How to avoid harmful dog training?
Something all new puppy and dog owners can relate to is the search for good advice. None of us start off knowing everything there is to know – even those of us who have had dogs in the past will be presented with new challenges, because each dog is an individual, and many of us will want to do things differently now that the world has developed a more ethical approach to how we raise and train our pets. Fortunately, there is a wealth of information available online for anyone who is looking. Unfortunately, much of this information is bad advice – usually because it is ineffective, inhumane or both. Some of it even causes or exacerbates problems! It’s a real minefield and, sadly, many of these methods are still commonly spread by word of mouth.
One important tip for any dog owner looking for training advice is to check the source of your information. Are they a qualified trainer or behaviourist? Do they have a vested interest in the training tool they’re recommending (are they selling it)? Are they accredited with any reputable, ethical organisations, such as The IMDT and UK Dog Behaviour & Training Charter, who have a code of ethics all members should adhere to?
We’re going to cover a few of the biggest, most common training tips and tools that are harmful to you and your dog, so you can avoid these red flags when looking for pet professionals to follow for help. We’re also going to help you as a dog owner learn what to look for when deciding if advice is good or bad.
Many of the tools mentioned below are commonly sold in pet shops here in the UK, or were until recently. They are also, sadly, still used and recommended by many dog trainers. It’s incredibly hard for dog owners to know what tools they should avoid when there are so many supposed professionals and authorities still encouraging their use.
Pet corrector sprays are found in most pet shops and are marketed as a way to “distract” dogs or cats from performing unwanted behaviours. In reality, they interrupt the behaviour by startling or frightening our dogs with a sudden, unpleasant noise. While this may interrupt the behaviour in the moment, our dogs might associate the unpleasantness with something we didn’t intend them to. This could be anything in the environment at that moment – it could be us, with the area of the house, with the other member of the household who just happened to walk in as we used the spray etc. They may also cause our dog to be skittish and anxious of loud noises, too. At best, these sprays can damage our relationship with our dogs – as they lose trust in us to provide safety and guidance – and at worst they can increase anxiety and create ongoing fears and phobias that can be difficult to overcome.
No Pull Harnesses
All too common in pet shops, these harnesses can cause both physical and emotional harm. Designed to tighten and restrict our dogs in some manner to “cure” pulling, they interfere with our dogs’ movement and gait and can cause a wide variety of physical issues both for young, growing dogs and adults. They are a bandage used to hide a gap in our training, and do nothing to teach our dogs what we would like them to do instead. Instead of training our dogs so they want to stay close to us, increasing engagement and developing their impulse control, “no pull” harnesses instead simply punish or prevent our dogs from pulling and can increase frustration and create negative associations with things they tend to pull more around, such as other dogs. Imagine how you might feel is someone physically grabbed you and pulled you backwards whenever you tried to go and greet your best friends, look in a shop window of admire the view!
Spraying with Water
Another common tip for stopping our dogs from performing unwanted behaviours – this is very similar to pet corrector sprays and can cause much of the same falling. Increasing anxiety, creating negative associations with us or things in our environment and increasing frustration in our dogs. All behaviours have a function – whether it is simply entertaining themselves because they’re bored, chewing things because they’re teething, exploring the world around them etc – so it’s important we find ways to provide appropriate outlets and teach our dogs to use them rather than simply suppressing normal behaviours by being unkind to them. We wouldn’t expect a human child to simply sit in a chair all day with nothing to do! While our dogs do sleep much more than we humans, they need enrichment and interaction to ensure good welfare and a happy dog!
Rattling Stones in a Can
Are you starting to see a trend? This is another one similar to spraying with water or corrector sprays – yet another way to use loud noises to startle and scare our dogs to stop them doing something. Often very effective in the moment, but again comes with a huge amount of potential fallout and can easily create phobias of loud noises or even abrupt movements, as well as anything in the environment our dogs might associate with the scary event.
Slip leads are incredibly common and are actually not inherently bad, but they should only ever be used on an already well-trained dog. They are designed for gundogs, who often work without any kind of collar or harness on as they go into thick undergrowth and it would pose a safety risk if they got themselves caught. Slip leads are therefore a quick and easy piece of equipment for a handler to put on and take off as needed. They should NOT be used as a training tool. Sadly, they have taken the place of the “choke chain,” which is thankfully much less common these days. Slip leads as a means of preventing pulling, however, are really no better – they tighten indiscriminately around a dog’s neck, causing pain and even injury to the delicate structures of the neck. They also do not loosen properly if they are not put on correctly, which many users are unaware of. Using a slip lead to “correct” a dog who pulls come with all the same hazards as a “no pull” harness with the additional risk of restricting the dog’s airway and can not only cause muscular injuries and abnormalities but also irreparably damage the trachea and thyroid. Choking our dogs also causes an increase in adrenaline – this means our dogs will be more reactive to things in their environment and less able to feel pain, meaning they will continue to pull despite the lead causing them harm.
There are a variety of head collars on the market for dogs and they are often marketed as a magical cure for pulling – they are probably the most common “anti-pull” device used these days. Again, these devices bring with them the same risks and fallout as slip leads and restrictive harnesses. The head collar works by creating unpleasant and even painful pressure on the sensitive parts of a dog’s face, as well as making it difficult for them to pull as it twists the neck when pressure is applied. This can again cause serious physical damage, with dogs often walking awkwardly due to the restrictive nature of the training tool and often receiving harsh, sudden jerks to the head and neck whenever they pull. We talked earlier about the frustration caused by being pulled backwards whenever you tried to greet someone or look at something interesting – now imagine if this was done by restricting your head! We don’t allow aversive training tools such as headcollars in class and we therefore often see dogs who are walked in head collars outside of class exhibiting lots of signs of frustration and overarousal when the head collar is taken off. When our dogs are restricted in this way, they tend to spend their entire walk unable to relax as they may feel discomfort from the head collar if they even look the wrong way or try to have a sniff at the side of the path. They are not able to express natural body language around people or dogs and they feel discomfort around anything remotely exciting or worrying as the headcollar causes pressure whenever they move towards or even try to move away from something in the environment. Due to our dogs being less expressive when wearing a head collar, we humans often mistake their subdued nature for them feeling calm and relaxed and therefore unwittingly put our dogs in situations where they are uncomfortable. For all these reasons, the seemingly kinder option of head collars are actually often one of the most harmful pieces of anti-pull equipment and can derail our training massively.
While we know many of you reading this have found us because you are already passionate about treating your dog kindly, we also know how misleading many unscrupulous trainers can be. We’ve heard from people who have been told by trainers – even highly-recommended ones! – to punish their dogs by hitting them with things like a tennis ball wrapped in a tea towel! It may be hard to imagine why anyone would follow this advice, but it’s important to remember that any dog owner seeking advice from a trainer is trying to do the right thing for their dog. Trainers who recommend these methods are often brilliant at marketing them and making it seem like the logical or even kindest thing to do! Many will talk about the importance of establishing boundaries and providing leadership – this sounds logical, because it is! We do want to help our dogs understand what is or isn’t appropriate and we do want to provide the support and guidance that a good leader does. Unfortunately, these trainers lead owners to believe that they have to communicate these things to their dogs using physical corrections – this is simply not the case and it is heart breaking when we hear from owners who were only trying to do the right thing, who trusted a supposed professional and can now see the harm it has done to their relationship with their dog.
Here are a few tips for assessing the advice you hear or read:
Is the person giving the advice qualified? What experience do they have?
Ideally, you want to get advice from someone with both qualifications and experience. Qualifications – whether from college/university or through externally accredited industry organisations such as The IMDT – help to ensure the trainer really understands what they are doing and how it impacts our dogs. Experience working in the industry helps to ensure the trainer has worked with a variety of dogs and owners, has practiced what they preach and has had the opportunity to learn from training in the real world and working with other professionals.
How does the tool/advice prevent the behaviour?
Try to think critically about how the equipment or action works. If it “distracts” the dog – how? A toy can distract a dog from chewing things by redirecting them and giving them some more exciting and appropriate to chew – this is great! A rattle tin distracts a dog by startling or scaring them. We don’t want to use unpleasant things to interrupt behaviours – as we’ve discussed, this can easily cause aversions to every day things in the household (or even us!) as well as increasing anxiety and frustration.
Does it teach the dog what to do instead?
The above example where we use a toy to distract our dog from chewing something they shouldn’t is a great example. It gives our dogs an outlet for their natural chewing behaviour and it helps them to rehearse chewing something appropriate, showing them what they CAN do when they have a desire to chew things. Using a pet corrector spray or spraying our dogs with water might stop our dog chewing the sofa, but it offers them no alternative action and doesn’t teach them what TO do.
Does it set the dog up for success?
While life isn’t perfect, we should always strive to set our dogs up to be successful. This means using management – things like crates, pens and baby gates and putting things in cupboards and out of reach – to prevent our dogs practicing the wrong thing while they’re learning. Simply waiting for our dogs to do the wrong thing and then punishing it for them is a slow, inefficient way of teaching, is not fun for us or our dogs and, as discussed, can cause some serious issues by harming our relationship and increasing anxiety and frustration in our dogs.
Our final, crucial tip is: go with your gut. If something seems like it might be unpleasant or unkind, you’re probably right! If it feels wrong, simply don’t do it. All of us get a dog hoping to build a lasting, positive relationship and your pup will thank you for advocating for them and listening to your gut instinct!
If you’d like to learn more about how to train your dog without punishment, using science-based, ethical training to make learning fun and easy, then check out our puppy & dog training classes now! https://www.bestbehaviourdogtraining.co.uk/puppy-training-classes/puppy-and-dog-training/