It seems that every month or so canine experts come up with new products, tools or training methods that can supposedly cure any behavior or training issue a dog may have. It may be a special training method that the training guru has come up with (and will share for a fee) or a new and unique training tool. The books, videos, articles, advertisements and product descriptions make the job of civilizing an unruly dog look easy, provided you follow one specific method or purchase special equipment.
When it comes to new and unique training methods, especially if the expert claims it to be the only effective and humane way to train a dog, it helps to remember that a training method is only as good as its practitioner. What may look effortless when done by someone with many years of experience with a large number and variety of dogs may not be all that simple for a person making his or her first real attempt at dog training or behavior modification. Experienced trainers will tell you that there is no single method that works perfectly for all dogs and that not every dog responds well to every method. What you see or read will only be a small part of a long and possibly complicated process. What looks like it took only a few minutes or days to accomplish probably took weeks or months. The viewer or reader is not shown all the daily hard work that is required to produce good results.
In the case of dogs with serious problems such as aggression, the viewer or reader may not understand that the method is not a cure but a way to manage a problem, and that management will have to continue for the life of the dog.
In the case of “experts” who claim that every method other than their “purely positive” system is inhumane and cruel, it would be a good idea to take this with a grain of salt. This is not to say that positive training isn’t effective and even desirable when done correctly, but at some point a dog is going to have to learn that his actions have consequences - and that is where those who advocate purely positive training may come up short. Many of the more popular high profile trainers really do know what they are doing, but it is never as simple as it looks or sounds.
Some of the new products on the market also work, at least to a certain extent. Others are no improvement over simpler already existing or even home-made versions, and some are worthless gimmicks. Many of the products that have shown up in the last few years are designed to help dogs with problems such as thunder phobia and extreme anxiety. The Thunder Shirt is one of these. This is a jacket that fits the dog snugly and is purported to give the dog a sense of security, as if it were being hugged. Years ago, folks used to put small, tight kids’ teeshirts on dogs who were afraid of thunder for the same reason. Some smart person made a stylish product that does the same thing. It does seem to be effective in some cases. (Why couldn’t I have been smart enough to get the patent on that one?)
Another fairly new and novel product is DAP, a device that dispenses pheromones either from a diffuser or a collar. The active ingredient is a synthetic form of a hormone produced by nursing canine mothers and is said to help calm anxious or frightened puppies and dogs. Tests have shown that this product actually can work, at least to some extent. This is another example of ingenuity in the field of canine behavior aids.
Other products include specially designed harnesses, leash attachments or head halters that are supposed to eliminate pulling on the leash and others claim to cure barking, chewing, counter-surfing and other nuisance behaviors. When trying something new, remember that there will be considerable training involved, simply buying the device and hoping for the best isn’t going to do the job. Although some of the new products work well, there is no substitute for hard work and good, consistent training. If you want to know more about a new method or product, talk to experienced dog trainers or your veterinarian. Chances are they will be able to give you good advice.
Dorothy Miner is a long-time dog obedience and tracking instructor and judge of canine events. She is a published author and contributes regular columns to several dog publications. She is currently a trainer at That Place for Pets and teaches weekly classes for the Allen Correctional Institution’s PETS Program