Subscribe to Our Newsletter
By Published On: February 1st, 2009

I found a copy of one of William Koehler’s training books in a local used bookstore. He was a trainer that worked in Hollywood, training dogs for films that I watched as a child. Had I known his training techniques then I probably would have cried before the dog got caught in a well or suffered some other fate that was geared to jerking the tears out of a 9 year old’s eyes.

The list of training aids prescribed by Mr. Koehler includes a variety of choke chains and should an owner be inclined to molly-coddle their dog, he clearly advises the use of a piece of hose or switch over a folded up newspaper. I suppose the newspaper idea caught on as the kinder corrective measure. But lest I forget, there’s the leather strap or belt, used to hit a dog, hard, and I kid you not.

Koehler’s willingness to use brute force to manage dogs is matched by his contempt for anyone that disagreed with his methods, the ‘wincers’ as he called them, a tid-bit tossing group of naive dog handlers. But as can be possible in anything, there are grains of truth and reason in his initial assertion in the book that in order to train a dog you need to get its attention. Koehler’s method of training gets a dog’s attention through a series of exercises that teach the dog that not paying attention hurts.

While training has changed over the decades, and since this is the only book of Koehler’s that I’ve read, he died in 1993, I don’t know if he, like the author of the first Monks of New Skete training book, recanted on any of his beliefs about how best to handle a dog. But what has not changed over the decades for many trainers is the attitude about the relationship people have with their dogs.

Koehler describes a dog that avoids his owner’s attempts to get a hold of him as, ‘competitive’, as opposed to say, untrained, playful, or even scared. There is no recognition that dogs may have rich and varied interests that don’t always coincide with their owner’s goals, a very different way of looking at inappropriate behaviors. A dog that is behaving aggressively because of fear is asking for something very different than a dog that is behaving aggressively and is not afraid, and your feelings about the behavior should reflect this difference. A child crying at the check-out counter at the grocery store because they can’t have a pack of bubble gum is very different from a child crying because their finger is caught in the door. Hopefully your impatience with the behavior is reserved for the former.

The beauty of using positive reinforcement when training a dog is that it does not matter why the dog is behaving aggressively, the training is not likely to make the behavior worse by scaring a fearful dog, or making an already confident angry dog more upset. It reminds me of the theme common in films, the protagonist’s motives are misunderstood, they are punished, but at the end they are redeemed, seen for the hero they truly are. If only a fearful dog’s story could be condensed into 90 minutes.

Today there are popular trainers who persist in simplifying our relationship with our dogs into that of leader and follower. All behavioral indiscretions on the part of our dogs are the result of a lack of leadership by owners or sloppy leadership, the dogs grateful when their owners step up to the plate and start taking charge. Advocates of the ‘pack leader’ theory of dog training will point to results, much the same way that William Koehler does in his training book. The ends justify the means as they say.  But does it? Getting a scared dog to behave a certain way because it is too frightened to do otherwise hardly sounds like a success to me.

In a telling clip of Cesar Millan working with a fearful American Eskimo dog, the caged dog snarls and snaps when approached, a tactic which has probably worked in the past to keep people away from it, which is the point of the behavior. A trapped dog has few choices. Unyielding to the display Cesar approaches the cage and towers over the dog who some would say ‘calms’ down, though I doubt the dog is feeling calm at all, freezing or the lack of movement does not mean that a dog is feeling good about the situation. Once leashed up and outside the cage the dog raises a paw which Cesar describes as a predatory behavior which is an indication that he needs to continue to be wary of the dog.

I don’t disagree on the latter, but paw raises have a multitude of meanings for dogs, many of which we may not fully understand, and while a paw raise may indicate predatory intentions if the dog is stalking the family cat, it is often seen as an appeasement gesture, a sign of indecision, or as Turid Rugaas would describe a ‘calming signal’. Not surprising coming from a dog that has been threatened. Just because physical force is not used on a dog, it is implied when one uses their size and body posturing to subdue them. The fact that the gun pointed at your head is not loaded probably won’t make any difference to you if you’re not aware of the fact or of the wielder’s intent. It’s probably just best to go along with their demands.

Suzanne Clothier writes about the attitudes we have regarding our dogs’ behavior and our relationship with them in her book “If A Dog’s Prayers Were Answered Bones Would Rain From the Sky”. I recommend it to anyone who has ever considered what their dog might want when it came to training time, and if you haven’t, read it anyway, it’s a beautifully written book that I can’t seem to keep a hold of, I keep giving it away.

Share this post