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Train my dog?

Updated: May 13, 2022

I really loved hearing the late Paul J. Kearney talking about dog training. His social media posts were unfailingly informative, uncomplicated, funny and kind. Paul was described as an outspoken advocate for positive reinforcement dog training and his daily posts were a steadfast testament to his unapologetic passion for kind and ethical dog training.

Catherine Phoenix Hallam wrote a beautiful post to remind us all that whilst Paul’s unique light has gone out, he added part of his light to others, making them shine brighter and leaving a massive legacy in this world. So, I want to follow up Catherine’s suggestion and talk a little more about Paul’s ethos, to keep that light shining.

"The art of holistic dog training is to get your dog to pay attention to you with no fear, and no stress for you or your canine companion…" - Paul J. Kearney, Pawesome Dogs Founder.

Paul’s thoughtful posts challenged many of the concepts we still accept as being statements of fact, such as the ‘good’ - ‘bad’ dog continuum. I still slip up and tell other people that my dogs have been naughty or disobedient, when in fact I know that they have simply been enjoying completely normal canine behaviours which I happen to disapprove of. Such as barking at intruders, chasing exciting animals or birds, chewing my favourite shoes when I left them alone and bored for too long, or grabbing a tasty snack which I carelessly left within their grasp as I dashed off to answer the phone.

I used to be an archaeologist and spent many years working within the African subcontinent, assessing the conservation of hundreds of Khoe-San (hunter-gatherer) painted sites. A painted rock shelter sometimes depicted thousands of enormous and tiny, intricate images, describing the complex relationships and spiritual ideologies this ancient culture undoubtedly had with numerous different species of animal. I’ve therefore thought long and hard about the types of human animal relationships which may have existed during the last few millennia, across several continents.

Despite this background, many of my long held beliefs about how we (humans) interact with animals have more recently been challenged once again by Andrew Hale’s “Dog Centred Care” approach. In particular, the often unquestioned idea that training requires some form of control and mastery over another species. Sometimes I still need to remind myself that my verbal cues to a dog are NEVER a command, but rather a request. A request which the dog may or may not feel motivated or comfortable fulfilling, in that particular moment.

It’s taken me a while to appreciate how much more motivated and operant dogs can become, once I provide them with a whole lot more agency. In the wonderful (and much missed) words of Paul:

A good Dog is a Dog whose agency is supported, appreciated, and nurtured”.

Paul J. Kearney, Pawesome Dogs Founder.

I've asked myself a lot, what all this agency really means for trainers and dog pawrents. I’ve learned all about the dog’s brain, their neurochemistry, their possible psychological experience of emotions, how they learn, and what drives their strange and dogged motivations and behaviours.

But the most important thing I’ve come to appreciate is the crucial role their emotional experience plays in defining how willing a dog may be to offer me their full attention or to respond with an appropriate behavioural repertoire. If a dog is not emotionally sound, this will limit their ability to listen to and engage with me. My training success is immediately compromised, through no fault of the dog.

Think cues not commands, I keep hearing Paul saying.

Paul J. Kearney, Pawesome Dogs Founder.

I think the good dog – bad dog continuum causes a lot of confusion both within and outside of positive reinforcement circles. It’s been said many times that positive reinforcement is not permissive. Yet many non-dog trainer type people still believe that positive training is always ‘nice’, patting the dog on the head and aimlessly feeding them cookies. This is of course a gross misconception, much like the old and treasured human certainty that the earth was flat and people could fall off the side of it if they wandered too far!

Reinforcement based training involves carefully using many pieces of the surrounding environment to (ideally) set the dog up for 90% learning success during foundational training. By doing so, repeated opportunities to reinforce the dog not only speeds up learning potential but equally limits the dog's potential experience of frustration (which hinders learning). Nor are rewardslimited to food, also involving toys, play, environmental experiences, praise, petting, and so on.

The positive reinforcement crew are basically trying to set the dog up for constant success during training and in life, in order to minimise those opportunities when verbal punishments or physical corrections might otherwise appear to be needed. This SEEMS to imply that a “good dog” must be consistently obedient, successfully fulfilling the trainer’s every request and order… ideally an operant dog won’t be inclined to look at me belligerently and ask “why should I” or “what’s in it for me”. Nor should they ever be ignoring me in order to acquire more rewarding experiences from the world around them! But how true is this scenario, in the real world of Terriers and Scenthounds?

Hopefully, many of us modern minded folk are willing to acknowledge that our much loved pet dogs need not be slaves to our every socio-culturally defined expectation. Surely we no longer expect either dogs, children or women to robotically perform acceptable behaviours in response to every verbal command we throw at them?

Since I became a dog trainer, I’m often asked if my job is basically akin to the television shows of Barbara Woodhouse. I cringe quietly as I am forced to recall Barbara’s show, called “Dog Training My Way”…. The name alone provides a limited consideration of the very real and unique emotional and physical needs of each individual dog.

Surely the training of any animal should be more about the animal, than the trainer?

Thanks to the incredible work of many scientifically driven animal trainers and behaviourists over recent decades, we now have an abundance of scientific evidence to verify our claims that reinforcement based dog training really does work better than outdated punishment, correction-based and dominance models.

Our progressive and ongoing focus upon relationship-based training approaches continues to demonstrate how ineffective it is to either ignore or punish a dog’s unwanted behaviours. Why then, do modern and humane first world societies continue to unconsciously pursue so many punishment based educational models and work training ethos’?

As defined by science, punishment weakens or eliminates a behavioural response, whilst reinforcement increases it. We know that many forms of aversive punishment only teach our dogs what they must NOT do, often leaving them with an unhealthy fear of (and stress in the presence of) their handler.

We also know that much punishment is ineffectively delivered by normal people, hence fails to actually reduce unwanted behaviours. Finally, we hopefully realise that the single greatest benefit of punishment is providing relief to the punisher, making them feel better by reducing their frustration and/or easing their rage.

We now have a wealth of scientific studies telling us that the use of aversive equipment or punishing techniques which a dog perceives or experiences to be aversive (painful or unpleasant), will not only slow training progress but usually damages the dog’s confidence.

This causes substantial harm to the critical relationship bonds creating trust between dog and handler. Punishment teaches our dogs nothing, thwarting their normal behavioural repertoires. It continues to surprise me how many UK based dog trainers advocate the use of punishment based techniques and aversive equipment for a wide range of common puppy and dog problems.

Each time we deliver an aversive punishment, we force the dog to be less dog-like, bullying them into conforming to our own dogged human needs. Any animal’s primary concern revolves around safety, which defines their emotional security at any given time. Repeated aversive punishments therefore damage a dog’s emotional well-being, suppressing their normal dog-like behaviours. Punishment based training techniques are effectively denying the dog any opportunity to be the creator of their own secure and enriched world.

Back to one of Paul’s many wonderful truths about how we provide our pawesome friends with more agency, to better support, appreciate and nurture them:

The goal of Dog training is to learn how to be a better learners, better teammates, better at communicating together and to enjoy being a Dog, and sharing our lives with Dogs.

Guide, nurture, and shape, problem-solving flexible thinking Dogs.

Paul J. Kearney, Pawesome Dogs Founder.

Paul J. Kearney, Pawesome Dogs Founder.

Psychologist and dog trainer Andrew Hale discusses the big difference between a quiet and compliant dog, and a truly calm and well regulated one. His Dog Centred Care concepts have offered me many fresh insights into more productive ways to evaluate what a good dog might actually be. A good dog is not simply one who is able to conform to our training expectations, but one who is supported through training methodologies which enable them to cope well amongst the very diverse environmental challenges of the human world they are submerged within.

Andrew tells us that, for these coping strategies to have any real, internal value for our dogs, we need to be available to listen to and more fully comprehend the unique emotional experience of the dog in front of us.

Problem solving, flexible thinking dogs are surely what we all desire? Dogs who understand how to willingly offer appropriate behaviours, and who are sufficiently rewarded to maintain this critical reinforcement history.

Reward the behaviour you want repeated,” is one of the basic rules of psychology.

And in Dr Susan Friedman’s words, "The animal is never wrong. You get what you reinforce".

Dr Friedman encourages animal trainers to control the environment, not the animal, so the animal makes better decisions. The animal is also far more likely to continue making good choices in the future, if they are consistently reinforced (rather than punished) for their good decisions.

Paul J. Kearney, Pawesome Dogs Founder.

In his book ‘Easy Peasy Puppy Squeezy’, Steve Mann wisely informs puppy owners that “there are really only ever going to be two reasons why your puppy won’t do what you’ve asked of them. Either they don’t understand what you’ve asked them to do, or they’re not motivated enough to do it”. I think of this statement every time I see a dog parent screaming the same command repeatedly, at their apparently deaf dog.

It was only when I began learning about Free Work through Sarah Fisher’s ‘Animal Centred Education’ (ACE) programs, that I started to better understand how each dog is a unique canine tutor, whilst every owner is their guardian.

In Sarah’s words, “Free Work has been created by dogs, for dogs”.

I will write another blog about the amaACEing evolution of Free Work, as there is a lot to discuss regarding the infinite possibilities it provides dog care-givers to bond meaningfully with their dogs. Like scentwork, Free Work offers our dogs enriching and pleasurable practical experiences which tap into their parasympathetic nervous systems, helping them to unwind and relax.

Free Work also helps to accelerate learning, by providing dogs with more choice and control over their training environment. It facilitates diverse forms of human communication with a dog, in simple and effective ways that often prove to be highly reinforcing for both parties.

By working collaboratively to acknowledge, observe and support our canine companions, Free Work becomes a cement for establishing bonds of trust between human and dog. It also tends to better motivate our dogs to voluntarily focus upon their handler, consequently creating the foundations necessary for more desirable behaviours to be fostered elsewhere.

This may all sound a little strange and unlikely to some of you. At this point, I'd like to especially thank ACE's Sarah Whiffen for helping me to find better words to explain and describe Free Work. Like meditation or yoga, it isn’t possible to experience Free Work through words alone, as it is a highly sensory activity.

Free Work is more of an emotional and physical experience, possibly explaining why it works so well for dogs, who (like any animal) create positive, neutral or negative associations with all aspects of the world around them. As the wonderful Dave, Mustafa and Alun from the Institute of Modern Dog Trainers kept on... and on reminding me, these associations are directly responsible for the dog’s many complex emotions and experiences of life.

Free Work therefore becomes an incredible tool for the dog to experience a full spectrum of more positively charged associations with the world around them, at the same time as being exposed to novelties and opportunities to work their bodies beneficially whilst moving around the Free Work equipment.

My own Free Work experiences with different dogs have encouraged me to recognise the enormous impact a dog’s emotional state will always have upon their ability to offer up and perform behaviours.

Since discovering Free Work, I’ve also become a massive advocate of Andrew Hale’s C.A.K.E. (care, awareness, knowledge, empathy) approach. This moves several steps beyond B.F. Skinner’s enlightened statement that “the rat is always right”. This essentially means that any animal’s behaviour is defined only by the environmental parameters of a training set-up or experimental formula.

In essence, the rat (or the dog) is always doing exactly what we have reinforced and motivated them to do, whether we are conscious of this, or not!

Like Free Work, C.A.K.E. approaches look beyond our human expectations of how the dog should, for example, at all times walk beside us on a loose (‘smiling’) lead. Instead, C.A.K.E. encourages us to ask questions about how a dog’s emotional state could be limiting their ability to offer us more of the behaviours we would like to see... or less of those we would rather not be subjected to!

We can raise questions around the dog’s potential experiences of pain, stress, trauma, fear or anxiety, reviewing the ways this might be impeding their ability to learn. C.A.K.E. also recognises the complex emotional needs of both the dogs and their equally important care-givers, enabling training programs to better understand and fulfil the needs of both parties.

Andrew explains how C.A.K.E. moves beyond a simple compliance based perspective, where both dog and care-giver should do as the dog trainer says! This flexible approach allows dog trainers and carers to be much more perceptive about the underlying truths guiding a dog’s behaviours, so that the relevant care and support needs can then be revealed.

Laura Donaldson explains different types of obedience problems beautifully, saying:

Sometimes, it's a matter of a dog's humans learning more about their dog. Sometimes, it's the lack of anyone helping them (and their dog) to learn alternate ways of relating to each other. And sometimes, it's just that old humancentric impulse saying to our dogs ‘do as I say because I say it’. It's time for this mode to experience extinction! I say let's all eat C.A.K.E. for the win".

Importantly, when this starts to happen, the arguments from the aversive lobby become mute. Aversive/balanced trainers are very much stuck in task. A truly dog centred care model never has room for aversive handling, methods or tools”.

- Andrew Hale, Trainer & Behaviourist at Train Positive.

I hope some of this has been helpful and interesting. I’m going to wrap up with a final word from the person who inspired this blog.

In 2013 Paul wrote that:

The true purpose of having a well trained, well behaved Dog is that they will pay attention to you, instead of you having to pay attention to them. Creating a relationship based on trust, not dominance”.

It’s not always simple to gain the trust of another species, even one like dogs who have for centuries been very deliberately bred to fulfil the objectives of mankind. If you are looking for advice or assistance with your dog, please make sure you seek help from a qualified professional, who understands how to use kind, ethical and science based protocols. Check their credentials carefully and be wary of any promises that claim to deliver instant results.

As discussed above, quick fix behavioural solutions usually involve some form of behavioural suppression, which is likely to cause your dog stress and confusion. Teaching our dogs new habits is a process that requires time, patience and consistency. In the words of Steve Mann, “practice makes permanent” and “the advanced is just the foundations done properly”.

This post is dedicated to the late and great Paul J. Kearney

"May the reinforce be with you".

If you need any guidance or information about working with your dogs, feel free to contact me via my website or email address.

Vicky Nardell. Luminous Dog Behaviour & Training.

Further information can also be found via the following sources:

Paul J. Kearney. Dogster Magazine Publications.Pawesome Dogs Teamwork & Training.

Catherine Phoenix Hallam. Dog Behaviour & Training.

Andrew Hale. Dog Centred Care. Train Positive Dog Behaviour & Training.

Dr Susan Friedman. Behaviour+ Works.

Steve Mann. Institute of Modern Dog Trainers.

Sarah Fisher. Animal Centred Education (ACE).

Laura Donaldson. Four Paws, Four Directions Dog Training & Behaviour Consulting LLC.

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