The History of Dog Training, Influential Movement Creators in the Industry and the Impact of Training and Behaviour Adjustment

Publishing Author : Jay Gray

Date Published : 27/11/2018


An Overview of History

Throughout the years, dog training has changed dramatically in various directions.  It seems that as time progresses, we as humans eb and flow between ideas and idealistic outcomes.  In times gone by, many trainers believed that dogs had to be somehow broken or shut down in order to be trained.  Much of this thinking came from the assumption around their closeness in behavioural similarities to the wild wolf which we later understood to be untrue.  By the 1990’s there was a great shift toward more positive methods in dog training which more closely matched the education and ‘training’ of our own species.   Even in earlier days, people with mental illness or disabilities were treated in a similar way to our dog training with humans treated with shock therapy or other aversive stimuli to help their ailments.  By the late 80’s and early 90’s it was common practice to administer positive behavioural procedures and this continued through to the present day.

This strong shift from punishment and compulsion-based methods to the modern-day force free movement has had a negative effect on the behaviour of the average dog.  People are becoming increasingly more sensitive to rules, punishment and boundaries, giving their dogs safe spaces and time outs which are both human made constructs and have no bearing on canine psychology.  The ‘Fur Mom’ movement is allowing more dogs to be reactive and, in this year, (2018) more dogs are attending training centres for rehabilitation of reactivity than there has ever been in history. (Figures: Obsidian K9 2018).

Unfortunately, as much as emotionally the force free movement is a lot easier on people it is failing to get the job done in many cases.  The agenda behind the movement is causing many issues among the dog training community but this is also true of balanced trainers.  More and more trainers are pushing their agenda’s and becoming emotionally involved rather than objectively looking at evidence supporting or disproving their claim and appropriately changing their methods and in turn results.

Sometime in the 1980’s it seems that operant conditioning was discovered in relevance to Dog Training, even though operant conditioning itself was founded long before this and many of the studies were in fact done on dogs.  The principles behind operant conditioning were not new, but the understanding around it was not properly understood and even though dog trainers were using similar methods almost a century earlier, true understanding and application took a long time to emerge.

We have evidence that as far back as the 1800’s scientific theories were in fact being used in dog training although the correct technical terminology and awareness of these methods took many years to come to light.  The early dog trainers definitely played a huge part in the development of Dog Training to produce the outcome that we know and use today.

Retreating many years into the past we have assumptions that cave people would bring the tamest wolf cubs into their dens as companions.  In turn, the tamest had a chance to breed and less chance of death, resulting in these dogs breeding more and evolution ensuring that these were more profound than those without tendencies to be around humans.  These dogs were used for companionship, hunting, herding, pulling sleds etc.  Different breeds have different human ancestry with the Tibetan Terrier being one of those well documented, raised by Tibetan monks over 2000 years ago as pets and to assist with the care of the herds of animals at the monastery.  Moving forwards, in 1790 it is reported that Josephine used her pug to carry letters to Napoleon.  Whether or not this story is true will remain a myth, but the message is pleasant that we have been using dogs for companionship and to aid with tasks for many years.  Although these dogs performed tasks, it is fairly well accepted that the training methods were trial and error and appropriate training programmes and methods were not known at these times and this is the reason that as time progressed, we have become more consistent in our results.

Dog Shows and Tavern Life

Back in the late 1700’s, in the United Kingdom, informal dog competitions were held at events such as country fairs or tavern bars.  This was the beginning of canine competition and by 1800 informal dog activities had become fairly popular across the country.  Many events were held in local taverns and the townspeople would attend to cheer on their favourite dog.

It wasn’t until 1859 that the first organised dog show was seen.  The show only featured Pointers and Setters and this was the first-time real interest was shown in trained dogs for sporting activities.  Fourteen years after this, the Kennel Club held its first official dog show.  The American Kennel club was founded in 1884 and initially its primary focus was to maintain a comprehensive stud book to serve as a central governing body for dog shows.

From the mid 1880’s until the 1930’s, there was no such thing as an obedience event at any AKC dog shows.  An idea that was borrowed from other countries, dog training was becoming well known in the United States and the United Kingdom and by the 1930’s even though there was no formal competition, owners could have their dogs boarded and trained by professional trainers of the AKC.  Some owners trained in their own personal groups and held their own local competitions, but they wouldn’t earn any AKC titles and this wouldn’t change until 1922 when Helene Whitehouse Walker decided to show her Standard Poodle and from this moment on it was clear that dogs were capable of more than was first understood.

Helene Whitehouse Walker

Walker was an avid breeder of the Standard Poodle in the United States of America, a breed, that at this time were known as soft and girly but Walker knew about the behaviour tests that were being held in the United Kingdom for working dogs.  She began approaching dog clubs and breeders with her idea of holding competitive obedience tests at the dog dhows.  In 1933, in New York, eight dogs competed in America’s very first obedience test.  The slogan ‘Train Your Dog’ started to become popular across the country and in 1934, the AKC held their first obedience tests alongside their confirmation shows within the organisation. By the time 1936 came around, the AKC had developed and was using official standards and rules at these obedience trials.  This was the birth of obedience as we know it today.

Walked was inspired by the public’s enthusiasm and response to her dog training in 1937 so her friend Blanche Saunders, and their dogs hit the road with a 21-foot-long trailer to give obedience demonstrations across the country.

Colonel Conrad Most

Back in the early 1900’s, Ivan Pavlov was studying reflexive responses in dogs in Russia.  In their labs, he and Thorndike were working on the Law of Effect and Watson was advocating a move toward a more objective study of the dog’s behaviour.  At this time, the researchers were developing the foundations for operant conditioning, dog trainers were making their own contributions toward the development of technology and training.  By the mid 30’s, Walker and Saunders were using an old vehicle, pulling a trailer across the country so that they could communicate their methods with more people around the country.

Over in Germany, Colonel Conrad Most was training dogs and explaining the learning tendencies and behavioural differences from the perspective of a Dog Trainer rather than a scientist.  Most started training police dogs in 1906 and in 1912 he became the director of Berlin’s State Breeding and Training Establishment for police dogs.  From 1919-1937 Most was in charge of the Canine Research Department of the Army and in 1931 he helped form the German Society for Animal Psychology.

As the 1940’s approached. Most used his dog training knowledge to train the handlers and trainers at the German Dog Farm, a training centre for guide dogs and their blind handlers so his portfolio even at this time was fairly excessive.

Most demonstrated an understanding of operant conditioning concepts, before they had been officially founded, such as primary and secondary reinforcement, shaping, fading and chaining, some 28 years before the publication of Skinner’s work.  Most described reinforcement as ‘that agreeable experience when the dog has performed a correct behaviour’ and he differentiated between primary and secondary reinforcers.  He referred to secondary reinforcers as ‘secondary inducements’ and used his voice and soft tones in much the same way as some trainers use clickers today.

As with many of the trainers who came from police or military backgrounds (even in the modern day), Most’s methods would be regarded as heavy handed.  Nonetheless it is important to recognise that even if his methods were not the best in todays terms, an early dog trainer had independently discovered many of the relationships and consequences that Skinner would later describe in his work.  Most’s 1910 manual ‘Training Dogs’ was one of the first ‘how to train’ dog books.

Bill Koehler

Like Conrad Most and Josef Weber, Bill Kohler’s background was in military working dogs.  He trained dogs and their handlers at two military training centres in California.  Beginning in 1946, Koehler was the chief trainer for the Orange Empire Dog Club.  This club was known for its consistently winning performances in team competitions and for large numbers of obedience titles acquired by multiple members.  Koehler, and his son, Dick also trained students at their own training facility.  By the 1960’s over 40,000 dogs were trained in classes instructed by either Koehler himself or his instructors.

Koehler is credited for the first documented use of long lines and light lines within dog training, both methods to improve attentiveness and off lead control.  As the head animal trainer for Walt Disney Studios, he introduced millions of people to the potential of dog obedience training with his training of Wildfire, a Bull Terrier who had a famous role in the film ‘It’s A Dog’s Life’.  He was awarded the prestigious Outstanding Animal Actor award in 1955 and it was also given to another Koehler-trained dog in 1959 when Chiffon, better known as The Shaggy Dog also won the award.

The Koehler method of training is based largely on the principles of negative reinforcement and positive punishment.  In operant conditioning, negative reinforcement occurs when the frequency of a behaviour is increased when an aversive stimulus is removed immediately after the behaviour has been performed. This means, if the dog starts doing what the trainer wants after an aversive stimulus is added then the stimulus is removed.  This is known in modern training as escape and aversion-based training.

One of the most frequently used examples of negative reinforcement is the use of the French collar.  The collar is applied, the dog performs the desired behaviour and the collar is released, further reinforcing the behaviour in question in order to avoid the unpleasant experience of the French collar application.  Kohler used choke chains in similar procedures when teaching dogs to walk at heel and the such.

An example of positive punishment within the Koehler method is the use of ‘throw chains’.  Koehler would throw chains to control the dog from a distance.  For example, if the dog was called and did not respond, the chain would be thrown sharply at the dog’s rear.  According to Koehler, as the chain hits the dog, the handler should reel in on the leash and have the dog sit front.  When the dog is positioned here, he instructs handlers the provide lavish praise, showing that he believes in reinforcement as well as punishment.

In training, Koehler advocated letting dogs make mistakes, providing consequences for those mistakes and then providing praise or reward for desired behaviours.  In cases where dogs had actual behavioural issues such as digging, barking etc he believed in the use of positive punishment.  The definition of this is to add an aversive stimulus in order to decrease the frequency of a behaviour.

Dr Ian Dunbar

Dunbar, a veterinarian, is probably best known for his work as an animal behaviourist, teacher and lecturer and promoter of dog training.  After receiving his degree from the RVC in London, Dunbar completed a PhD in animal behaviour at UCLA.  Dunbar is most famous for his TV series ‘Dogs with Dunbar’ but he has also written multiple books and recorded many videos.

By the time Dunbar arrived on the dog training scene, a number of other trainers were beginning to promote a more positive method and approach to training dogs.  Dunbar showed in seminars how dogs could be taught new skills very quickly with the techniques of luring.  He stressed the importance of getting puppies off to a good start and encouraged trainers to organise puppy parties.  These were designed to socialise puppies, screen potential behavioural issues and get owners involved in the educational loop early on in the process.

In 1994, Dunbar’s influence on the dog training world expanded exponentially when he played a key role in founding the Association of Pet Dog Trainers.  The APDT’s first conference in Orlando drew 250 professional dog trainers who were interested in a multitude of issues related to training pet dogs.  By 1997, attendance at the annual conference was over 1000 trainers per year.   The 1997 conference programme included a number of presentations related to operant conditioning.  Speakers talked about punishment, how to use and time reinforcers, stimulus control and behaviour modification techniques, showing that many dog trainers had an interest in the science of how dogs learn, rather than just the practical aspects of training.

Karen Pryor

Karen Pryor is a scientist, write and animal trainer.  For dog trainers in the 80’s and 90’s, Pryor also fulfilled an important role as a translator of basic behavioural concepts for those directly working in the field of dog training.  Prior to this, Pryor was a marine mammal trainer who used Skinner’s concepts of operant conditioning to teach dolphins and develop marine mammal shows.  In 1984, she published her famous book, ‘Don’t Shoot The Dog’ where she used real world situations to explain how operant procedures can be used to change the behaviour of other people as well as dogs.

It is fair to say that Karen Pryor is the fore founder of clicker training as we know it today, and although her methods are very kind and positive reinforcement based, it could be said that these methods are having a negative effect on dog training as a whole.

An Overview of Training

In the early days of dog training, force, impulse, escape and evasion methods were profound within the industry and today, any form of punishment is frowned upon with the phrase often used ‘scientific methods’.  Although this is true, and the methods are scientifically proven, two of the four quadrants of operant conditioning are not being studied in real life, social studies so the results are somewhat askew.  With this in mind, it is clear to see that training methods and opinions and emotions around dogs and their training likely has a direct correlation to the ever-increasing behavioural issues that are often left unfixed by the force free movement, even going as far as to suggest euthanasia is the most sensible option in certain cases.  As of a 90-day assessment on force free training and suggestion of euthanasia, I have personally experienced 17 cases of behavioural issues where force free trainers have suggested euthanasia and then a balanced approach has successfully rehabilitated the behaviour in question,

With this said, it is important to understand that both ends of the spectrum are unethical in one way or another and impulse, escape and evasion-based training is no better.  One side of the coin physically abuses dogs, even at low levels, and the other psychologically dismisses two of the four quadrants of operant conditioning, resulting in long term stress of behavioural issues in dogs.

The most accurate and successful form of training, proven in countless social studies is a balanced approach where reward and punishment are clear boundaries but are faded over time resulting in habitual behaviours and memories being formed.

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