Steve Courtney – Dog Trainer – Behaviourist…
Sitting down to write this article was more difficult than I first thought it would be. Some people who read things I write or train with me think that my ideas or focus has changed, some think it hasn’t changed, in reality it has probably evolved, leaving behind very little but adding and shaping in new information.
This will be a brief overview, I could discuss dogs, dog psychology and training for hundreds of pages…
I find it amusing when I am training sport or working dogs with like minded people from a protection background, they often refer to me as purely positive or mostly positive in my training methods, whereas others may think that I am a balanced or “punishment” based trainer if I don’t subscribe to their ideals.
The reality is that the methods I use are based on many factors; from the dog, the goal, the dogs age and its training history, handler skill level, size etc all play a role. It would be super convenient to have one method that suits all, but of course most of us know that isn’t possible.
I thought that writing this article might answer some of the questions that seem to float around from time to time and I wanted to try and “define” what I feel training is and what it isn’t, but first some common questions that I wanted to answer.
Do I support the use of aversives?
The answer is yes, sometimes.
When a dog (not a puppy) comes to me that has a reward history of displaying an undesirable behaviour, at times I may use an aversive in training to overlay some pressure on that undesirable behaviour.
I call this remedial training and this is primarily the only aversive I use and the goal is to get the behaviour flexible sooner rather than later.
What is the rush someone might ask?
Well there isn’t a rush really but we have to understand that the more a dog rehearses the behaviour, the stronger that behaviour will become. So reducing the amount of times the dog displays the behaviour is a large part of the extinction of that behaviour.
There is always the view that good management can stop the rehearsals too, but that is in my opinion a perfect world scenario rather than a real world one.
What tools do I use and why?
It again very much depends on the dog and the goal, but as a personal trainer I am often enlisted to work on more serious behaviour problems, (see DJ the Black Lab vs. Granny) so I will use the more behaviour specific tools to address problem behaviours that may be putting the dog, the handler or others at risk.
I personally don’t use check chains, not because I can’t but when you look at the work it takes to get a client proficient at using a check chain, many times it is counter productive to go this route. A prong collar in this situation is a much better alternative.
You have to understand that whilst many trainers can teach a dog to walk on a loose leash with a check chain or even a flat collar, the goal of some behaviour consults I have are to address the client’s dog trying to kill another dog or person.
Only one element of this dog’s rehabilitation may be to teach leash manners and loose leash walking, so we cannot spend 3 months perfecting this via a reward based system only as by the time we got to addressing the dog aggression problem, we may be too late.
One major difference that may not be obvious is that when I do choose to use corrections as part of the program then I also start with a very calm and relaxed dog, the consult will start with a calming session and training goes through a teaching stage in a very low distraction environment so the corrections are very low in terms of intensity.
Unlike many others I am not trying to correct the dog off a distraction, I first train a foundation behaviour that I apply distractions to in a hierarchy that the dog can cope with, whilst the corrections remain low.
I won’t in any way use corrections to intimidate, frighten or punish a dog; I am highly focussed on maintaining and strengthening the bond between dog and owner and leaving the dog with his dignity and confidence.
Do I support the use of Behavioural Medications?
This is a tough one, the answer is yes when it is the right answer but with a huge caution. I think that many vets advise behaviour advice outside of their depth and the use of behavioural medication is highly over prescribed and often prescribed as cure rather than a medicinal support system for a behaviour modification program.
Some dogs suffer a chemical imbalance, when this imbalance is severe then there is no training program that will correct that imbalance. Certainly the dog can be taught or even forced not to display the behaviours the owners reports as problematic, but the dog will still be unbalanced and living in a state of unrest. These dogs never really get better; they simply have times when they are more or less anxious based on the level of forceful intervention they are being subjected to.
Medications used on the wrong dog often cloud the diagnosis and mask or alter symptoms and sometimes make a dog symptomatic, used on the right dog they can be of a huge benefit. Only a person with expertise in Behaviour Therapy and the use of these drugs can make this diagnosis with any accuracy.
When I am training a dog for Dog Sports, what corrections do I use?
I aim at none and 99.9% of the time that is the outcome. The use of aversives is not systemic in my programs, meaning it won’t be a staple part of the program.
I will use the removal of the reward or the threat of the removal, in the form of a No Reward Marker; this begins as a quadrant of Operant Conditioning known as Negative Punishment and later is converted to a motivational cue or antecedent cue that the dog remains positively motivated by.
My personal choice of training method is my Training in Drive program, which basically consists of the following attributes: –
- Developing a communication system with the dog
- Developing a reward history that utilises the dogs drives and highest arousal levels as the driving and motivating force.
- Developing a work ethic in the dog so that it understands 100% effort = 100% pay, Less than 100% effort = no pay, no correction, but no pay.
- Teaching a dog to complete a task with the needed formality and as much drive as the dog can control.
- Establishing a learning procedure for new tasks.
I currently own 2 Malinois in this program; they both were started at just 8 weeks old. My male (Venom) is at the time of writing this article, is 15 months old. I have not used any aversive on him so far, nor do I intend using any. His drive for the reward is so high and his understanding of the No Reward Marker so clear that I can control him very well.
If a behaviour manifested that I felt needed to be stopped fast, I would without hesitation choose appropriate tools and begin training with them.
The same thought process has been used for Wisdom our 1 year old female Malinois.
Working with a dog that is full of enthusiasm for training is what I love most about training, but I know this isn’t about “what I like”, not all dogs have the levels of drive on tap to train in drive and achieve the needed levels of reliability.
Some dogs that have not been conditioned well to accept food or rewards for training may not do well or never do well or well enough to reach these levels either.
I do think that many more dogs can be trained without corrections but I think that it can take a lot of valuable rehabilitation time trying to establish a reward history; some owners will give up at the lack of change in the behaviour before it’s done.
I think this can make it hard for some, I read on some forums advice from well intended people who have raised their dog since a pup with a clicker training regime, or food reward regime that the dog now understands and will respond to well. The advice they give is well intended but it is more specific to their dog and their history with this dog, and may not be of any use to the person in need of help. I guess you could say that they are advising based on their experience, and are not aware that training one or two dogs or even 20 may not be enough to qualify them for an internet diagnosis and solution.
Some others berate those in need of help for not going the motivational route, which I think is unfair. People who need help may be behind the eight ball already, we need to remember that a lot of people don’t even seek help; they just lock the dog up, give it up or put it down.
I love working with dogs and watching them just be dogs, the way they play and interact with me and each other is something I think is pretty cool. I like the way that my dogs act when I reward them in drive and the attention and focus they give me when we are working together.
I have tried to recognise the natural and instinct of the species and utilise that in every way I can, the species of dog is awesome, I work with what they are, not what they aren’t.
I thoroughly enjoy exposing puppies to these methods because they light up with such enthusiasm when they are not only allowed to, but encouraged to play, rough and rowdy with me. This is their first time in life that they can burst with excitement; it’s an experiment and a leap of faith for them all at the same time, that pays off big time.
I often mix some drive work into the rehabilitation of depressed or anxious dogs as training in drive helps restore and create mental awareness, chemical balance and of course adds immense fun to their otherwise complicated lives.
I use my drive “framework” to surround many working and sport dog programs which means I can leave the handlers the personal touches of their training methods in the dog, but just boost the performance, speed and reliability of the dog in the sport or the job.
It is a real “outside the box” way of thinking for some, but once someone really grabs the concept I have yet to see them find a better one.
I am conscious that not all dogs can be training in drive, nor should be, that not all dogs will offer focus and ignore distraction or stop known behaviours for a piece of food, so I know that the use of correction will always be an option of remedial training with me for some dogs.
I have been told by people for years that I should hide this view and not discuss the tools I will use in some cases as it can be harmful to my reputation. The reality is that I feel that the best attribute I can offer is one of transparency and explanation.
Whilst on the surface it may be a little more easy for some people to recommend me as a trainer if I didn’t promote the use of some tools or methods, that in my eyes would be hiding the truth and false promotion and I am just not going there.
I mentioned above it amuses me to be categorised by different groups as polar opposites to one or the other, when someone has their mind conditioned to see something, regardless of what is there that is what they will see.
Those looking to pin me as an aversive trainer will not be able to focus clearly on the hundreds or tug, toys and clickers on our site so they can troll through and find the prong collars. Those looking to categorise me as purely positive can’t see anything that would compromise that view, and you know what? I am ok with that.
It is the nature of our species and those that do trust me with their dogs are delighted at the outcome.
So what is my philosophy on training dogs?
I guess you could say that I take into consideration client and dog, and use what provides results in a respectful time frame.