As I re-enter dog training after not really doing much of it for over a decade I decided I'd take the time to review current ideas. I am open minded and definitely interested in doing what is best to achieve a balanced and rock-solid-reliable and SAFE, SAFE, SAFE animal (particularly around children).
If you saw my intro post you'll know about Rocky and my early (about 15 years ago) navigation from being totally clueless to getting trained by an active Schutzhund competitor.
If I had to characterize the methods I'd say a combination of Monks (of that era) and compulsion/praise. I started with choke chain but ended-up with e-collars. The e-collar work was low-level avoidance style. In operant conditioning terms this would probably be a "negative reinforcement" approach.
No clicker training but still classical conditioning through verbal and physical praise means.
In reviewing what's out there from Leerburg to Ivan Balabanov to random web searches, I see a big push against compulsion training and, at the extremes, towards pure operand conditioning approaches. Of course, I get it, you are not going to teach a dog or a dolphin to do anything half-way complex by yanking them around through the behavior.
Then there are folks like Ian Dunbar (Ian Dunbar DVM - Google Search
) who seem to be advocating an almost conversational approach to training dogs.
And then there's the whole pro and anti-Cesar Millan crowds.
I've never had to deal with aggressive, hard, rip-your-head-off, GSD's so I'll be the first one to admit I have no clue when it comes to that side of the world. I have, however, dealt with powerful 120 lbs males who without solid leadership can be a handful to manage. Rocky could be one of them. Not sure yet.
One theme that seems to repeat in my mind when I watch what I'll characterize as the Ian Dunbar school of thought is that not one of these training evangelists show you videos that start with a dog that would rip your head off if you look at it the wrong way. Every single video I've seen shows dogs that are your typical easy-to-train pet dog. Even when they show you correcting "aggressive behavior" I find that the dogs rarely exhibit what I would consider true aggressive behavior. Most issues seem to come from bad or weak leadership.
I know, without one iota of doubt, that there are a myriad of situations where there isn't anything (meaning food) I can put in front of one of my GSD's to lure them away from the situation. On the other hand, I know that a solid well-trained "out" will do the job. And, yes, sometimes tools such as prong collars or e-collars set to higher levels might be the only safe way to positively punish and reduce or stop the behavior.
My gut feeling is that some of the current trend is simply due to a politically correct movement of some sort. It's easy to be ill-informed and say that e-collars are "shock collars" and that prong collars are torture devices. It's far more acceptable to say you can have a conversation with your dog and use loving gentle praise for everything.
Just a few days I ran into a woman walking a little 25 pound dog at the park. Rocky (who's around 95 lbs now) was on my 30 foot leash free to smell and explore. He alerted me that she was coming way before I actually saw her come around the turn. Once I saw her I recalled him with a "heel". He ran to me and did an almost perfect (got a bit tangled) heel. As we passed she said "I wish I had that kind of control. Fluffy just doesn't want to walk. He pulls me all over the place. I don't know what to do!".
After a short conversation I decided she was going to put zero effort into real training. I told he to get a prong collar. Before I could explained how to use it (it isn't a torture device!) she almost yelled out "That is horrible! I would never do that to my dog!".
So this is what I did. I gave her Rocky's leash and asked her to walk him a little. She was kind of scared but did it. I watched as she effortlessly walked him back and forth.
I asked her: Did he pull? She said "not much". To which I replied: So, do you think the prong collar was being used to torture him into walking with you? She got it and we had a conversation. She's getting a prong collar and I'll teach her how to use it.
My point is that I think a lot of these "modern" methods are extreme reactions to people not understanding prong and e-collars in particular.
I'll admit that both of these can be dangerous in the hands of the clueless. A clicker is a far safer choice and it is probably hard for your average pet owner to royally screw-up a dog and cause seriously dangerous situations with a clicker. Much like a baby rattlesnake is worst than an adult rattlesnake, a newbie trainer with a prong or e-collar and no guidance is a dangerous thing. In that context I would definitely point someone to something like Ian Dunbar's method and wish them well.
Coming full circle, I am no interested in updating my approach in order to take advantage of more modern methods. Operant conditioning is number one on that list. I am not fully convinced that compulsory methods are completely out, yet, as I said, I am open minded and want to learn. At this point I am liking what I see from Ivan Balabanov. I am considering buying his complete video series to learn more about his approach. Frankly, I could spend thousands at the Canine Training Systems website just on videos from various trainers. I've already spent a bundle on Leerburg videos (although I find them a little long and repetitive).
I am also looking at the idea of getting updated through local trainers. I am going to see OJ Knighten (K9 Coach Dog Training
) on Monday and have already met Michael Kempkes (Wustenberger-Land
Any thoughts, opinions, ideas, links and suggestions?
(sorry for the long post).