Pet Columns, Office of Public Engagement, College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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A Refined Obedience Training Philosophy


Pet Column for the week of December 22, 2008


Office of Public Engagement
2001 S. Lincoln Ave.
Urbana, Illinois 61802
Phone: 217/333-2907
Ashley Mitek
Information Specialist

Despite the sometimes silly antics of our pets, like inhaling that cracker your toddler drops on the kitchen floor, their learning capabilities are not trivial. From opening a doorknob, to bringing the phone to a handicapped owner, our understanding of pets' cognitive abilities continues to grow.

Dr. Pamela Reid is the vice president of the ASPCA's Animal Behavior Center in Urbana, Ill. She frequently counsels pet owners, veterinarians, trainers, and shelters on behavioral issues. In her eyes the profession has changed greatly compared to just a few decades ago. "We have really come a long way with the advent of reward-based learning pioneered by Ian Dunbar," she explains.

While years ago a trainer may have forced a dog to learn the command "sit" by placing his hand on the animal's rump, today's methods are quite different. "We no longer use physical manipulation because we have realized that reward-based training is much more successful," says Dr. Reid.

For example, she mentions that a simple way to teach your dog to sit is to take a treat and slowly move it over their head. "Most dogs will track it with their eyes and sit down on their own," notes Dr. Reid. At this point, you can reinforce the behavior with a reward and begin to associate it with a word.

Another great invention that has been enormously successful is the clicker. It is a small device that owners can push to make a "clicking" noise. The noise can be used to help the dog understand that it has done something good. Such as when the dog sits on command the owner would click the clicker and give the dog a treat.

Then, when you want to teach the dog to put its paw on your hand and "shake," you wait until the animal places its paw on your hand by its own free will and then "click" followed by a treat. The animal quickly learns that the click means it did what was asked.

Along with the change in philosophy, there has been a huge shift in the equipment used. The Gentle Leader, invented by veterinary behaviorist R.K Anderson, makes the choke collar appear barbaric. It fits onto a dog's muzzle and head just as a horse halter would, allowing for more control, yet it is not nearly as traumatic as other training collars.

Dr. Reid mentions that in her practice she steers away from using choke collars and pinch collars. But in cases where either a choke or a pinch collar needs to be used, "we always advocate the pinch collar over the choke collar." The pinch collar is effective punishment, however the choke collar just chokes the animal and annoys them.

As for cats, there is a lot of individual variation. "Some cats are easy to train, but others are difficult," explains Dr. Reid. But she does note that purebreds like Abyssinians and Siamese seem to be quite trainable.

If you would like more information on obedience training or animal behavior you can visit the ASPCA's Web site at www.aspca.org/behavior, or contact your veterinarian.