My Philosophy – Steve Courtney – Dog Behaviourist and Trainer
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 have 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…
When it comes to discussing dog training methods, tools and science, the world has gone mad.
People attacking people they don’t even know because they have made a choice that is different to the attackers. I have always and will always stand behind the way I teach, train and remedy dogs but I will not attack others who have chosen a different way.
I guess that is easy for me to say, I have been doing this a long time and I have a constant waiting list of 6 – 10 weeks and bookings that stretch up to a year in advance. I stand on results, success and feedback from my clients.
My Behaviour Clients email me frequently with great feedback, constant improvements are being made where the dog had seemed to stall with others. My Competition Obedience Clients are trialling, passing and very often winning their classes in New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland and South Australia by following my signature program “Training in Drive”.
My Pet Dog Clients are happier than ever with their dogs and are relieved to find how little effort it took to get things heading in the right direction.
My Breeding Program is on track, we have great success with our last litter of Herzhund Malinois and my Master Classes for Breeders is booked out for 4 months as I write this.
So why would I try and knock the competition off their game?
If I had a problem in my game, knocking them off theirs wouldn’t fix mine now would it?
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.
What do I think is the best way to train a dog?
I don’t know, I have not tried every method there is, but I have tried many, researched even more, and I feel that with a good relationship, communication and reward system, most dogs can learn very fast and be very reliable. This is how I train my own dogs.
Without a doubt (and scientifically proven), rewarding desirable behaviours is going to have the best results. That’s a fact and it has many add on benefits and reasons why.
Here are some:
* The cue we use to get the behaviour to happen (command) is going to generate optimism in the dog.
* The dog will enjoy hearing and responding to the cue and can be taught to only return 100% success to achieve the reward.
* The dogs body language looks favourable when running the behaviour.
* You can do less harm, not no harm, but less.
Do I think all dogs be trained with rewards only?
Yes, I believe all dogs can, but I think that is in a perfect world. When people disagree with me, they usually don’t have the experience I do working with people and their dogs, although may have spent countless hours behind the keyboard.
The problem is, as a Dog Trainer and Behaviourist, I have to work with the dog that is in front of me, not the dog that is in front of the person who can teach and train anything to their dog with food as it has solid foundations in reward systems.
My own dog, a Belgian Malinois (Venom) has been trained without the use of any aversive tool, but that’s not to say I don’t correct him. I have developed in his training a No Reward Marker, this is a cue that indicates to him that his behaviour has killed his reward (Negative Punishment).
He is a very reward driven dog so this is quite an aversive to him. I don’t pull a chain, press a button, yell, hit or hurt him physically, but he sure doesn’t like that NRM.
Here are some things that will have a severe impact on whether the dog will respond effectively to rewards only.
Some dogs are born with excellent genetics, solid nerves, high drive for food, prey and affection, like the dogs I breed. Those dogs have awesome potential, but what does that mean? Well it means that things can go incredibly well or incredibly bad.
If the owners allow these dogs to learn behaviours that later turn into something unacceptable, then they might be quite resistant to stopping those behaviours at the promise of some food, in the time the owner has and at their experience level.
Some genetics are really hard to work with, very nervous, anxious or dominant dogs can have very high thresholds to the rewarding drives such as food, prey and affection, so this means the dog can easily turn them down, and yes whilst I agree that there are strategies to help with these issues, the real issue is the dogs behaviour, possibly aggression, not getting them to be food motivated.
If I went down the route of spending months building a reward system in a dog that is aggressive, we may never get to the actual problem behaviour before time runs out.
When a person comes to see me, we ask them how much time they can commit to the program. Giving them more work than they can effectively manage will just see the program fail. Berating them for not investing more time just drives them away.
Hope vs. Prediction
Some dogs would learn very well to stop behaviours through a 100% reward based program. It might take a few months to get the ball rolling and then the problem would generally decline with good environment control.
Some people are so scared their dog will never be fixed, they won’t stick with a program that takes a couple of months to show any forward progress.
They may have been through several trainers and the behaviour their dog is displaying may be dangerous to them, the public or other animals. These people need to see some positive advancement fast.
Some dogs have learned that the best rewards are ones the owner doesn’t have. Like chasing dogs, cats, or possums. Or perhaps displaying aggression when seeing other dogs is a very valuable behaviour to hold on to for this dog.
The owners may have offered food in the presence of these other rewarding activities and this has served only to devalue that (food) reward even further.
I have this saying that goes something like this: – I give my puppy the book of life, he turns to the index and it says “page 12 – Chasing Cats is fun” He turns to page 12 and the page is missing…
He asks “where is page 12?” and I say “you won’t need to worry about that”.
Every page that details how rewarding I am is in place, all the pages where he can reward himself independently or learn to fear things are all missing…
If someone’s dog has received the full edition of the “book of Life”, this can be a troubled dog and one that is hard to train with rewards only.
In every dog that I work with, throughout the program there will be plenty of positive reinforcement, some environment control, some elimination of rehearsal of the problem behaviour and some variables that depend on the dog, handler, goal etc.
I think it is wrong to try and force every person to train a certain way, ANY way, be it positive or with aversive. The reason people often come to me is that their dog is displaying a behaviour that they find undesirable. The behaviour needs to stop, or the dog staying in this home or on this earth may be limited.
Of course in every circumstance, the dog has not been raised perfectly, has been let get out of control etc etc and yes the owners are to blame in many cases, and whilst that is terrible, it can’t be reversed by applying guilt to them.
Imagine me trying to convince a little old lady that she needs to play tug with her dog to stop the dog taking clothes off the line. This is a viable solution for some dogs, but it is outside the limits of the little old lady, should I tell her to get young again?
Do I call myself a “Balanced Trainer”?
No, I think that term was created to defend ones actions when they do not fall into the “positive only” group. I do not defend my methods so I don’t need a label.
I don’t train like other trainers, my methods are self designed based on my experience of working with dogs and people. There was a time when I was an excellent dog trainer but failed miserably at teaching other PEOPLE how to achieve the same results.
I would probably say I am Results Based, but even when I have said that I have heard all the whispers “oh that’s how he hides what he does“, or “that’s just a sales pitch“. Like I said, the world has gone mad…
Do I support the use of aversives?
Yes, in all my training programs there is something the dog does not like, it is usually the removal of an expected reward. In some of my programs it might be the overlaying of pressure on a behaviour to motivate an alternative behaviour.
We do not apply force or high levels of punishment to stop a behaviour, instead we teach and motivate the dog to apply a better choice.
The use of correction collars is far from systemic in my programs, meaning a large percentage of the dogs I work with are trained with the removal of reward. This is technically called “negative punishment”, and the higher the dogs drive for reward, the more aversive it is to lose it, but I do feel that all quadrants of the Operant Conditioning principles are useful for some dogs.
What tools do I use and why?
I don’t focus on tools to rehabilitate dogs, the tools I use are to help the owners. Here is an example: –
I use a clicker with puppies and very high drive dogs for teaching precise behaviours. I use the clicker as a terminal bridge, meaning the click ends the exercise and allows me to procure the reward.
I have clients who: –
Use the clicker to signal to the dog that training has started, a trigger or predictor cue.
Use the clicker to extend duration of a behaviour, a marker, encouragement cue or extender.
Use the clicker to increase drive, repeated clicker operation until drive increases.
This is one little plastic tool used three ways, therefore, which tool isn’t the question, how I use them is.
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, perhaps small 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 because by the time we got to addressing the dog aggression problem, we may be too late.
In other cases, it takes a trainer/handler to have exceptional skill levels to manage all training and behaviour modification through reward systems only, whilst this is something I can do, most owners that come to see me will not reach this level of ability and fail this way. Why? because perhaps they dont want to dedicate their life to learning to train dogs? and that is ok!
One major difference that may not be obvious is that when I do choose to use leash or collar pressure 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 pressure remains 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.
All medications can have side effects, 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. These feelings are echoed throughout the world by vets and behaviorists.
I only recommend (in conjunction with your vet or our vets) these medications as I have experience in the use of these drugs.
There are some that prescribe medication to a high percentage, or maybe all of their clients. They may use this strategy in place of training, or even saying “no” to the dog. We have had dozens of dogs come to us that have been prescribed 2, 3 or up to 5 different behavioural medications with several dosage “tweaks” and the problems remain.
Owners have been told to keep trying, keep waiting and or euthanaise the dog.
I have worked with the dog and the behaviour improved remarkably and the medications were stopped (in conjunction with our vets advice).
When I am training a dog for Dog Sports, what corrections do I use?
As mentioned, I use a NRM, this is a powerful aversive on a dog that really wants the reward, it has no effect on a dog that doesn’t.
In dog sports we are aiming to get the dog to perform at his or her personal best. This means we rely heavily on rewards and avoid physical corrections where possible in all cases.
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.
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 think all this can make it hard for some people trying to navigate through a sea of information.
I have 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 at times, 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, attack, belittle and abuse those in need of help for not going the “postive only” 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 aversion 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 way I feel 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 honesty.
Those that 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 the dog, and use what provides results in a respectful time frame.
It has to have a healthy does of fun, good progress, simple enough to follow but technical enough to work.
Remember too, this is just my philosophy…
Dog Sports Competitor?
Steve is well known for producing outstanding results in the Competition Obedience World. His Training in Drive program is second to none.
If you compete and feel your dog isn’t giving 110%, if your slaving away and getting nowhere, you owe it to yourself to book a lesson with Steve and let him show you what your dog is capable of.
Programs are fun, energetic, non repetitious motivational concepts and games.
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