Saturday, March 30, 2013

Human-Dog Problem Tree - PART THREE

by Dino Dogan

The Issue of Indoctrination

In this article I will lay out the 3 primary (most popular) schools of thought, explain the pros and cons of each, and talk about that old and very human tendency to follow.

There are three main schools of thought when it comes to dog training.

  1. The (William R.) Koehler method, or as it’s commonly referred to “yank and crank” training method.
  2. The Positive Training method popularized by Ian Dunbar, Karen Pryor, Jean Donaldson and many others.
  3. The Pack Structure method popularized by The Monks of New Skete and Cesar Milan.

There are of course other (smaller) factions but these are the 3 big ones.

So what’s the problem?

What I’m about to say is beyond the most dog owner’s radar since most dog owners simply don’t care, but these three factions have been involved in a war of words for decades.

The battle lines are drawn, the positions have been taken, and fox holes are filled with dog professionals preaching only their method as the ultimate, the best, and the only way to train the dog.

I think the method that receives the most criticism is the “yank and crank” method.

Since it’s brutal in many ways and offends today’s sensibilities, it is demonized and punished especially by the Positive Reinforcement crowd.

Isn't that the definition of irony?

If we examine methods Mr. William R. Koehler used on Lassie and Rin Tin Tin (yes, William Koehler was the trainer for Disney Productions) we do learn that some methods were very aversive.

If a dog is digging up a yard, you are to fill the hole with water and shove the dog’s snout in it. He’ll learn.

Do we now know better, more humane ways of dealing with issues such as digging up a yard? Of course.

So is the Koehler method all bad?

I don’t think so.

One of the principles of  Koehler method training is to apply well timed corrections with conviction.

For people having problems on a walk, they often are pulled by their dog. The person may pull-back on the leash, but the pull-back is only strong enough to slow down the dog. What Mr. Koehler suggest is that we apply one (if you do it right the second correction may not be necessary) correction that the dog will remember.

This is then much more humane than thousands of small, weak, nagging corrections that are ineffective in fixing the “problem”.

This is one small example of Mr. Koehler’s philosophy on training that I believe is very useful and practical.
Another thing that most dog trainers (myself included) can learn from Mr. Koehler is timing. His, they say, was impeccable.
The next faction is the Positive Reinforcement crowd, led by such greats as Dr. Ian Dunbar, Karen Pryor and Jean Donaldson.

They maintain that only Positive methods are sufficient in dealing with every situation. You will recognize them by their use of clickers, the use of treats to shape behaviors, and generally sunny and pleasant disposition.

While I am very much in favor of positive training methods, we must recognize its shortcomings as well.

Positive training methods (clickers and all) were first implemented on dolphins and orca whales. Only then did those methods make their way over to the dog world.

The argument that this camp will make as to the effectiveness and superiority of their training method is that corrections can’t be applied to whales and dolphins; you can’t put them on a leash, so all you have to rely on is positive shaping alone. And so, the argument goes, “if you can train a dolphin in this way, you can train a dog in this way as well”.

While this is true most of the time, there are two flaws in this logic.

  1. The behaviors expected from dogs are infinitely more complex then that of a dolphin. Dogs must be obedient, track, protect, fetch, etc, etc. Dolphins on the other hand must jump out of water on cue.
  2. And second -and I think the most important reason- is that at the end of the day, dolphins stay at the Water World, while dogs actually live with us.
So if I want a dog to jump over an obstacle, I’d be well advised to use a treat to shape that behavior. However, if a dog has a bad habit of chewing on electric cables in the house (something a dolphin is unlikely to do) then the use of a shock collar may be advisable.

 Moving onto the third camp.

There is a lot of jealousy (imho) directed at Cesar Milan and The Monks of New Skete.

The Positive method crowd was on a fast track of ubiquitous acceptance when The Dog Whispered swooped in and stole their thunder, audience, and (to some extent) credibility.

This school emphasizes the similarity between dogs and wolves and wolves are used as a model to fulfill domestic dog’s needs for pack structure and alpha dog leader.
If you were to give wolf and dog strand of DNA to a Genetic Engineer, he would be unable to differentiate the two. Food for thought.
The effectiveness of this method is showcased every week on Cesar Milan’s Dog Whisperer as well as Divine Canine (now canceled) by the Monks of New Skete.

So what’s the problem?

I guess it’s still too rough for the Positive crowd (especially the use of the alpha roll, physical correction, etc.). So much so that The Monks have capitulated and in their later works (books, DVDs) recommended against the alpha roll.

What are the shortcoming of this method?

I think the biggest shortcomings of this method is that most people are unable to apply it effectively.

Cesar Milan is great at it, but most dog owners he works with on his show are wholly unaware WHY it works. This is despite his best attempts to explain the “energy”, posture, attitude, etc.

Another issue I see with this method is its emphasis on Alpha-Dog concept. Not because it’s wrong but because of the way it’s perceived by most people.
When I say “Alpha-Dog” most people think of the “big man on campus”, the boss, the CEO, the quarterback football jock, the aggressive “take no prisoners” type, and all manner of other nonsense.
In dog (or wolf) world, alpha dog is something entirely different. Alpha dog is NOT aggressive, he is not overbearing, he is not angry, mean and nasty.

In dog (or wolf) world, alpha dog’s first job is to keep order and tranquility inside the pack.

He is caring, playful and kind to the young, patient, even loving, and so many other things people usually DO NOT associate with alpha-dog behavior.

What does all this mean to the dog owner receiving instructions from a dog trainer?

Well, this brings us back to the issue of indoctrination.

If I, as a dog trainer, belong to one camp, then I am unlikely to consider other camp’s methods as valid.

Perhaps one of the other camps has a very effective method of dealing with a particular issue, however, if I’m closed off to the possibility that my camp is “wrong” then I’m unlikely to know or consider other camp’s methods.

This in the end harms the dog and it harms the dog owner.

So, stop the nonsense, stop looking for ways to separate from one another, stop thinking you’re always right, and start allowing for a possibility that other camps have something valid to teach.
Yeah yeah yeah...whatever Dino. Thats all find and dandy but where do you stand?

OK, thats a fair question.

As a trainer, I am committed to doing whatever works for this dog and this owner in this environment at this time. And I promise not to stop looking for a solution (to whichever methodology the solution might "belong") until a solution if found.

That's where I stand.

I should add that marketing is a factor as well.

“Positive training methods only” looks really good on a business card. No?

In PART FOUR, we talk about detachment.

Dog professionals are detached from the process of dog training.  

You’ll find out WHY this is a good thing.


Dino Dogan is a blogger, writer, biker, dog trainer, singer/songwriter, Martial Artist. Dino is now busy with his DIY Blogger Net blog. He is also behind the great social media tool, Triberr. Hopefully one day he'll return to dog blogging. Meanwhile, you can connect with Dino on Twitter or Facebook.

Related articles:
Human-Dog Problem Tree - PART ONE
Human-Dog Problem Tree - PART TWO 


  1. When Gizmo was a young puppy he liked to dig in the yard and my DA "ex-" wanted me to do the "snout in the hole filled with water thing" (which I not so politely declined)...didn't realize the idea came from Koehler...I've been to trainers with choke collars, ear pinches, clickers & treats...I've skipped the alpha-rollers...and I've picked up tips from all of them...and now I train using what works to teach my dog what I think he needs to learn

    1. I nice recommendation is to establish a "sand box" where digging is allowed. (doesn't, of course, have to have sand in it)

  2. Great post! Not being a trainer, but working alongside those who do, I admire those who take the best from each camp and apply what works to the individual dog! Great info!

    1. The division is in everything, not just in the training world. It's not all that different in the medicine either. It's a war out there.

  3. Amen. There is no one-size-fits-all for every dog, owner, situation and behavior.

    What works for my dogs may or may not work for yours. Everything is different. As long as I as a trainer work to solve the problem and respect all the beings involved (canine and human alike), I will be able to come to a solution that works.

    Most owners I work with are always missing on the basics: they don't see what's going on, they don't communicate clearly, they are inconsistent. One school vs. another does not solve those problems. Being present with and for your dog does.

    Thank you for the post, I hope you've helped some folks reframe the questions and options.