How did a dog trainer intimidate my dog so thoroughly?
September 14, 2009 7:20 PM   Subscribe

What do dog trainers know that I don't?

This question is based on an early childhood memory of mine, so I apologize if it turns out that I've just got the details wrong and what I describe is impossible.

What I remember is that my mom brought in a dog trainer for a session with a poorly behaved dog of ours, and from the moment that man had my dog on the leash, the dog became utterly submissive, even to the point of looking scared. I was surprised because, other than putting the dog on the leash, the trainer had done nothing unusual to the dog that I could see. That was his first session with us, and I don't think that the trainer had spent any significant amount of time with my dog before leashing him. How did the trainer communicate dominance to my dog, a large and self-confident rottweiler mix, so effectively?
posted by invitapriore to Pets & Animals (12 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
He communicated dominance by the use of confidence in himself, his body language and his quiet demeanor. Something along those lines, anyway.
posted by JayRwv at 7:27 PM on September 14, 2009

One thing dog trainers know is the proper way to use a choker collar, one of those chains.

It has to be put on the dog correctly, and a lot of people put it on the wrong way. And it has to be used properly. When it's on correctly, and if you jerk it properly, it briefly cuts off the dog's air. (Which is why it's called a "choker".)

That doesn't harm the dog in any way. It isn't cruel. But it keys extremely basic survival instincts. It is a very strong negative reinforcement, without really being painful.

I learned about that from watching a show by that woman who said "Walkies!", whatever the heck her name was. And she talked about the choker collar and how it should be put on the animal, and explained why it worked.

And then she demonstrated. There was a dog that an audience member had brought which couldn't be disciplined, and that woman had it heeling and walking with her in about two minutes. It was amazing how fast it all was.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 7:30 PM on September 14, 2009

To Chocolate Pickle: The reason why the dog was heeling in 2 minutes was because it feared for its life. Fun, eh?

Invita, in my experience the response given by JayR was spot-on. Attitude is extremely important when training a dog.
posted by Dave. at 7:48 PM on September 14, 2009 [1 favorite]

Dog training basically gets down to establishing yourself as the leader of the pack - stance, gestures, tone of voice and overall demeanour can all play a part. Owners are often at a disadvantage with their own dogs because the dog has already established alpha behaviour with them. You've probably read about all the things that you should never let a dog do - go through a door before you, eat before you, walk ahead of you when on the leash, etc. The dog should defer to even the smallest human in its pack.

Another thing trainers are very good at is anticipating canine behaviour and checking it before it happens. If you observe dogs for long enough, you really can anticipate from their body language what they're about to do.

Not all trainers use check chains, and the dog training community is fairly divided over whether to use positive or negative reinforcement. What pretty much everyone who trains dog does agree on is that you should not need a leash to control your dog (and should definitely not rely on one to control a large dog). If you don't believe that dogs can be controlled without a leash, go watch sheep dogs working some time or hang out at schutzhund training, or with sporting shooters who keep gun dogs.

A friend of mine who does in home dog training is very clear that it isn't the dog who he gets paid to train, but the owners.
posted by Lolie at 8:00 PM on September 14, 2009 [1 favorite]

Sorry, I should clarify that I'm interested in what specific techniques trainers use to communicate dominance. I assumed that the things JayRwv mentions were concerned, but what are the things most likely to very quickly convince a dog that you are dominant? Lolie's examples are kind of what I was looking for.
posted by invitapriore at 8:16 PM on September 14, 2009

In Patricia McConnell's book The Other End of the Leash she mentions as an aside the huge change you can elicit in a dog simply by staring him hard in the eyes and leaning forward an inch. (Do not do this with a strange dog, by the way, as it's an aggressive move and some dogs respond very poorly to it)

Think about the quintessential boot camp image of a sergeant getting into the face of a new recruit. Or when you're at a party and someone takes just one step too far into your personal space and you back up. Some people walk down the sidewalk and mumble as they try to make their way and other people walk and the crowd parts in front of them. If you don't know what to look for, it seems like magic. Why is being 24" away from someone you are talking to considered neutral but 18" is intimidating (or intimate)?

A good trainer knows how to read a dog and behave in such a way that the trainer is in control of the situation and even without a leash can control the space. In much the same way that a herding dog can control most sheep without even touching them, a good trainer can control a dog by applying pressure in the right ways. A lot of it is in the body posture and eye contact, which you may not pick up on if you weren't looking for it.
posted by hindmost at 8:25 PM on September 14, 2009 [1 favorite]

Your dog might have been looking scared because the dog realized it was going to have to deal with someone who expected him to show some self-control. Much the way a room full of second graders will look a little scared when they've had a high old time all morning with an inexperienced sub and then the assistant principal - who knows they can behave - walks into the classroom.

You don't have to be pushy with a dog to get this - it's not intimidation. It's just letting them know that you are there, and you are paying attention. (Which isn't to say that the childhood training wasn't an intimidating beast, just that intimidation is usually not what's going on.)

Often, with the people who have this skill, just having that trainer pleased and relaxed, in a way that's almost to subtle for the dog's owner to see, counts as a huge reward for the dog.

You'd be amazed at how many people show up in training classes with a "poorly behaved dog" who is not at all poorly behaved when the trainer, or even an assistant, picks up the leash - and this is on a flat collar with no treats anywhere.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 5:28 AM on September 15, 2009

To assert dominance over a canine, you---

Speak deeply, clearly, and directly, but the words you say don't matter.

Occasionally you growl.

You make eye contact, and you keep it. You keep it until THEY break it. You repeat this often. A good trainer/handler can direct her dog using nothing but her eyes. You know the "I'm so pissed at you look" you give your 12 year old? Use that when they're bad. You know the "You're so wonderful!" look you give your friends infant? Use that when they're good.

Broad shoulders are helpful. Sling 'em back, make yourself look big.

Show your teeth in a snarl when you're asserting.

You move assertively. I AM putting the collar on you. No frantic movements trying to wrangle the dog where you want it to be.

And, you decide when things happen. You eat when I tell you to eat. You sit at the door when I open it until I tell you you're free to exit. When I tell you it's time to go to bed/calm down/crate up/whatever it is, you do it.

And, lastly, something that I ALWAYS do with my puppies is a LOT of work when they're young on handling them. I take their food away and give it back, water too---I will not have a dog who is food defensive. I take bones away and give them back. I tussle roughly, I bare my teeth. I bite when bitten.

I also reward lavishly with affection (seldom food. I have one food-trained dog now and he drives me NUTS) when they're doing well.

And re: choker collars. They're not cruel if you know what you're doing. They also don't use a "basic survival instinct". Done correctly, a choker pop trains on the sound and the directional change, if you're actually choking the dog, you fail. I personally prefer pinches---they look rough as hell but they're very gentle. The Triple Crown pinches are especially awesome.

I also use an electric (zap) collar for off-leash work as my emergency failsafe, and I never use it. Sometimes they get a tone (a beep), but nobody ever gets tagged.

If you haven't ever read my dog-posts here before, the work I do/have done includes canine SAR/cadaver, obedience, therapy-assist, and canine-good-citizen, so that's my working citation for this post.
posted by TomMelee at 6:14 AM on September 15, 2009 [11 favorites]

I should add that if you begin these techniques on a dog that has EVER shown aggression, is completely foreign to you, or is large----you can expect extreme resistance. Do NOT get face to face in an eye-locked growl with a German Shepherd you've just met. Won't end well.

Pretty much everything I just said in the previous post is the exact OPPOSITE of what you're going to do if you believe a dog might attack you. (never make eye contact w/ an aggressive dog. Don't do it unless you're prepared to tussle.)
posted by TomMelee at 6:16 AM on September 15, 2009 [1 favorite]

Dog training is about more than dominance. Dogs know, by smell, body language, voice, and many tiny details, who's dominant. You can use some cues to suggest dominance, but to train an animal, you have to know that you're in charge. As a teenager, I trained a horse (not from scratch). I have no idea how I had the confidence to be in charge of an animal that outweighed me by so much, but I just did. The horse knew it.

Dog trainers train the owner. They train owners to be calm and confident, and not afraid to be assertive. Training an animal requires consistency and persistence.
posted by theora55 at 9:19 AM on September 15, 2009 [1 favorite]

Malcolm Gladwell on Cesar Millan, aka the "Dog Whisperer, and why dogs respond to him.

I think Millan's been criticized in earlier threads and Gladwell has been for sure, but the gist of the article corresponds to the comments in this thread, particularly the comment that owners need to be trained to practice dominance over and consistency with their pets.

Millan exhibits a particular physical grace that dogs respond well to, apparently.
posted by hhc5 at 10:03 AM on September 15, 2009

Nthing consistency, patience, and adding never ever losing your temper. I have a nicely trained dog without choke chain, etc, and she's mostly almost untrainable terrier. It was the consistent one word commands, repitition and the application of tiny treats while training that worked along with talking softly but firmly. When the dog trainer in the class we took her to (to train us) tried to bully her, she cowered and hid. Every dog is different. Mostly dogs don't behave because their owners don't know how to handle them or they've been abused or abandoned (rescue dogs) or both.
posted by x46 at 10:42 AM on September 15, 2009

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