Bridging the Gap
There are many ways to train dogs. Each professional trainer has perfected methods that work best for them and their clients. However, not every dog can be trained with the same approach that trainer might prefer.
Most dogs respond well to positive reinforcement (adding something to reward the dog) and negative punishment (something removed to punish the dog), while others will inadvertently have bad behaviors reinforced. When using positive punishment (something added that is aversive in order to extinguish a behavior), such as an electronic collar, prong collar or choke chain, many dogs will quickly respond, while others will totally shut down. In my opinion these tools should not be the first items that a trainer reaches for when starting out a dog.
Begin the training using as positive a method as possible and observe the results. If the dog responds quickly and eagerly than that particular method is working well. Should the dog continue to challenge the handler, more use of positive punishment may need to be applied, such as the use of a head halter. A properly used head halter precludes the necessity of a choke chain, martingale collar, prong collar and, in most cases, the electronic collar.
In my opinion, positive punishment should not be the first method used when starting a dog. The use of positive reinforcement, such as the use of lure and reward, bridging signal and praise should be the initial introduction to training all animals. Most will quickly respond to this as most animals have motivating triggers such as food, comfort and play. The incentive can be food, toys or touch. It is the trainer’s job to discover the best motivator and utilize it to teach the dog.
Trying to force an individual into learning will always cause distress. Granted, dogs are very forgiving and desirous of pleasing people, so they will eventually respond, but their overall attitude will be one of fear and broken spirit. Hence the working dog who responds to commands with its tail and head held low, droopy or frightened eyes and often tries to avoid working entirely. This is a clear sign of incorrect training approach; the result of using aversive training methods on a dog who didn’t require them.
On the other hand, there are many very dominant animals who do require a more aversive approach in order to learn that their handler is the leader and the dog is to follow commands regardless of what it might rather be doing. As a professional trainer for over thirty years these are few and far between, most often seen in spoiled older dogs of working or terrier breeds. However, once the “point” is made they can often be switched over to positive reinforcement methods.
There are many training tools available and all are effective provided they are used properly. Unfortunately, many of these tools are readily available to the dog-owning public who are not taught how to use them correctly and therefore inadvertently use them abusively.
It is our job, as professionals, to make certain that our foremost actions are to prevent abusive training approaches and to instruct dog owners how to communicate with their pets using a positive approach.
The easiest means of doing this is through lure and reward, bridging signals and utilizing canine communication techniques. Once the dog owner begins bridging the gap all the light bulbs turn on and communication opens up.
Bridging is an art, learned through observation and experience. Timing is everything.
When deciding to use a specific tool for bridging, such as a clicker, squeaker, specific vocal tone with a word or visual cue, it must be something that is efficient for both the trainer and dog owner. Clickers have grown in popularity for this very reason. It is a tool with a simple distinct sound. It is something that even a child can operate, and offers the same bridging signal regardless of who uses it, making it consistent.
Consistency is the key to reliability.
The only drawback with using a clicker is having to hold onto it in a manner that allows one to utilize it efficiently. This means holding it in the same hand as the leash leaving the other hand free to use for targeting and reward delivery. Most dog owners can’t handle all this. They have enough issues just holding a leash properly.
I have found that the most efficient means of bridging is with one’s voice. This can be anything from an in-the-cheek click, to the words Good or Yes in a high happy tone. It is something you always have. Best of all it’s not something else to coordinate with the leash and target tools (hand, stick, ball, etc.).
Even dogs who have to be trained using aversive, positive punishment techniques should always receive a bridging signal when they have performed correctly. This will allow the trainer to phase out positive punishment and rely solely upon the positive reinforcement as the dog seeks to perform rewarding behavior.
Miriam Fields-Babineau is the designer and manufacturer of Comfort Trainer Head Halter and Accessories.