SUMMARY: Old dog-training methods are out. Dominance is out. Communication and learning are in.In the 30 years since I took my first obedience class and read my first dog-training book, dog-training methods have changed dramatically--in many, but not all, places and for many, but not all, people. And it continues to change, year after year, as dogs have become more and more members of the family sharing people's homes rather than working animals snoozing in the barn or a doghouse. Because of these trends, more and more time and money has been devoted to understanding how dogs learn and socialize.
In my first class, we were told to never use treats because the dog was supposed to do the work for the reward of you paying attention to it. At home, I'd sneak my dog treats when training. If dogs didn't do what you wanted, you forced them to or you scolded them for it. If they were fearful, you dragged them into situations that frightened them and wouldn't let them go. The memory of a collie, terrified of other dogs, being hauled around the ring to every single dog, his tail between his legs, his ears back, struggling to get away, is my most indelible memory of evil dog trainers and a huge reason why I decided that I would do it on my own from then on. (Ten years after that, a fortunate referral to a trainer relieved me of the "all trainers are evil" belief.)
For years now, I've been reading about, and hearing about from trainers I respect, the idea that "dominance theory" of dog training is a bunch of hooey. Here's a new study from the University of Bristol’s Department of Clinical Veterinary Sciences that confirms that this strategy has probably caused more damage than good: Article: Using 'Dominance' To Explain Dog Behavior Is Old Hat; Study abstract.
Among the assorted common dog-training nonsense that I get from The Person On The Street who engages me in a discussion about dogs is "it worked for my father/grandfather/first dog 50 years ago so it's good enough for me." An example of a thoroughly debunked ancient training strategy: when a puppy pees on the carpet, hit him with a rolled-up newspaper and rub his nose in it. Doesn't communicate the right thing to the dog--in fact may communicate entirely the wrong thing, may make the problem worse, probably takes longer to achieve the results you want.
Knowledge about, and strategies for, many things change through the years; don't know why some people think that dog training methods should be frozen in time when there's plenty of solid, more recent information about how dogs think, act, and learn.
Cesar Milan is a controversial figure in one large part because he uses dominance theory. Most trainers I know think he's singularly done more damage to the science of dog training than anyone else in recent history. I think he makes some good points; like: if your dog is getting enough exercise and mental exertion, he won't develop bad habits through boredom or pent-up energy. But there are a lot of things that he talks about in his book that raise my suspicions about what's really going on behind the scenes and after the cameras have left the building.
If you're here reading this blog, I'm probably preaching to the choir, so,OK, that's my soapbox for the day.
Here are additional links on the same topic: