Friday, May 8, 2020



Years back, I worked as a dog trainer and I’ve also raised three Guide Dogs for the Blind. So I approach the topic of dog training with a lot of prior experience and insight, but it’s been a while. I recently adopted an adorable Corgi puppy, so I’ve been reading numerous books on dog training to brush up on good habits and see what’s new in the field.

Well, there is something new and I love it. Since I worked as a trainer, the field has shifted dramatically away from dominance theory (as behavioral science research is disproving a lot of old conceptions about alphas, submission, packs, etc.) and towards positive training methods. The latter has always been my preference, so it’s validating to see it gaining more research-backed support.  

Stevenson provides great general guidelines regarding how dogs learn. As one example, dogs give their situational context more weight than most owners realize. What that means is: if you always take your dog to the guest room to train him – well, he might think those commands are only relevant in that room, and that’s why he ignores you when you ask him to “sit” on a walk. You also must be careful exactly when and what you praise; sometimes the dog thinks you’re rewarding something different than what you intend. Here’s a funny example from my Guide Dog days: a puppy happened to cough at the same time he finally sat on command for the first time. His raisers highly praised him for sitting on command, but the dog assumed it was the whole sequence that earned such an enthusiastic reaction and, from then on, he always coughed when he sat.

Stevenson also discusses the importance of repetition. Dog intelligence varies greatly by breed as well as the individual dog, but often it does take a dog more times to grasp a concept than her owners think it should. And learning can be a two steps forward, one step back process. Just because your dog finally does something the correct way doesn’t mean she now entirely understands it and will always do it correctly from now on. I cannot emphasize enough the value of patience when training dogs.

The breakdown of the different types of training – shaping, luring, active, passive – is especially helpful for those new to dog training. Understanding different methods will help you decide which will be best for different commands and circumstances, as well as build your general understanding regarding how dogs learn.

I also really like that this book includes photos. I’m very pleased that Stevenson discusses dog body language in her book. It’s important in training, but often misunderstood by anyone who hasn’t specifically studied it. And the photos are immensely useful is actually visualizing what she’s describing.  

To make the book extra user friendly, there’s a handy summary of the main points at the end of each chapter. As any pet owner (or parent, for that matter) can tell you: 1. Sometimes the right thing to do isn’t obvious, or there isn’t one right thing, and 2. Sometimes even when you know the right thing, it’s not the instinctive thing so in the moment you do what you “know” is wrong. Stevenson’s quick bullet lists help any newbie or experienced trainer keep the most important training points at the forefront of their mind.

My single criticism is of Stevenson’s discussion of how dog’s view property. She claims that dogs don’t understand your wallet, for example, is yours. Agree. She says dogs often believe that whomever has an item – and sometimes that’s them! – “owns” it, for right now at least. Agree. Then she adds that you will never see a dog take something another dog is using. Um…strongly disagree. And now really confused how a trainer who has spent so much time around dogs has never seen that happen. Dogs take things from each other alllllll the time.

I mention this partly because it’s my only point of disagreement with this book, but also partly as a cautionary reminder. It’s easy to project human psychology onto dogs. I believe that’s what we did with old-school dominance theory. While I align much more strongly with positive training methods, that doesn’t mean we don’t still sometimes misinterpret dog behavior to suit our modern views. If you want to view dogs as more cooperative, it might be easy to selectively overlook that sometimes they, too – especially puppies – can be mischievous punks who wander up to a playmate and snatch away a toy mid-chew.

As an experienced trainer, I didn’t find any information in this book that was new to me, but it was a fantastic, well-organized, and insightful refresher, and I would highly recommend it to anyone with zero to little base knowledge on this topic.   

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