Up until recently, dominance-based dog-training was extremely popular. The idea that dogs were trying to dominate their owners and that showing your dominance was the way to go was based on research into wolves’ pack behaviour, and seemed reasonably sound.
However, the research in question turned out to be hugely flawed. The ‘pack’ which was studied was not a natural pack, but a group of wolves taken from the wild, out of various roaming packs, and thrown together into captivity. Obviously, these wolves did not behave as a natural wolf-pack would. Wolves, it turns out, roam in family-based packs until the young go off to form their own. But more than this, it was discovered that wolves and dogs in fact behave very differently from each other, and that dogs do not seek to dominate their human friends at all.
From the ashes of dominance theory, then, rose positive training. And results have been staggeringly positive – if you’ll forgive an unavoidable pun. The first step to positive training for beginners is often to buy a clicker. These are cheaply available online and emit a two-toned clicking sound when pressed. The sound itself is not important, however; the clicker is used to mark the correct behaviour, for your dog. This lets him or her know that he or she has exhibited the behaviour expected from him or her, and make the connection between the command and the associated behaviour – for example, the command ‘sit’ and the behaviour of sitting down.
Your first job is to find a treat your dog enjoys. This could be pieces of dry kibble (while conventional kibble does not work as a treat for most dogs, high-quality grain-free kibble is often more successful as it is a genuinely tasty food, but you could use pretty much anything). Now ‘charge’ the clicker by making sure your dog knows a click means a treat will be forthcoming. At first, you do this simply by periodically clicking the clicker and giving your dog a treat. A simple exercise to start with is getting your dog to pay attention to you when called. Simply call his or her name, and when he or she looks at you, click and toss them a treat. This is also a very efficient way to change a dog’s name when you adopt a dog whose name you don’t like; where we once thought this change was exceedingly difficult, it’s now easy to change a dog’s name and help him or her enjoy the process, too.
Clickers can be used for anything from reinforcing basic commands to getting a dog over an irrational fear, and even help a dog associate something that previously elicited a fear-based aggressive response with the pleasant benefit of treats (although a good, positive-based dog behaviourist is always recommended when dealing with any type of aggression). What’s more; while you’re training your dog you’re effectively bonding with him or her, helping your dog associate you with positive things.
That said, using positive training does not mean letting your dog get away with everything he or she fancies. This is an oft-repeated criticism aimed at positive-based dog training, but is a fallacy. Corrections are generally mild, and often logic-based, but there is a lot of emphasis on ensuring your dog has everything he or she needs, too. For example, a dog who is too rambunctious may simply need more exercise, whether mental or physical, and a dog who has accidents in the house needs house-training from scratch, where he or she is either crated when not under supervision, or tethered to his or her owner when supervised so that you can constantly keep an eye out, take him or her outside frequently, and head straight for the door when the dog squats down for a wee.
A big downside of dominance-based training is the fact that dogs who are afraid become more so when ‘dominated’ by expedients such as violent leash-pops or ‘alpha-rolls’. A dog which becomes too frightened shuts down into a type of catatonia known as ‘being over threshold’ and while these dogs may look compliant on the television they are not, in fact, capable of learning anything from the situation while in that state. Behaviours such as alpha-rolling and leash-based violence can also cause serious injury in dogs if not done correctly.
With positive-based dog training, you can expect excellent results as well as an improved relationship with your dog. Enjoy!