Good Dog: The easy way to train your dog


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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. The author, Sarah Whitehead also advises us to fit training into daily routines, like during the advert 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 really comes to life 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 deals with harnessing inbuilt desires to teach dogs acceptable activities like agility, so they’re less likely to get up to stuff we find unacceptable. As a book for pet dog owners, Good Dog has a lot to offer. Dedicated owners can pick out ideas for teaching a wide range of skills to their dogs, using this book as a guide. Teaching skills to our dogs is likely to improve our relationships with them, because the more we do interesting activities with them, the better we understand one other.

Good Dog, then, has its strengths, though the book is sometimes confusing, and might frustrate people with dogs from working stock, and readers with a serious interest in training and behaviour. Why is this?



What is training?

Firstly, though Good Dog is meant to be about training, there's no definition of ‘training’ in any part of the book. The chapter called 'Training', Chapter 4, focuses on teaching commands, and using them in everyday life. Chapter 5, 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 ‘training’ means teaching and using 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 commands. 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 can be used to reinforce self-control. It's much easier to motivate dogs by playing games with them, because dogs can 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’re organized into chapters, and separate chapters for manners, skills training, and preventing behavioural problems are one option, but the chapters could be linked to each other much more strongly.

How do dogs learn?

A second big weakness of this book is that the explanation of 'How dogs learn' at the start of Chapter 2, p15, is confusing and tells only part of the story. The explanation talks about 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, or understands, or is feeling.

Whitehead relies heavily on a school of psychology called 'behaviourism' as a way of understanding dogs' motivations when they’re learning. Behaviourism focuses on rewards and punishments provided by external sources, in other words on what's going on outside the dog, rather than on what’s 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, for example, by measuring hormone levels after different activities. 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. A simplistic, behaviourist view of how dogs learn is a little old-fashioned in the light of recent research.

Behaviourist 'learning theory' doesn't take into account that are some behaviours are repeated because 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'. This inbuilt desire to do certain activities is especially true for working dogs, and dogs of working stock. Though Whitehead does look at inbuilt desires in Chapter 6, she relegates them to the chapter on harnessing inbuilt desires to prevent problems, rather than integrating them into 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. This relationship between shepherd and sheepdog involves far more than Chapter 4, with its limited behaviourist focus, can explain.

Giving a fuller explanation of 'how dogs learn' would help owners who have pet dogs with strong inbuilt desires to perform certain behaviours, especially gundogs, sighthounds, terriers, German Shepherds, and collies from working lines. 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. 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. Inbuilt desires can make training easier if owners learn to harness them, and how to build in an 'off' switch! When owners recognize and develop inbuilt abilities, the talents are a bonus rather than a drawback.

A 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’re 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. 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.

What do dogs like doing?

Dogs differ in whether they like to do certain activities, like digging holes or working sheep, but nearly all dogs like sharing activities with humans and communicating with us. Whitehead sees barking as a problem, yet dogs often try to communicate with us through barking. A good way to quieten a barking dog is to try to work out what the dog is telling you, and show him you understand. The message may be trivial, but sometimes it's important, like that someone is trying to steal your car outside! Owners can teach dogs how to use barking to communicate better, saying 'There's no need to shout and repeat it, I heard you first time, thank you', rather than simply ‘shut up’.

Dogs try to communicate with us and like doing things with because they’re social animals. This means we have a lot of bargaining power – ‘if you sit nicely, I’ll put your lead on, and we’ll have a fun walk together’. Dogs can also learn from us. They tend to tune into our emotions and copy our behaviour. 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.It's true, as Whitehead notes, that dogs are not hierarchical in the same way as wolves are, they’re 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. 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.

So, a major problem with the explanation of how dogs learn in Good Dog is that it’s very limited. Anything dogs like can be used as a reward, including a strong inbuilt desire to work, and the desire of most dogs to do things with humans. Rewards can be qualitatively different – sometimes food is the best reward, because dogs can get overexcited if allowed to do too much of something they really like doing, while food tends to calm them more. Being with us is rewarding, and dogs are tend not to like spending a lot of time alone, so if they’re left alone a lot, they can be miserable even if we try never to punish them.

What is ‘punishment’?

A major weakness of this book is in its contradictory, partial and misleading account of punishment. There’s 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.

Withdrawing nice things is a strategy often used by parents, for example, if kids have tantrums to avoid doing their homework, a parent may take away the reward (for doing homework) of being allowed to play video games -  much more effective than yelling. 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 away to stop a behaviour, (what in the behaviourist language of operant conditioning is called 'negative punishment') can trigger aggression in some kids and dogs. Negative punishment, then, can be a useful way of getting kids or dogs to do what you want, but it’s not problem-free.

Whitehead doesn't address this problem, because in ‘Good Dog’ negative punishment is described as ‘consequences’. Only adding something to stop a behaviour ('positive punishment', in the language of operant conditioning) is described as ‘punishment’. Whitehead tells us, on p37, that 'All punishments, particularly physical ones, are very old-fashioned, risky, ineffective and, sometimes, cruel.' This is confusing because it implies that negative punishment isn't really punishment. Furthermore, for a behaviourist, punishment is effective by definition. If you take something away, or add something, and that doesn’t stop the unwanted behaviour, technically, it isn't punishment. 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. Furthermore, because behaviourists see what’s going on inside a dog’s head as not worth studying, because we can only guess, we don’t know whether the dog sees punishment as nasty.

Good Dog'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 away (negative punishment), and adding something (positive punishment), but who, like parents, still see both as 'punishment'. The definition neither fits with academic science, nor with common sense.

Most parents could explain 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. 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 cut down drastically on human contact and exercise to show the dog there are ‘consequences’. Isolation and lack of exercise are likely to make problems worse. The dog can end up wary and uptight, more likely to bite because trust has been undermined through the isolation, and because excess energy has to go somewhere. Attempts at negative punishment, taking away what the dog wants (contact with the owner and walks) can worsen aggression.

It would perhaps be more helpful to explain clearly that in general, hitting or kicking dogs isn’t sensible. They often take no notice. 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 a lot tends to mean dogs tune you out. Yelling at dogs for something you've just discovered that they did hours ago might also make them think you’ve become a dangerous lunatic - they may have no idea why you're shouting at them. Being too reliant on punishment, and thinking that dogs should see the world in the same way as humans do, isn’t helpful, or much fun for owner or dog. 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.

What’s the point of training?

One important reason for training dogs is to help keep them safe. We can't explain to dogs 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 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) can 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). If punishment keeps a dog safe, and allows more off-leash freedom, it may be in the dog's best interests.

It’s very easy to be distracted by discussions on how to train, and forget why we train, and also that what we do can’t always be classified easily in terms of rewards and punishments. Behaviourism is a set of ideas that was developed in laboratories by people who fed or shocked rats or pigeons. Food was the most common reward, and a shock was a 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’s 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 hitting can make dogs fight harder - 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, arguing 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. 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. Hitting the pups for biting would have upset them (and me) a lot, and would have been less effective. There are qualitative differences between methods you can use for saying 'please don't do that'.

How dogs react also depends on their relationship with you. Think of how you feel if someone criticises you. If you feel they don’t like you, 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, gives the dog useful information: 'I don't want you to do that', while still recognizing his need to chew - 'you can chew this but not that'. 'Chsst' isn’t really scary, and it creates space to explain 'this is what it’s OK to chew'. True, dogs don't always want to please us, but if we try to understand their needs, they’ll often meet us half way. We can learn to understand and trust each other. We may argue, sometimes one of us is out of sorts, tetchy and irritable, but if we have a firm foundation of trust, we're better able to forgive each other.

Letting dogs know they can trust us is very important, and this starts from the moment we first handle a young pup. We’re teaching that we’re a safe haven, we can be fun to play with, but we’re considerate, we listen and we aren’t too rough. In return, we want the pup to learn to be gentle. We check out the pup for signs that he’s relaxed or stressed, and we communicate how we feel as gently and effectively as possible. As pups grow older, they need to learn social rules, a process called socialization, and this is part of training. Both socially competent humans, and socially competent dogs can be teachers by setting good examples.

Good Dog's explanations of training are a dumbed-down version of behaviourism, which was already pretty limited 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. You could easily forget how much dogs are learning as social animals, from watching us, and from their canine companions. You could also forget that the point of training is to help dogs learn to cope, and to become socially competent, as well as teaching them interesting things to do with us. Joint activities can help dogs and owners learn to trust and understand one other, so that neither of us is likely to overreact. Above all, training helps to improve our relationships with dogs, and this means we have to put an effort into listening to them, as well as telling them what to do.

Fashions within training

Many trainers would have no problem with Good Dog’s view that behaviourism explains all we need to know about how dogs learn, and that negative punishment is OK, but positive punishment is not OK. 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 helped make behaviourism fashionable about 20 years ago. Neither is as dogmatic as Whitehead on positive punishment, and neither pretends that negative punishment isn't really punishment. Writers on training aim to present their ideas in a way that’s easily understood, so it’s easy to see how oversimplifications can develop, even though they can be confusing!

Since Good Dog was published, quite a few innovative books on raising dogs have come out, for example, books that look at the skills dogs need to learn to cope with the world, and how they can learn from watching us. Recent work also focuses on human skills, such as learning to read dogs so we can calm them if they become too aroused, and knowing how and when to touch dogs. All this help us develop a dialogue with them, as well as help them to cope and so behave better.

Throughout history, there have been excellent, 'natural' trainers, who’ve 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. Competent owners have often been around dogs since they were kids, and have built up an intuitive understanding of dogs’ body language. 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. Fashions change in the training world, but dogs give us a reality check. If the dog disagrees with the book, the dog is likely to be right!

Still worth reading

Would I recommend Good Dog for pet dog owners or a dog club? Perhaps yes, because it does make many good points, and has a lot of useful ideas. One challenge for '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 in practice ‘punishment’ isn’t easy to define . 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 it, 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.

Good Dog isn’t 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. Further Reading (below) mentions some books more geared to helping you develop a good relationship with your dog, and helping your dog develop coping skills. Trust your own instincts. Sniff Good Dog, and check it out with your dog. If parts of the book fit you both, 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

Amy Dahl’s 10-minute Obedience: How to effectively train your dog in 10 minutes a day (2011) Willow Creek Press, focuses on formal obedience using ‘hands-on’ methods. There are also chapters on puppies, manners and on behavioural problems. This book is especially suited to people with Labradors, golden retrievers and Chesapeke retrievers, and can be used together with formal retrieving training.

Claudia Fugazza’s Do as I Do (2014) Dogwise Publishing. An innovative approach to teaching dogs ways to interact with objects, for example jumping onto a table, using their ability to copy humans.

Steven Lindsay’s, Applied Dog Behaviour and Training, 3 volumes is 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, Procedures and Protocols (2005) Blackwell Publishing. This is a research-based approach to training and tackling behaviour problems. It’s an invaluable resource if you take training seriously, though it’s not a book you can read in one go!

Leslie McDevitt’s Control Unleashed: The puppy program (2012) Clear Run Productions. This is especially useful for people with border collies, and for people who like competing in dog sports. There’s a lot on helping dogs to relax when they are too wound up. This is a useful book for people with dogs of any age, not just puppies.

Adam Miklosi's Dog: Behaviour, evolution and cognition, Oxford University Press, (2007). This isn’t an easy read unless you’re a biologist, but it’s very useful for understanding inbuilt behaviours in dogs.

Helen Zulch and Daniel Mills’ Life Skills for Puppies (2014) Hubble and Hattie. This focuses on helping pups to develop coping skills, and though it’s geared to pups, it’s also useful for remedial work with older dogs.

Helen Zulch and Daniel Mills’ Helping Minds Meet (2015) Hubble and Hattie. This focuses on humans looking at life from a dog’s perspective as a first step in achieving a well-behaved dog.

These books are reviewed in Books: Dogs.