Dog training. How do we define it today? It's been around a long, long time. As long as we've had dogs working with us we've been training them. Training is, comprehensively, the ability to increase the frequency and duration of behaviors we want, and to decrease the frequency and duration of the behaviors we don't want.
That's it. No matter how complicated we may be able to make the various facets, approaches, protocols, and applications of dog training it fundamentally comes down to this simple definition. It's what our clients come to us to do.
The first written mention of food reward-based training can be found in a book on the subject of gun dogs from 1751. The author apologizes to the reader for the audacity of using food to lure his gun dogs to perform reliable retrieving behaviors quickly, easily, effectively, and reliably over time. His methodology stood firmly against the accepted standard for dog training at that time, which consisted primarily of the use of physical punishment, often in the form of a whip, that would be applied to a dog when behaving undesirably. You'd be hard pressed to find another book about training dogs that uses food rewards again until the late 1960's.
Since then, the reward-based or "force-free" training movement has reached every corner of the globe, setting a humane standard for dog training and proving time and time again that rewards, lures, and good environmental management are the fastest, easiest, most effective and reliable way to reducing behaviors in our dogs we don't want, and increasing the ones we do. We know this to be true because we can prove it. Behavior and behavior change (training) is observable and quantifiable, and is therefore irrefutable.
On the flipside of this, if the number of correct responses from your dog does not increase relative to the number of rewards, the dog isn't learning very much. She's probably having a wonderful time getting all those treats though. It's not terrible, but it also isn't easy, fast, fun, effective dog training. It's hard, slow, tedious, and the results are unreliable. Interestingly enough, graduates of dog training classes exit 98% of dog training classes with a dog whose response reliability rate is less than 25%.
Less than 25%.
In practice, for example, that breaks down to a dog who can perform a recall under perfect circumstances one out of every four times.
If you ask me, spending four, six, or even eight weeks, and anywhere from $200-$500 on a training class or protocol for a 25% improvement in my dog's ability to come when I call him is simply not a good return on my investment in terms of both time and money. So what's gone wrong? Why are stays that can last 5 minutes such a rarity in an obedience basics class today? And why are we still a slave to the food lure four weeks in? The reason is quite simple.
Dog trainers are, more often than not, afraid of numbers.
Response:Reward Ratio, Response Reliability Percentages, Time & Repetition to Par, Baseline Percentages and most important of all, for the balanced trainers out there who are still living in the dark ages of dog training (join us, I promise, the water is SO MUCH nicer here), Response:Punishment Ratios. ((As an aside, take note, balanced dog trainers. If the number of punishments is not decreasing relative to the number of Responses, the dog is not learning and having an extremely bad time indeed. And if you are not tracking whether or not the responses are decreasing with each application of punishment, you're simply not a dog trainer by any professional estimation. I won't hazard a guess as to what you are, but you certainly aren't that))
All of these must (with the exception of the last one for the science-based/Force-Free/R+ training community) be in the dog trainer's wheelhouse in such a way that they're the rule that supports their work and not the exception. And why not utilize these easily accessible tools? They reduce time spent in debate over things we can never and will never know about our dogs, and useless, time-wasting conjecture, "Oh well you know the dog must be thinking about how much he misses the dog park when he urinates on the bathroom mat at lunchtime...", they prove the effectiveness of the trainer and the training methodology being used (I mean, imagine it. Being required to show proof of your work. It's like, you know, a real job where you're accountable for getting certain tasks done or whatever) and they improve the behavior of the dog being trained in minutes. This is easy, fast, fun, effective dog training that's reliable for life.
Dog trainers in North America and beyond have lost focus. In the endless flood of new information about neurochemistry, affective (emotional) states, trauma, and the like in canines and more broadly, the mammalian brain, many of us are in the weeds. We want to do good work and we want to improve the lives of our clients and their dogs. There are none of us here, doing this compassionate work, with ulterior motives. Hell, we'd not last a calendar year going at this kind of job with any other motive.
The thing is, it's easy to lose focus when no one is holding you accountable. What our clients need from us is so straightforward. Good dog training should never take weeks, months and years. It does not require perfect consistency from your human client day in, day out. Not when the work is done early and done by someone who can competently and confidently back it up with hard data (percentages you can see). Effective dog training does not require the dog owner to become a dog trainer! What lunacy! To start, not everyone can become a dog trainer, nor should they be expected to become one because they're struggling with their dog's behavior To ask this of our clients is madness; sheer, utter madness.
The focus of accountability should never be on the new puppy parent with the 6 month old hyperactive border collie who is still being lured into the most basic of cues, and who has been training with the same trainer or training team since he was 8 weeks old. This woman has shelled out loads of her time, money, and energy and gotten next to nowhere with her dog. A dog she loves deeply and wants only the best for, as evidenced by her behavior. But she's the one to blame?
I don't think so.
Dog training, in every camp, is on notice. Now is the time to shape up, be accountable to clients and client dogs, and prove the work. Clients will not continue to accept sub-par results that cost top-dollar when there are alternatives readily available. What they may (and are more and more likely to) do is to take their adolescent Dalmatian that pulls like the dickens to the guy with the slip or prong collar, slaps it on their dog, and instantly changes their behavior... for about three weeks after which the dog exceeds its threshold for pain and does the unwanted thing anyway resulting in lifelong physical damage, let alone the damage of the related emotional fallout.
The truth is I'm not comfortable with the possibility of being responsible for this happening to any dog, let alone a dog I've had a relationship with of any kind. The very idea of this happening to a dog I've known keeps me awake at night. Why? Because I hold myself accountable to my work in a way that's fast, easy, fun, and effective. I do it early (when called in early), I do it in a way that's nearly invisible (to ensure the human client can do it effortlessly), and I do it as quickly as the situation will allow.
Will there be grey area along the way? Absolutely. That's one of my favorite things about this kind of work. The need to problem solve is without limit, but I don't spend very long in those grey places. The quantification I do allows me to navigate difficult areas as though I had a map of the area already in hand.
This is effective dog training. No more, no less.
Camille Salter is the founder of All Dogs Toronto and a certified, knowledge-assessed dog trainer (CPDT-KA). She is the author of two books on dog behavior: Pandemic Puppy, and Decoding the Dog Park.