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  • Writer's pictureJeryl

Trainer’s point of view

Recently, I had the chance to speak to an owner who sent her dog to a training school for board and train before, during our conversation I understood that the trainer was said to be certified and using positive reinforcement to work with the dogs.

However, I also learned that the dog was unusually “obedient” when the trainer shows her presence, staying still, sitting or lying down without the need to speak to the dog, together with submissive urination. The dog would then go back to its playful(naughty) self when the trainer isn’t around. I had some suspicion, so I went through the scenario with the owner a couple more times while putting the pieces of puzzle together. I read the dog’s body language towards me as a new trainer for 30 minutes, it didn’t show any signs of abnormalities except for lack of confidence and sensitivity towards touch, the dog definitely required some time to warm up to me before wagging its tail and asking for affection. There were no urination, no staying still out of a sudden, no retreating, nothing out of the norm. As someone who has been working with dogs for a long time and understand the work required regardless of training methodology, I was pretty sure what was going on here, yet I decided to continue doing more checks on the background of the trainer and watch videos of the dogs undergoing training to assure myself.

I have to clarify that this post is not to expose any particular person or debate training methods, instead I would like owners to be equipped with better knowledge on how trainers think and work, that way they can do a better selection on potential trainers that would suit their dog’s needs.

First of all, you need to understand that there are 3 types of trainers, Positive reinforcement, Negative reinforcement, Balanced training. Positive reinforcement trainers generally label themselves as force free, they do not condone or use punishment, instead they use reward to train dogs. Negative reinforcement trainers uses punishment to change the behavior of dogs, it can be using tools, physical or verb punishments. Balanced trainers make use of both positive(rewards) and negative(punishment) to work with dogs. Out of the 3, balanced trainers are less common in Singapore due to the complexity and requirements to understand both positive and negative reinforcement first, else they would just find themselves failing and confusing the poor dogs. For me, as I am always open to learning new skills and up to date training techniques, I have been involved in all the three areas with focus on each area for years before I move on. I do not believe that any method is superior than the other, however I do feel that the choices affect the wellbeing of the dogs throughout their lives. Basically if a result can be achieved irregardless of the method used, the gentler it is the better it will be for the welfare of the dog.

My brief explanation of the 3 types of training above is important, because what I’m going to share here is something that trainers would rarely share, or would want owners like you to know. First, negative reinforcement is a common training method that has been present for decades in Singapore, therefore most trainers who started out before 2010s have been using punishment to train dogs. As such, negative reinforcement trainers are rarely shy to show and tell people that they punish dogs, even the term they use are usually straightforward. In short, this also mean that there is nothing to hide, not for them.

Balanced trainers on the other hand make use of reward and punishes dogs when they want faster reaction, these trainers tend to substitute straightforward techniques with nicer terms/words - Communication, ecollar, using tools the correct way etc. As an owner who is looking to pick a balanced trainer, there’s a potential risk that they would encounter those who would sugarcoat dangerous techniques and make them sound harmless, it is also likely that the trainer may not have enough experience in both fields, hence using punishment much more than reward, defeating the purpose of balanced training. However, they are still clear in what they want to achieve and not shy to call themselves balanced, hence you should always see videos of them working with the dogs in real time.

Positive reinforcement trainers would be something that I’d definitely advice owners to do more checks before they commit. The reason is due to the history of training in Singapore, you have to understand that the term positive reinforcement is still very new here, not many people including the trainers themselves actually have enough experience studying and working with dogs to be equipped with the skills to handle complex situations. There are also many trainers who convert to positive reinforcements just because there’s a market, instead of changing for the better wellbeing of the dogs. As such, many trainers who call themselves force free are actually still using outdated techniques by punishing dogs behind closed doors, even if their certificate says otherwise. It can happen while the dog is at a daycare, boarding or training camps. Positive trainers are usually expected by owners to produce the same results within the same timeline compared to other training methods, anyone who has basic understanding about reward based training should understand that this is impossible, yet they need to survive in the market by hiding this information from owners. This puts a lot of stress and pressure on the trainers and therefore resulting in more chance for them to resort to punishments when no one is around.

The above is just my advice from what I’ve observed, I’m not here to sugarcoat words just so they are fair to people, I’m here to share my views honestly and openly:

If your dog had been sent for daycare or training without your presence, and is behaving abnormally with the said trainer in front of you, usually in the form of obedience, quietness and especially the lack of excitement shown, something needs to be addressed here. It is possible that some dogs have neurological issues, or history of extreme trauma/anxiety that affects the way they remember people, but in my experience 9/10 dogs show excitement whenever they see me after a period of time. It could be in the form of licking of face, jumping on me, ignoring owner’s command, asking for treats etc., after all we have bonded for a period of time and the relationship should be obvious. Do a background check on your trainers, look at videos of the dogs under training, are their tails always low, are their energy level different from usual? Ask questions if the behaviors are abnormal, good trainers should always be putting the welfare of dogs above themselves, when things happen they should be able to explain and provide possible causes. In my opinion, with the exception of specific cases - dogs who had gone through a period of time away from you(for training) should NOT be more afraid of the trainers than you as owners.

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