A Sensitive Subject - Dog Training Tools

Training tools are a hot topic. So hot I generally won't touch it outside of private conversation. But today I felt it was important to "come out of the tool shed" and say how I feel about training tools.

When I say training tools, I am talking about anything added to the animals experience while training. That means any markers (noises or words that tell the dog a consequence is coming), restraint devices (collars, leashes, etc), distractions, targets, food dispensers, jumps, barriers, etc. The list goes on. Every one of these tools when left alone on a table is an inanimate object. It cannot do anything to a dog without human participation. No tool has a mind of its own and will not reward or punish unless it is made to do so. 

Before I begin I will disclose that I am a dog trainer who follows the Humane Hierarchy and LIMA principles. Therefore tools that can cause any harm to a dog are used only as a last resort and I fully disclose that I have NEVER had to use tools in this way.

So today I was called into a family's home to help them with their unruly hound dog. The dog was young, less than a year, and had very basic training and manners skills. Around the dog's neck was a choke chain (aka slip chain, check chain etc). I did not gasp, nor did I insist the owners take it off the dog. We spent the duration of the session going over manners, how to calm the dog, and body language to better understand the dog's state of mind. When we got to the basic obedience portion of the session I asked about the dog's prior training. They told me the trainer had them use a choke chain to help with teaching loose leash walking. I asked how the dog's leash walking was currently and they told me that the dog still pulled. I asked them how they used the collar and they told me that it tightened when the dog pulled and when the dog stopped pulling, the collar went slack. 

Now before I continue, and before I get hate mail - yes I know there are a myriad of methods that can be used with choke chains. I am simply repeating what the family told me, and apparently what their previous trainer told them. And before I get lectured on other tools, please wait until the end of my piece. Thanks!

So anyway, I asked if the tool was working as advertised. They told me no. If the tool had been working, in all honesty I would not have said another word. I know I can hear gasps coming from the other side of the screen... but seriously, I am being paid to come into a home and help with unwanted behaviors. If the collar is not contributing to any unwanted behaviors, then it is not appropriate for me to go off on a tangent that is not called for. If the dog was at all suffering at the end of the leash, exhibiting stress signals or otherwise unhappy, I would recommend not using the tool. But if the dog is fine, and is showing no aversive affect, it is not my place to make a big deal. Change is hard for an owner. Yanking all their tools and past training away and making them start from scratch doesn't help the dog and in fact, hurts compliance. Instead let me fix what is actually hurting the dog and the family's success. Then we can tweak the tiny things.

Back to my story, the dog was still pulling, and showing some stress signals, specifically lip licking and yawning. Because the tool was not working and was causing the dog stress I recommended an alternative. Specifically a no-pull harness. I recommended this with the specific instructions that if the dog showed discomfort of any kind or the dog still pulled, to discontinue use. I explained that ANY tool can be aversive and that they must still follow the loose leash walking technique I taught them or else the harness will be just an ineffective as the chain. I also explained that no tool should be for life, that the goal is good walking skills so that the harness comes off or changes to a normal back attachment harness.

In the end the family was very happy with the tool suggestion. But it didn't end perfectly. Towards the beginning of the training portion of the session I pulled out a clicker and started explaining clicker training. The dog heard the click and immediately backed away from me. The dog then heard another and ran out of the room. Clearly the dog found the noise uncomfortable. I tried one last time and received a yawn and lip lick, the same behaviors the choke chain created. So I put the clicker back in my pocket and moved right along, changing the training marker to a word. The change was simple and yet highly effective. The dog was excited to learn the marker word and progressed quickly with training. 

The moral of this story is that ANY tool can be aversive, even if the trainer thinks it should be fine. The judgement comes from the dog. And yes, I have met plenty of dogs that do not exhibit stress signals from their prong collar or e-collar. However, and that is a BIG however, I have never recommended a tool that was developed to poke, prod, pinch, choke, shock, or "tingle". That is because I have never come to a point in my training where causing discomfort was ever necessary. And yes, I too, deal with serious aggression cases and high drive working dogs.

There will always be a trainer with the next new way, the next new tool. I am the first in line to see it, watch it used, understand it and then see where it falls in the Humane Hierarchy. I make sure I clearly understand and respect it, so that if the day comes that I need it, I can use it properly and humanely. And to ensure that if I work with a client who uses it, I can best help them continue or be truly educated to know when to help them stop using it.

In the end I hope that every trainer looks at every tool and learns its technique, if simply to help an owner know why it is or is not working and be able to help them successfully choose the next appropriate and humane training progression. There is always the next new thing out there and it is daunting for owners to know what they should be using. We need to speak the language of the client, know their frustrations, and be able to best equip them for the resolution the so desperately need.