It is becoming increasingly more apparent that there are strange divides within the community of force-free dog trainers and behaviourists. There are those who swear by (and stick to) certain tools in their toolbox, and those who are vehemently anti- the same tools. These methods, protocols or equipment are not ones designed to cause fear or pain. As trainers & behaviourists, we work with a multitude of problems and a vast array of owners. Every pet and owner is a unique partnership. Each has its own story. Owners all have their own attitudes and beliefs, as well as mental and physical limitations. One individual’s experience and opinion of a certain method or with a piece of equipment is subjective and it’s of little benefit to be totally black-and-white and dismissive of potentially useful tools.
Vets sometimes prescribe psychoactive medication without referring the animal for a behavioural consultation or without having any form of behavioural modification in place. This is true for both short-term medication (e.g. around firework period) and for longer-term medication. Medication is generally designed to support a behaviour modification programme – it rarely has desired effects on its own. If the triggers for the behaviour still exist, the likelihood is that no amount of drugs will have the desired effect. Some veterinary behaviourists prescribe psychoactive medication to virtually every case they see, although alongside a behaviour modification programme. Medication can be useful to support a behaviour modification programme, but usually is only necessary in more severe cases such as animals showing extreme fear or anxiety, or cases where the animal is causing physical harm to themselves, for example.
Other behaviourists are totally against the use of any form of psychopharmaceuticals and instead advocate the use of alternative therapies such as crystal healing, homeopathy, herbal remedies, etc despite lack of scientific evidence in their efficacy. (It is often argued that no one will fund the research to prove their effectiveness, or that the principles are based on individuals who cannot be grouped together as part of a study sample). Such therapies should only be used with guidance from a professional on referral from their vet, and to compliment a behaviour modification programme rather than as an alternative. We know that placebo effects exist – where humans observe a difference in their pet’s behaviour simply by believing they have done something to help. This can be a welfare issue if the animal is not receiving the treatment it needs due to an owner’s incorrect perception that their animal is improving.
Some co-professionals believe that all behaviours should be taught with the use of ‘shaping’ (building a particular behaviour using a series of small steps without requiring any physical contact with the animal). Yet others maintain that all behaviours should be taught by ‘lure-and-reward’ (food is used to guide the animal into a desired position/behaviour and over time the use of the food lure is phased out). In reality, both techniques have their pros and cons depending on the level of expertise of the owner, the behaviour that is desired, and the temperament of the animal.
Leads to provide extra freedom:
Used sensibly, flexi-leads (aka extendable leads) are no more dangerous than a longline. Injuries can occur with the incorrect use of either. Like a longline, a flexi-lead needs to be attached to a harness and if used on a different point-of-contact to the short, fixed length lead, the dog will learn when it’s expected to walk on a loose lead and when it can have the freedom to pull ahead. No lead other than a short, fixed lead should ever be used near a road.
There are some dogs who – when a headcollar is introduced correctly – have no concerns of wearing one at all. With instructions to the owner of its appropriate use and leash handling techniques, a headcollar can be a useful tool for certain dogs or certain outdoor problems. Although harnesses are generally tolerated better by most dogs and are harder to be used incorrectly, they can also cause issues with a dog’s gait and not benefit lead pulling issues.
Crates and puppy pens can be a useful management tool. All unwanted behaviours can only be improved upon once the dog is unable to continue rehearsing the undesired behaviour. Used appropriately, crates can provide a safe zone for the dog. They allow the dog to be in the same room as family without needing complete segregation in another room during certain times. There are times in a dog’s life when confinement is inevitable – during transportation, illness/post-surgery, at the vets etc. Introducing a crate properly at home allows the dog to create a strong positive association which can then be used to condition a positive emotional response to other, potentially stressful, environments. They are useful to allow a dog to sleep in the owner’s room but without the dog constantly attempting to get on the bed – there are numerous reasons why it might be advantageous for a dog to be in the owner’s bedroom, and equally why an owner might not want a dog on their bed. Of course they can be abused – leaving a dog too long in a crate, getting a crate too small for the dog etc. But if the door is left open the majority of the time and on occasion it is shut (with the addition of a stuffed Kong), crates can be great training tools.
So, if anyone informs you that what you are doing to/using on your pet is detrimental, (even if that person is someone you admire/respect) please always ask WHY. Read around the topic yourself and ensure you have a full understanding of the correct use of the equipment/protocol. Take into account your own specific circumstances. If you know that your chosen method is not creating any pain or fear, it may be that some simple alterations to make it more appropriate would be more beneficial than stopping its use altogether. Consult a qualified force-free trainer or behaviourist to discuss any concerns with them.