Thursday, March 17, 2011

The How's and Why's of Dog Training - What Are Your Options?

Dog training is a task that must be taken on by all dog owners.  This can be a fun and most rewarding experience for both the dog and the owner.  It can also be a little intimidating for the inexperienced or new dog owner.  Many decisions need to be made when deciding on the training methods to be used.
The following article, written by Jill Ennis, M.S., an animal communicator, based in Syracuse, NY looks at the "Compassionate Training" method. Jill, a guest author here at "Maxwell and Me!", will be sharing her canine expertise in a series of articles.  We'd like to thank Jill for her contribution and we look forward to an ongoing series of articles regarding her dog training and communication methods. 

Photo by Wendy Colucci -
Because You Love Him: A Rationale for Compassionate Training

You know the story.  You’re swooned by those big brown eyes and happily wagging tail, and commit wholeheartedly to providing that dog the forever home he deserves.   And then he shreds your good shoes, pounces on your guests, and nearly pulls your arm out of its socket on his walks, turning your puppy love song into the “No-No!  Bad Dog!” symphony. 

As a dog parent, I sympathize with the desire for the quickest fix in restoring harmony at home.  But as an animal consultant and advocate, I stand firmly behind my belief that our relationships with our dogs, like with other people, are worth the time and effort it takes to build them.   Chances are you probably wouldn’t squeeze a pronged choke collar around your best friend so he can’t move faster than you or zap your crying child to get her to quiet down. 

Photo by Wendy Colucci
Compassionate training is a method that emphasizes positive reinforcement (rewarding good behavior) instead of positive punishment (disciplining bad behavior).  Positive reinforcements, such as food treats, toys, or attention and praise, are offered at the immediate moment the dog performs a wanted behavior.   Unwanted behaviors are either ignored or redirected to a safer or more desirable alternative as much as possible.  The driving premise is that human attention—positive or negative—is the ultimate reward sought by companion dogs and they’ll work to find the fastest way to get it.  This means that to Spot, your shooing motion and “Get down!” is just as enticing as your scratch on the head and “Good boy!”  In fact, it may be even more enticing since you’re likely saying the former with a lot more urgency and excitement in your voice.  And, oh, do dogs love excitement.

The tactics advocated by coercion-focused trainers—designed to help shape desirable behaviors by compelling the dog to avoid harsh corrections for undesirable behaviors—will usually resolve a problem behavior rapidly.  However, since dogs simply want attention, these methods often times punish a dog for what in essence is him just being a dog.  And when that dog is stressed or anxious, resorting to forceful methods to alleviate it seems even crueler. 

A recent client contacted me for assistance with her rescued Labrador Retriever who peed herself in submission whenever a human made eye contact.  The coercion trainer she consulted suggested that this gentle dog needed rigid discipline and structure to help her find her sense of self—and luckily, the client’s intuition made her suspect enough to seek another opinion.  “I don’t want a robot dog,” she told me. "I want my dog to have fun and keep her personality.  I just don’t want to have to shampoo my rug every time we have a visitor."  I showed her how to introduce a basic “focus” cue, where the dog is rewarded for making and holding eye contact, and encouraged her to practice this with each new guest who comes in.  This not only felt better to the client, but also helped keep her carpet beige instead of yellow.

Working in tandem with the dog’s natural instincts through compassionate training requires dedication, consistency, and patience—that’s why it’s called “compassion training” and not “convenience training.”  The longer a dog has gotten away with (or been inadvertently rewarded for) unwanted behaviors, the longer it may take to reshape them.  When frustrations surmount, revisit the reason you brought him home in the first place. You fell in love with him just the way he was—a dog.   

Jill Ennis, M.S., is an animal communicator based in Syracuse, New York.  Her mission is to strengthen relationships between companion animals and the people who love them through intuitive readings, energy healing, training consultations, and a blog about her own endeavors to practice what she preaches.  Learn more at

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