To anyone who’s ever owned a dog, or lived with one, the idea of training them seems to be natural. Even if you’ve never formally trained a dog in your life, it will recognize informal commands learned over time, and, due to a system of rewards and punishments, will be able to do certain actions once the command is given. However, in recent years, there has been a debate often times highly-spirited, on what sort of training works best for dogs, and in what conditions.
The more we realize that our dogs can feel and think in ways similar to us (if only on a rudimentary level), the more we question some traditional methods of dog training.
Much of the controversy revolves around the use of dog training collars. Here’s a brief rundown on some facts and understandable misgivings about using them.
These are the standard buckled or quick-release collars, usually adjusted to a dog’s neck width. Do take note that the proper use of flat collars is that they should not constrict the neck, and yet not be so loose that the dog can slip away from the collar. For intelligent, eager, and good-natured dogs, this may be all that’s needed.
Choke collars are designed from either a metal chain or a strip of nylon, where the ends are two large rings. The chain or nylon is slipped in through one ring, creating two “modes” for the collar. If the leash is attached to the “outer ring” or the ring through which the loop was made, then it functions as a slightly loose collar for the dog. However, if the leash is connected to the “inner ring,” the ring that can tighten the loop when pulled, then you effectively have a collar that will tighten around a dog’s neck if they persevere in fighting against the leash. The idea is that you should tug gently on the leash, and the slight tightening around the neck will remind the dog not to pursue a course of action. By the same process, the dog will also be discouraged from lunging or going after a target that is beyond the leash’s range.
These kinds of collars are similar to choke collars, but they have a set of metal tips from the chain links that are turned inward. The mechanics for tightening the collar involve a small “choke collar” which is connected to the larger collar. The collar’s tightening mechanics are similar to a choke collar’s. As the collar tightens, the metal tips will be pressed against the skin, making the dog feel uncomfortable.
Some versions have the blunt metal tips encased in plastic, to make them even safer. A variant of this is known as the force collar, which is a flat collar with spikes on the inside surface. They may or may not have a tightening mechanism.
These are similar in design to prong collars. They can be described as force collars without the inward spikes, and with a tightening mechanism. These are usually used for sight hounds with smaller heads, so that they won’t slip out of their collars. They are usually made out of leather or nylon straps, except for the tightening mechanism, which is a small chain similar in setup to a choke collar.
These modern collars gained public attention relatively recently. Shock collars can deliver a sharp sound, a vibration, or an electric shock to reinforce training. Practically all shock collars work on one version of remote control or the other, from handheld devices to special wiring within a laid-out area that can remotely trigger a collar reaction if dogs try to move out of the territory (this can be used for the reverse, as well).
Of special mention are halters, which are not strictly collars, but use a harness structure similar to a muzzle, but with a leash attachment at the back of the head, and with a strap structure around the dog’s nose, mouth, and jaw area. When the leash is pulled, it will force the dog to follow, given that the dog’s head will be pulled back to the owner.
The problem with using training collars is that they are inconvenient and in the case of shock collars, prong collars, and force collars, invite physical and psychological injury to the dog just to make it do something when commanded. The use of a training collar has evolved into a debate for positive versus negative reinforcement in training.
Negative reinforcement is a method of training where the dog is reinforced for behaving in a certain way by removing something the dog perceives as unpleasant. For instance, in the case of shock collar training, the delivery of shock is stopped the moment the dog engages in a desired behavior. In a similar fashion, negative reinforcement can be used to teach a dog to heel on the leash. For instance, if a dog is wearing a choke collar, the pressure on the lead, which causes the collar to tighten, is removed the moment the dog is heeling nicely on a loose leash.
Positive reinforcement rests on the idea of instant rewards. For example, the moment your dog sits down as you give the command to sit (you can reinforce this by pushing down on its hindquarters gently), you immediately give a treat, such as dog candy. Soon it will equate the “pleasurable experience” with the command and action. It’s very much a Pavlovian type of training.
The Heart of the Problem
There are actually two problems at the heart of the controversy, and they have to be separately addressed. Unfortunately, the problem is that debates mix the issues together:
- Extreme Use of Training Collars
- Limits of Positive Reinforcement
It should be noted that the use of prong or force collars simply are not viable in a more civilized setting. Dogs trained with these rather extreme collar types will end up fearing their masters, rather than finding kinship and proper bonding. It’s an unstable situation that can be dangerous for the trainer or master. Halters, too, are seen with distaste, owing to the possible neck injuries that a halter can inflict.
Shock collars, however, seem to have an issue with the way would-be or insensitive trainers use them. The actual idea of a shock collar would be that it should only deliver enough of a shock to surprise the dog. It is not meant to give a painful electric shock. People who are not experienced with using these collars, or are impatient, tend to think that a higher shock effect is needed to train a dog faster. This verges on animal abuse, if it isn’t already.
Some deeply-ingrained dog instincts may be very difficult to change with positive reinforcement. Some attempts at training will not even be acknowledged by the dog, when it comes to certain habits or instincts. Technically, daily training drills with positive reinforcement can “retrain” the dog. But what if the dog simply refuses to learn? That’s where training collar advocates say that some aspects of negative reinforcement should be used, if only to function as a support method for positive reinforcement. Anti-collar groups assert, however, that that would still qualify as a shortcut, that positive reinforcement is needed all the way.
The Dog’s Mental State
The debate rages on because anti-collar groups want to minimize or even erase the harsh effects of negative reinforcement on the dog’s psyche. The idea is that a dog trained with positive reinforcement will form true and deep social and familial pack bonds with their owners or trainers. This will also lessen the more violent instincts that are still part of the dog’s natural habits. On the other hand, negative reinforcement can go one of two ways. In one scenario, improper use of negative reinforcement (or negative reinforcement, period) will teach the dog to fear, and if a certain psychological limit is reached, the dog may snap and become a danger to any person around. The other way is that the dog may become too dependent on the commands of the master, becoming indecisive or lacking self-direction even when away from its master or trainer.
But what about complex training?
Another issue is that some dogs are bred for competition, and with competition comes the need for precision commands. Many trainers still stand by the idea of combined positive and negative reinforcement to train their dogs to do precise actions as commanded. Then again, some informal trainers who own herding dogs can command them through a series of clicks and whistles, and arguably, many of them did not use overt negative reinforcement techniques, relying on positive reinforcement since the dog was a puppy.
At the forefront
So, how much do you want to train your dog? and how much time can you invest? It seems that positive reinforcement can definitely work, but it needs more time, while negative reinforcement, when properly used, should have minimal or even nonexistent “bad” effects, and at the same time speeding up the training process.
It always a personal choice. Remember, your dog should be trained, so that it will be able to follow basic commands. And if you want your dog to be trained even more, then you’ll really have to ask yourself about using a shock collar. Is a shock collar what you need, or maybe all you need is more scheduled time with positive reinforcement training? Remember, it’s possible that your dog may have some habits or instincts that you can’t really control (at least, not without intensive or even professional training involved).