By Dr. Becker
This is a sickening, heart-wrenching story I’d rather not repeat, but there’s an important message in it, so I hope you’ll bear with me.
The owners of a one year-old German Shepherd dog brought their pet into a veterinary clinic for incoordination (loss of muscle coordination) and circling to the left behavior. The owners were honest in admitting the dog had been “disciplined” a few hours earlier by being suspended off the ground with a choke collar for almost a full minute. When the owner lowered the dog to the ground, the poor animal was panicked and soon lost consciousness.
At the veterinary hospital, a neurologic examination uncovered severe disorientation and left-sided pleurothotonus, a rare disorder in which there is prolonged and repetitive involuntary contraction of muscles resulting in jerking, twisting and abnormal posturing. Reflexes were reduced in all the dog’s limbs, and he was blind. He was also suffering from nystagmus (involuntary eye movements) and paralysis in the left side of his face.
The dog’s symptoms indicated a multifocal brain injury, and an MRI showed severe brain swelling due to the prolonged lack of blood flow to the head.
The final diagnosis was strangulation. Due to the extent of the injuries, the dog was euthanized.
Why I Recommend Positive Reinforcement Behavior Training
Maybe you or someone you know received a dog for Christmas (read here to learn why I don’t recommend giving pets as gifts), or you’re planning to bring home a new furry family member in the near future. If so, I can’t stress enough the importance of positive (not punitive) behavior training and outfitting your new pet with a safe collar and harness.
It’s rare that a dog changes behavior as the result of being choked. Punishment collars may tell your pet what behavior is not wanted, but they can’t tell her what behavior IS wanted. Learning desired behaviors is the foundation of positive reinforcement training.
The goal in dog training should be to encourage “more of this” (desirable behaviors) and “less of that” (undesirable behaviors). It’s impossible to reach that goal when what the dog is primarily learning is what NOT to do. Doesn’t it make sense, if the objective is to share your life with a well-mannered dog, to spend at least as much time letting your pet know which behaviors earn her praise, attention and affection?
Positive Reinforcement Dog Training in 5 Simple Steps
The goal is to use very small-sized treats (pea sized is good, and you can even use frozen peas if your dog seems to like them) and verbal praise and affection to encourage desired behaviors in your dog.
- Come up with short, preferably one-word commands for the behaviors you want to teach your pet. Examples are Come, Sit, Stay, Down, Heel, Off, etc. Make sure all members of your family consistently use exactly the same command for each behavior.
- As soon as your dog performs the desired behavior, reward him immediately with a treat and verbal praise. Do this every time he responds appropriately to a command. You want him to connect the behavior he performed with the treat. This of course means you’ll need to have treats on you whenever you give your dog commands in the beginning.
- Keep training sessions short and fun. You want your dog to associate good things with obeying your commands. You also want to use training time as an opportunity to deepen your bond with your pet.
- Gradually back off the treats and use them only intermittently once your dog has learned a new behavior. Eventually they’ll no longer be necessary, but you should always reward your dog with verbal praise whenever he obeys a command.
- Continue to use positive reinforcement to maintain the behaviors you desire. Reward-based training helps create a range of desirable behaviors in your pet, which builds mutual feelings of trust and confidence.
The Importance of Safe Dog Collars, Harnesses and Leashes
According to veterinarian Dr. Sandra Sawchuck in her comment to Clinician’s Brief about the case of the young German Shepherd:
“Unfortunately, convincing an owner who uses a choke or prong collar to switch to a safer training device may necessitate some form of injury to their pet from choker misuse.”
I certainly hope that’s not true. I hope everyone reading here today will, if necessary, rethink their training methods and evaluate the safety of their pet’s collar, harness and leash.
Headcollars and no-pull harnesses are my recommendation. Even if you’re very careful not to jerk your pet’s leash during a walk, he can pull against a regular collar-leash combination and potentially cause injury to his neck or cervical disk. I’m also not a fan of retractable leashes due to their potential to injure both dogs and their owners. I recommend solid leashes no longer than six feet.
I hope the tragic case of the young German Shepherd dog who lost his life thanks to a terribly misguided, inappropriate disciplinary tactic will help other pet owners understand the importance of safe, effective positive reinforcement training techniques and the proper use of safe collars, harnesses and leashes.