One of the most important, and most debated, topics on the subject of dog training is: positive reinforcement vs. correction.
There is a wide spectrum of dog training philosophies, ranging from exclusive positive reinforcement training at one end, and harsh, militant, abusive methods at the other.
As with most topics of debate, any party at an extreme end is lacking a balanced perspective. Neither extremes produce consistent and widespread desirable results, because they are fundamentally incomplete.
To answer the question: “What is the most effective, natural way to train a dog?” we must, simply, ask the dogs!
How do dogs reward and correct? How does a dog pack maintain harmony and balance among its members? How do dogs understand leadership and dominance?
The fact is: dogs correct each other…daily. Corrections, themselves are not abusive or “mean”, they are a healthy and necessary part of communication that accomplishes a crucial element in any relationship: boundaries!
The idea that any form of correction is wrong and abusive is absolutely absurd. A person who adopts this philosophy is likely uncomfortable establishing boundaries in their own life and therefore does not make a good leader. Ask anyone who works in mental health: Boundaries are healthy!
In fact, boundaries are necessary.
Try raising a human child without ever communicating to that child, “don’t do that” or “wrong choice”, or “pay attention”. The result: a child who is out of control, disrespectful, possibly violent, and always upset.
The same is true for dogs.
On the other side of the spectrum; motivating dogs to comply out of fear and blind submission is not desirable, effective, or morally acceptable. A person who is unfairly and excessively harsh is also a poor leader and should not be in a position to teach anything: child, dog, bird, ant, anything.
Someone with a personal need to scare another creature into compliance or submission is also fundamentally insecure and is also not a good leader.
The most effective and ethical way to communicate with a dog is one of balance, and lines up with how dogs communicate with each other, naturally. The easiest language for any animal to understand is their native language. For dogs, that includes appropriate, and timely praise, as well as consistent and fair correction – all occurring with a foundation of leadership, and mutual respect.
When interviewing a potential trainer for you and your dog, ask them what their philosophy is regarding positive reinforcement and correction. Look for someone who falls somewhere along the middle of spectrum and who you feel comfortable with. Ask for references of past clients who they have worked with on similar issues.
Dogs vary individually, just like people. Every human-dog combination is unique and has different needs and preferences. A good trainer should be able to adjust to the dog, rather than force every dog to fit into one method or style of training.
Listening is the most important part of communication. If someone is unwilling to be flexible, and is attached to, or defensive about, their one style; they cannot possibly be a good listener or secure leader.
A good teacher is a good listener. Working with a dog requires constant self-evaluation. If a dog is not understanding an expectation after several repetitions, a trainer must ask him or herself: “What am I doing that is not working?” or “What is missing from this equation?” An effective trainer will quickly recognize how they need to adjust what they do, for each individual dog-human team to learn with minimal stress and maximum success.
Dogs (and people) need to be clear about what is expected of them and then have their environment respond consistently to the established expectations. There are times when our pets need us to be firm, but never without the presence of love and compassion.
Respect is a two-way street…no exceptions.