The Difference Between Training Tools and Performance Crutches

I attended a pet expo a while ago and across from my Dr. Dalton’s Premium Treats booth was a booth for a dog training school. I have to say that the dogs they brought with them appeared to be very well trained and eager to perform. They would weave between the trainer’s legs, jump onto a box and then stay there for long periods of time, they would even go sit on a Frisbee that was placed in the middle of the road.

Spending 3 days in a booth directly across from the training school gave me ample opportunity to observe as different trainers worked with different dogs showing off different behaviors. What really caught my attention, however, was the fact that every dog wore a shock collar and every trainer held the remote control used to issue the dog a beep, a light shock, or a more serious shock.

Leaving aside my thoughts and feelings about shock collars for the moment, as I watched this behavior unfold again and again, I simply could not figure out why these trainers continued to use a training tool that was so clearly no longer needed. Once a dog is trained it is time to put the tools away.  When you don’t, it certainly implies that you are not wholly confident in your training abilities but more importantly, you turn a once useful training tool into an unnecessary performance crutch. Please understand that this is applicable to all training tools. Even tools such gentle leaders, 20 foot leashes, and those ever so tasty dog treats. This does not mean that you never give your dog another beloved treat, but merely that the treat becomes something you give your dog because you love them, not as a direct reward for a particular behavior they perform well.

As trainers, we all have a set of training tools that we rely on to help us train dogs.  Some tool boxes are relatively small and consist of just a few tools, while others are large and contain a wide array of tools. Each dog is different so not every tool is useful for every dog. Trainers have unique training styles and some tools that one trainer finds essential another trainer may find repellant (here I am thinking of products such as choke chains, prong collars, and shock collars).

There is only one effective way to train a dog. Use proper training tools to assist the dog in understanding and practicing the new behaviors you want them to learn. Once this learning happens, you take the tools away and let the dog practice and use their new skills. I think of this the same way I think of training wheels on a child’s bicycle. We put them on when the child is just beginning to understand how bike riding works and then we take them off to allow the child to further develop and use their newly acquired bike riding skills.

An artificial method for training a dog is to use a training tool as a replacement for effective training. Using training tools in this way means that you are using the tool to control the dog’s behavior without teaching the dog to perform the behavior on their own. When you act in this way, your training tool becomes a performance crutch. The dog’s desired performance depends upon the presence of the crutch to make it happen. Some examples of this include keeping a dog in a gentle leader, choke collar, or prong collar indefinably. The dog‘s ability to learn to perform the desired behavior never improves and the crutch becomes permanent necessity.

It is important to ask the trainers you are working with to explain why a particular training tool is being used and how long they think the tool will be necessary. The training should then proceed in a way that you can actually see your dog learning and developing the desired behavior. The training is effective and complete only when the dog is able to perform the new behavior without the tool.