dog-trainingIn the same vein as yesterday’s article, here’s yet another one that recently appeared in a popular magazine.

TIME: Dog Training and the Myth of Alpha-Male Dominance


There’s a new article published on the Psychology Today website that talks about Cesar Millan, “dominance,” and “pack leader” training methods.  Excellent read…

Psychology Today: Canine Dominance: Is the Concept of the Alpha Dog Valid?

This week we learned some disappointing news.  According to our friends at Peaceable Paws, Premier, the maker of the Gentle Leader and the Easy Walk harness, has sold their company to Radio Systems Corp. Why does this upset us? Because RSC is known for their shock collars, and I can’t support a company that manufactures, markets, or sells such unnecessary and inhumane equipment.

So now what? Luckily, there is still Softouch Concepts, the creators of the SENSE-ation and SENSE-ible harnesses. They also have a great page on their website about exactly why these front-clip harnesses are the best way to walk your dog(s).

Please join us in supporting a company who is in this for the benefit of the dogs. There are enough companies out there who are all about the dollar. There’s nothing new or special about that.

What are aversives? According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, aversive is an adjective meaning, “tending to avoid or causing avoidance of a noxious or punishing stimulus <behavior modification by aversive stimulation>.” When we mention aversives as a noun, we are referring to tools trainers use that create the noxious or punishing stimulus referred to in the adjective’s definition. Dogs behave in desired ways because they are avoiding the punishing stimulus.

Which begs another question: What is punishment?  In psychology, punishment is the reduction of a behavior via a stimulus which is applied (“positive punishment”) or removed (“negative punishment”). Making a disobedient student stay in for recess is an example of negative punishment; issuing extra chores or spanking are examples of positive punishment. The definition requires that punishment is only determined after the fact by the reduction in behavior; if the offending behavior of the subject does not decrease then it is not considered punishment.

If a punishment is not serving its intended purpose but continues to be used in the same manner, it then crosses the line from punishment into abuse. This is easy to see if the chosen method of punishment is spanking but is less clear to the layperson when discussing the training methods used on dogs.

With all of the research done about learning theory and operant and classical conditioning, why do people still feel the need to use punitive methods when training dogs?  Friedrich Nietzsche may have said it best: “…because the desire to punish (and thereby subordinate, coerce, transform) other persons is so deeply rooted in human nature” (Nietzsche 1887).

A simple rule applies: if you wouldn’t want it done to you, don’t do it to your dog.

The Prong Collar


There’s much controversy around the use of prong collars in dog training. Trainers who use them swear by them; other trainers and behaviorists are working tirelessly around the country to outlaw their use.

People who use them insist they aren’t harmful to the dogs.


Prong collars appear to work almost miraculously – put one on your dog and there’s a very good chance he’ll stop pulling on his leash almost immediately.  This isn’t because the prongs rest on sensitive pressure points that release calming chemicals in the dog’s brain, instantly making them willing to walk peacefully beside you. It’s plain and simple – they stop pulling because IT HURTS.

The Gentle Leader

The Gentle Leader, also called a head collar, is a very effective tool for dogs that pull on leash. It works by turning the dog around when he pulls. The dog learns that if he pulls, he will get further away from the thing he’s trying to get closer to; if he wants to continue making forward progress, he needs to walk without pulling.

There’s no great mystery to this. It doesn’t involve pressure points on the dog’s face as some less-informed trainers claim. It just turns the dog around. Does it take time to get your dog used to having something on his face? Yes, absolutely. Treats or toys work wonders to distract him from the Gentle Leader; get him moving on his walk and he will quickly forget about the harness.

Are Gentle Leaders for every dog? Almost. Any dog can use a Gentle Leader. Dogs with shorter snouts might have problems, such as pugs. I also never use one on a puggle or beagle under 1 year of age because they are very susceptible to cherry eye during this time and  I’ve been told by a doggie ophthalmologist that the Gentle Leader may aggravate a cherry eye. But after they’re a year to 18 months old, go for it.

If you don’t like the Gentle Leader or your dog isn’t suited for one, try the…

Easy-Walk Harness

This works on the same theory as the Gentle Leader – the leash attaches to the front of the harness right in the middle of the dog’s chest. If they pull against it, they are turned around. Again, they don’t get where they want to go if they insist on pulling.

Don’t confuse the Easy-Walk Harness with harnesses that have the leash attachment on the back of the dog. These harnesses actually encourage pulling due to the opposition reflex. It’s a naturally-occurring reflex that causes humans and dogs to pull or push against that which is pulling or pushing against us. Sled dogs use harnesses in training in order to build drive; you don’t need to build drive in Fido when you’re trying to walk him around the block!

Scientifically Speaking…

Besides the infliction of pain, there are other reasons for not using a prong collar.

First, it doesn’t teach the dog not to pull on his leash unless he’s wearing the prong collar. It doesn’t teach him the behavior you DO want.  He learns to walk a certain way to avoid the pain and discomfort of the prongs, but if the prongs aren’t there, there is no learned behavior for Fido to exhibit. The Gentle Leader and the Easy-Walk Harness teach your dog that in order to get where he wants to go he must walk in a certain way – it teaches him what TO DO and it inherently rewards him for his good behavior

Second, they can be harmful to the bond you are trying to build with your dog. Think of it in terms of children – if your parents repeatedly used something that hurt you, seemingly at their own will and mercy, would you trust them? No, you would be afraid of them, anxiously anticipating when the device was going to surface again and trying your best to appease them so they wouldn’t hurt you so badly this time. What do you think your dog is doing when you pull out the collar and he sits with his ears flattened against his head?

Third, prong collars can actually train your dog to be aggressive! Think I’m kidding? Here’s how that works….you take your dog for a walk on a prong collar, issuing “small” leash corrections when he does something you don’t like.  Along comes another dog, who your dog would like to greet in a very friendly and canine-appropriate way…sniffing the other dog’s nether regions.  You don’t like this behavior, so you jerk on the leash and make him continue to walk along with you. After a few days of this, your dog starts to realize that when another dog comes around, you jerk on his leash and hurt him. He now wants that other dog to stay away, so he starts demonstrating behaviors designed to tell the other dog just that – “Go away! My lady is crazy! She’s going to hurt me if you come any closer! GO AWAY!!” To you, this looks and sounds like leash aggression, so once again you jerk on the leash and try to get him to behave. He learns to stop barking, but he is still very anxious about the other dog coming near.  Your dog is now faced with a “fight or flight” decision. He’s tried everything he knows to prevent the dog from coming near, but the dog continues his approach. Your dog can’t flee because he’s got this collar on that won’t let him move one inch away from you, so he has no choice but to fight, and as soon as that other dog is in striking distance, that’s exactly what happens. Congratulations, you now have a leash aggressive dog.

Remember my simple rule? Would YOU wear a prong collar and allow someone to lead you around by a leash? Why subject your dog to this when there are alternative methods – more humane methods and more reliable methods – for teaching your dog not to pull on his leash?


Nietzsche, Friedrich, 1887, On the Genealogy of Morals, tr. Walter Kaufmann, New York: Vintage, 1969.

The Importance of Play

February 14, 2010

You’ve probably heard the expression “a tired dog is a well-behaved dog.”  It’s been around for a while, and it’s become increasingly popular since one particular “trainer” on television advocates the use of a treadmill for dogs who can’t be given regular exercise. But physical exercise isn’t the only way to tire a dog out. Mental stimulation (ie, training) is incredibly tiring to dogs, as are fun dog sports like agility, discing, lure coursing, etc. But another great way to tire your dog out is to PLAY with him!

Categories of Play

Dogs have different play styles, so not every dog can play with every other dog. Some just aren’t compatible players, and that’s OK. But when playing with humans, there are several broad categories of games that most dogs will find enjoyable.

  • Object play – play using a stick, ball, toy, Frisbee
  • Mind games – best for dogs on kennel or crate rest or whose movement is otherwise limited.
  • Chase – games that involve you and your dog chasing after each other.
  • Physical contact games – generally not recommended and far more common with men than women, these are rough-housing type games – play wrestling, etc.

Benefits of Play

There are many benefits of playing with dogs, not the least of which include:

  • A fun form of exercise (hide & seek; chase);
  • A reward for training (a quick game of tug as a reward for a solid sit/stay);
  • A reinforcer for behavior modification programs (play through a thunderstorm to help avoid/prevent/modify storm anxiety)

The Controversy of “Tug”

There are many misconceptions about tug, especially in pop culture dog training. Currently popular trainers will say that tug encourages your dog to be “dominant” over you; that you should always win at tug because the winner is the leader of the pack; that tug encourages aggression. None of these are correct or true.

Tug is actually an excellent physical activity for dogs involving the full body and its musculoskeletal system. It’s physically exerting for them, and it can be done in smaller spaces such as apartments, or on rainy days when you and Fido don’t want to venture outdoors for extended periods of time. It’s a great game to incorporate into training and behavior modification. It’s a good alternative for people who want to roughhouse with their dog. And it’s a safe way to redirect the teeth of a dog who tends to get “mouthy” when playing.

There are a few simple rules that should be observed when playing tug to make sure that you are not reinforcing any negative behavior inadvertently. These include:

  • You control the good stuff. This means you start and stop the game.
  • No grabbing. Don’t allow play to begin if your dog grabs for the toy. Teach  him to wait for a cue for the game to start as well as to release the toy on command.
  • Tug using side-to-side motion only, as up-and-down movement can cause injury to the spine and teeth. Also make sure the force you use is in proportion to the dog’s size and weight.
  • Use time outs if needed. If Fido becomes mouthy and can’t be redirected to the toy, stop play immediately. Do not reinforce mouthiness. The same goes for jumping up in order to reach the toy or trying to grab it out of your hand.

Go Play!

Since most of our country is going through a particularly harsh winter, a lot of dogs and their people are probably suffering from a little bit of cabin fever right about now. Dogs need to burn off a ton of energy and humans want to stay warm and dry as much as possible. So go grab a long rope toy and start playing tug with your dog! You’ll both feel better for it!


Pat, Miller. Play With Your Dog. Wenatchee, Wash: Dogwise Pub., 2008.

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