Southerly by David Haywood

In Case These Questions Crossed Your Mind

My recent post on Sue Bradford's proposed amendment to Section 59 of the Crimes Act has managed to offend almost everybody. I've been bombarded with angry and anguished emails from both sides of the debate, as well as some slightly peevish comments on the discussion thread at Public Address System.

So I've decided that it's time to steer away from controversy for a while. And what could be more uncontroversial, wholesome, and inoffensive than puppies?

Joanne Hammond is someone who knows a lot about puppies. She's an instructor at the Christchurch Dog Training Club, and has been teaching dog-owners how to train their dogs for twelve years. I asked her some questions that people have recently put to me.

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You can't have a conversation with a dog, so how do you get it to obey you?

The secret is only to reward positive behaviour, and never to reward negative behaviour.

[For example] say that you're training a dog to walk on a lead. If the dog is pulling: you stop, you call the dog back to you, and you gently wind in the lead. When it's back into the right position you give it a reward of some kind.

The old methods of training used to be that you gave a jerk [on the lead], and the choker chain used to grab, and the dog would come back to you because it was hurt. But the technique that we use is to reward the dog with a pat, hug, food, or a toy. You want the dog to learn that if it's behaving it gets lots of rewards. So that it obeys you because it wants to -- not because its frightened of you.

With respect, Joanne, that sounds a little like political correctness to me. Don't you think that the tried-and-true method of physical punishment wouldn't deliver better results?

People only use harsh techniques because they don't know any better. [They think:] "That's how Dad did it, that's how Granddad did it -- so that's how it's done." Positive reinforcement techniques are better for both the owners and the dogs. And the training itself is more enjoyable for the owners. I have lots of people who say to me afterwards: "I really enjoyed that class."

Even in years gone by I think there were people [who] knew deep down inside that what they were doing was not the correct method. And you actually get more from your dog by positive reinforcement through reward. It may take a little longer, but in the long run your dog will actually work better for you.

Your dog will work better?

They'll work better for you because they want to. A dog who's working for you only because they don't want to be hurt isn't [as] reliable.

Do you ever advise anyone to hit their dogs?

No, we don't use those techniques at the Christchurch Dog Training Club. All our techniques are based on reward using praise, food, toys, or hugs. Definitely we don't use any harsh treatment whatsoever. As a club we've decided that we don't need it, and we frown very heavily upon anyone who does. They should come to us first and we'll show them the correct methods.

But don't you have to use physical punishment as a last resort? For example, if your dog runs at people and you need to give them a really hard message. Won't the fact you are advising people not to use physical punishment mean that the streets will be full of wild undisciplined dogs. Won't your approach -- over the long term -- result in a massive increase in dog attacks on innocent people?

Well, my response to that would be: if you use physical punishment then you're more likely to get dogs that are uncontrollable. If you get your puppy from an early age, and bring it up using positive reinforcement -- they don't ever turn nasty because they've never experienced harsh treatment. So that side of them never comes out.

Okay, if what you're saying is true then you've got the opposite problem. Since time began people have owned dogs, and all that time they'd been training them using physical punishment. Won't your methods breed a generation of 'girly-dogs' who will lack the killer instincts necessary to win at international dog trials?

Every dog from the time it's born to the time it dies wants to be leader. What we're doing is training you to assert your leadership over the dog -- but not in such a way that you actually are competing with the dog. Using the harsh techniques you are actually fighting the killer instinct and forcing it out. But if you can get your dog to work for you because it wants to -- because it respects you as the leader -- then you won't ever have problems.

Let's turn to the biblical argument against the sort of methods that you employ. I'm thinking of Proverbs 22:15 which I'll read to you: "Foolishness is bound in the heart of a dog; but the rod of correction shall drive it far from him." Don't you think that your methods for dog-training are actually going against God?

{Long pause}

I've never met anybody that's come to me with religious issues like that. I show people the correct techniques, and if they don't like them then they either don't come back, or they convert to my way of thinking. I do not allow anyone to use harsh techniques on dogs -- whether it's from religious beliefs or other reasons.

Do you think that your methods for training dogs without physical punishment could also be used successfully on children?

It's funny you say that because I train a lot of people who ask me: "Could you do that with my child?" I can't actually see why you have to use force on children -- but dogs and children are different, of course.

You can talk to a child and reason with it. You can't do that with a dog.

DISCUSS THIS POST on Hard News 'The Arguments' thread.