We are a long way from choke collars and the days of “show them who’s boss” dog training. Trainers are increasingly using scientific research on dog cognition to educate their methods. Here are six trends that are evolving.
Dog training is a dynamic field that is constantly growing and changing. It changes over time as both scientific discoveries and innovations by people who work in the field affect the way we approach it. It’s been a decade since I wrote about dog training trends, so I’m overdue to discuss what’s new in the world, teaching dogs to do (or not to do) things. Here are six concepts that are currently trending.
1. Consent. We often do things with dogs that they may not like. In addition to the old standbys – having their nails cut or bathed – there are other interactions that dogs may not like, including being touched in a certain way, being guided to a certain area, or being close to someone or something. Dog trainers often respect a dog’s decision whether or not to participate in an activity by reinforcing the behavior with which they express their complaints.
It has long been the practice not to punish or coerce dogs who resist in a certain context, and that was a big step up from the tougher approaches of the earlier days. However, the newer framework of consent goes further and reinforces behaviors that indicate that a dog is having difficulty enjoying or tolerating an activity. This seems strange to many – like trainers reinforce dogs for not doing what is asked of them.
In fact, we are strengthening their communication behavior. The dogs are essentially saying that they don’t want anything to happen. Your reason could be fear or even pain. In any case, we welcome the dogs’ efforts to let us know that they are feeling unwell. It’s good for them and good for our relationship with them.
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2. Deployment. The idea that there is value in training dogs to be in a specific location – possibly on a mat or platform, but definitely in front of the trainer and ready for work – is becoming more common. Such an approach has long helped train exotic animals in zoos, aquariums, and wildlife centers, but its appearance in dog training is more recent.
Dog trainers are more likely than ever to enhance the behavior of dogs that stand in front of them and pay attention. Often times, people outside the field who see this will say, “What are you giving him goodies for? He does not do anything. “Dog trainers will respond by saying,” He’s doing so much. He’s here, focused on me, ready to work and keep calm. “Sometimes a lot that dog trainers reinforce is the dog’s decision to do the right thing (including if it’s not noticeable) rather than embarking on a number of less desirable options.
3. Behavior of attitude. The idea that caring for our dogs should be a major focus of training is related to the low stress handling movement. With the low-stress handling for veterinary care, which Dr. Sophia Yin started, and other interactions are about being calm and gentle with and holding dogs back and helping dogs that are afraid of the process. Being kind to animals in these contexts was a big change from previous powerful techniques.
The idea of reducing anxiety and stress was a real step forward, but the inclusion of attitude-focused training is an even bigger change. The idea behind posture training is to teach our dogs to do what we ask them to do so they don’t have to be forced, persuaded or manipulated.
Training in posture takes many forms. It can be so easy to teach a dog to step on the scales at the veterinarian’s office or to show his paw for a blood draw or his belly for an exam. It may include training a dog to accept all types of touch – face, tail, genitals, mouth, hips, ears, etc. – so that touching is acceptable during exams or procedures. Teaching dogs to stand between our legs so that we can administer ear or eye medicine is one form of postural training, as is teaching them to tolerate medical treatment. One of the basic behaviors in exercising is a “chin rest,” where the dog places its head in a person’s lap (or hand) and waits so that the vet can more easily give injections or perform an exam. Even training a dog to eat from a syringe or swallow pill pouches is a form of postural behavior.
The main subject of husbandry training is to teach dogs how to handle the many things that are required for their care before they are in a situation that requires such care. Knowing how to do these things in advance can relieve so much of the stress in your life.
4th Online training. Working with dogs in group classes or one-to-one classes via Zoom or some other meet-up app used to seem like a fringe idea, but now it’s offered by almost every dog training company I know. This was inevitably the case as coronavirus-induced lockdowns prevented personal training. Most people expected it to be temporary, but now there is no doubt that this trend will continue.
Originally, distance learning was only used when other options weren’t available – just make the most of a bad situation. Now trainers and dog owners all over the world are raving about it. Among its advantages: dogs are not distracted when they go to a new place and are with other dogs. If they work from home, they have a better chance of being successful. It is more time efficient for both owners and coaches as there is no commuting. Trainers find that their verbal communication skills have improved because they cannot resort to saying “do it” and then demonstrating with the dog. Owners who are confident in a group can enjoy classes with much less pressure. People save money because they don’t have to pay coaches for travel time. Eventually, staff are no longer limited to the trainers in their area and trainers can work with more people as they don’t need as much time between sessions.
5. Increasingly dog-centered. The trend to focus on the dog’s perspective has long been in training. Even so, the idea that the dog’s needs always come first, and that the dog’s well-being is the primary concern at all times, is becoming a major theme in all types of training discussions. As a result, dog trainers are far more attuned to dogs and make decisions based on what is best for them.
6. Education as a leisure activity. Many people exercise with dogs just for fun and learn from experts to increase the enjoyment of activities with their dogs. Part of this increase may be due to lifestyle changes during the pandemic. I am working more and more with customers who tell me about their interest in certain dog books, dog webinars and dog podcasts. There are so many resources and people are taking advantage of them.
Professional trainers also take a recreational approach to dog training, experimenting with and exchanging fun ideas, tricks and tips. Again, this may be related to the change in schedules and extension that many people have at home with their dogs, but I hope the serious trend of exercising just for fun continues – for both humans and dogs.
You may think I’m biased in emphasizing the power of dog training to improve everything about our experiences with dogs and their experiences with us – and you would be right. Dog training is one of the best ways to improve our dogs’ lives. It enables them to interact with us in a positive way, which improves our relationship with them. When they learn how to behave, they can participate in more aspects of our lives, basic services become easier, less stressful, and fun.