A Few Enlightening Books on Positive Dog Training

Humane groups release humane training guidelines; both are useful.


Whether or not they think about it, most people who care for dogs have at least a vague notion of what they consider cruel or humane treatment of a canine companion. Definitions vary wildly, however. Some people have no compunction about smacking or yanking their dogs in an attempt to make them behave as they would like them to. Others may completely eschew the use of physical force on their dogs. The definitions of “cruel” or “humane” treatment tend to reflect an individual’s own experiences and conscience — which may be completely divergent from the societal norm.

In 2001, two separate books were published with the express purpose of enlightening dog trainers and dogs owners about the range of training methods available, and understanding the differences between them. The two books were conceived from the same origins, but developed into very different – and differently useful – documents.

In August, the Delta Society, founded in 1977 and based in Renton, Washington, published its Professional Standards for Dog Trainers: Effective, Humane Principles. As the title indicates, the Delta Society intends for the book to provide guidelines for professional dog trainers. And in early September, the American Humane Association, founded in 1877 and based in Englewood, Colorado, published its Guide to Humane Dog Training, which, in their words, “introduces dog owners to the use of positive reinforcement in training, a highly effective method that rejects the use of force and strong punishment.”

With great interest, we followed the evolution of the projects, from their origins in a single committee, through an editorial split, and into two separate book projects produced by two different organizations. We also reviewed the finished products. Was there really a need, we wondered, for two different publications purporting to guide trainers and dog owners in the art and science of humane training?

We concluded that each book, in fact, does provide meaningful assistance to dog trainers and owners, and that each will play an important (and slightly different) role in helping people and dogs to live peacefully together.

Why training guidelines are needed
While it can certainly be argued that dog owners – like parents or guardians of children – ought to be guided by carefully thought-out definitions of cruelty and humaneness, dog trainers have a professional responsibility to examine their own definitions and behaviors very closely. When they accept payment to either train a dog or to teach a person to train a dog, their ideas, attitudes, and methods represent a model of “correct” training. Many people who attend their classes will automatically accept whatever they do (or advocate doing) to a dog as acceptable training practice.

However, there is no universally accepted “code of conduct” that guides the actions of dog trainers. There is as much variation in trainers’ opinions about cruelty as there is in the general population. And unfortunately, sometimes this results in a legal matter. There have been cases – including a number that were publicized last year – in which trainers have injured or even killed clients’ dogs in the process of trying to train them. In several of these cases, courts were called upon to determine whether the trainer’s treatment of the dogs was criminally cruel or inhumane; in others, distraught owners brought suit against their former trainers, seeking compensation for damages done to their dogs. In still others, owners did nothing, convinced by the trainer that the tragedy was a rare and unfortunate by-product of the application of necessary training methods.

Courts generally rely on their state-defined cruelty statutes – and the interpretations of those statutes made by the prosecution and defense attorneys – in order to decide whether the trainers prosecuted in cases such as these are criminally cruel or negligent. The courts may also hear evidence concerning what is “standard practice” in the field.

And there lies the rub. There are so many diverse training methods and philosophies employed in the field of dog training, that it’s sometimes difficult to build a case against a trainer for clearly cruel and inhumane acts, even ones that result in dead dogs. In at least one such case, in which a dog suffered permanent brain damage from his trainer’s methods, the trainer was acquitted because the methods used were described in a popular and best-selling book about dog training. In the absence of a published and credible resource to the contrary, the court accepted that the methods were standard practice in the dog training industry and found the defendant not guilty of the cruelty charges.

Paradigm shift
In the 1960s and early 1970s, most, if not all, professional dog trainers believed that it was acceptable (and perhaps necessary) to administer pain and punishment – at least to some degree – in order to teach dogs to behave.

This philosophy was perhaps most famously espoused in books written in the 1960s by trainer William Koehler, who outlined his methods of using leash corrections, scruff shakes, and alpha rolls among other punishment-oriented training techniques. Koehler also described force-based methods such as hanging (lifting a dog off the ground with the leash and choke chain) and helicoptering (swinging the dog around in the air with the leash and choke chain) for dogs who weren’t getting the picture with less-physical techniques. Acceptance of these methods was nearly universal in that era; one of Koehler’s books was even selected as “Best Dog Book of the Year” by the Dog Writers Association of America. And some trainers still regard force-based training as useful and acceptable.

But over the past 15 years or so, the dog training profession as a whole has experienced a significant paradigm shift, with most trainers moving noticeably toward the more positive, dog-friendly end of the training continuum. A growing cadre of trainers believes that the use of physical force or harsh verbal punishment is rarely, if ever, necessary or appropriate (and WDJ promotes that view). The majority of trainers are somewhere in between, moving away from the use of force and toward more positive training programs, but still willing to resort to physical or verbal punishment and other aversives in varying degrees when a training challenge arises that is beyond their knowledge or abilities to resolve with positive methods.

Proposing guidelines
In recent years, a number of trainers have expressed interest in creating an industry standard that describes which training methods are acceptably humane and which are not. The impetus for this discussion was, in part, disappointment and anger stemming from the inability of the courts to hold trainers responsible for injuring or killing clients’ dogs. Also, as dog trainers have become increasingly educated about their business, and as dogs themselves have become more valued and integrated into human society, some trainers felt it was high time for the development of a document that would help professionalize the industry.

In 1998, the American Humane Association, with funding from the Delta Society, launched an ambitious project to create a credible resource that would challenge the “standard practice in the industry” defense and help hold abusive trainers accountable for their actions. The AHA wanted to provide industry guidelines for trainers as well as for the judicial system, and support the position that violence to animals in the name of training is unacceptable.

The AHA convened national working committees of more than 40 animal training professionals from around the globe. Those groups attended a facilitated meeting at the 1998 annual conference of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, where they were divided into five subject areas: Mission and Ethics; How Dogs Learn; Equipment and Its Use; Business Practices; and Instructor Skills. Each group began by defining their topic area in a concise statement of core principles, and then created a set of standards – testable guidelines – against which trainers could compare their conduct. The intent was to provide a framework for effective, humane training based on the principles of animal learning, and specifically on the behavior of dogs.

However, as the project came close to completion, a number of the trainers who had helped develop the content reviewed an early draft – and felt it had strayed from their original vision. Ultimately, the AHA and Delta each took the unfinished project to different individuals for completion, and in the fall of 2001, not one, but two very different documents were released – one from each organization. While both are based closely on the work of the committees, the two are markedly different.

“Professional Standards for Dog Trainers”
Delta Society’s 42-page softcover book is titled Professional Standards for Dog Trainers: Effective, Humane Principles. This book comes closest to fulfilling the original goals of the project. It faithfully reproduces the work of the committees in a narrative enhanced with clear graphics and charts. It is a no-nonsense, well-organized, “just the facts” document that dispassionately defines and describes various tools, methods, and practices for the professional dog trainer.

The content adheres to scientific principles of learning, and “endorses the use of non-aversive training techniques and presents alternatives to primary use of aversives.”

While it rigorously avoids taking a position on recommendations for or against specific pieces of dog training equipment, the appendix offers a list of acts that are “not part of any humane dog training program, due to their potential to cause lasting harm or severe distress.” The list includes acts such as biting a dog, throwing a dog against a solid object, sharpening the prongs on a prong collar, repeatedly or forcefully hitting a dog with any object to a point of inflicting pain or injury, repeatedly pinching or squeezing sensitive parts of the dog’s body, use of shock on sensitive parts of a dog’s body, hanging, helicoptering, drowning or near-drowning, choking, intentionally jerking a dog off his or her feet, and more.

Delta’s Professional Standards is well-written, scientifically accurate, and laudable for its clear rejection of some of the abusive techniques made popular in the 1960s and 1970s. However, it is likely to disappoint some of the most dedicated positive dog trainers by its failure to take an emphatic stand against the use of some tools, such as electric shock collars, that have a high potential for being applied abusively. Trainers who regularly use such tools, and dog owners who resort to them, often without thoroughly exploring positive alternatives first, may well use this document to defend their punishment-based training choices.

“Humane Training Guidelines for Dog Owners”
Rather than educating dog trainers, the AHA’s Guide to Humane Dog Training is written for dog owners. It only very loosely follows the material developed by the original project’s working committees, and has been supplemented with a lot of additional information about canine behavior and training advice. The booklet is longer (57 pages), and contains less white space, includes numerous photographs (many of them borrowed from WDJ) and certainly addresses an important niche in the training book market. It could have benefited greatly, however, by the gentle hand of a skilled editor, both technically and grammatically. Readers who are disturbed by poor grammar may be irritated by the multitude of awkward sentences and violations of grammatical rules found in this book.

Even more serious are the abundant factual errors that are scattered throughout the text. For example, the book claims there are three methods used to teach dogs to repeat or stop performing behaviors – positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, and punishment. In fact there are four principles of operant conditioning used to increase or decrease a behavior: positive and negative reinforcement, and positive and negative punishment. The distinction between positive and negative punishment is an important one, and one that AHA’s book has completely overlooked.

To the dismay of many trainers, this book also perpetuates the “Lassie myth” with statements such as, “Dogs have a seemingly innate desire to be close to humans . . .” Animal behaviorists have long observed that dogs have no innate desire to be close to humans at all – we must carefully cultivate that desire by energetically teaching young puppies and dogs that humans are the source of all things wonderful. If we don’t, we end up with dogs who are unsocialized or undersocialized, or even worse, feral.

Unfortunately, there are many more examples of factual errors in the AHA document. It is disappointing that an organization with the long-standing presence and reputation of AHA would not take a little more time and effort to confirm the veracity of the book contents.

On the other hand, AHA comes out with clear statements in the section on “Equipment and Its Use,” making bold pronouncements about which tools it recommends and which it does not. Many positive trainers will be pleased to see that AHA gives an unequivocal “not recommended” to choke collars (unlimited slip collars) and electric shock collars.

So, we like some aspects of each book. The Delta book is far more accurate and more completely accomplishes the original mission of the project by providing a credible resource for trainers and prosecutors in their attempts to protect dogs from abusive training methods, but is not likely to appeal to Jane Q. Dog Owner. There is a crying need to reach the public market as well, which the AHA book could do.With some minor corrections and revisions, AHA’s book could be extremely valuable, with broad appeal to a huge market of the dog owners who are, in the end, the consumers who drive the market demand for more positive training methods and trainers.

We applaud the publishers of both books for their efforts.


-by Pat Miller

Pat Miller is a freelance writer, author of The Power of Positive Dog Training (2001, Howell Book House), and a professional dog trainer in Chattanooga, Tennessee. She is also a member of the Board of Directors of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers.

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Pat Miller, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA, grew up in a family that was blessed with lots of animal companions: dogs, cats, horses, rabbits, goats, and more, and has maintained that model ever since. She spent the first 20 years of her professional life working at the Marin Humane Society in Marin County, California, for most of that time as a humane officer and director of operations. She continually studied the art and science of dog training and behavior during that time, and in 1996, left MHS to start her own training and behavior business, Peaceable Paws. Pat has earned a number of titles from various training organizations, including Certified Behavior Consultant Canine-Knowledge Assessed (CBCC-KA) and Certified Professional Dog Trainer - Knowledge Assessed (CPDT-KA). She also founded Peaceable Paws Academies for teaching and credentialing dog training and behavior professionals, who can earn "Pat Miller Certified Trainer" certifications. She and her husband Paul and an ever-changing number of dogs, horses, and other animal companions live on their 80-acre farm in Fairplay, Maryland.