There has been a lot of talk again regarding certain training tools and methodologies that seem to get everyone’s panties in a twist. Words such as “cruel” and “aversive” get thrown around. People on both sides get upset and the mud starts to fly.
It’s no secret that I prefer force-free methods and methods that build behavior rather than suppress it. I’m not a fan of shock collars, prong collars, choke chains, or any device or training theory that might damage my relationship with my dog. However, I refuse to demonize those who choose to use them especially if they are utilizing the devices properly. Of course, there are plenty of people out there who simply do not know how to properly utilize these tools. Unfortunately for them, they are often the ones who are “attacked” when they choose those methods which puts them on the defensive and makes them deaf to any suggestions you might make for the better. Many of them suffer from ignorance; they simply don’t know any better. Going on the offensive with those people will not make them change their ways!
For example, an e-collar (or shock collar) is used to proof behavior more than train it. It is not a remote control for your dog nor should it be utilized as a way to tell your dog “No” all the time. Buzzing or stimming your dog when he jumps up on people is NOT a proper way to use the device and may cause unintended consequences should your dog begin to associate the discomfort with meeting other human beings. I think even electronic collar advocates would agree that you shouldn’t be pressing the button frequently when working with your dog. If you are, then you need to go back to training the proper behavior.
Then there are other situations where people get upset because the dog might be put in a situation it is unable to handle in the name of training. Their concern is that we cannot tell exactly what the dog is thinking at that moment and might inadvertently cause undue harm to the dog by using that method. This is most often brought up in regards to any training method resting in the negative reinforcement quadrant. Again, I feel the issue here is more the trainer using the method rather than the method itself. If you don’t know how to do it properly, you can certainly end up making the behavior worse!
However, negative reinforcement training does increase the behavior you want if implemented correctly. It also gives a dog control over his environment: if I do this, the thing I am not a huge fan of stops happening. You must be a skilled handler and good at reading your dog to utilize this properly, however. The other potential problem is that you must add an aversive of some sort from the get go so that you can release that pressure when the dog performs properly. THIS is the sticky spot many people have a problem with. How aversive is the stimulus to the dog? I haven’t met a dog yet who is a good liar. 😉 Most dogs are pretty easy to read in regards to how they feel about a certain situation. Still, it is impossible to know how much an event upsets a dog and you do run the risk of fallout with using a method like this. How much of a risk depends on the dog and your skills with the method. Despite that, I am still a fan. I like the “treat and retreat” method of helping a dog overcome its fears. Move closer to the scary thing and earn a reward AND the distance away from it that you really wanted to begin with. I tend to think of it along the lines of a real-life reward or simply giving the dog what he really wants. You just have to walk the very fine line between “I can handle this” and “OMG this is too much!” (Which, consequently, is the exact same line you walk when you use classical conditioning.)
It often comes down to “Will doing this allow me to sleep at night?” You have to do what you feel comfortable with and, ideally, what will make your dog happy. You want to build a strong, positive relationship with your dog so that he will want to work with you. Not fear you. Not do it because the alternative is worse than following your orders. Sometimes we make the wrong choice for our dog and we have to live with the consequences. We all make mistakes. That’s how we learn. Once we have learned how to work with our dogs better, however, we need to remember where we came from and the mistakes that we made lest we jump to conclusions and attack those who simply haven’t made the same discovery we have yet. Be open-minded, gentle, and respectful. Just because you don’t use that method doesn’t inherently make it wrong. Besides, I have always found I can learn something from anyone whether I train their way or not.