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How Science is Transforming Dog Training

A golden doodle puppy and a trainer at Doggy Business in Portland, Ore.
My dog, Alsea, has yet to encounter a human who didn’t look like me.

January is National Train Your Dog Month, but you can train your dog at any time! We have the best dog training recommendations to help you enjoy your dog's company!

A golden doodle puppy and a trainer at Doggy Business in Portland, Ore.
My dog, Alsea, has yet to encounter a human who didn’t look like me.

I’d read numerous books on rearing a dog, and they all agreed on one thing: socializing a puppy requires exposing her to as many people as possible between eight and twenty weeks. People with beards and sunglasses, people wearing fedoras and sombreros, people running, people dressed up for Halloween. Also, individuals of many nationalities. Not doing so may cause your dog to growl at persons wearing straw hats or huge sunglasses.

This emphasis on socializing is part of a new contemporary dog-raising technique. It rejects the dominating Cesar Millan–style approaches based on faulty research of wolf pack hierarchy. Those tactics worked well when I reared Chica in the early 2000s. In order to educate her that I was the pack leader, I studied books by the famed upstate New York trainers The Monks of New Skete, among others. Chica was a good dog, but she got disheartened quickly.

But I didn’t have much choice; there was a rising movement to educate dog owners about early socialization and rewards-based training, and many trainers who solely used positive reinforcement. Those days, treat-trained mongers would do anything for a cookie, but would ignore you otherwise. I taught my dog brutal love.

To my surprise, modern dog “parents” have access to a burgeoning product line of puzzles, engaging toys, workshops, and “canine enrichment” tools, which has helped lift the US pet sector to $86 billion in yearly sales. Choke collars, shock collars, even no are forbidden. It’s a new day for dogs.

How Science is Transforming Dog Training

Dog Training

The science behind these new strategies isn’t new: it’s based on learning theory and operant conditioning, which uses positive (adding) or negative (removing) reward. It also involves negative or positive punishment. A primer: Positive reinforcement is taking action (positive) to promote (reinforce) a behavior. Positive punishment is when a dog is scolded to cease an unpleasant behavior. A choke collar that releases tension when the dog stops pulling on it is negative reinforcement since it removes an unwanted consequence. It’s called negative punishment since you’ve removed a stimulus to reduce an unpleasant behavior.

Today’s science application is vastly different. The use of negative reinforcement and positive punishment actually slows a dog’s growth since they weaken its confidence and, more crucially, its bond with a handler. That is why dogs that are constantly corrected, especially physically, stop trying new activities.

These new tactics are backed by emerging scientific evidence that wolves (and their progeny, dogs) are not dominance-driven creatures. In 1947, a scientist named Rudolph Schenkel studied wolves, forcing animals from different groups into a tiny box with no prior interaction. They battled, of course, which Schenkel saw as a power struggle. The wolves were anxious, not seeking alpha rank, Schenkel was compelled to confess.

This was the conclusion of a research from Portugal released last autumn in the pre-print digital database BioRxiv (meaning it has not yet been peer-reviewed). The dogs from aversive schools showed much higher stress, both in visible ways (licking, yawning, pacing, whining) and in cortisol levels detected in saliva swabs.

These new discoveries are timely this year. Adoption of dogs has increased in the COVID-19 period, maybe because isolated Americans are seeking company and working from home makes nurturing a puppy viable. Before the pandemic, it was young city people driving the growth in demand for and supply of dog trainers who apply positive techniques, and an explosion in the proliferation of professional trainers around the globe. Millennials and Generation Z are lavishing money on pets: toys, food, puzzles, expensive harnesses, rain coats, life jackets, and training. Professional trainers like Denise Fenzi of Guide Dogs for the Blind have produced a legion of experimenters. Their canines learn faster when they employ less negativity in training.

Guide Dogs for the Blind handlers have eliminated practically all negative training methods in the last 15 years, with significant benefits. According to Susan Armstrong, the organization’s vice president of client, training, and veterinary operations, a new dog may now be ready to lead its person in half the time it used to take. As a result, you may have observed that even the most serious situations (like airports) seem to have more positive reinforcement. “I don’t believe you,” Armstrong says. I adore working dogs. They like being praised for excellent behavior. It’s serious but fun.”

How Science is Transforming Dog Training

The world of dog training beckoned to Susan Friedman, a psychology professor at Utah State University with a degree in special education. When she adopted a parrot in the late 1990s, she was horrified to learn that most of the available advice on raising a well-mannered bird required severe corrections: If it bites, drop it on the floor. If it is too noisy, completely darken the cage. If it tries to fly away, cut its wings. Friedman used her study and expertise to educate her parrots and learned it’s all about behavior. “No creature on Earth acts randomly,” she argues. “Why does a parrot bite your hand? Why would a kid scream at the toy aisle? How does the conduct expose the surroundings to both rewarding and unpleasant stimuli?

In the early 2000s, Friedman’s papers on positive reinforcement animal training met with skepticism. Friedman is now being asked to consult at zoos and aquariums all around the world due to a “groundswell of animal trainers” concerned about animal welfare. She stresses how better knowing an animal’s requirements may help trainers punish them less. Prior to going on to additional assumptions, she created a poster called the “hierarchy roadmap” last year to assist owners discover underlying causes and circumstances of behavior. However, they may be overly eager to penalize without first evaluating the reasons of bad conduct that may be addressed with less invasive ways.

Fast-changing profession, says Friedman In recent years, several trainers have urged owners to ignore a dog’s scratching at the door to be let out in order not to promote the habit. They hoped for “extinction,” that the dog would quit performing evil things for no incentive. But that’s a bad approach. What if it could be replaced? A come or a sit, given with a treat, is now recommended by most trainers. The dog not only loses the negative habit, but also learns a better one.

How Science is Transforming Dog Training

Training Your Dog

The world of dog training beckoned to Susan Friedman, a psychology professor at Utah State University with a degree in special education. When she adopted a parrot in the late 1990s, she was horrified to learn that most of the available advice on raising a well-mannered bird required severe corrections: If it bites, drop it on the floor. If it is too noisy, completely darken the cage. If it tries to fly away, cut its wings. Friedman used her study and expertise to educate her parrots and learned it’s all about behavior. “No creature on Earth acts randomly,” she argues. “Why does a parrot bite your hand? Why would a kid scream at the toy aisle? How does the conduct expose the surroundings to both rewarding and unpleasant stimuli?

In the early 2000s, Friedman’s papers on positive reinforcement animal training met with skepticism. Friedman is now being asked to consult at zoos and aquariums all around the world due to a “groundswell of animal trainers” concerned about animal welfare. She stresses how better knowing an animal’s requirements may help trainers punish them less. Prior to going on to additional assumptions, she created a poster called the “hierarchy roadmap” last year to assist owners discover underlying causes and circumstances of behavior. However, they may be overly eager to penalize without first evaluating the reasons of bad conduct that may be addressed with less invasive ways.

Fast-changing profession, says Friedman In recent years, several trainers have urged owners to ignore a dog’s scratching at the door to be let out in order not to promote the habit. They hoped for “extinction,” that the dog would quit performing evil things for no incentive. But that’s a bad approach. What if it could be replaced? A come or a sit, given with a treat, is now recommended by most trainers. The dog not only loses the negative habit, but also learns a better one.

How you can train your dog the right way

The discussion rages on. While positive reinforcement clearly speeds up the learning process for dogs, military and police dog trainers believe some reprimand is necessary to prepare an animal for duty. “Science-based leash punishments and pinch collars,” Hines adds. “Positive punishment is scientific.”

The goal, according to Hines, is to avoid severe and unneeded positive punishments that might harm the handler-dog bond. To avoid being screamed at, dogs that are frequently reprimanded will gradually decrease their range of activities.

The world’s Cesar Millans aren’t going away. But the positive group is expanding quicker. Hundreds of trainers attend “Clicker Expos,” an annual event hosted by the Karen Pryor Academy in Waltham, Mass. And Fenzi, another world-renowned trainer, teaches positive reinforcement techniques to over 10,000 students each term online.

It’s hard to argue with the fact that socializing is the most critical component of parenting a new puppy. Most trainers now advise owners to expose their dogs to new sights and noises between eight and twenty weeks of age. Most “bad” conduct stems from early socialization issues. Then, for two months, I took Alsea to weekly “puppy socials” at Portland’s Doggy Business, where trained handlers watch pups socialize and play with one another in a romper room full of ladders, hula hoops, and child-sized playhouses. These classes were introduced recently.

A vizsla puppy at Doggy Business in Portland, Oregon, on Jun. TIME/Holly Andres
I also brought Alsea to Wonder Puppy dog training lessons. In the first session, trainer Kira Moyer reminded her human pupils that advocating for our pets is founded on a greater awareness of science. Instead of criticizing your dog for whining, consider why it is happening. So, what? Can you offer them what they want while teaching them appropriate behavior?

Enrichment is another hot topic in dog training. My dog Alsea was fed from a food puzzle for the first six months she lived with me, rather than a standard dog dish, since she found it more cognitively fascinating. Simple ones like a round plastic plate with kibble scattered between ridges may be as intricate as the puzzles created by Swedish entrepreneur Nina Ottosson. To earn food, a dog may have to move a block, lift a lid, remove a barrier, or spin a wheel. Another typical root of “bad” canine behavior is boredom, a dog needing a task and taking it upon himself: going through the rubbish, barking at the postal delivery. Puzzles make mealtime a chore. “They nicknamed me ‘the crazy dog lady,’” Ottosson recalls. “No one thought dogs would eat puzzle food,” she adds. It’s not done anymore.

When Alsea was 4 months old, I took her to Ian Caldicott, a farmer who trains dogs and their handlers to herd sheep, in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. On of his classmates worked her own dog first. As the border collie made mistakes, her owner’s tone got tense and her reprimand harsher. “Turn away and listen,” Caldicott replied. “You can sense panic in her voice.”

Smart dogs can detect insecurity. It makes them doubt the handler’s abilities and assume they know better. Caldicott thinks the key to raising a successful sheepdog is creating trust between the two. The dog has to be corrected when it goes left instead of right, but most importantly, the handler and the dog need to be confident. Sheepdogs used to be forced to learn left and right. Now they’re given just enough direction to find their own way. “We want a self-aware animal. A competent herding dog knows more than you do. “Teach him you’re worth listening to,” Caldicott advises. “Those born believing they are the monarch of the universe, don’t take it away.”

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