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Extended review: Good Dog: The easy way to train your dog

See also:
Dogs: General
Dogs: Health and Nutrition
Dogs: Books on single breeds
Dogs: Origins, canine evolution and wolves
Dogs: Puppy and manners training
Dogs: Behaviour and training philosophies
Dogs: Breeding and kennel management
Dogs: Fiction and biography relating to dogs


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Good Dog: The easy way to train your dog

Good Dog tells us in Chapter One that training should be fun. We can plan classes, and use our brains, to make training enjoyable for ourselves and our dogs, rather than trying 'bullish tactics'. Most owners would agree with this, a bit of thought helps with raising dogs, as it does with raising kids. There are more effective ways of raising both than bellowing at them and hitting them as the first option. Most of us have figured this out, and would agree with Sarah Whitehad. She also advises us to fit training into daily routines, like during the advertisement breaks for TV programmes. It's true that if you have a lot of commitments, time management is important, as most owners and parents would agree.

Where Good Dog comes to life, however, is in Chapter 5, which takes owners beyond basic manners training, towards teaching skills, for example moving from games of fetch to formal retrieves, or teaching scent work. Chapter 6, the last chapter deals with harnessing inbuilt desires to teach the dog acceptable activities such as agility. As a book for pet dog owners, Good Dog is quite helpful, given that many training books are unadventurous and stick to basic manners training. Dedicated owners can pick out ideas for teaching a wide range of skills to their dogs, using this book as a guide. This is likely to improve relationships between owners and their dogs, because the more we do interesting activities with our dogs, the better we understand each other.

Good Dog, then, has a lot to offer owners compared with many books on pet dog training. However, given that most pet dog training books aren't especially helpful, that isn't saying much! Unfortunately, the book also has serious weaknesses for anyone wanting a common-sense approach, for people with dogs from working stock, and for readers with a serious interest in dog behaviour. Good Dog reflects the times we live in, and current fashions in professional pet dog training in both the US and UK. The reason for focusing so much on these weaknesses in this review is not that Good Dog is especially bad. It isn't, it's one of the better pet dog training books around. Rather, it's well worth trainers and owners thinking about where professional pet dog training is going. Good Dog's advice on certain topics gives interesting examples of some current prejudices which need to be examined. 

What are Good Dog's weaknesses? Firstly, if someone is writing a book about a topic it's helpful for readers if the author says what it is they are writing about. This book claims to be about training, so a clear and full definition of training would be useful. There's no definition in any part of the book, readers have to guess what Whitehead means by 'training'. The chapter called 'Training', Chapter 4, focuses on teaching commands, and using them in everyday life. This is basically 'manners training', teaching dogs to behave well so that they and others are safe in public. Chapter Five, called 'Team building exercises', deals with training skills, such as retrieving and scent work. Lastly Chapter 6 'Using your dogs' instincts' deals with preventing unwanted behaviour, for example by providing places for dogs to dig, or teaching them tug, with a command to give up objects.

Because only Chapter 4 is called 'Training', it looks as though Whitehead believes that training means teaching commands to develop canine good manners, and the rest is an 'add on'. In practice, though, there's no clear-cut division between the three topics, manners training, skills training, and training to prevent unwanted behaviour. Teaching retrieving, for example, involves using some basic 'manners' or obedience commands like 'sit and stay', so it reinforces 'manners training'. Games of tug can incorporate a drop on command, a wait, and a throw and fetch, as a reward for the dog dropping the tug and waiting, so again can be used to reinforce 'manners training'. Doing something active, like retrieving or scent work, tends to be more fun for owners and dogs than pure 'manners training', which is more about teaching dogs to use self-control, like dropping objects, and waiting. It's much easier to motivate dogs by playing games with them, because dogs  can be allowed to do something they like doing as a reward for using self control (or having good manners).

So, more connections between manners training, skills training, and harnessing inbuilt desires would be helpful. Yes, books are easier to read if they are organised into chapters, so I'm not grumbling that this book has separate chapters for manners, skills training, and preventing behavioural problems, just saying that the chapters could be linked to each other much more strongly. For example, if you're trying to get a dog to sit on command every time, and want to motivate the dog, saying 'sit and you get to do what you really want' like retrieve, is a powerful way of teaching.

The second big weakness of this book is that the explanation at the start of Chapter 2, 'How dogs learn' on p15, is confusing and tells only part of the story. The focus in this explanation is on rewards provided by the owner or the environment. Whitehead says 'Dogs only repeat certain behaviours if they receive a reward' ... and later, 'rewards come in three forms: human attention, internal pleasure (food treats), and external (often 'accidental') rewards from their environment, such as when they knock over a rubbish bin in the kitchen and proceed to eat the contents.' This explanation of how dogs learn is confusing, because food treats aren't really 'internal'. They're provided by an external source, humans. They don't come from inside the dog, in the sense of what the dog wants to do.

Whitehead's explanation is only a partial explanation of why dogs do things, because she relies heavily on a school of psychology called 'behaviourism' as a way of understanding dogs' motivations when they are learning. Behaviourism focuses on rewards and punishments provided by external sources, on what's going on outside the dog, rather than on what is happening inside the dog. Behaviourists thought it 'unscientific' to guess what was happening inside animals' heads, and focused on what scientists could actually observe. However, today biologists have developed new ways of measuring what happens inside animals' heads, For example, neurologists can measure which parts of the brain light up when an animal responds to a stimulus. Research on the cognitive abilities of dogs has also uncovered some abilities which behaviourists never dreamed of, such as primitive mathematical skills. Dogs have also shown a sense of fairness, taking offence when companions  are rewarded and they are not. The simplistic view of how dogs learn which was presented in behaviourism was always very limited to start off with. Now it has become dated, or old-fashioned.

Behaviourist 'learning theory' doesn't take into account that are some behaviours are repeated because of inbuilt desires within the dog. There are some things that dogs just like doing. Dogs will repeat some behaviours, sometimes obsessively, because they find them pleasurable in themselves, regardless of whether owners try to provide 'rewards'. An obsessive retriever, for example, will retrieve until it collapses, unless the owner teaches and uses an 'off' switch, because the act of retrieving brings pleasure in itself (it's 'self-rewarding'). Such a dog will spit out any food treats that humans may offer as irrelevant. This inbuilt desire to do certain activities is especially true for working dogs, and dogs of working stock. It's important for pet owners to know that dogs can have inbuilt desires other than just eating, sleeping and the opposite sex, and though Whitehead does look at inbuilt desires in Chapter 6, she relegates them to the chapter on  preventing problems, rather than including them in her account of how dogs learn in Chapter 4.

Keen sheepdogs have particularly strong inbuilt desires. They work sheep because the act of working sheep is rewarding in itself. You can't train them using food treats. The desire to work sheep is either 'there' in some form, part of who the dog is, or it isn't there, and a dog that has no inbuilt desire to work sheep is unlikely to learn to perform the task well. The job of a sheepdog trainer is to harness that inbuilt tendency, and channel it into useful behaviour. Training sheepdogs involves shepherds learning from the dog, as well as the dog learning from the shepherd. The dog tells the shepherd stuff the shepherd may not know about the sheep, and also tells the shepherd about the dog's own potential abilities and character, like whether it tends to be rough with sheep, too diffident, or simply lacks interest. This relationship between shepherd and sheepdog is a much more complicated understanding than Chapter 4, with its limited behaviourist focus,  can explain.

So, giving a fuller explanation of 'how dogs learn' would help owners who have pet dogs with strong inbuilt desires to perform certain behaviours, especially dogs from working stock. Pet dog owners often take on dogs discarded as unfit to be working dogs which still have a desire to do that job, such as sound-shy gundogs, sighthounds, or sheepdogs discarded by shepherds as too rough or too deferential with the sheep. If you see working ability as a strength, and such dogs as having potential for developing talents, then it's much easier to train them than if you see these dogs as potentially having behavioural problems. Sheepdogs can often do very well at a number of tasks, including scent work. Their tendency to be obsessive and their ability to focus can be harnessed in many ways. They can still do useful work, even if they are not the best sheepdogs. Inbuilt drives can make training easier if owners learn to harness them, and how to build in an 'off'
 switch! Yes, dogs often develop behavioural problems if they can't use their talents, but when owners recognise and develop inbuilt abilities, the talents are a bonus rather than a drawback.

A fuller explanation of 'how dogs learn' would make also it easier to explain when and how to teach skills, like retrieving or scent work. Most dogs find using their noses rewarding, but not all dogs are natural retrievers. An important role of pet dog owners is to work out what their dogs' talents are, what they really like doing, and then channel those talents so owner and dog can have fun together. There's no point trying to make a competition retriever out of a dog with no natural interest in retrieving. However, if dogs like to retrieve, owners can tap into their natural talents, to teach dogs useful skills, like finding lost keys and telling the owner about them.

Whitehead also sees barking as a problem, yet this is another inbuilt tendency in some dogs that again can be useful. Dogs often attempt to communicate with owners through barking. A very good way to quieten a barking dog is to praise the dog, try to work out what the dog is telling you, and show the dog you understand. The message may be trivial, but sometimes it's important, like that someone is trying to steal your car outside! Rather than trying to eliminate barking, owners can teach dogs how to use it to communicate better (eg 'There's no need to shout and repeat it, I heard you first time, thank you'.)

Dogs usually have an inbuilt desire to be with their owners, so they tend to tune into our emotions and copy our behaviour. This is another aspect of behaviour which is neglected in the account of 'how dogs learn' in Chapter 4. If owners like someone, dogs tend to pick up on this, and treat that person as a friend. If owners are polite to strangers, our dogs are likely to be polite too. Saying a friendly 'Good morning' to strangers you pass in the park, and then walking on, can help dogs to learn to be polite, to treat passers-by as friendly people that you leave in peace. Greeting a passer-by with a dog in a friendly way can help the dogs get on together. Likewise, if owners are spooked by passers-by or their dogs, our dogs tend to pick up on this, and may treat them as 'enemies'.
It's true, as Whitehead notes, that dogs are not hierarchical in the same way as wolves are, they are much more flexible than wolves. However, dogs are sensitive to hierarchies, both human and canine, and this again affects how they learn. If you respect your trainer, your dog is likely to pick up on this, and take especial note of the trainer's commands.

Another inbuilt tendency of dogs is that they are social animals which usually like being with other dogs. So dogs can also learn from each other. Training both good manners and complex skills to a new dog is much easier if you already have a well-trained dog setting a good example. A well-trained first dog can be a natural leader and teacher for a new dog.

The last big gap in Whitehead's account of how dogs learn is a mention of inbuilt stages of development. Pups learn to bond with humans before they are three months' old. Leave it too late, isolate them from humans, and it's far more difficult for them to develop relationships with humans, sometimes impossible. Likewise, it's much easier to teach certain skills like retrieving, and off-leash walking near the owner if you start very young. However, there are other skills, like complex sheepdog work, that need more maturity and self-control, and are best left until the dog is older. As with humans, youngsters need to learn how to focus, control their aggression, and in general control their impulses. It takes patience to teach this to young humans and to young dogs. Likewise, humans can learn to be considerate of others, and the same applies to dogs. This understanding comes with maturity in both species.

An important skill for dog trainers, and parents or teachers of small humans is to work out how to pitch their lessons to the level that the dog or child can cope with. Get it wrong, and you may well end up with a bemused stare, and protests. Assessing where the dog or child is at, is a skill that comes from experience. Individual dogs and humans develop at different speeds, and some are naturally better at focusing, or impulse control. You can read guides on development to get a general idea of what to expect, but only the dog or child in front of you can tell you whether you are pitching it right.

So, the second problem with Good Dog is that Sarah Whitehead is somewhat blinkered by the dog training orthodoxy's obsession with behaviourism, when she discusses how dogs learn. True, behaviourism can sometimes be helpful. It can, for example, help owners to realise when they are rewarding bad behaviour without realising it. However, it's only helpful if it is seen as part of a wider picture, which includes dogs' inbuilt desires and potential skills, and their relationships with both other dogs and their owner. Behaviourism isn't really helpful in understanding how dogs learn to do certain kinds of work, such as working sheep, where a strong inbuilt desire to work is important. It also doesn't explain some aspects of relationships, like the way that dogs and owners can tune into each other emotionally. Furthermore, it doesn't help in understanding why dogs have to learn some behaviours and skills at a very young age, while achieving other skills demands  greater maturity.

For too long, many pet dog trainers have believed that behaviourism is the set of ideas that you use to train dogs, while ethology, (a branch of biology that focuses on understanding dog behaviour, especially inbuilt behaviour), is what you use to tackle behavioural problems. This is reflected in the way that Whitehead organises her book. Chapter 4, on training is based on behaviourist ideas. Chapter 6, on behavioural problems, is based on ethology. In practice, you cannot really train dogs, especially working dogs, without understanding both the impact of external factors (which behaviourism deals with), and what's inside the dog (which ethology focuses on). By understanding both, you can more easily develop good manners and skills, and so help prevent unwanted behaviour.

The third big weakness of this book is in its contradictory, partial and misleading account of punishment. There is a sensible account of 'consequences' on p21. Owners are advised, for example, to take a dog back home if he pulls on a walk, or close a door in front of a dog if he tries to rush through it ahead of you. This is described as not rewarding a dog which fails to respond to a cue or command that the dog has been taught.

Now, withdrawing nice things is a strategy often used by parents, for example, if children have tantrums rather than doing their homework, a parent may take away the reward (for doing homework) of being allowed to play computer games. It can be a very effective punishment, and may be much more effective than yelling at kids. Shout at kids or dogs a lot, and they tend to tune you out. Taking away something they want can really hurt. Like all punishments, taking something nice away, (what in the behaviourist language of operant conditioning is called  'negative punishment') can trigger aggression in some kids and dogs. The child may shout, or even hit the adult, and the dog may bark or bite. Negative punishment, then, can be a useful way of getting kids or dogs to do what you want, but it is not problem-free.

Whitehead doesn't address this problem, because she pretends that negative punishment, or taking something nice away, isn't really punishment. Her definition of punishment only includes doing something that dogs don't like, adding something nasty ('positive punishment', in the language of operant conditioning). She tells us, on p37, that 'All punishments, particularly physical ones, are very old-fashioned, risky, ineffective and, sometimes, cruel.' This is kinda muddled, partly because she pretends that negative punishment isn't really punishment and is therefore OK. It's also muddled because, for a behaviourist, punishment is effective by definition. If you take something nice away, or add something nasty, and that does not stop the unwanted behaviour, technically, it isn't punishment.

Some years back I dog-walked for an elderly lady who fed the birds with stale bread left on her lawn. Her golden retriever would romp out onto the lawn and snarf up the bread. She'd beat him with her walking stick. Being frail, she didn't beat him hard. He was a fast mover, and she had had two hip replacements, so he could easily escape. He took no notice whatsoever. That wasn't really punishment. It was wasted effort. A friend got her a bird table, and the problem was solved.

When we talk about 'punishment' in everyday language it has a broad meaning, and includes hitting, yelling, taking away privileges, generally showing we are annoyed. We don't always mean 'an action that stops unwanted behaviour'. But when academic behaviourists talk about 'punishment', by definition it stops unwanted behaviour, or at least makes it less likely, so is always effective.

Sarah Whitehead's definition of 'punishment', then, is both different from that of most parents using common sense, and that of academic behaviourists who see a key difference between taking something nice away (negative punishment), and adding something nasty (positive punishment), but who, like parents, still see both as 'punishment'. Her definition neither fits with academic science, nor with common sense.

Most parents could explain to Sarah Whitehead that this issue is a lot more complicated than simply whether punishment is negative or positive. Parents know that both negative punishment and positive punishment can be risky. Some negative punishments (like no computer games) are more effective than some positive punishments (like yelling), partly because they hurt more. Either type of punishment can be cruel, especially if the parent or owner is very irritated and consequently imposes a very severe punishment. This is important, because pet owners who find their dog too much to cope with may end up isolating the dog, cutting down drastically on human contact and exercise. Isolation and lack of exercise are likely to make problems worse, including aggression. The dog can end up both hyped up and wary, more likely to bite because trust has been undermined through the isolation, and because excess energy has to go somewhere. There is a very real risk, then,  that attempts at negative punishment, taking away what the dog wants (contact with the owner and walks) can create or worsen aggression.

It would be more helpful for Whitehead to explain what she means by punishment in a jargon-free way, for example, to explain clearly that in general, hitting or kicking dogs is not sensible. They often take no notice, as with the elderly lady's golden retriever. If owners do hit dogs hard enough for them to notice, this can encourage them to bite hands and feet, just to defend themselves. Yelling at dogs for something you've just discovered that they did hours ago might also make them think you have become a dangerous lunatic. They may have no idea why you're shouting at them. Rubbing a pup's nose in its wee may make the pup afraid to wee in your presence. Being too reliant on punishment, and thinking that dogs should see the world in the same way as humans do, is not helpful, or much fun for owner or dog. On the other hand, trying to see things from the dog's point of view, and making it rewarding for the dog to do what you want, means you're likely to  have a better relationship. That is kinda basic common sense, but it's easy for novice owners to get irritable and forget, or not realise, that dogs don't always see things as we do.

Now, some types of punishment tend to be counter-productive, but is 'positive punishment', or doing something dogs don't like, always a bad move? Maybe not. Parents have the advantage that they can usually reason with children, if they pick the right moment and use the right language. We can say to a five-year-old, 'please don't run across the road without looking, because a car might kill you', and the child may understand and be more careful. At five, impulse control isn't very reliable, but keep on with the message, and by around seven the child will be more reliable.
We can't explain to dogs as easily why they shouldn't do certain things that they really want to do, like raid the kitchen bin (which might contain things that could hurt them) or chase sheep. Sometimes positive punishment may be the best option if it helps to keep the dog safe, for example, booby-trapping the kitchen bin (eg with objects that fall and make a clatter but won't hurt the dog). You can keep the kitchen door closed, or put a lock on the bin, or keep the bin in a locked cupboard, but training the dog that raiding the bin is dangerous (without actually causing harm) may give him an extra level of safety. Likewise, a remote-controlled collar may help a dog that has got into the habit of chasing sheep. It could save the life of that dog (and of sheep). This is positive punishment, but if it keeps a dog safe, and allows more off-leash freedom, it may be in the dog's best interests.

Some years back, I saw a small girl running into the path of a fast moving car, and grabbed the only part of her I could reach, her right arm. I pulled her back next to me. She was angry. She glared at me and rubbed her arm. It hurt being yanked back, but she was alive. Was that positive punishment? Who cares? She was alive. I had never met her before. After we crossed the road safely together, I never saw her again. Maybe the memory of the pain in her arm made her think twice next time she wanted to rush across the road. In which case it was positive punishment. There are times when you don't faff around worrying about theory, you act.

Acting fast and doing it right is also important when stopping dog fights. Owners can easily get bitten if their hands get too close to teeth, but a swift hosing down when dogs lose their heads can prevent injury. Is that positive punishment? If it lessens the chance of fights, yes. A severe scolding immediately afterwards can put some dogs off fighting, maybe not the youngsters lacking impulse control, but the more mature dogs with whom you have a good relationship, and who care about your opinion. This may be positive punishment, but again, it's in the dogs' interests.
Behaviourism is a set of ideas that was developed in laboratories by people who fed or shocked rats or pigeons. Food was the key reward, and the shock was the clear punishment. In the real world, it's much less clear whether something is a reward, a punishment, a distraction, or just giving the dog information it needs to know. Surprise dogs with funny noises, or say 'chsst' to get their attention, and you can distract them from whatever 'crime' they were about to commit. Hosing dogs generally distracts them from fighting. It's also something they don't like. In practice, there is no clear dividing line between a distraction and 'positive punishment'.

The same is true of distractions and rewards. Try holding up a ball and calling a ball-mad dog you see eyeing up another dog and intent on mischief. Are you distracting the dog by offering a more fun alternative, playing ball with you rather than attacking another dog? Or are you rewarding your dog for looking mean? My guess is that it depends. The dog may learn to look at you when another dog approaches, because it means something fun may happen. Alternatively, if you only produce a ball when your dog plays up, the dog may well learn that playing up means you will play ball. The effect of the ball also depends on why the dog wants to beat up others in the neighbourhood, whether it's boredom, or the dog has never learnt manners, or fears other dogs, or just likes fighting. There's no simple answer without taking into account something of what is going on in the dog's head.

So training dogs involves much more than adding or taking away punishments or rewards. Furthermore, not all actions that can be classed as 'punishments' have the same effect.  Water can distract dogs from a fight. Hitting them may just intensify their aggression. Few dogs like water poured on their heads, so this is a sort of punishment, but it's the element of distraction that makes it work. There are also different physiological reactions to the water and to being hit. Water startles, whereas blows or kicks are unlikely to take dogs out of fight mode - unless the blow is so hard it causes damage. Some actions that behaviourists would call 'positive punishment' are safer and more effective than others, and the safer methods tend to involve an element of distraction.

Behaviourists present punishment as different in terms of how harsh it is, and they argue that the harsher it is, the more effective it is likely to be in stopping unwanted behaviour. This puzzled me for a long while, since the most effective 'punishments' I've used have tended to be very gentle, for example, blowing a gentle raspberry into my dogs' faces when they tried mouthing me, as tiny pups. The two oldest are now twelve, and have never used their teeth on me since.  They didn't like the 'mouth farts', and after that they stopped biting, so the raspberries were technically a punishment. Yet the pups were very relaxed, stayed in my lap, and just looked a bit puzzled as they worked out that no, I didn't want to be bitten. One problem with behaviourism is that it doesn't take into account that punishments can be qualitatively different. Hitting the pups for biting would have upset them (and me) a lot, and would have been less effective. It's not just  the severity of the punishment that counts, but the type of punishment, the method you use for saying 'please don't do that'.

One way to understand qualitative differences between different types of punishments is to think of how you feel if someone criticises you. If you feel they're just trying to say they're cleverer or better-looking than you are, you're more likely to feel angry than if you trust them, and sense they care, but just feel you really need to hear some criticism. If we can hear 'I love ya but' we can accept some very hard lessons. If we hear 'I think you are worthless', we want to defend ourselves. Behaviourism can't explain this difference, because it doesn't deal with relationships, or how we feel inside.

Dogs develop relationships with us, so hearing 'I love ya', having a base of trust which allows them to accept reprimands, is important for them too. They also need to know what we'd rather they didn't do. Saying 'Chsst' to a dog about to chew a wooden ornament, followed by 'no', and 'come here', and then giving the dog a permissible chew toy, give the dog useful information: 'I don't want you to do that', while still recognising his need to chew - 'I love ya, you can chew this but not that'. Technically the 'Chsst' is positive punishment, (because the owner does something that stops the unwanted behaviour), but it's not really scary, it makes the world more understandable to the dog, and the owner can then explain 'this is what I'd like you to chew'. True, dogs don't always want to please us, but if we try to understand their needs, they will often meet us half way. Dogs and humans can come to understand one another, and trust each other. We may argue,  sometimes one is out of sorts, tetchy and irritable, but if we have a firm foundation of trust, we're better able to forgive each other. So the third problem is that Good Dog's explanations of punishment are a dumbed down version of behaviourism, which was already pretty dumbed down to start off with.
If you took Good Dog too seriously, you could end up with a phobia of doing anything that might be classed as positive punishment, while being worry-free about negative punishment. It makes more sense to focus on joint activities that can help dogs and owners learn to trust and understand each other, so that neither is likely to overreact.

Good Dog's view of how dogs learn, and its explanation of punishment both reflect current fashions in pet dog training. The book also conforms to a fashion for 'hands off' training', or putting dogs into positions such as 'sit' using titbits rather than your hands. Teaching owners how to place dogs in a way that develops trust would be helpful, as well as more emphasis on skills like massage, grooming, and checking for ticks, to show owners how to handle dogs in ways that both enjoy. Knowing how to handle dogs is a very basic and important skill. Good Dog avoids the issue, and that is a fourth weakness of the book.

Sarah Whitehead gives seminars for trainers, and when she speaks to dog professionals, she gives a far more helpful view of training and behaviour. So why does Good Dog present some aspects of training in such an unhelpful way? This is an important question, because many trainers argue, as she does in Good Dog, that training is about teaching commands for good manners, and that behaviourism explains what we need to know about how dogs learn. The current fashion is also to argue that negative punishment is OK, but positive punishment is not OK. (Some trainers who preach this view confusingly call themselves 'pure positive' trainers.) Many trainers also forget that knowing how and when to touch dogs is a very basic and important skill. Good Dog fits current fashions in training, fashions that in some ways have moved away from real dogs and owners. Good Dog lists Jean Donaldson's Culture Clash and Karen Pryor's Don't Shoot the Dog in its list of Further  Reading. Both these authors rely heavily on behaviourism, yet neither is as dogmatic as Whitehead on positive punishment, and neither pretends that negative punishment isn't really punishment. How did the ideas of key behaviourist, B.F. Skinner, which Donaldson sought to popularise, morph into the current orthodoxy? Why has this collective insanity afflicted the world of pet dog training?

My guess is that are three key reasons. One is to do with marketing. Behaviourist ideas can be presented as 'scientific' because they originally came from academic science, even if the way they have often been used in dog training is anything but scientific. It's also easier to market a book that promises to make readers feel good about themselves, they just have to avoid positive punishment. So negative punishment is disguised as 'consequences' rather than the punishment it really is. Sarah Whitehead is a specialist in marketing, and someone who publishes a book wants to sell it, so it makes sense to market it the best you can. Most of us want to think of ourselves as nice people. Whitehead taps into our desires. Like many dog professionals following this fashion, she implies that only old-fashioned, unscientific, nasty people could disagree with her! That again is a form of marketing.

The second reason for the popularity of these half-baked ideas is that 'dog people' are often hierarchical, in the sense of liking to classify humans, as well as other animals, in pecking orders. This especially applies to people with a stake in the dog professional career hierarchy. At the top, there are 'pet behavioural counsellors', like Sarah Whitehead, then trainers, then pet owners. Many canine professionals become a little jaded over the years, because they specialise in owners with problems, rather than competent owners. The term APO, or 'average pet owner' is often a term of abuse among dog professionals. Some dog experts seem to think that pet owners are too stupid to deal with anything but very dumbed down ideas, and it's safer to teach them to avoid positive punishment altogether because it seems more dangerous than negative punishment (though a trainer or behaviourist might know better). Only allowing certain knowledge to filter down from  the top is also a way of preserving the prestige, and ability to earn money, of people at the top.

The dog professional hierarchy is a recent invention. Throughout history, there have been excellent, 'natural' trainers, who have never been near a training class, or picked up a training book. Today it's easy to find inept trainers, who devour books and attend weekly classes. Look at owners around you, and how well they have trained their dogs. It's clear that training is best learnt by spending time with dogs. Competent owners have often been around dogs since they were kids, and have built up a feel for dogs. The best books and the best trainers can help you work out why some things you do are effective, and others aren't. They can point you in the right direction for getting better results, even if you have experience. The worst books and the worst trainers can take you up a blind alley, and if you take them too seriously, can disconnect you from any intuitive understanding of dogs you may have.

Would I recommend Good Dog for a dog club? Perhaps yes, because it does make many good points, and has a lot of useful ideas. One problem with 'how to' books is that what people need to hear depends on what they know or believe already. Trainers at dog clubs know the owners and dogs who attend. They can pull out the parts which are relevant and helpful to the owners they know, and discuss the parts that might mislead them. For example, much of what Whitehead says about punishment being counter-productive is relevant to inexperienced owners who may over-react to canine misdemeanours. However, trainers do need to point out that this applies as much to negative as to positive punishment, and that the issue of punishment is more complex than behaviourism implies. The book is also useful in pointing owners towards skills training, which can bring enormous benefits for both owner and dog. Again, it's worth stressing that this is all training, that skills and  manners training can be interlinked, and that inbuilt drives can be a bonus. Trainers often suggest agility as a way of calming problem dogs, just as Whitehead does in Chapter 6. Agility can be beneficial for some dogs, but not all dogs enjoy agility, and it doesn't always calm those that do! A key role for trainers is to help owners identify what activities their dogs are especially suited for. Then owners can take pride in their dogs' talents, rather than seeing the dogs as overactive problem cases.

Is Good Dog useful for pet owners? That depends. It does have some useful ideas for skills training, though if you have already identified your dog's skills you're likely to find a specialist work on that skill more useful. Good dog is not an in-depth work, and if you have a serious interest in training and behaviour, you're better off reading something more up-to-date and scientific, such as Lindsay's Applied Dog Behaviour and Training. Good Dog is better than most books aimed at pet dog owners, but trust your own instincts. Sniff the book, and check it out with your dog. If parts of the book fit you and your dog, then use those parts. If you and your dog disagree with other parts of the book, then trust your gut feelings.

Review by Alison Lever


Thank you to Tiffani Howell, Wendy Hanson, Heather Houlahan, Donald McCaig, and Janeen McMurtrie for informative arguments about training and behaviour. The ideas in this review do not necessarily reflect their views, but their contributions have been valuable.

Further Reading

Steven Lindsay, Applied Dog Behaviour and Training, 3 volumes is both up to date and comprehensive, though pricey. Lindsay is not only thorough, he has a good understanding of working dogs. The most useful volume for trainers is volume 3, (Blackwell, 2005), though all three volumes are interesting.
Adam Miklosi's Dog: Behaviour, evolution and cognition, Oxford University Press, 2007,  is very useful for understanding inbuilt behaviours in dogs.

Both these books are reviewed in Dogs, Behaviour and Training Philosophies


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Dogs: General
Dogs: Health and Nutrition
Dogs: Books on single breeds
Dogs: Origins, canine evolution and wolves
Dogs: Puppy and manners training
Dogs: Behaviour and training philosophies
Dogs: Breeding and kennel management
Dogs: Fiction and biography relating to dogs