Commentary
Share this image

Effective Dog Training Does Not Require Pain

Our resident trainer weighs in on the use of shock and prong collars, plus other pain-inflicting dog-training tools and methods.

Annie Phenix, CPDT-KA  |  Nov 19th 2014


What topic confuses dog owners most? Training. It’s a controversial issue, too, even though most owners are unaware of that, as they are simply seeking guidance for themselves and their dog.

The training industry is vehemently split into two camps: dog trainers who use positive reinforcement training and never pain, and trainers willing to use pain and cause fear with tools such as shock and prong collars, alpha rolls (throwing a dog on his back to show who is boss), and the like.

There also are dog trainers who say they fall somewhere in the middle; they call themselves “balanced” trainers. Adding pain to any training plan, though, has the potential to create a frustrated and unbalanced dog.

All of my dogs have been trained without pain. You dogs can be, too!

All of my dogs have been trained without pain. You dogs can be, too!

Dog owners are whacked back and forth between these polar opposites like a ping-pong ball. To win the game, you need to be well informed, and I aim to help you choose wisely. The decision you make could literally mean the difference between life and death — Google “dog death at training facility” if you have any doubts.

As a force-free, certified professional dog trainer, I never use pain to shape an animal’s behavior. I don’t believe it’s necessary, and I do believe it can be harmful. I attended training on shock collar use because I wanted to understand the protocol. After learning how to properly use the device and seeing many dogs run right through the highest shock delivered, crying out in pain, I never put one on a dog again. I continued learning how to train without pain and fear.

So why are many trainers willing to use a tool that causes physical and psychological damage to a dog by sending a painful shock to the neck for an incorrect choice? A tool that The Pet Professional Guild (PPG) has recommended banning?

Those who use pain to train might do so because they believe dogs are trying to dominate us, a theory animal researchers long ago debunked. But why use pain and fear when so many other options are available that do not have such negative effects?

Use your brain and not your brawn when training a dog. Yellow Lab by Shutterstock.

Use your brain and not your brawn when training a dog. Yellow Lab by Shutterstock.

Here are some issues to consider as you decide which training method will be best for your dog.

If you have only one tool in your toolbox and it is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Do you really want to see your Bichon Frise pinched by a prong collar? Does your Cavalier King Charles Spaniel really need to be taught who is boss with an electric shock? Does any breed of dog need to feel pain in order to learn?

Before you hire a trainer, ask about his training methods. What will the response be to your dog’s failure to understand or obey? It is imperative to ask this question before you sign up for a class and to make it clear pain that is not allowed during the training of your dog. You can find many trainers who use force-free training methods through the PPG member directory. We’ve also written extensively at Dogster about how to hire a legit dog trainer.

Trust between is of the utmost importance during training. Don't ruin your relationship by scaring or hurting your dog. Australian Shepherd by Shutterstock.

Trust between is of the utmost importance during training. Don’t ruin your relationship by scaring or hurting your dog. Australian Shepherd by Shutterstock.

Trainers have at their disposal a variety of force-free methods and tools with long track records and decades of scientific study proving they work. A few examples include luring, shaping, targeting, clicker or whistle use, food and toy reinforcement, remotely operated treat-and-train devices, and environment freedoms such as allowing the dog to sniff where she wants after responding correctly to a cue. Author and professor John Bradshaw, as well as countless other scientists and researchers, asserts that dogs “learn to please their owners” and do not do their canine damndest to overthrow us.

Many trainers who use pain to train share pictures of themselves walking eight or so Rottweilers or Pit Bulls behind them, all looking calm and submissive as they trot down the street wearing a shock collar and/or a prong collar. When you see this, ask yourself: Who owns eight Rottweilers? Why would anyone want to walk eight large dogs down the street at the same time? Who wants their dog looking shut down and afraid? What does this image tell you about the person holding all eight leashes?

Such photos are publicity stunts designed to show how virile these trainers are. Why do they not show themselves walking eight Miniature Poodles behind them? If dogs want to dominate us, this includes Poodles, because Poodles are also dogs last time I checked.

All dogs -- even strong breeds -- can effectively be trained without pain or fear. Rottweiler by Shutterstock.

All dogs — even strong breeds — can effectively be trained without pain or fear. Rottweiler by Shutterstock.

Are puppies also trying to dominate humans? Let’s pretend for a moment that they are. Given that, the tools that teach through pain should also be used on puppies. Perhaps they are not because even trainers who use shock and prong collars would hesitate to do so with a puppy — at least for the publicity photos on their websites.

The majority of Americans own what are considered to be “soft” dogs. Out of the top 20 dogs registered with the American Kennel Club, breeds such as these make the list: Yorkies, Poodle, Shih Tzu, Labrador, Golden Retriever, Miniature Schnauzer, French Bulldog, Chihuahua, Pomeranian, and Cavalier King Charles Spaniel. How many of the “strong breeds” are in the top 20? Two: Rottweiler and German Shepherd. Do you want a versatile trainer who can work with all breeds and sizes, or do you want one that specializes in dogs that are used as police and military dogs?

And for the record, breeds used for this type of work also are capable of being trained without pain and fear, and many enlightened police and military trainers are doing just that with great success in the U.S. and the Netherlands. Do you need Fluffy to protect you and thus be trained as a police dog? Must your Dachshund heel to your left leg? Why? To prove that you can make your dog do it? Don’t use outdated police dog training methods for your pet.

Finally, using pain demonstrates a lack of empathy for another sentient species. It speaks more to trainer’s belief that a dog can dominate a human than it speaks to being versatile in various methods. Find a trainer who knows better. Still not sure how to do that? The American College of Veterinary Behaviorists offers additional guidance.

All dogs -- even big, tough dogs -- learn in the same way. Train them using behavioral science instead of painful methods. German Shepherd by Shutterstock.

All dogs — even big, tough dogs — learn in the same way. Train them using behavioral science instead of painful methods. German Shepherd by Shutterstock.

After considering all of the above, simply ask yourself: At the end of training, do I want a positive relationship with my dog or a canine scared to make the wrong move?

Personally, I will always choose the positive relationship over a flawless performance by my own dogs. They mean more to me than a performance judged by other humans. And when I do ask my dogs to show off, they always give 100 percent because we trust each other. Trust is everything. You control the dynamic between humans and dogs -– use the power wisely and use it compassionately.

What do you think? Do you also object to trainers who use pain and cause fear? What method did you use to train your dog? Tell us about your experience in the comments.

Read more about training at Dogster:

About the author: Annie Phenix, CPDT-KA, is a force-free professional dog trainer enjoying her mountain-filled life in Colorado. She is a member of the Pet Professional Guild and the National Association of Canine Scent Work. She takes her highly trained dogs with her everywhere dogs are welcome because of their exceptionally good manners. Phenix generally leaves her six donkeys at home on the ranch . . . but she is thinking about clicker training those little hairy hee-hawers as well.