by Pat Miller
Twenty years ago, the prevailing method for training dogs involved the use of force and physical punishment. We used choke chains, prong collars, commands and corrections to impose our will on our canine companions. Times have changed.
In the late 1980’s, a dolphin trainer named Karen Pryor introduced the dog-training world to a gentler training method in her landmark book, Don’t Shoot the Dog. This unassuming little paperback explained the scientific principles of behavior and learning developed earlier in the 20th century by behavior scientist B.F. Skinner, and suggested that with the help of a “clicker” – a small noisemaker used to mark the instant of rewardable behavior – dogs could be trained without the use of verbal and physical force.
The application, which had been used with animals like dolphins and whales for decades, is simple. Teach the dog that every time he hears the “Click!” of the clicker, he gets a treat. Then teach him that the “Click!” happens when he does a specific behavior, such as “sit.” He soon learns that he can make the clicker work by offering to sit without being asked. Once he figures that out, add the cue (not command) – the word “sit” to teach him that the behavior he is offering you is called “sit.” Apply the clicker technique to all of the things you want the dog to do, and he quickly learns to do the behaviors you want – the ones that make good things – Click! and treat — happen when he does them.
When Pryor wrote her book, you could count the number of positive dog trainers in the country on one hand. Today there are thousands, all over the world. The use of old-fashioned punish-based methods is fading as dog owners rejoice to learn that they don’t have to hurt their dogs to train them. There is even an organization with over three thousand members – The Association of Pet Dog Trainers (APDT) – that promotes the use of positive training methods and encourages the ongoing education of dog trainers. The APDT offers a trainer search list on its website at www.apdt.com, where you can look to find APDT member/trainers near you. Since even APDT members may use a variety of methods, the website also offers suggestions to help you find the trainer best suited to you and your dog’s needs. Happy positive training!