It never fails -- someone always says it. In a recent online discussion about a trainer known for using less-than-gentle methods, someone made a comment that sounded a lot like this: "Positive training is fine for smaller dogs and puppies, and maybe even some adults, but there are some dogs that need a heavier hand." Really? Because that sounds an awful lot like justification for jerking, yanking, shocking, and other things done to dogs in the name of training.
I've heard the excuse for heavy-handedness put like this: "They're red zone dogs" (somehow that term always makes me visualize dogs with red, flashing sirens over their heads) or something similar. The term is used to categorize dogs who are severely aggressive. Often the trainer has been brought in as last-ditch effort before the dog is euthanized. In my years of working in canine training and behavior, I've had many clients with what would be termed "red zone" dogs. Lest you think I don't fully comprehend the extreme aggression the term is meant to denote, one example from my own clientele is the 140-pound Alsatian who had put a hole through his owner's hand. The owner, a 6-foot-tall police officer, had adopted the dog as an adult. The first week, the man went to grab a toy on the carpet at the same time as the dog did. The dog resource guarded the toy. This resulted in a hole that pierced the palm, through which daylight was clearly visible. The dog was also very aggressive toward strangers, and had severe aggression toward anyone on the other side of a barrier such as a chain link fence. I'm happy to report that with a course of kind, gentle training and behavior modification, and some beautiful follow-through on the part of the clients, all lived carefully but happily ever after. I could go on about successful outcomes with dogs like the Catahoula/chow mix who multiply puncture-wounded multiple people, and how gentle methods saved the day... but you get the idea. Many other trainers could tell you the same thing.
When I hear the argument for certain dogs needing a heavier hand, I think about the wolves I've worked with over the years in rescue and training. Wolves are incredibly strong and fast, and can be extremely dangerous. They are also intelligent and learn very quickly. They do not, however, respond to being manhandled in an accepting way like some dogs do. An attempt to physically overpower a wolf would not go well for the human. So, you might wonder, how could anyone possibly work with them? Gently, and with respect. I worked successfully with many wolves and wolfdogs at the rescue center I co-ran in California, and it's done at Wolf Park, a research and educational facility in Indiana, every day.
It's true that some dogs are naturally softer than others as far as temperament, and they're more tractable when it comes to training and behavior modification. There are also some very pushy, obnoxious dogs out there (Bodhi, when he first came to us, for example), and yes, even aggressive and severely aggressive dogs. But when we put those dogs in a box and slap a label on it (Red Zone! Beware!), we do them a disservice. That label implies, at least to some, that desperate situations call for desperate measures. Nothing could be further from the truth. Attempting to establish dominance over the dog is the first thing many trainers attempt when working with these high-risk types. I suppose the theory is that the dog will then be biddable; after all, how can you work with a dog who might go after you? But this theory misses the point. It's not about force to begin with -- it's about gaining the dog's trust.
Think about it: Why is the dog behaving aggressively? In the vast majority of cases, it's because he or she does not feel comfortable, and is taking the offense to keep the big, scary thing at bay. Sure, there are also dogs who are flat-out territorial or otherwise aggressive without it being fear-based, but even then, gaining trust in a non-confrontational way goes so much further than simply establishing dominance. And let's say the trainer can "dominate" the dog. Where does that leave the family members who have to live with the dog every day? I've seen way too many clients who were advised to use harsh, punitive methods on aggressive dogs, and it backfired. One of my clients had been advised by a previous trainer to put her American Bulldog on his back and sit on him whenever he became aggressive. The woman had been bitten in the face, and as a result, was seeking a better way.
I don't care if a dog is 150 pounds or 10 pounds, and whether the issue is leash manners or biting visitors. There are no dogs who need a heavier hand--there are only trainers who need more knowledge and a lighter touch.
Nicole Wilde is a canine behavior specialist and author. Visit her website nicolewilde.com.
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