Dogs’ temperaments differ and it is up to us as owners to assess which training method is suitable for our individual puppies. (Photo courtesy of Rockhouse Motion)
Reduced to the bare essentials, our goal in training a dog for hunting or any purpose is either to increase the likelihood that the dog will do exactly what we want or, conversely, to decrease the likelihood of the dog doing what we are not doing. want to. Most of our training involves giving the dog a stimulus (command) and the dog reacts in some way. If the answer is what we want or at least part of what we want, the dog gets a reward (reinforcement). If the reinforcement is positive, the dog is paid for his work and the response to this stimulus will tend to be repeated. But if the response to a given stimulus is not what is desired, the reinforcement will either be zero or negative, and the response will tend not to repeat itself. We call this operative ‘learning’, which is how most training is done.
However, the stimulus can be either fully positive or aversive. Example: training a standing dog to sit can be done by saying the word “sit” and moving a favorite treat from eye level above its head, allowing it to drop the hindquarters. in a sitting position and get a reward. After a few word and reward matches, an empty hand will cause the sit. Or we can press with stiff fingers on his rump, forcing him to lower his back into the seat to avoid the pressure, and then get positive reinforcement by removing the pressure. After a few repetitions, the word and a light touch will suffice. Well, just the word alone.
The first is a positive stimulus, the second is aversive. In both scenarios the likelihood of the dog sitting on command is increased and we can say that we have trained the dog to sit when he hears the command to “sit”. The main difference between the two is that in one the dog is doing something to get a positive gain while in the other the dog is trying to control or avoid the pressure and the gain is being able to stop the pressure. . Positive reinforcements work to increase the likelihood that the response will be repeated in both methods, regardless of the type of stimulus.
Conversely, if the reinforcement is negative, regardless of whether the stimulus is positive or aversive, the response will tend not to repeat itself. Thus, a dog learns to sit or not to sit simply by the retroactive influence of reinforcement.
Types of collars and use
One of the most important and widely used tools for training a dog is some sort of collar or similar restraint. We have non smothering flat collars, flat smothering collars, chain necklaces, which may or may not be smothering depending on which ring the leash is attached to. Then there is also a variation of martingale for both chain and flat necklaces. There are a variety of head harnesses, as well as the claw or pinch collar and the electronic collar. To train our hunting dogs, the flat collar, the claw collar and the electronic collar are the most used today. Each type can be a positive or aversive stimulus depending on how they are used. The flat collar can be loose enough that it does not put positive pressure on the dog’s neck, or it can be a bit tighter and used with a lot of pressure while squeezing against the leash. The claw collar can be attached loosely so that the claws barely touch the dog’s skin and a slight pull on the leash brings the adjacent pairs of claws together to pinch the skin with immediate release of pressure to end the pinching and is controlled by the handler. Any pull that the dog does punishes itself by increasing the pressure and thus the pressure of the teeth is controlled by the dog. The handler holds a tight leash but does not pull on it. It is the aversive use of the claw collar where the dog controls the pressure.
The electronic collar can be used in several ways. Most have a single stimulation, continuous stimulation of varying intensity from zero to fairly intense, and a beep or vibrate function. The sound / buzz can be used as one would use a clicker which, associated with any reward, becomes positive reinforcement. Or, the collar can be used with simple light stimulation to be a light booster / correction much like a light pinch of the claw collar. It can also be used with continuous low level stimulation which is held until the dog does the desired thing and the stimulation is stopped. The plan here being for the dog to learn that he can turn off the stimulation by doing the desired job at hand. It is aversive use because the dog controls the duration of the pressure and learns that doing what is asked of him will allow him to avoid the correction. The result is that the tool can be positive or aversive depending on how it is used, just like any tool.
Which method is best for your dog?
Experience tells us that sensitive dogs react to stimulus situations differently from dogs with stronger temperaments. We also know from experience that the temperament of any given dog will not be exactly the same as that of any other given dog. And, because we have access to all the tools and can use them as we please, we need to ask the dog at the end of the leash what will work best for him and follow his advice. How do you do that?
You need to assess your dog’s temperament and determine where he stands on the super soft / sensitive to extremely tough / hard headed continuum, what he can handle and what he cannot. If you have experience reading your dog, one easy way is to have someone take a front-facing photo of your dog standing next to you. The dog photo will tell you a lot if you read it carefully and correctly. Another thing you can do is monitor your dog’s reactions to all kinds of situations, on and off leash. His posture in the face of a new situation will tell you a lot. Hopefully your dog is somewhere in the middle third of the curve, not too soft or too hard. Now, figuratively, overlay your assessment of your dog’s temperament on the ultra-positive to aversive curve and you will have an estimate of the stimulus level to begin training your dog.
Observe your dog’s reaction to the level of positive or aversive stimulation conditions you have chosen for his training. If your dog is showing signs of anxiety like a lowered or squatting body posture, a lowered tail, tucked under the hind legs, lowered ears, looking away, you should step back into the less intense stimulus situation and guide your dog to through responses more gently, pulling it rather than pushing it through. But if your dog is hyperactive, on guard, looking everywhere except you, more interested in whatever is going on rather than the job at hand, you know the picture, you need to increase the aversive parts of the stimulus training to redirect his attention to you and to what you want him to do.
Whatever you do, don’t get a fixed training method. What worked great with one dog for you might work well with the next one, but the chances of it happening are greater than winning the lottery. Evaluate your dog and train him the way he needs to be trained. He will thank you by showing you what a good trainer you have become.