the states to teach other trainers about our methods.
This page represents the current state of our training philosophy and our guiding principles for dog training.
To understand our training philosophy, and why we make the choices we do, it helps to understand the nature of our specialties. While we work with clients to solve many canine behavior problems, we really shine in two areas:
- Training pet dogs for off-leash, high-reliability obedience in high-distraction, prey-infested environments.
- Training bird-hunting dogs without the use of shock collars and the other aversive tools and techniques common in the gun dog training niche.
Given the difficulties presented by high-distraction, prey-infested environments, and the challenging personalities of the dogs (often independent-minded sporting breeds) we have become well-known for loving and training, we have striven to maintain the following guiding principles:
- To remain as positive as possible in our training protocols
- To ensure the dogs in our care are treated humanely
- To be honest with ourselves and others about our training philosophy
- To be willing to rigorously and honestly test and critique our training philosophy in real-world applications
- To remain unwavering in our pursuit of demonstrably excellent training
What Others Say About Our Training Style vs. What We Say About Our Training Style
Over the years, people have given various designations to our training style. Some of those designations are:
- R+ Only Trainers
- Positive Only Trainers
- Force Free Trainers
- Progressive Reinforcement Trainers
- LIMA (Least Intrusive, Minimally Aversive) Trainers
These designations usually are given to us by other trainers who adhere to philosophies and manifestos that use these terms. This is because they see commonality in our training approach. However, we try to avoid the use of these terms, as we have not been able to find any training manifesto, philosophy or term that clearly describes our approach.
So, we simply call ourselves “Positive Trainers.” We feel this term accurately describes the following:
- Our preferred approach to training dogs
- Our primary approach to training dogs
- The essence of the bulk of our training protocols
- Our aspiration to always become more positive in our training
However, we avoid attaching the suffix “only” to the word “positive.” We believe any dog trainer who says they do anything-only is either inexperienced and limited in their abilities, limited in the types of dog personalities they can succeed with, limited in the types of training goals they can achieve, limited in the types of training environments they can succeed in, or being dishonest. We do not want to fall into any of those categories.
While we are overwhelmingly positive in our approach, our use of the term “positive” does not mean that all we do falls into the Positive Reinforcement quadrant of canine learning theory. Such a guarantee – to use only positive reinforcement – is idealistic and theoretical, and we doubt that it is possible with all dogs in all environments. However, we do our best to get close to this ideal within reason.
Following is an explanation of what “positive training” means to us, and what you can expect from us if you hire FetchMasters to train your dogs.
Let’s Start With What We Don’t Do
- We do not use shock collars, choke chains, pinch collars or any other device intended to inflict pain, fear or discomfort in any stage of dog training. We also do not leash check dogs, throw noisy things at them or squirt them with water bottles. Our early education in dog training allowed for all of these methods, so we have studied about and used these devices and methods in the past. We have concluded that, for our specialties, these devices and techniques are unnecessary, avoidable and dangerous when used unskillfully or by amateurs. We travel the country teaching other trainers to train bird hunting dogs (a niche that largely is punitive) without the use of these devices and methods, and we think that avoiding these devices and methods makes for a much more pleasant and productive dog training experience — for dogs, their owners, and our trainers.
- We do not hit, kick or yell at dogs to train them. The only exception might be a justifiable self-defense situation, in which we are being bitten or are about to get mauled. Since we do not knowingly accept severely aggressive dogs into training, this sort of situation is not a likely one for us.
What We Do
- We primarily and mostly use positive reinforcement. We believe that positive reinforcement typically is the fastest, most humane, most motivation-increasing way to teach a new skill. It has very few limitations or dangers when used by professional trainers, amateurs or dog owners.
- We prefer to give positive methods a chance to be the only method we use to train a dog. Sometimes positive methods are all that are needed to accomplish training goals.
- Whenever possible, we try to wean dogs from treats in favor of praise or real-life rewards (getting what they most want if they first do what we ask them to do).
Our Attitude Towards Rewards
We believe animals are hardwired to use their behavior to obtain the things they want or need. While nature may punish an animal for doing something wrong (for example, getting too close to a porcupine), punishment is not the primary driver for animal behavior. Most of what an animal does of its own volition at any given moment is to obtain some sort of reward: food, safety, a mate, a desirable social interaction, a resource, etc.
Some trainers espouse the Do-As-I-Say-Because-I-Said-It approach to training dogs. However, just as humans do not like to work for free, dogs (and other animals) grow weary of working without reward.
Summarized, we believe a rewards-based approach (and the reward may be something other than treats) is the most biologically/psychologically correct way to pursue training dogs.
Our Attitude Towards Punishment
The topic of punishment is a difficult one amongst dog trainers. Many passionate disputes are waged in our circles about which punishments are acceptable and which are not, and there are many opinions about whether punishment is necessary at all.
In truth, even the trainers who claim to be positive reinforcement-only or force-free often have instances of punishment inadvertently (sometimes unwittingly) mixed into in their training, as a punishment technically is something a dog does not like. For example:
- If a dog jumps up to grab a treat from your hand, and you pull your hand away to teach him that he must keep his feet on the floor to receive the treat, you have punished the dog by taking away what he wants. This is called “negative punishment.”
- If a dog pulls on his leash, and you stand still, allowing the pressure to remain on the dog’s neck or harness until the dog steps back and quits pulling on the leash, you have used a punisher (the pressure) to teach the dog that pulling brings the walk to a stop. This is called “negative reinforcement.”
- In fact, if a dog wants to run free, and you put him on a leash and restrict his freedom, you may be punishing him in a sense by keeping him from what he wants.
So, avoiding punishment altogether is a tricky (if not impossible) thing to do. And sensible people would agree that the above examples of punishment are not abusive.
Our specialty is developing highly functional obedience in high-distraction environments. It is rare to find trainers who can achieve the level of reliability we do without eventually resorting to using shock collars to “proof” the dog. However, as good as we are at avoiding the use of punitive equipment, we have not found it possible to train every dog personality type in strenuous environments using only positive reinforcement (rewarding the dog for doing what you want).
While striving to stay as positive as we can and avoid the use of the aversive tools and techniques listed above, here are the things we have found to be true in our specialties regarding punishment.
- Positive punishment (meaning to inflict some sort of discomfort on a dog) is not a great approach, as: 1) it jeopardizes your relationship with the dog by causing the dog to fear you; 2) it comes with the risk of unforeseen negative associations; 3) dogs tend to toughen up to it, making it become less effective over time; 4) it runs the risk of becoming inhumane (although it is not our argument or position that all positive punishment is abusive); 5) it is especially risky when used to address behavior problems in fearful dogs. To summarize, it is our opinion that overt positive punishment is best left alone if at all possible.
- Negative punishment (meaning to take something the dog wants away – or sometimes to take the dog away from something it wants) is usually more humane than positive punishment. Negative punishment is a good tool when dealing with some behavior problems. However, it has only a few limited uses in our obedience training. While we use it from time to time, it is not something we rely heavily on to make major changes in a dog’s behavior.
- Situational Punishment (a term we are coining for this discussion) sometimes creeps into training. For example, if a dog is on a 30-foot long lead, and he decides to break his sit-stay to chase a squirrel into a nearby street, the dog is going to self-punish by hitting the end of the long-lead, and there is not much the trainer can do about it. We do what we can to avoid such situations and to adequately prepare the dog before putting him to that sort of test, but dogs have minds of their own, and they sometimes make decisions we have tried to train them not to make. No trainer can avoid every potential discomfort to a dog – especially when training in the kinds of environments we work in
The Flavor of Our Training
In addition to making life with a dog much more pleasant, good training can also save a dog’s life. So we consider training to be very serious business. Because of this, we bring several attitudes to our dog training that we feel increase our odds of solving tough real-world problems and creating reliable obedience in difficult environments. Here are a few of those attitudes:
- We are not overly giddy. Dogs are not only capable of understanding what we say, but they also tend to understand how we say it. So we modulate our tone from sometimes being excited (which can serve to motivate or even reward a dog) to a more authoritative and decisive tone (to let the dog know we are serious). The world is not all rainbows and unicorns, and neither are we.
- We are not afraid to say “no.” Some trainers believe that saying “no” to a dog is unacceptably negative. We feel that this is an extreme position, and that it omits an important part of the spectrum of communication dogs can understand. We teach dogs that “no” is a marker indicating they are doing something we do not want them to do, and that should to cease that activity. The dog is then re-directed to a desired, rewardable behavior.
- Positive does not mean permissive. Being positive with a dog does not mean being a pushover. We feel it is important to set boundaries with dogs and then enforce and reinforce those boundaries. The boundaries differ from owner to owner, family to family, and dog to dog. But whatever boundaries are decided upon, they should be consistently maintained. Ultimately, dogs are just trying to get what they want or need. However, to live peaceably and safely in human society, they need to learn alternate ways (ways other than crossing well-defined boundaries) to get what they want or need – just like people do.
- Obedience commands are rewarding but not optional. There are times when what a dog wants to do is far more rewarding than anything we have to offer the dog for obeying. It is at this point that basic positive reinforcement training begins to break down. Some dogs have a personality type that wants to please you, and they naturally will cooperate with you. Other dogs are more independent and will choose pursuing their own drives over your desires. For such dogs, we must have a way to “proof” their behavior, which equates to teaching them that what we ask is rewarding but not optional. We do this through a process we call redirection or repositioning.
Some dogs are happy to do whatever you ask of them. Others, If they are to cooperate with us in difficult environments, must learn that what is being asked of them is not optional. This process of teaching this is called “proofing.” We typically do not proof a behavior (an obedience command, for example) until the dog fully understands what we want and that what we want is rewarding.
Once the dog has been trained to perform an obedience command to a pre-defined performance level, we will begin teaching the dog that it is not his job to decide when the command (a sit-stay for instance) is over. We will do this by quickly bringing a dog back to the exact spot we placed him when he leaves that position.
This process can be positive-ish. But, while we try to do this as nicely as possible, it can sometimes be a struggle to pull a dog from his own agenda and get him back on ours. This is especially true if the dog is too driven towards his own agenda to be distracted, lured or called back into position with a treat, which is often the case with very determined dogs – the kind we specialize in.
This process can sometimes temporarily stress a dog, as the dog is in essence being compelled to leave his own agenda and return to ours. Just as a large portion of human stress is caused by not getting what we want, dogs can feel stress when they are prevented from pursuing what they want. So just as humans must patiently forego what we want from time to time, a well-behaved dog should have this ability too.
That said, the stress usually melts away as soon as the dog realizes that doing what we ask results in reward, sometimes even getting to pursue its own desires. In the end, dogs who are never inhibited from pursuing their own agenda run the risk of becoming pushy, intolerable and lacking in meaningful impulse control. Such dogs rarely have obedience that rises above the level of a parlor trick.
We feel our approach to proofing a dog’s training is both humane and necessary for some dogs in some environments. While our process for proofing dogs cannot always be defined as positive, we do feel it is humane, quickly understood by the dog, and worth whatever temporary stress it causes the dog, as it eliminates our need for using of shock collars, choke chains, pinch collars and physical violence towards dogs to solidify their obedience.
Frankly, our approach to proofing a dog’s training is largely what makes us feel uncomfortable committing to designations such as “force free,” “positive-only,” etc. However, when we consider alternative ways of accomplishing the difficult job we do, we are proud that we have been able to shake off so many of the aversive tools and techniques that are common in this industry.
If anyone is able to train high-drive, high-strung dogs in high-distraction, prey-infested environments using gentler methods than we do, we stand ready to learn from them.
We hope this helps you understand our approach to, and our attitude towards, training dogs. If you have further questions, please do not hesitate to call us.