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Dog Days: Advances in Dog Training

by Belinda Recio

How our thinking about training has changed
During the last 20 years, much has changed in ethology—the scientific discipline that studies animal behavior. Thanks to advances in dog training research, we now know that non-human animals have complex emotional lives and incredible cognitive capacities. Knowing this has changed the way we think about all animals, including dogs, our proverbial best friends.
As our thinking about dogs has changed, so has our approach to training them. From Ancient Rome through the early 1900s, the prevailing paradigm involved breaking a dog’s wild spirit through physical force. In the early 1900s, a few trainers started to endorse the use of praise on occasion, but the predominant methodology was still negative reinforcement—punishing bad behavior with physical “corrections.” It wasn’t until the 1980s that training became dog-friendly, and included positive reinforcement, such as praise, affectionate touching and treats. Then, in 2004, Cesar Millan brought yet another approach to dog training—his “calm-assertive pack leader” technique, in which eye contact, aversive sounds, body language, and correction measures are used to establish human dominance.
Now science has taken a step into the training arena, providing validated data about canine behavior, the role of the trainer, the influence of the environment, and the efficacy of specific methods. Although this information will continue to change as scientists learn more about dogs and the human-dog relationship, it is comforting to know that we have the option of letting science—not trends—inform the way we live with and teach our dogs. Here are a few of the new thoughts about training that have emerged from recent research.
The Relationship
Sometimes it’s easy to forget that training is a two-way street: It involves a human and a dog. For the training to be successful, there has to be a strong bond between the dog and the person doing the training. Studies have shown that the trainer’s personality and mood can have a profound impact on training. Knowing this, we need to practice self-awareness and correct ourselves as much as our dogs. If we are tired or stressed out, it’s not a good time to work with our dogs.
If we’re not consistent—whether with praise or correction—it makes it harder for dogs to learn. And finally, if we don’t have the temperament to train, then we need to hand the job over to another family member or professional trainer.
Scientists have learned that dogs tell us through their movements and expressions what’s going on with them. Most of us have a sense of what some of these signs mean, such as tail wagging or the play bow. But there’s much more to learn. On the flip side, we provide subtle behavioral cues to our dogs all the time, often without realizing it.
Sometimes these cues can impact the outcome of our training by misdirecting the dog. We need to remember that our dogs are watching us as much—if not more—than we are watching them.
Play and Exercise
All work and no play not only makes Spot a dull boy, it can create canine behavior problems, too. Scientists have discovered that exercising and playing with our dogs elevates their moods, which can help prevent—and sometimes solve—behavioral problems, such as chewing and obsessive licking. Just like us, our dogs need something to do or they can get a little nutty. Exercise and play are essential for both physical and emotional health. Play also deepens the human-dog bond, which leads to better training.

Dog Training Resources & Goods 

Association of Pet Dog Trainers APDT offers a variety of free eLearning courses to members, clients and the general public. apdt.com
Zisc Take a dog Frisbee, kick it up a few notches, and you’ve got the Zisc. Ziscs are easy on canine jaws, but don’t skimp on durability. These fast-flying discs bounce, float and clean up in the dishwasher. Zisc is recyclable and made in the USA. westpawdesign.com
Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know by Alexandra Horowitz Horowitz teaches psychology, animal behavior and canine cognition at Barnard College, Columbia University. Here, she introduces the reader to dogs’ perceptual and cognitive abilities and then draws a picture of what it might be like to be a dog. books.simonandschuster.com/Inside-of-a-Dog
BELINDA RECIO, recipient of the Humane Society’s Award for Innovation in the Study of Animals, owns True North Gallery (truenorthgallery.net) in Hamilton, MA, where she exhibits art that connects people with animals and the natural world.

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