Wednesday, May 15, 2013


I am a professional dog trainer and dog behaviour consultant.  In order to do my job there are certain pieces of information that I need to have.  I must have a good understanding of the ethology of the dog or the normal behaviour that the dog would exhibit.  I must have a deep understanding of Applied Behaviour Analysis, or how operant and classical conditioning work.  I must have some understanding about family systems and how to communicate effectively both in writing and through effective discussions with my clients.  What I don’t have is a “method”.

When I am asked about my method, I wonder what people are looking for.  Maybe they want a commitment from me that I am never going to use a clicker, or an electronic shock collar.  Maybe they want a commitment from me that I will use a particular tool.  Maybe they want a framework to know about how I approach behaviour problems.  It is a very ambiguous question.  When someone asks a doctor or a veterinarian “what method do you use to practice medicine?” it is clear that they are looking for a simplistic answer to an extremely complex question and the same is true about what I do.  The only reasonable answer I can come up with is “It Depends”.  It depends on what the problem is.  It depends on how engrained the problem is.  It depends on the client’s ability to carry out specific actions.  It depends on everything about the case.

Method is about specific activities.  I have a method for teaching dogs how to reliably come when called for instance.  The method is series of positive reinforcement activities starting with acceptance of collar grabbing and ending with calling the dog out of play with other dogs.  As in medicine, it is a series of steps to achieve a goal, based on the principles of the science that I am practicing.  The “method” I use to teach a dog to come when called is not the same method I would use to teach a dog not to jump on me when he greets me.  Furthermore, the method I use to teach a dog to not jump up is not going to be the same when the dog is very young, or when it is an adult. 

I have been accused of playing semantic games when I won’t commit to a single method, but I challenge people to think hard about this.  I am a professional and I have a sound understanding of the theory behind what I do.  I use a variety of tools including but not limited to collars, leashes, treats, toys, fences, noise makers, crates, the computer, clickers, long lines, and compressed air.  No one would ask their veterinarian “what method do you use when you practice medicine?”  It is a meaningless question because medicine, like behaviour, is a profession that is broad in its application.  If you asked a veterinarian what method they use when they are drawing blood they can simply and easily answer that question.  Ask that same veterinarian what method they use to practice medicine and they will be hard pressed to give a cogent answer because they probably don’t have a single “method”.  What they have is a collection of methods grounded in a variety of sciences, and they choose the method based on what they are doing with a given patient.

When a trainer comes out and commits to a method, the thing that tells you is that they don’t really have a solid understanding of the practice that they are carrying out.  A method implies a recipe of steps to resolve specific behaviours.  If instead of methods, trainers commit to principles, they are telling you that they understand more about behaviour than a list of steps to follow.  And that is the difference between a dabbler and a pro.  Don’t get me wrong; there are many very talented dabblers, and there are incompetent professionals, but when you are committed to a method instead of to principles based on the sciences that lie under your practice, you are showing more about what you don’t know than about what you do.

In Applied Behaviour Analysis we observe the behaviour and take a history to learn about the problem.  Then we define the target behaviour and develop a plan to address the behaviour.  If you want to call that a method, then I guess THAT is my method, but there is no commitment ahead of time to which tools I might use or what the best intervention might be.  What I do and how I do it is predicated on the situation at hand.  I do have professional standards I need to take into account when making my plans.  The most important of these standards is LIMA, or Least Invasive, Minimally Aversive.  This does not mean that I will not use aversives; it means that the aversives that I choose will be the least aversive available to me in order to meet the needs of my clients.  I also take into account the Humane Hierarchy which structures how to approach behaviour problems.  In so far as I have a method that is it.  There is nothing more to it than that.

I spoke with a group of veterinary professionals today about what I do and how I do it and they kept pressing me about my methods.  I think this really points up the issue that we have between veterinarians and trainers.  If I walked into a clinic and asked the veterinarian what method they used, they could not reasonably be expected to answer it.  The vet and her staff pressed me on examples of extinction (they didn’t call it that-that is what they were describing) that didn’t work and examples of positive punishers that did, and clicker trainers who could or could not develop behaviours.  What separates me from the trainers they have encountered is quite simply that I don’t look at what I do as a simple set of rules that I have to follow in order to be safely within the realm of effective and humane training methods.  No vet would suggest that slicing open a dog is going to be good for the dog, but it is exactly what they do when they perform surgery, because as in training, cutting a dog open depends on what is going on.  Cutting a dog open in order to do surgery to repair an injury is humane.  Slicing a dog open because you are a sadistic sick person is not.  Asking a vet to commit to never cutting a dog would preclude her from practicing the full scope of her job.  Likewise asking a veterinarian to never, ever discuss nutrition with a client would equally bind her hands.  This is what I face when I am asked what my method is; do I avoid the use of ALL aversives?  Some?  Specific ones?  Do I commit to only using food rewards?  Or never using food?  No!  I could not do my job with my hands bound in this way.

When I make these sorts of presentations, I wonder if I need to rethink how I do this.  I prefer to present in the context of an open discussion, but this time things got away from me.  At these events, I have been asked about things like “pack leaders” and “dominance hierarchies” and at the end of the day, I wonder if what people who talk to me really want is the opportunity to challenge me on their own ideas instead of learn what I do.  The important point I got out of today is that people need to have a much better understanding of what a dog behaviour consultant does and that we are more than just the conveyers of a single method.  As long as veterinarians and their staff are asking for a simplistic response to such a complex question, we are stuck.  In order for training to be effective it is much more than the sum of its parts; it is a complete understanding of a plethora of subjects.  Just like veterinarians have to learn about anatomy, physiology, haematology, surgery, medicine, pharmacology and a variety of other topics, so must behaviour consultants understand about an equal number of subjects, and what we do is a synthesis of those subjects, it is not a single set of instructions to follow in order to achieve success. 
Below is a list of concepts that I am confronted with regularly and my stand on them.

Dominance is a concept in ethology that describes the winner in a dispute where there are two or more individuals of the same species and a limited resources.  Two male gazelles and one female gazelle means one one dominant gazelle and one subordinate gazelle.  Two bones and one dog?  One dominant dog and one subordinate dog.  The human puts a leash on a dog and asks the dog to walk nicely on leash?  No resource, two species and no dominance hierarchy.  I wrote a blog about this called TWO DOGS, ONE BONE  (  If you want to learn more about what I think about dominance hierarchies in training, please have a read.


I am not a dog.  My dog is not a person.  The big problem here lies in a core understanding of what the relationship between humans and dogs is and what the normal social groups might be.  Current thinking suggests that one of several models might be appropriate for the dog/human relationship.  The first model is that of the parent to child, with the humans being the parent and the dog being the child.  The model I prefer is one of partnership.  My dog is my partner and much of the time I direct his activities and actions.  Some of the time though, I do what he wants without even asking.  There are two murder suspects at large in my community at the moment.  When my German Shepherd tells me that there is a stranger in our lane, I take his word on it and lock the front door or go in the house.  When my service dog tells me that I need to take my medication to head off a migraine I don’t double check, I do what he tells me to do.  When I tell the dogs they are going to donate blood for their heart worm tests, they do as I ask.

We need to understand too that dogs are not pack animals.  Pack animals are closely related individuals who hunt co operatively.  You cannot introduce a new member to a pack without significant orchestration.  Dogs are scavengers.  Dogs live in loose social groups that integrate easily with one another.  Being my dog’s partner often means that I am the leader, but there is no pack. 

Leadership is an important concept.  I look at leaders as being benign and providing gentle guidance towards a goal.  As was pointed out to me today, the whole “pack leader” type of interactions with dogs DOES work.  The problem lies when you have a close look at it.  When I look at what is described to me as pack leader behaviour, I see it through the lens of Applied Behaviour Analysis.  This means that I look at the baseline and then I look at what behaviours the “leader” does to change the behaviours the “dog” does.  Behaviour change is a delicate interplay and at its finest it is a two way conversation.  In Pack Leader style training it is a crude form of doctrinal dictation; the PL dictates the behaviour.  The dog does it or else.  Or else; there is an unpleasant consequence, which I would describe as positive punishment or the application of an aversive stimuli to decrease undesired behaviours.   If this is not your version of Pack Leader training, then I have assumed wrongly, but that is the media presentation of it and that is how my students present it to me.  I am able to deconstruct what is happening in Pack Leadership style training in terms of operant conditioning, a branch of Applied Behaviour Analysis.  It is not possible to do the opposite and explain operant conditioning in terms of Pack Leadership.  All in all, Pack Leadership is in my opinion the cloak that people hide behind when they are afraid of coming out and saying that they are willing to use aversives in training or when they do not have the language or understanding of operant conditioning to accurately describe what they are doing.

Just what is calm assertive energy anyway?  Calm, assertive, and energy are three concepts that are really at odds with one another.  Calm is an arousal state and I would agree that in animal training, being calm is important.  Energy is the ability to do work but we often think of energy in terms of someone who is active.  Calm and active just don’t seem to go together real well.  In terms of being assertive, I have worked with far too many fearful dogs to think that being assertive is always a good idea.  When you are frightened the last thing you want is to be faced with an assertive personality; that will often make dogs even more frightened.  Over the years, I have found that a good many of my students don’t have any desire to be assertive and I think that trying to force them into that mould can be very damaging to their relationship with their dogs.  If anything I have learned over the years to tone down my assertiveness when working with dogs; even highly reactive and confident dogs.  If I am calm that is more than enough for me to control the environment to allow the animal to learn to be successful.  More than once I have had clients tell me how relieved they are that they don’t have to be assertive because they have tried that and it didn’t work for them.  Assuming that being assertive is a necessary trait to be a successful dog trainer is unrealistic at best and damaging at worst. 

Some of the people I work with come to the table attempting to portray their perception of calm assertive energy and spend a great deal of time intimidating their dogs.  Often what I am seeing is not calm and not assertive in any way, but instead is a lot of bravado disguised as some magical energy.  Getting these people to cease their own behaviour is hard because as a society we have bought into this idea that you have to be calm, assertive and energetic all at once in order to be successful.  We have good research that intimidating an already aggressive dog is outright dangerous and that it results in a higher number of bites in families. 

The short answer is no, I don’t teach this to my students because I don’t believe that it has any particular merit.  I think it is a slogan probably thought up by someone in a marketing department for a TV personality.  Or maybe it was thought up by the personality himself.  It may even be an inaccurate translation of something that makes more sense in another language.  It just doesn’t make any logical sense in English.  If thinking that you are calm and assertive and energetic at the same time makes you feel better about training your dog, then go right ahead; but it doesn’t make any sense in the context of the science of operant conditioning.


If you mean to ask if I am a trainer who uses a clicker to mark the behaviours I like in a dog, then yes, I am a clicker trainer.  If you mean to ask if I am fundamentally opposed to the use of aversives, then no, I am not.  Clicker training has become a faction in and of its self.  If you read through a lot of the early work in behaviourism, the scientists who studied this material pictured that in their lifetimes we would reach a utopia where behaviour could be managed, morphed and changed through the application of the four quadrants of operant conditioning.  Not surprisingly, behaviourism has split into many different schools of thought.  One of those schools of thought is that of clicker training as the be all and the end all and the release from the use of any aversive control over behaviour.

Clicker purists commit to controlling the environment to the extent where any incorrect behaviour gets no response and eventually disappears from the landscape.  This doesn’t work well for behaviours that are self reinforcing and even using differential reinforcement of alternate behaviours isn’t necessarily going to be successful.  Often it is, but sometimes it is not.  Furthermore, few of my clients can set up the sort of environment that I do to ensure that I don’t have to use any aversive control over behaviour.  In point of fact, I am not always able to control the situation to the extent where no behaviour can occur that is unwanted or dangerous.  When behaviours occur that are unwanted or dangerous, some of the time the use of an aversive can decrease stress and confusion in the learner and when that happens, the use of an aversive can be argued to be more humane than allowing the animal to continue to be confused or in danger.

More and more the clicker training movement is telling people that they should eschew all aversives, and that we just need to understand the science.  More and more, I am reading juried articles in respected journals that point to the fact that not all aversive control of behaviour is stressful to the learner and that there may be some things that are better taught with punishment than with reinforcement.  Although I don’t support the wholesale use of aversives exclusively, I also don’t support the wholesale use of appetitives either.

I live with a traumatic brain injury which causes me to tilt to the right some of the time.  I am not balanced!  Balanced trainers are another faction in training and they argue that giving the learner a yes/no response to offered behaviours yields faster and more reliable results than either Pack Leadership or Clicker Training.  Well done, this may well be possible, but I rarely see it well done.  More often I see trainers who don’t understand learning theory terribly well and dogs who don’t understand what is wanted.  Some folks describe themselves as primarily positive trainers who sometimes balance that with the use of aversives.  This sort of bafflegab muddies the waters even further and tells us that the trainers in question really don’t understand the science of what they are doing.  Like the Pack Leaders, these trainers don’t understand that a positive is anything that the trainer does, and can be either reinforcing or punishing, and so they cloak their methods in obscure verbiage and descriptions.  They “correct” their dogs and they tell you that they never ever use punishment.  When you start to sling lingo around, then it starts to get really confusing.  It is no wonder that people who are new to training have a hard time figuring out how to talk about behaviour.  It is also not a surprise that the veterinary staff I spoke to today had so many questions. 

Suzanne Clothier, an author and trainer I greatly respect was probably the first person to coin this term, and I think it has merit to describe a lot of what I do, but relationship is not training.  It is the foundation upon which I build training for sure, but it is not in and of itself, training.  I think training without first establishing a relationship with the learner is a bit like cafeteria dining; you might run into a seatmate who is interesting and who enhances your meal, but more often than not, you are going to meet people who are just doing what you are doing; installing calories in order to continue the journey.

I approach training the way I approach a dinner date; I want to meet the person before we start the meal and I want to meet the dog before we start to train.  Training is the acquisition of skills or emotions by the learner through the activities of the trainer.  Well done it is a beautiful and subtle dance of actions and reactions until interaction is achieved, and the line between learner and trainer is softened and faded.  This level of skill acquisition is not achieved casually; it is achieved when the learner and the trainer meet and see one another for who they are, and who explore one another’s interests and desires by probing and testing, in a gentle and careful manner.  Relationship is what allows me to apply all that I know of the science of Applied Behaviour Analysis, of Humane Hierarchy, of LIMA, of the ethology of the dog, and of my understanding of dog/human relationships and help people to help their dogs to achieve their joint potential.  And still, I would not call myself a Relationship Trainer.

I am a dog behaviour consultant.  I have the skills of a scientist to record what I see and clearly define the target behaviour I want to change.  I have the skills to choose to use reinforcement or punishment as a part of my behaviour modification plan to change the target behaviour.  I am relational with both my human and my canine colleagues; the dogs are not subordinate in the process; they are my partners, and I use my relationship with the dogs and the people to develop skills and change emotions on the part of both the dog and the person in order to help the partnership to develop and succeed.  I bring training skills, the science of Applied Behaviour Analysis, observational skills and counselling skills to the table. 

And I don’t have a method. 


  1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this. Please stick to your proverbial guns on this. Despite the trend of continual neutering of the language, the words that are used are distinct and those distinctions can completely alter the meaning of the sentence that they are used in and thereby the thought that is expressed.

    The word 'energy', in the context of the idea of 'calm, assertive energy' is used in the metaphysical sense rather than that used in physics.

    To paraphrase a favorite movie quote: anyone that insists on The Way being the Only Way is either lying or trying to sell you something.

    I haven't been exposed to your work other than a post on a social networking site, but as a technical analyst, I greatly appreciate the thoughtful, individually focused and tailored 'method' you describe in this post.

  2. Thanks! I know that energy is being used in the metaphysical sense, but it STILL doesn't make sense. At least not to me!

  3. I really liked this, Sue. Read it twice to really grok what you were saying (I have to think things through), but I totally agree about having no "method." I hate the militancy of some "subgroups" of groups, etc. It's not healthy. I think your descriptions are very understandable and reasonable. I myself always use "it depends"!

  4. Interesting thought candy, thank you! My assumption is always when someone asks about "method", it is one of three reasons. 1. Concern that their dog not be P+. 2. Wanting something to happen that they have heard about working. 3. Someone else told them to ask the question to begin with. Your definition of pack is interesting in that my dogs meet that qualification, yet I do not consider them particularly a "pack" per se. Will they hunt cooperatively off lead with me around? Absolutely. And they seem to take fairly consistent roles in pack hunting style. But if the end of the human world goes down would they stay together to attempt survival? Possibly but unknown. Long term reality is they are food for others, more than likely... so to me, to be a pack also implies ability to survive together hunting.