We have a very special blog for you this week. We asked Taryn Blyth, Cape Town-based dog behaviourist and trainer for her insight on some important questions we had regarding dog behaviour, training, obedience training and how both the dog and owner relate to these concepts. We hope you’ll enjoy reading it as much as we enjoyed writing it! We narrowed down the list of questions to our six most important ones: What is the difference between a dog behaviourist and dog trainer? What are the benefits of dog training for the dog? What are the benefits of dog training for the owner? Is dog training more than just obedience training? Does training (in particular obedience training) compromise the will and self-determination of the dog? (i.e. do dogs want to be trained?) What are the most valuable elements of dog training? Here’s how Taryn responded: What is the difference between a dog behaviourist and dog trainer Typically, a trainer is someone who has learned or been taught how to teach dog-specific behaviours. This would include things like teaching a dog how to do basic things like walk on a lead, sit or lie down, come when called. It might also include more advanced behaviours, for example, if people want to do competition work. In this case the training would include aspects like agility, obedience and tricks. Dog trainers are generally people who train dogs for specific behaviours or specific disciplines and tend to focus on learning theory – which is the nuts and bolts of how animals learn. This incorporates Skinners’ understanding of operant conditioning, how positive reinforcement works, etc. A qualified dog behaviourist is somebody who has studied animal behaviour in more depth and they tend to look at the bigger picture. Behaviourists look at the emotional content of behaviour and question what might be driving the dog’s behaviour. They’re qualified to look at the dog holistically and take into account the dog’s entire context. For example, is the dog living in a suitable environment? Has the dog got a good relationship with the owners? Is the dog under a lot of stress? What’s the dog’s nutrition like? How can a difference be made in terms of the dog’s life to address issues that may be present? Do we need to change the dog’s environment? How can we fulfil the dog’s needs better to be able to change how the dog is feeling? Generally speaking, people consult a behaviourist regarding specific behaviour problems that may have arisen. These might be things like the dog being anxious when visitors come into the home, the dog is reactive to other dogs when on a lead, etc. A behaviourist looks at the comprehensive context and puts a holistic plan in place to help the dog and owner to resolve their particular issue. If we can change how the dog might be feeling, they won’t need an outlet for that specific behaviour problem. For instance, if a dog is bored and frustrated, they might rip everything to pieces at home. If we can find ways of fulfilling the dog’s needs so that the dog has enough enrichment in their lives, they won’t be driven to do things that their owners regard as being inappropriate. What behaviourists always say, “Behind every behaviour, there is an emotion, and behind every emotion, there is a need.” So, it comes down to whether or not the dog’s needs are being fulfilled. Behaviourists also understand how dogs learn and how they can be trained and many behaviourists are trainers as well. What are the benefits of dog training for the dog First and foremost, training should only use positive reinforcement. Aversive trainers are people who still hold onto unscientific, traditional ideas of training where they use punishment and negative reinforcement. This creates a lot of negative emotions in dogs. There is overwhelming evidence that shows that it’s not necessary to frighten or hurt dogs to get them to do- and learn things. We avoid taking that route at all costs. Positive reinforcement training is when we teach dogs to perform particular behaviours as a result of gaining rewards. This has many benefits for the dog. The first benefit is that when people work with their dogs, they’re problem solving and the dog learns how to get rewards by interacting with the owner. This creates a strong and positive relationship between the dog and the owner. The dog learns how to get “good stuff” from the owner, and the owner shows the dog how to “get good things’ in ways that are socially acceptable within the human context. This style of learning opens the lines of communication between dog and owner, which is very beneficial to the dog because the dog learns how to express what they need in a way that the person can understand. Training should be a two-way street. It’s not simply a case of just telling the dog what to do. It should be a case of learning a communication system where the dog can also let us know what they need. Training creates a strong dog-human bond – provided training is carried out with positive reinforcement. Done this way, positive associations are created because the dog knows that good things happen – treats, play, bonding and affection – while training is in session. The other benefit to the dog is that training can create confidence. When a dog learns how to solve problems, they developing confidence in navigating the world on the whole. With everything in life – whether it’s a dog or human – if we come up against a problem that we can’t solve, we tend have an emotional response. We may start to feel frustrated, or we might just get depressed and give up because we don’t know what to do. With dogs, the more skills we can teach them, the more we can teach them how to problem solve, and the more confident they’ll be to tackle real-life situations. Instead of having purely emotional responses to “problems” because they don’t know what to do, they learn to be more resilient, to think through things, to figure out. It creates an optimistic outlook because the dog has learned that if they try things, good stuff happens. Naturally, the other benefits for the dog is that when a dog that can understand basic cues, the world becomes a safer place for them. If a dog comes when they are called, can stay in one place if need be, or can hold different positions, it’s a dog that one can take out more safely in public. You’ll be able to keep them out of danger if they respond to you. Having a dog that is able to follow certain cues is very helpful as it allows them to join in recreationally with our lives because they know what’s expected of them. They also learn what to expect from us. What are the benefits of dog training for the owner? Dog training provides support for dog owners. People tend to think that if they’ve had a dog before, they know everything about dogs. But that’s like saying, because I have a brain, I understand everything about the physiology of the brain. In the same way, having a dog doesn’t make one an expert on dogs. Joining a training class or getting help from a trainer who works one-on-one with you can be very useful as it provides answers to questions and gives support from informed sources. For example, people often think that something their dog is doing is completely weird. Then, after they speak to a trainer they find out that what their dog is doing is actually pretty normal. Just knowing that you have somebody that you can bounce things off is a huge benefit for dog owners. The other benefit for some people in a group class situation is that there can be social benefits in that you meet other “dog people”. Our advanced classes are lovely in that way. We’ve got lots of people who’ve trained with us for up to 10 years with their dogs. It’s not that the dogs don’t listen and still need to come to training! They come because it’s a fun outing for both owner and dogs. It’s a special occasion and it’s a bonding experience. It’s quality time with their dogs which is a great thing. Training also helps people put aside time every week which they can devote to their dog. Without the training environment, people often don’t get around to doing something with their dog. Training means you’ve got it in your schedule – it helps keep you on track and it’s fun. We teach new things in our classes all the time. Puppy classes provide a safe environment for puppies to learn about other people and other dogs, about different objects, and about things in the world. People often don’t know how to safely expose their puppies to things in the socialisation period. By coming to a puppy class, the puppy is able to explore the world in a safe and constructive way. Is dog training more than just obedience training? Dog training is absolutely more than just obedience training. We sometimes get requests from people who just want functional obedience. Our response to them is that their dog is going to be super bored and they’re also going to be totally bored. If all you teach your dog is to sit, stay, lie down, walk, lay down and walk on a lead, it really is incredibly boring for both the dog and the human. In training, we play a lot of games – in fact we train via games. For instance, we teach various recall games where the dog runs back and forth through our legs. Or, they learn to run from a distance and stand between our legs. Or they learn to run from one side towards us and then from the other side and we run away from them. We do things that are fun so that the dog is engaged while learning practical skills at the same time. We also teach a lot of tricks in training because tricks develop problem solving skills. They make training interesting. For people, this takes the pressure off. For example, when you teach something specific like “stay”, people take it very seriously because “the dog must learn to stay!” But when you’re teaching a trick like dog spins or teaching a dog to give you a high five, people tend to relax and this takes the pressure off. If the dog doesn’t do it perfectly, they don’t feel like it’s the end of the world. This approach tends to just change people’s mindset and they focus on having fun with their dogs rather than take it overly seriously. As soon as owners have the mindset of, “I’m not getting it right, the dog’s not getting it right, it has to work,” people put too much pressure on their dogs. The dog then gets miserable and they don’t enjoy their training and instead of it being a positive experience, it becomes stressful for everybody. We don’t like the word obedience. What we know is that learning cues will happen organically when we build a relationship and have fun with our dogs – because when it’s fun, they’ll automatically want to learn and engage with us. Does training (in particular obedience training) compromise the will and self-determination of the dog? (i.e. do dogs want to be trained?) This would depend entirely on your training method and your training philosophy. If a person uses old fashioned, old-school punishment-based or negative reinforcement based training, the dog is actually just avoiding something unpleasant, so it’s only compliant in order to avoid something bad happening to them. In this case, training would absolutely undermine or compromise the will and self-determination of the dog. This style of “training” also compromises a dog’s emotional and physical wellbeing. It causes an enormous amount of stress for dogs, causing them to become emotionally compromised. In the long term, they will actually become ill – because as we know, stress leads to ill health. That’s why we’re passionate about using positive reinforcement and force-free training. Force free training implies that we don’t physically manipulate, intimidate, or coerce dogs into doing things. While for safety reasons in the younger classes, dogs would be on lead, we generally encourage them to be on harnesses or have them on loose leads. If a dog disengages and doesn’t want to do something, we’d ever force them to do it. Instead, we encourage them by using play or food so that they want to do things. When a dog is resistant to doing something you notice it very quickly – but only if you’re attuned to your dog’s body language and emotions. When a dog shows us that they’re not comfortable doing something, we always start and build up very slowly. Every step of the way, we reassess “Is the dog OK with this?” If the dog doesn’t want to engage, that’s fine. We don’t put pressure on them. And, it’s our job to figure out what is holding them back. What’s making them feel uncomfortable? How can we make them feel more secure? How can we provide conditions for the specific dog where they will choose to engage? We always allow the dog to choose. The more the lines of communication are open between dog and owner, the better. My clients often say that their dogs tell them what they need. It’s a partnership, not a dictatorship. What are the most valuable elements of dog training. If I had to pick two, they would be building a relationship with the dog and developing problem solving skills to foster confidence. Spending quality time, having fun with your dog and using positive reinforcement creates positive associations and this is invaluable. It’s via the building the relationship and building the dog’s confidence that an optimistic outlook on life is created. This is so important for both the dog and owner. To find out more about Taryn and her work, you can reach out via her website: https://www.tarynblyth.co.za. Thank you so much Taryn for your incredible insight. We look forward to creating stronger bonds and engaging moments with our dogs.