A Dog Trainer's Musings

What type of trainer are you?

Heh - someone asked me the other day "what is your training style and method?" - and I did not know how to answer that.

I don't prescribe to a system/style and/or method - I am a dog trainer, the dog I have in front of me determines how we train.

Do I use positive reinforcement? Yes, I do.

Do I use negative reinforcement? Yes, I do.

Do I correct a dog (positive punishment)? Yes, I do.

Do I use negative punishment (withholding reinforcer)? Yes, I do.

Do I use aversives? Well, it depends, first of all we need to acknowledge and understand that the trainer (the teacher) does not decide what is or what is not aversive - the dog (the student) does.

And please stop claiming certain tools are aversive - no tools are aversive - how these tools are used can be aversive - and that applies to all tools, including food.

One of my clients referred to me as being a "result based trainer", whatever that means.

As it says on the front page of my website;

"I firmly believe that a dog trainer should never stop learning, nor should trainers lock themselves into any particular belief systems, training protocol or methods."

"Dogs are all different, there is absolutely no "one size fits all" when it comes to dog training, and the trainer must have the knowledge and be flexible enough to make the required adjustments accordingly."

"It also incredibly important to understand how dogs think, how they see the world, what they actually are - as a species."

"We have to look at it from the dog's point of view, and you will now discover that the human's point of view and the dog's point of view, is in many cases, 180 degrees opposite to each other."

"That means you might be rewarding or reinforcing the opposite of what you actually are rewarding or reinforcing."

But, how I train changes as I learn more, espescially when it involves aggression, fear and "reactivity", getting a much better understanding of the neurological processes involved, how certain neurotransmitters when activated, causes the reaction, and how we can use that to our advantage.

How I deal with these issues today, is vastly different from how I dealt with them only a couple of years ago.

That's what continuing education, learning from experts in their field such a neurobiologists, neuropsychologist etc comes into it.

So, have I kept up with the first sentence "I firmly believe that a dog trainer should never stop learning..."

Judge for yourself, this some of it - yes, there is more, I never stop;


I've been thinking about "reward based trainers" lately....

I've been pondering lately over how, during the last few years, a lot of trainers label themselves as being "rewardbased" - why?

All training is "rewardbased" in some form or another, and if you understand Thorndikes Theory aka Laws of Learning and Animal Learning Theory, then this would be, well, pretty obvious.

Heh - "Training the Dog" by Robert S. Lemmon, published in 1914, describes how important it is to use positive reinforcement duing training.  That doesn't mean that there weren't room for improvements in the way dogs were trained though.

The days of compulsion based training is well and truly in the past - and that is a very good thing.

Yes, I'm am aware that there still are some dinosaurs around, although I haven't seen or heard much of them here in this countryas compared to countries where there are a lot of dog training franchises where the franchisees only gets a few weeks of training, and they can now call themselves "dog trainers".

And no, I'm not saying there is anything wrong by labelling yourself as a "reward based trainer", I just don't see the need for labels.

I am a dog trainer, that's it, nothing more, nothing less.

What I do have a problem with, are the extremists at either ends of the spectrum, one extreme pretty much physically abusing the animal in order to get it to comply, breaking it's trust in the process, the other extreme killing the dog with kindness, refusing to refer a case to another trainer when their preferred training methodology fails, and instead either medicating the dog or worse, having the dog put down.

These are the "you do not say NO to your dog" types, "reward behaviours you want to see more of" (which is correct), and ignore behaviours you do not like.  The latter is wrong on so many levels, including neurological, which I won't go into here, but it also shows that these people have not seen what that can lead to.

I have seen owners with serious bite wounds to their legs, arms, hands and face - all because they did not want to say NO to the dog.

Adolescent dogs literally walking all over the owner, biting their face, young dogs chasing the owners off the couch, biting them if they don't get what they want.

Remember, dogs are opportunistic predators, if you treat a dog like a human, it will correct you like a dog, because that's all they know.

I guess some people would then say that the dog should be euthenized, so now you are killing the dog because it is behaving like, well, a dog......when rehabilitating such an animal is, in most cases, actually not that difficult, as these behaviours have been created and reinforced by the humans.

Some times you just gotta say NO, but you have to know how to in a meaningful, none abusive manner.

November 12th 2022

When common sense are in very short supply....

I was at my vet a few days ago (without my dog), the door all of a sudden swings open and a German Shepherd walks in way ahead of the owner, which is not great in itself, but to make matters worse, the dog was on a retractable lead and proceeded to head straight towards an elderly lady sitting there with her small dog on her lap.

The owner of the GSD was not even through the door, and he says "it's ok he's friendly".

That small dog did not appreciate the close encounter with the GSD and let the dog know so in no uncertain terms causing the owner to finally retract the leash and retreat to the other

end of the waiting room.

Oh, did I mention that the GSD was also wearing an ill-fitting harness which was way too loose?

That owner was seriously lucky this time, what if there had been more dogs waiting?

What if the dog waiting was large, stressed out, not feeling well etc etc, it is after all a veterinary clinic?

November 2021

Negative Reinforcement (R-) and the fearful dog - May 31st 2020

 I was asked by the owner to assess her two-year-old male Catahoula/Bull Arab dog, who was apparently “very timid” and was “charging the fence”.

When I arrived, the dog came running, barking and lunging towards me, but it was obvious to me that this dog did not want to bite me; he was telling me “go away, go away, please go away” – which I didn’t.

Taking a step towards him, made him immediately back away, his body language was telling me that this behaviour came from insecurity and fear.

I always completely ignore my client’s dog(s) when entering their premises, I don’t acknowledge them at all, which was what I did on this occasion.

The dog kept on circling us as we sat outside talking about what was going on, and it became very obvious as to why this dog was the way he was when I heard his background story. A truly sad story which I am not going to go into here.

When taking his background into consideration, it became clear why he was suspicious and fearful of people, he had very, very good reasons as to not trust humans at all.

Now, a lot of people, including other trainers, would try to use food to coax the dog closer to them, that might work with less fearful dogs, but it won’t change the mindset of the dogs.

I wanted to show him that being closer to me was better than being away from me.

Let me stress here that unless you know what you are doing and your ability to read dogs are better than average, do not try this.

I got the owner to gently put a slip leash on the dog, which she then handed to me.

Standing up, but in such a way that the dog understood, from my body language, that I was not a threat to him, I applied just enough leash pressure to match his power, I never pulled on the leash – doing so would have made the situation worse.

So now it was waiting game, he eventually took a tiny step towards me, just enough to release the pressure, I shortened the leash just a fraction, and we repeated the exercise over and over again during the next 10 – 15 minutes or so.

In the end he took a big step towards me and took food from my hand.

At that point the owner removed the slip leash from him, he walked away, had a big “shake off”, his body language went back to neutral, and within seconds he was standing right next to me, dropping his head in my lap and gave me permission to pat him.

So, in this particular case, using negative reinforcement, eventually combined with positive reinforcement, showed him that going towards me was much better than going away from me. It was, in the end, his choice.

Does this mean that this dog is now “fixed”? Far from it, it will take a lot of work and a lot of effort by the owner in particular, and chances are that he will never be completely rehabilitated, but we have planted the seed that not all humans are assholes, and that’s a start. 😊

Some sections of the training community are vehemently against using R-,  and quite frankly, by doing that, they are,  in my opinion, failing the animal.

May 31st 2020

February 11th 2020.

I love dogs, so they must love me....

My boy Zelic, an entire male Rottweiler who weighs in at around 55kgs (121 pounds) had to have some minor surgery yesterday, - nothing serious - and his fine, however......

There he was, slightly groggy, just wanting to go home, and I'm in the doorway to the consulting room with him, about to walk him out, when an elderly gentleman moves in towards him with a Cavalier just in front of him.

I stepped up in front and asked him to watch out, he looks down and finally realises that his little dog a getting a bit too close for comfort to Zelic. Let me stress that Zelic is not dog aggressive in any way shape or form, but, considering the circumstances, i was not about to let any dog close to him - period.

You would have thought that would have been the end of it, but no.

This very elderly gentleman obviously really loved dogs as he had been going around "saying hello" to the other dogs in the waiting area, so after I asked him to step back, he reaches across, trying to get to Zelic - I stepped in between them and told him in a firm voice "NO". To which he replied, "I only want to say hello to him". 

He obviously was not going to take no for an answer, so I put on my best, serious dog trainer voice and said "NO, YOU DON'T" and as I shut the door I heard him say "I don't?"

It doesn't matter how much you love dogs, you loving dogs does not mean all dogs will love you - or appreciate you invading the personal space.

Under normal circumstances, and if this guy had asked, I might have allowed him to say hello to my dog - but at the vet, straight after surgery? No way.

Don't be afraid of standing up and advocating for your dog!

"It's in his walk".......

Have you ever wondered why at least some dogs are more weary of males than of females?

Men and women have very different gaits—and viewers tend to perceive stereo-typically masculine motion as approaching, whereas a feminine saunter seems to move away. 

As reported in the journal Current Biology, volunteers were asked to guess the direction of motion of point-map figures, in which the image of a walker’s body is reduced to a few dots at his or her major joints.

The figures are the same from the front and back—so they could theoretically be perceived as walking either toward or away from the viewer—but volunteers perceived the swaying hips and protruding elbows of a feminine walk as moving away, and they saw neutral and masculine gaits as coming nearer.

The researchers suggest that because men offer more of a threat, our ancestors may have benefited from assuming that a male figure was walking toward them—that way the observer could get ready to flee or fight.

But as children, early humans may have been better off assuming that a woman, perhaps their mother, was walking away—then, they would need to follow. 

You can find the study here: https://www.cell.com/current-biology/fulltext/S0960-9822(08)00811-7

December 31st 2019

A bit of a rant - October 30th 2019

A dog trainer's Sunday afternoon musings:

September 22nd 2019.

Different types of pressure used in dog training;

1️⃣ Leash - applying pressure to direct animal to move in a certain direction, to do certain behaviours.

Remember, a leash becomes a "lead" - that means we use the lead to guide the dog - where the lead points is where we want the dog to go or perform a behaviour such as "sit".

In the former the lead is pointing in a horizontal direction, in the latter, it is pointing upwards.

2️⃣ Spatial - using our body, moving towards the dog, or putting our weight forward on the ball of our feet applies the pressure, and we can move the dog, or put the dog into "down" from a "sit" without any forms of pressure or commands.

3️⃣ Social - this includes eye contact, body language in general, tone of voice and so on - this can be very powerful, and overlaps somewhat with "spatial" as we are able to "claim space" or otherwise trigger certain behaviours.

❗️But here's the most important bit; when using pressure, we need to teach the animal to 

yield to the pressure ‼️

how to escape the pressure (negative reinforcement) ‼️


how to avoid the pressure and pair this with positive reinforcement.‼️

💯Not teaching the animal how to avoid the pressure is seriously unfair to the dog!

Are you using a "gentle leader aka a halti"?

❗️Guess what, you're using pressure.

‼️E-collar? Same thing, however, with this tool, the dog must first learn this new, and different "language".

💣Remember; whatever tool, or type of pressure that you are using, teaching the dog how to escape and avoid it, is not optional - it is a must.💣

❗️If you do not understand this concept, or are struggling with communicating with your dog - contact a professional trainer in your area.

Your dog will thank you for it.💯

"You make it look so easy!"

"You make it look so easy!" clients in my one-on-one programs, or students in the group classes often exclaim when they have been struggling with an exercise, as they watch me take the leash and the dog just does what I want him/her to do. :)

Do I have some mystic powers, a secret sauce, am I a "whisperer"? :)

We start with a clean slate.

I deliberately ignore the dog(s) I will be working with, that in itself tend to confuse the dog as he/she comes to the realisation that their normal antics to get attention or get away with "bratty" behaviour, just doesn't work any more.

Nope, none of the above, the reason most trainers can make it look easy is due to a number of reasons such as experience, confidence - and in my opinion, the most important ingredient; I have no previous emotional connection to the dog.

Ground rules have been established and a boundary set, the dog looks and reads my body language, picks up on my calm, confident demeanour, and thinks "ahh, you know what you're doing - ok, show me what do you want me to do?"

So the dog might work beautifully for me, but the handler is still struggling once I hand the dog back - why?

Because of previous history and existing emotional connection - the dog knows what he/she has been able to get away with in the past, and will continue to push the boundaries unless the handler steps up and shows the dog confident leadership.

Oh, don't tell anyone - trainers quite often find it more difficult to train their own dogs too. :)