Saturday, November 5, 2011

How do you train a "hard" dog?

One of the many canine-related misconceptions that I wish I could obliterate in one fell swoop is this: There are hard dogs and there are soft dogs. These terms are often used to imply that with one type of dog (the soft ones), you can get away with gentler training methods while with the other type (hard dogs) you must use a different and harsher set of rules.

Have you ever wondered how animal trainers manage to convince massive marine mammals to perform? Here's a hint: They don't make prong collars in "Killer Whale" sizes. The same ideals that I share in this blog and practice on a daily basis with my own pets (positive reinforcement, operant conditioning/clicker training) are used to train animals of all species, sizes, and propensities to eat you. It annoys me to no end when I read a fly-by-night trainer announce that positive methods are nothing but bribery or an ever-growing fad. They preach about their outdated methods and ideals that I could have explained even as a very young child. You know, the same things we picked up from the Discovery Channel's documentaries about wolves in the wild? Things that we know much more about in present time than we did back then. Outdated information that in part, has led both us and the bully breeds to the dismal place where we find ourselves today.

This is about as intimidating as he ever looks...
When it comes to dogs, why are we so quick to assume that bigger, "badder" breeds must be treated more harshly? Is it simply because we can? Does it make some people feel better about themselves to see fear in the eyes of a doberman, pit bull or rottweiler? I honestly think that with some individuals, that is incredibly true. After all, the media is constantly fueling this line of thinking even if that isn't their intention. You see a small-statured person on TV amongst a gang of big, beefy pit bulls and assume that he (the human) must be one tough little guy. The image of the "hard dog" is so incredibly instilled into our minds that our focus almost immediately goes away from the actual dogs (their body language, their outward signs of communication, especially when those signs are scary) and toward respecting the human being who manages to work with (or in some cases just wrestle) them. Somewhere in the back of our minds we naturally think that it takes a special or "brave" person to train or work with a bully breed.

One factor that only helps contribute to this mentality is the difficulty in raising many of these types of dogs. Not because they are more aggressive but because they are often higher energy than other dogs! On top of that, their larger size makes it harder to rein that energy in and prevent, for example, being knocked over in a slobbery fit of happiness (which must be absolutely terrifying, I'm sure...). In fact, "it can knock you/your children over" is a popular excuse for going straight to harsher training methods without second thought to anything else. With some people it's almost as if they can't wait for their pit bull puppy to grow into his 394 lb., six-inch-thick metal prong collar so that they can really show him who rules the roost. (Afterward, they must promptly parade him around the neighborhood to show everyone else who rules the roost as well.)

Buck, a very sweet bully.
Some of you are probably thinking of the many, many "dangerous" breeds that you see on TV or read about in the newspaper; dogs that have exhibited the most violent and aggressive of behavior. How do you "positively train" a dog out of that?  It must first be acknowledged that most of those dogs were created by the very mentality I have described in this post thus far. I would have to say that without the twisted images perpetuated by our peers and the media, the problems facing "bully breeds" would not be problems today. The fact is, if these images of bully breeds as dangerous fighting dogs were removed from our minds forever, we would have fewer pitties, dobies, and rotties in the situations they are in today. Imagine if there was no stigma attached to owning one of these dogs. What if, all of a sudden, they had the same standing as a poodle in the eyes of the public? There would be no more reason to put heavy chains on their necks or parade them around as trophies (or worse, actually subject them to fighting). There would be no reason to give high praise to someone who manages to bully one into submission rather than train it the way you train any other animal, be it squirrel or Siberian tiger. The fear in the hearts of the public would be erased with the result being the elimination of so much fear-induced abuse and persecution. The fear in the hearts of these dogs would no longer exist to lead to aggressive behavior.

I stand firm by the notion that you cannot permanently or adequately fix fear by way of terror. You can make yourself scary enough to the dog to temporarily stifle the signs but that is not a cure. The actual answer to full on aggressive and dangerous behavior greatly depends on the dog, its background, genetics and often other aspects of the situation. It is unfortunately neither quick nor easy and sometimes, especially once a dog has been driven too far or when genetics are heavily at play (even when it comes genetics, they can work against you with any breed), it may not even be possible.

The often-unnoticed exchange that happens between human and dog before a bite happens is almost always very similar to this:
  • Human does something that causes fear in the dog (such as yelling, or cornering the dog; anything that makes the dog feel that it is in danger - and this can greatly depend on the dog's background and past experiences-).
  • Dog cowers ("I'm afraid.")
  • Human doesn't stop, redirect the behavior, or otherwise acknowledge any signal the dog is giving.
  • Dog growls ("I'm really afraid and don't know how to make this experience stop, but hopefully this will work.")
  • Human gets ticked off at this show of defiance or dominance and continues, believing that backing down will make the dog think that he is the boss instead of the human.
  • Dog shows teeth ("I am terrified, there is nowhere for me to run, and if need be I will fight back to prevent being hurt by you.")
  • Human doesn't stop, human gets bitten, dog gets in major trouble.
The above example applies to ANY breed of dog. It is also a very generic example and takes a surprisingly large number of forms. For instance, the human can be two years old and merely pulling the dog's tail. That same dog may not be experienced with children or may just be very fearful when they move a certain way which causes it to defend itself with a bite. Another variable to keep in mind is that your dog might react aggressively when it does have room to run away because, in the past, it has been chased down until backed into a corner. It is not uncommon for an aggressive dog to go straight to biting a person when it has learned that cowering, growling, and showing its teeth never works and still leads to being painfully abused. Aggressive dogs must be handled with an understanding of the reasons behind their behavior (which vary). They must be taught using proper methods to communicate appropriately and without signs of aggression. If you have an aggressive dog, please consult a trainer with a solid background of positive reinforcement. Do not assume that only someone using "hard methods" can help you. Sadly, there are many dog trainers out there who claim to specialize in bully breeds and aggression when all they know are the fear-based techniques that they've seen on TV. Smoke and mirrors techniques will not fix this type of behavior and will eventually contribute to the problem. This doesn't matter if your dog is a pit bull or a yorkie.

My point is: There is no such thing as a hard dog or a soft dog and certainly NO reason to believe that you have to be more rough with one than you do another. There are dogs that are afraid, dogs that incite some subconscious fear in us, dogs that have not been properly trained/socialized, and dogs that have not been properly cared for. All dogs require a very consistent owner who possesses the power of clear communication and they need to have this before irreparable damage is done.


  1. Love your blog. I have five dogs of my own and usually at least one foster. They all have different personalities and most of them have been to clicker training classes. They ALL have done well with positive reinforcement. I look forward to reading your posts.

  2. Thank you both! Please spread the word... I see so many myths poisoning the dog loving community out there and more people need to realize that they can make a difference in their own dog's behavior just by understanding how things really work!

  3. Found you through your PBU feature and I have to admit, I laughed out loud when I got to the "Killer Whale Sized" prong collar. Awesome observation.

  4. Glad that you stopped by and I was able to make you laugh! :) Thanks!

  5. You made me consider the way I use 'soft' to describe dogs. In dog rescue, I will frequently use the term in dog profiles (i.e. their adoption profiles). By 'soft' I mean a dog that is easy to disturb or unravel, a dog that is sometimes not confident, and perhaps, a dog that is 'willing to please' - or is very serious about doing the 'right' thing. I use the term 'soft' to describe temperament.

    The only bull breed I have fostered, I did describe as 'soft'. Her world would end if you told her off.

    I don't use the term hard. I think, in your post here, you are saying that 'hard' often refers to a dog that needs a lot of punishment to get anywhere in training. Basically, I'd never advocate this. I might use words like 'independent' (i.e. little interest in interacting or pleasing humans) or 'is not motivated by toys or food' to indicate a candidate that may be more difficult to train.

    I think you're right - a 'hard' dog conveys a dog that needs punishment to modify their behaviour. However, I am not sure if 'soft' is as problematic as you suggest.

  6. Tegan, you raise very good points! Some people do use the terms a bit differently and the one more often misused (or abused) is "hard." I have found myself describing soft dogs the way that you have in the past. Thanks for bringing that up! :)