My training philosophy is based on communication and trust – between human and dog.
It can be outlined in four core concepts:
- a clear system of communication with the dog, involving either simple verbal or visual markers (“yes,” “good,” “no”), or a clicker; this will help define your expectations for the dog, and help guide his thought process into making the decisions you would like him to make.
- a reward system for behaviors you would like repeated; this goes beyond handing a treat to a dog for a “sit” or a “paw,” and it has nothing to do with bribing a dog in order for him to perform a behavior.
- consequences for behaviors that are either unacceptable or unsafe. They will have to be meaningful to the dog (whether that is withholding a reward, a verbal or a leash correction, or a short time-out) but not to the point where they would be causing an overbearing amount of stress, or introduce unnecessary conflict in the relationship.
- consistency. Consistency in communication. Consistency in rewards. Consistency in consequences.
With respect to training methodology, there is no fast and loose answer. Methods, tools, and direction of training will be dictated by the dog’s temperament as well as by the client’s needs and abilities.
Primary goals are to find the most ideal route to (1) improve my clients’ relationship with their dogs, (2) maximize training results with minimal stress and conflict in the process, while (3) providing training guidelines / programs my clients feel comfortable integrating into their lifestyle. (If you are not comfortable with something, you are not going to stick with it long term, in order to progress or even maintain specific behaviors. The initial work you and I put into it, as well as the money you paid, both become moot points.)
All of that being said, part of my job is to identify and familiarize my clients with the methods and tools that, in my opinion, would work best for their particular dog – be that a primarily reward-based approach, a gentle leader, a pinch training collar, or (often!) a combination of tools and methods. Also, to teach them how to use those tools safely and properly.
Different dogs will obviously require different approaches. What one dog will consider highly rewarding could well mean nothing to another dog. Some will happily perform behaviors for their regular kibble meals, while others will refuse high-value treats if distracted or stressed out by the environment. A toy could mean nothing to one dog, while another will literally spit out piece of steak to get to a tug. On the flip side, what one dog will consider aversive, highly stressful, could also mean little to nothing to another dog. For example, spatial pressure, stepping into the dog’s space to manipulate their movements, can feel very uncomfortable for a particular dog while literally having zero psychological impact on another.
Personally, I do use a balanced, marker system (clicker as well as verbal marking) with my own dogs, a working line Dutch Shepherd and a working line Belgian Malinois. Our training sessions are strongly based on handler focus and engagement (dog WANTING to work WITH me), high value rewards when teaching and rehearsing specific behaviors (food, toys, games of tug) as well as training tools that will ensure, frankly, reliable compliance and safety in a wide variety of situations. We also train for competitions, and while I do expect full off-leash control (with not even a flat collar on) in certain situations, both dogs have been taught / conditioned to pressure-release communication methods, with both pinch and very low-level e-collar stimulation. To take it one step further, one of them is primarily worked on the pinch and e-collar for behaviors he already knows and has generalized (when used correctly as a communication device, at very low levels that most people do not even feel, period, the e-collar helps minimize handler conflict and frustration), while the other is significantly more handler sensitive, responds fabulously to positive reinforcement (treats, toys) and voice guidance, and we do most of our work safely and completely off leash, even with high distraction from dogs or people he had never met before.
Would this particular training route work for everyone and every dog? Of course not. Both myself and my dogs are fairly intense when it comes to training and ours is definitely not your typical-home scenario. To loop it back to the top, part of my job is to find out what would work best for each particular situation, as well as to motivate, guide, and support my clients’ progress as they move forward with their dog, as a team, with a foundation of communication and trust.