As we learned in Vet School, there is more than one way to skin a shark.  So it is with dog training. .  To start with I don’t believe there is one way to train.

Let’s examine the science and behavior of training.  Why can you train a feline easier than you can a canine?  It is the way the two genera are hard wired.

Except for lions who hunt in prides in order to kill prey species that are just too big for a single lion to bring down, almost all other species of felines are solo hunters and do not have social groups.  Even in lions there is no queen that rules the pride.  There is usually one lioness that is experienced and leads by example when the pack hunts. When the pride is not hunting she make no effort to dominate or control the pride.  Canines are different.  They almost all hunt in packs and have a strong and regimented hierarchy.  Thus the terms Top Dog, Leader of the Pack, or Alpha Male apply.  The top dog is not a bully and does not torment the lesser ranked males.  He does not tolerate other males trying to assume his position.  The other males never stop trying to topple him from his throne.

How does this apply to training?  Look at your cat and say “Sit”.  The odds are he will not.  He will tell you that in 10,000 years no one has told his ancestors to sit. Cats lack the social order that allows one feline to give commands that will be obeyed except “Get out of here, this is my garbage can”.  Dogs, on the other hand, have a very structured unit.  The Alpha wolf tells the pack when it is time to hunt and usually leads the charge to the prey. Only the Alpha male gets to breed with the Alpha female.  The rest of the pack help raise the pups.

In dog training we assume the role of the Alpha.  Many people will tell you their dog does what they want him to do because the dog loves him.  Romantic notion but not true. Let’s substitute the word RESPECT instead of love.  I am not a professional dog trainer but as a house call Vet I have seen hundreds of examples of when the Alpha dog dominates the house.  An extreme example was at a home that had a long hallway that connected the two separate parts of the house.  The humans in the home would go outside in the rain to get to a door on the other side of the house rather than step over or disturb the Alpha that liked to lay in the hallway.  He just might nip them to keep them in their place.

I use the term teach and train interchangeably.  However I make it clear that I am the Alpha.  I do not do this to drive my dogs into submission, I do it because a dog that has a leader is a happier well-adjusted animal.  Don’t believe me? Kill the leader of a pack of wolves and chaos ensues.  In war the prime targets are the commanders of a group of soldiers.  A dog in a pack that has a leader is a happier dog because he understands his role.  Let’s use humans as an example.  There was a period when it was in vogue to let the child do anything he wanted so as not to limit his curiosity and mental development.  Nothing like having a child paint the kitchen purple.  Children want and need boundaries. So do dogs.

In order to achieve maximum results in the training of retrievers let’s use a test as an example.  Throw a hot dog down an alley for a dog that has had only positive reinforcement.  Now try and stop him when he takes off to get it. Not going to happen.  A retriever that respects you will stop. Now let’s move into field work.  Positive reinforcement can be effective and I know several dogs that have Master titles using only that method.  However it does take longer and when the tests or concepts really gets tough, the dog will revert back to the way he chooses to make that retrieve.

Use praise sparingly.  If a dog performed a truly outstanding retrieve, Rex Carr would call the dog to him and take his left hand and place it on the dog’s shoulder and stroke the dog down his entire body once.  He said it “Fractured” the dog.  That dog would go back to the dog truck and not bother to speak to the rest of those curs.  He had gotten the ultimate praise.  If you say “Good dog” every time he makes a retrieve, it loses its effectiveness.

Use correction in the same manner.  In most cases when the dog does not perform a task to your expectations it is because he does not understand the expectation.  Go back in your training of that concept until he understands what is expected of him. Example.  Go across the water, do not run around the bank.  After you have truly taught him to enter the water and he decides to run the bank, correction is in justified.

I believe in only positive reinforcement in many breeds.  However in my opinion in retrievers a balance of positive reinforcement and correction will produce an outcome that is quicker and easier for all concerned.

Happy Training
John Schulte DVM