6 New Traits in Canine Coaching
We’ve come a long way from choke collars and the “show them who’s boss” days of dog training. Increasingly, trainers are using scientific research into canine cognition to inform their methods. Here are six developing trends.
Dog training is a dynamic field, always growing and transforming. It changes over time as both scientific discoveries and innovations by people working in this area influence the way we approach it. It’s been a decade since I wrote about dog training trends, so I’m overdue for discussing what’s new in the world of teaching dogs to do (or not do) things. Following are six concepts that are trending right now.
1. Consent. We often do things to dogs that they may not enjoy. In addition to the old standbys—having their nails trimmed or being bathed—there are other interactions that dogs may dislike, including being touched in a certain way, being guided to a particular area, or being near someone or something. It’s becoming common for dog trainers to respect a dog’s decision about whether or not to participate in an activity by reinforcing the behavior they use to express their discomfort.
It’s long been common not to punish or force dogs who resist in a particular context, and that was a big step from the harsher approaches of earlier days. However, the newer framework of consent takes it even further, reinforcing behaviors that indicate a dog is struggling to enjoy or tolerate an activity. To many, this seems strange—as though trainers are reinforcing dogs for not doing what is being asked of them.
In actuality, we’re reinforcing their communication behaviors. The dogs are essentially saying that they don’t want something to happen. Their reason could be fear or it could even be pain. Either way, we applaud dogs’ efforts to let us know that they’re uncomfortable. That’s good for them and good for our relationship with them.
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2. Stationing. The idea that there’s a value to training dogs to be in a specific spot—possibly on a mat or platform but definitely in front of the trainer and ready to work—is becoming more common. Such an approach has long a part of training exotic animals in zoos, aquaria and wildlife centers, but its appearance in dog training is more recent.
Dog trainers are more likely than ever to reinforce the behavior of dogs who are standing in front of them offering attention. Often, people outside the field who see this will say, “What are you giving him treats for? He isn’t doing anything.” Dog trainers will answer this by saying, “He’s doing so much. He is standing here, focused on me, ready to work and staying calm.” Sometimes, a lot of what dog trainers reinforce is the choice by the dog to do the right thing (even if it isn’t flashy) rather than engaging in any number of less desirable options.
3. Husbandry Behaviors. The idea that care of our dogs should be a major focus of training is related to the low-stress handling movement. Low-stress handling for veterinary care, that started with Dr. Sophia Yin, and other interactions is about being calm and gentle when handling and restraining dogs, and about helping dogs who are fearful of the process. Being kind to animals in these contexts was a huge change from prior forceful techniques.
The idea of reducing fear and stress represented real progress, but the incorporation of husbandry-oriented training is an even bigger change. The idea behind training with husbandry in mind is to teach our dogs to do what we need them to do so that there is no need to force, cajole or manipulate them.
Husbandry training takes many forms. It can be as simple as teaching a dog to step on the scale at the veterinarian’s office or to present her paw for a blood draw or her belly for an exam. It can include training a dog to accept all kinds of touching—face, tail, genitals, mouth, hips, ears and so forth—so that being touched during exams or procedures is acceptable. Teaching dogs to stand between our legs so we can administer ear or eye medicine is a form of husbandry training, as is teaching them to tolerate being medicated. One of the basic husbandry behaviors to train is a “chin rest,” which involves the dog putting her head in a person’s lap (or hand) and waiting, allowing the vet to give injections or perform an examination more easily. Even training a dog to eat from a syringe or to swallow pill pockets is a form of husbandry behavior.
The main theme of husbandry training is to teach dogs to handle the many things required of them for their care before they’re in a situation that makes that care necessary. Knowing how to do these things in advance can relieve so much stress in their lives.
4. Online Training. Working with dogs in group classes or one-on-one sessions via Zoom or another meet-up app used to seem like a fringe idea, but now, it’s offered by almost every dog training business I know. It came about by necessity as coronavirus-caused lockdowns prevented in-person training. Most people expected it to be temporary, but now, there’s no doubt that this trend is here to stay.
Originally, remote training was used only when other options weren’t available—simply making the best of a bad situation. Now, trainers and dog owners around the world are raving about it. Among its upsides: Dogs are not distracted by going to a new place and being around other dogs; by working at home, they have a better opportunity to succeed. It’s more time-efficient for both owners and trainers because there is no commute. Trainers are finding that their ability to communicate verbally has improved because they cannot fall back on saying, “Do it like this,” and then demonstrating with the dog. Owners who are self-conscious in a group setting can enjoy classes with a lot less pressure. People save money because they don’t have to pay trainers for travel time. Finally, people are no longer limited to the trainers in their area, and trainers can work with more people because they don’t need as much time between sessions.
5. Increasingly Dog-centered. The trend toward focusing on the dog’s perspective has been around in training for a long time. Even so, the idea that the dog’s needs always come first and that the dog’s well-being is the number-one concern at all times is becoming a major talking point in all kinds of training discussions. As a result, dog trainers are far more likely to be attuned to dogs and to make decisions based on what’s best for them.
6. Training as a Recreational Activity. Lots of people are engaging in dog training just for fun, learning from experts to enhance their enjoyment of activities with their dogs. Part of this increase may be a result of lifestyle changes during the pandemic. More and more, I work with clients who tell me about their interest in particular dog books, dog webinars and dog podcasts. There are so many resources, and people are taking advantage of them.
Professional trainers are also taking a recreational approach to dog training, experimenting with and sharing fun ideas, tricks and tips. Again, this may be related to the change in schedules and extra time many people have at home with their dogs, but I hope the serious trend of training just for fun continues—for the sake of humans and canines alike.
You may think I’m biased when I emphasize the power of dog training to enhance everything about our experiences with dogs and their experiences with us—and you would be right. Dog training is one of the best ways to improve the lives of our dogs. It allows them to interact with us in positive ways, which improves our relationship with them. Teaching them how to behave allows them to participate in more aspects of our lives, makes basic care easier as well as less stressful, and it’s fun.