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Top 10 Dog Training Myths

#1: Dogs are pack animals with a clear social order. 

 

This one falls apart immediately because all the evidence suggests that free-ranging dogs (pariahs, feral and semi-feral populations) don’t form packs.  Dogs actually form loose, amorphous, transitory associations with other dogs.  And males do not participate in the rearing of young as occurs in a wolf pack. 

 

#2: If you let dogs exit doorways ahead of you, you’re letting them be dominant.

 

There is not only any evidence for this, but there is also no evidence that the behavior of going through a doorway has any social significance whatsoever. In order to lend this idea any plausibility, it would first need to be ruled out that rapid doorway exit is not simply a function of their motivation to get to whatever is on the other side combined with their higher ambulation speed.  Dogs walk faster than us. 

   

#3: In multi-dog households, “support the hierarchy” by giving presumed dominant animals patting, treats, etc. first, before giving to presumed subordinate animals.   

 

There is no evidence that this has any impact on inter-dog relations or any type of aggression.  In fact, if one dog were being aggressive toward another, the laws governing Pavlovian conditioning would dictate an opposite strategy:  Teach aggressive dogs that another dog receiving scarce resources predicts that they are about to receive some.  If so practiced, the aggressive dog develops a happy emotional response to other dogs getting stuff, a helpful piece of training indeed.  No valuable conditioning effects are achieved by giving the presumed higher ranking dog goodies first.  

 

#4: Dogs have an innate desire to please. 

 

This is a concept that has never been operationally defined, let alone tested.  A vast preponderance of the evidence, however, suggests that dogs, like all properly functioning animals, are motivated by food, water, sex or play or being allowed to be in the company of other dogs or people it has bonded with, especially after an absence.  They are also, like all animals, motivated by fear and pain and these are the inevitable choices of those who would shy away from using motivators like food or toys or play.  So when a trainer says s/he is relying on the dog's desire to please, make sure it’s not code for some sort of coercive or aversive training technique.

 

#5: Rewards are bribes and thus compromise relationships. 

 

Related to #4, the idea that behavior should just, in the words of Susan Friedman, Ph.D., “flow like a fountain” without the need of consequences, is opposed by more than sixty years of unequivocal evidence that behavior is, again to quote Friedman, “a tool animals use to produce consequences.” Another problem is that so-called "bribes" are given before a behavior occurs and "rewards" are given after a behavior. And, a mountain of evidence from decades of research in pure and applied settings has demonstrated over and over that positive reinforcement – i.e. reward – makes relationships better, never worse. 

 

 

#6: If you pat your dog when he’s afraid, you’re rewarding the fear. 

 

Fear is an emotional state, a reaction to the presence or anticipation of something highly aversive. It is not an attempt at manipulation.  If terrorists enter a bank and order everybody down on the floor, the people will exhibit fearful behavior.  If the terrorist then gives one of the bank customers on the floor a compliment, twenty bucks or chocolates is this going to make them more afraid of terrorists next time? It’s stunningly narcissistic to imagine that a dog’s fearful behavior is somehow directed at us. 

 

#7: You must punish dogs for growling or else they’ll become aggressive. 

 

Dogs growl because something that is upsetting them is too close.  If you punish them for informing us of this, they are still upset but now not letting us know, thus allowing scary things to get closer and possibly end up bitten.  Ian Dunbar calls this “removing the ticker from the time bomb.” Much better to make the dog comfortable around what he’s growling at so he’s not motivated to make it go away in the first place. 

 

#8: Playing tug makes dogs aggressive. 

 

There is no evidence that this is so.  The only study ever done found no correlation between playing tug and the incidence of aggression directed at either family members or strangers. Tug games are in fact, a cooperative behavior directed at simulated prey. In this case a toy. 

 

#9: If you give dogs chew toys, they’ll learn to chew everything. 

 

This is a Pandora’s Box type of argument that has zero evidence to support it.  Dogs are excellent discriminators and readily learn to distinguish their toys from forbidden items with minimal training. The argument is also logically flawed as chewing is a behavior that waxes and wanes depending on satiation/deprivation.  Dogs without chew objects are like zoo animals in barren cages.  Unless there is good compensation with other enrichment activities, there is actually a welfare issue. 

 

#10: You can’t modify “genetic” behavior. 

 

All behavior is a product of an interplay between genes and the environment. (nature and nurture).  And while some behaviors require less learning than others or in some cases, no learning at all, their modifiability varies as much as does the modifiability of behaviors that are primarily learned. 

What is Marker Training and why use it?

Marker training is an animal training method based on behavioral psychology that relies on marking desirable behavior and then rewarding it.

 

Desirable behavior is usually marked by using a "clicker or a word like "YES," When a word of the sound of a clicker is properly it can communicate to the animal exactly when they're doing the right thing. This clear form of communication, combined with positive reinforcement, is an effective, safe, and humane way to teach any animal any behavior that it is physically and mentally capable of doing.

 

Why is marker training effective?

 

When an animal intentionally performs a behavior in order to bring about the desired consequence, as animals trained using markers do, they are learning in a way that researchers call "operant conditioning."

 

Animals (and people) may also associate an action, event, place, person, or object with a consequence, whether pleasant or unpleasant. The more a certain event or environment is paired with a particular consequence, the stronger the association. This type of learning is called "classical conditioning" and represents reflexive or automatic behavior, rather than intentional behavior.

 

While conditioning a marker initially employs classical conditioning, it quickly becomes operant conditioning as soon as the animal intentionally repeats an action in order to earn a reward. Training through operant conditioning results in purposeful behavior, while training through classical conditioning results in habitual behavior.

 

The difference between an animal that behaves with purpose, rather than by habit, is vast. Marker trained or operantly conditioned animals try to learn new behaviors. They remember behaviors even years later because they were aware of them as they learned them, rather than acquiring them without awareness. They develop confidence because they have control over the consequences of their actions. They are enthusiastic because they expect those consequences to be pleasurable.

Why is a Marker used?

 

The essential difference between marker training and other reward-based training is that the animal is told exactly which behavior earned it a reward. This information is communicated with a distinct and unique word (Yes) or sound, (a click), which occurs at the same time as the desired behavior. Then the reward (food or; even a favorite toy for instance) follows.

 

Without hearing a marker during an action, an animal may not connect the reward with that action. Or, the animal may associate the reward with another, unwanted action. Using a marker, a trainer can precisely "mark" behavior so that the animal knows exactly what it was doing to earn the mark. That's why  trainers call the "click sound" or the word "Yes" an "event marker." The Marker also bridges or connects the behavior and its reward, and so is also called a "bridging signal."

 

The clarity with which a marker enables trainers to communicate with their animals has a profound effect on their relationships. Their level of interaction increases and trainers and animals become more interesting and fun for each other.

 

How does marker training work?

Markers have to be conditioned in order to have meaning to the animal: Conditioning a marker is very simple. We use a form of learning called associative learning (also referred to as classical conditioning) to pair the marker with a reward the animal desires. 

  • Click or say "YES"

  • Reward the animal with a treat.

 

For your marker to become conditioned,  you must say the word or click BEFORE you reward the animal. The best way to remember this is to CLICK or say "YES" pause for 1 second and then reward the animal. Do 20 reps of click and treat or "YES" and treat and observe the dog's response to the word or sound. If he perks up and looks at you expectantly then you know the sound or word has been conditioned and now you can use it in your training. 

 

The trainer then starts training and using the mark (says the word "yes" or clicks) at the moment the behavior occurs: the horse raises its hoof, the trainer says "yes" or clicks simultaneously. The dog sits, the trainer clicks or says "Yes". Marking is like taking a picture of the behavior the trainer wishes to reinforce. After "taking the picture," the trainer gives the animal something it likes, usually a small piece of food but sometimes play, petting, or other rewards.
 

Very soon (sometimes within two or three marks), an animal will associate the sound of the click or the word "Yes" with something it likes: the reward. Since it wishes to repeat that pleasurable experience, it will repeat the action it was doing when it heard the marker. Any behavior can be trained with any animal following these three simple steps:

  1. Get the behavior to occur.

  2. Mark the behavior.

  3. Reinforce the behavior.

How do marker trainers ask for behaviors?

 

Trainers that use Markers differ from traditional trainers in that they wait until the behavior is well understood by the animal before adding a verbal command or "cue." A cue is the name of the behavior, such as "sit," or a hand movement or other clear signal. Until the animal knows what the behavior is, any name for it would be meaningless so they wait until the animal is robustly offering the behavior before naming it.

 

When the animal has been marked several times for a behavior, and then confidently repeats the behavior, showing that it knows exactly what earns it a marker and a reward, it is ready to learn the name of the behavior. Marker trainers call this "introducing the cue/command."

 

To teach the animal the name of the behavior, or the cue, the trainer says "SIT" before the animal repeats the behavior. After several repetitions, the trainer begins to mark and reward when the animal does the behavior, but only after the cue is given. No mark is given if the animal does the behavior without being given the verbal cue (SIT) first. The animal quickly learns to listen or watch for its cue, which tells it: If you do this behavior now when I say this word, you will get a mark and earn a reward.

 

What if the animal does not obey the cue?

 

Marker trained animals want to perform behaviors for which they have been rewarded in the past. If they understand the meaning of the cue and desire the reward, they will perform the behavior.

 

If they do not perform the behavior, marker trainers do not assume that the animal is "disobeying." Instead, the trainer asks the following questions:

  1. Does the animal know the meaning of the cue yet?

  2. Does the animal know the meaning of the cue in the environment in which it was first taught, but not in the new environment in which it was given?

  3. Is the reward for doing the behavior desirable enough by the animal to produce the behavior they are asking for?

 

After answering those questions, the Marker trainer revises the training process to be sure that the animal knows the meaning of the cue in all environments, regardless of distractions, and feels rewarded for the behavior.

 

Why don't Marker trainers use punishments as well as rewards?

 

A consequence of any behavior can be unpleasant as well as pleasant. So why shouldn't punishments follow unwanted behaviors, just as rewards follow wanted behaviors?

 

Research tells us that punishment may decrease the frequency of unwanted behavior but, usually results in producing other unwanted side effects such as fear, stress or anxiety in anticipation of the possibility of being punished. The results of punishment as a training method are difficult to predict and to control.

 

In addition, punishment is not usually identified with an event marker. It almost always comes after the event and is rarely clearly connected with a specific behavior. In the animal's perception, punishment is a random, meaningless event. It is, therefore, less effective than the combined use of an event marker and positive reinforcement in changing behavior.

 

Marker trainers also feel that their relationships with their animals are stronger and more rewarding when they focus on the positive rather than the negative. Like the difference between an animal behaving with intention rather than by habit or out of fear, the difference in attitude and enthusiasm between an animal that works to earn rewards rather than to avoid punishment is vast.

How can Marker training be used to get rid of unwanted behaviors?

 

Marker trainers allow unwanted behaviors to disappear through a lack of reinforcement. If a behavior is not rewarding to the animal, eventually it will disappear. If an unwanted behavior persists, marker trainers study the behavior to understand why it is reinforcing to the animal. Sometimes the behavior reinforces itself: a barking dog is less bored than a quiet dog. The barking is its own reward and can be reinforcing to the dog. The marker trainer provides this dog with an alternate behavior to replace the unwanted behavior. The bored dog may simply need more activity, or perhaps quiet resting for longer and longer periods can become a rewarded behavior. Then the marker trainer would teach the dog a cue for "silence."

 

Do markers and rewards need to be used for every behavior, forever?

 

Marker trainers can maintain the behavior by replacing especially good treats with occasional and less intensive rewards including a pat or praise. Learned cues and behaviors are also maintained by real-life rewards: for example, sitting quietly at the door is rewarded by opening the door so that the dog can have a walk. Marker trainers then save marks and treats for the next new thing they want to train.

 

Can marker training be used with any animal?

 

Yes. First widely used by dolphin trainers who needed a way to teach behavior without using physical force, operant conditioning can be and has been successfully employed with animals of all sizes and species, both domesticated and wild, young and old; all breeds of dogs and puppies, cats, birds, leopards, rats, rabbits, chinchillas, fish, and more.
 

Marker trainers who learn the underlying principles have at their disposal a powerful set of tools that enable them to analyze behaviors, modify existing methods for individual animals, and create new methods where none previously existed. This flexibility allows the tools of marker training to be re-invented in new forms that work in a range of situations, and for an infinite variety of animals.
 

The same principles have also been applied to training for athletes, dancers, skaters, and other people. Called "TAGteach," this form of training uses a click as a marker signal to teach precise physical motions quickly, accurately, and positively.

 

Is clicker training a training method or a philosophy?

 

Sometimes people are surprised by the enthusiasm and dedication marker trainers have for their craft. These trainers may have first started learning to mark as a way of training their dog, but soon realized that the fundamental principles of marker training could be applied to other areas of their lives. Changing one's focus from the negative to the positive can certainly be a life-changing event.

Dominance and Dog Training

The use of dominance and pack theory in explaining dog behavior has come under a great deal of scrutiny in recent years. The Association of Professional Dog Trainers (APDT) would like to inform the dog-owning public about the ramifications of a reliance on dominance theory as it relates to understanding dogs, interpreting canine behavior, and living harmoniously with our canine companions.

 

Theory and Misconceptions

 

Contrary to popular thinking, research studies of wolves in their natural habitat demonstrate that wolves are not dominated by an “Alpha Wolf” that is the most aggressive male, or male-female pairing, of the pack. Rather, they have found that wolf packs function in a way that is similar to how human families are organized, and there is little aggression or fights for “dominance.” Wolves, whether it be the parents or the cubs of a pack, depend on each other to survive in the wild. Consequently, wolves that engage in aggressive behaviors toward each other would inhibit the pack’s ability to survive and flourish. As Senior Research Scientist L. David Mech recently wrote regarding his many years of study of wolves, we should “once and for all end the outmoded view of the wolf pack as an aggressive assortment of wolves consistently competing with each other to take over the pack.” (Mech, 2008)

In addition to our new understanding of wolf behavior, study into canine behavior has found that while dogs do share some traits with their wolf cousins, dogs and wolves are different in many significant ways.  In other words, the idea that dog behavior can be explained through the application of wolf behavior models is no more relevant than suggesting that chimpanzee behavior can be used to explain human behavior. Unfortunately, the idea that dogs are basically “domesticated wolves” living in our homes still persists among dog trainers and behavior consultants, as well as breeders, owners, and the media.

 

One of the biggest misconceptions we find ourselves faced with is the definition of “dominance.” Dogs are often described as being “dominant,” which is an incorrect usage of the term. Dominance is not a personality trait. Dominance is “primarily a descriptive term for relationships between pairs of individuals.” and moreover, “the use of the expression ‘dominant dog’ is meaningless, since ‘dominance’ can apply only to a relationship between individuals” (Bradshaw et al., 2009).

 

Dominance comes into play in a relationship between members of the same species when one individual wants to have the first pick of available resources such as food, beds, toys, bones, etc. Even between dogs, however, it is not achieved through force or coercion but through one member of the relationship deferring to the other peacefully. In many households the status of one dog over another is fluid; in other words, one dog may be the first to take his pick of toys, but will defer to the other dog when it comes to choice of resting places.

 

Dogs that use aggression to “get what they want” are not displaying dominance. They are displaying anxiety-based behaviors, which will tend to increase if the dog is confronted with verbal and/or physical threats from the human owners. Basing one’s interaction with a dog on dominance is harmful to the dog-human relationship and leads to further stress, anxiety and aggression from the dog, as well as fear and antipathy of the owner.

 

Living with Dogs: What’s Important?

 

When it comes to living and working with dogs, the concept of dominance is largely irrelevant. This may come as a surprise to many dog owners.  The truth is that when working with dogs that have a training or behavior issue, the goal of the dog professional is to develop a behavior modification or training plan that addresses the problem at hand. For the most part, this does not require understanding a dog’s motivation and emotional state. Instead, the training or behavior modification plan should focus on what the dog is doing (behavior), what we want the dog to do instead, helping the dog understand how to perform the desired behaviors, and then reinforcing him for doing so.

 

Far too many times, dog owners have been given advice to “show the dog who’s boss” and “be the alpha.” The unfortunate side effect of this thinking is that it creates an adversarial relationship between the owner and the dog, due to the belief that the dog is somehow trying to control the home and the owner’s life.  Such misinformation damages the owner-dog relationship, leading to fear, anxiety and/or aggressive behavior from the dog.  Dogs cannot speak our language, so they can be thrust into situations in our homes that they find difficult to comprehend when owners try to behave as they mistakenly believe “alpha” wolves do.

 

Rather than dominance, it is most often a lack of clear interspecies communication that leads to behaviors we find troubling. It is the human’s responsibility to teach the dog the behaviors that we find appropriate, and reward the dog for doing things we like. Just as importantly, it is our role to show dogs which behaviors are not appropriate in a constructive and compassionate manner that does lead to further anxiety on the dog’s part.

 

Aggression is Not the Answer

 

Actions such as “alpha rolls” and “scruff shakes” have no basis in the science of wolf or dog behavior. In fact, they actually create unnecessary fear in the dog, fear that can ultimately lead to aggression because the frightened dog knows no other way to protect itself than using its teeth. We all owe it to our dogs to see the world from their point of view, in order to create a more harmonious relationship.

Whether we are looking at a dog or a wolf, actions such as grabbing the animal and forcing it into a down, growling at the animal, and other aggressive behaviors directed toward the animal will only lead to the animal developing a “fight-or-flight” response, because the animal fears for its life. In this situation, the dog will either freeze out of fear, flee from the threatening animal or person if there is an opportunity to get away, or fight to save itself. When we engage in confrontational behaviors such as alpha rolling our dogs, we are not telling the dog we are “boss.” Instead, we are teaching the dog that we are dangerous creatures that should be avoided or fought off. There is no “dominance” in these scenarios – only terror and the instinct to defend oneself against attack.

 

If Not Dominance, Then What Do We Use?

 

Fortunately, many trainers and behavior professionals now use techniques that focus on building a caring and happy relationship with dogs, instead of relying on dominance. What these trainers have in common is a desire to promote effective, non-confrontational and humane ways of living successfully with dogs. These educated approaches aim to strengthen the bond between owner and dog and teach owners more effective ways of communicating with another species.

For dogs with behavior problems, trainers employ programs such as “Nothing in Life is Free (NILIF),” which works on the principle that the dog must do something to earn what he wants (i.e. sit to get dinner, walk on a loose leash to move forward, etc.) These programs are effective because the dog has a structured set of rules that are consistently reinforced, so the dog learns what he needs to do to get the things that he wants, such as food, petting, playtime, etc. Because dogs do not have the power of human speech and language, behavior problems and anxiety often result when dogs are left to fend for themselves in deciding how to live in our world, without guidance that makes sense. This is the same for people; we behave better, and ultimately thrive, in a world that makes sense to us and has clear, consistent boundaries and rules.

 

The myths that resonate in “dominance theory,” such as not allowing the dog to sleep on the bed, eat first, or go through doorways first, have no bearing on whether or not the dog will look to the owner for guidance.  The specific rules of the relationship are up to the owner and are based on what the owner wants in the household.   Humane, educated trainers should strive to teach owners to positively and gently influence and motivate their dogs to act in a manner that befits their own home, and tailor the rules to each individual. There is no scientifically validated data to uphold the belief that you must eat before your dog, or keep them from sleeping on your bed, or prevent them from walking in front of you. Owners should not be led to believe these ideas or any others like them, since that may cause them to live in a state of fear and anxiety over their dog’s possible takeover of their home.  In fact, the vast majority of dogs and owners have wonderful, mutually-rewarding relationships—even if the dog is allowed to sleep on the bed, eats alongside the owner, and does many other things erroneously labeled “dominance.”

 

To address some of the myths about dominance, we have prepared a related document, “Dominance Myths and Dog Training Realities.”

 

Final Thoughts

 

When choosing a trainer or behavior consultant to work with you and your dog, keep in mind that philosophies and methodologies vary among trainers. The Association of Pet Dog Trainers recommends interviewing potential trainers to determine their thoughts regarding dominance and the use of physical force and intimidation to train a dog, whether for obedience or for behavior problems. An educated canine professional should be well-acquainted with the latest scientific understanding of dog behavior, and be willing to openly discuss their training methodologies with you.

 

For further reading:

 

American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior 2007. AVSAB Position Statement – Punishment Guidelines: The use of punishment for dealing with animal behavior problems. http://www.avsabonline.org/avsabonline/images/stories/Position_Statements/Combined_Punishment_Statements.pdf.

American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior 2009. AVSAB  Position Statement on the

Use of Dominance Theory in Behavior Modification of animals. http://www.avsabonline.org/avsabonline/images/stories/Position_Statements/dominance%20statement.pdf.

 

Bradshaw J.W.S., Blackwell E.J., Casey R.A. 2009. Dominance in domestic dogs – useful construct or bad habit? Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research, May/June 2009, pp 135-144.

Herron M.E., Shofer F.S., Reisner I.R. 2009. Survey of the use and outcome of confrontational and non-confrontational training methods in client-owned dogs showing undesired behaviors. Applied Animal Behavior Science, 117, pp. 47-54.

Mech L.D. 2008. What ever happened to the term alpha wolf? International Wolf. (http://www.wolf.org/wolves/news/iwmag/2008/winter/winter2008.asp).

Yin S. 2009. Dominance vs. unruly behavior. The APDT Chronicle of the Dog, Mar/Apr 2009, pp. 13-17.

Yin S. 2009. Low Stress Handling, Restraint, and Behavior Modification of Dogs and Cats. Cattledog Publishing. Davis, CA.

 

 

Revised:  March 12, 2019

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