A Personal History of Dog Training

Written by Susan Bulanda

I would like to introduce myself so that you can better understand the basis of this article. I became a professional dog trainer by 1961, at the age of 15. Prior to that I had studied dog training as best as one could in those days. I learned by training my own and neighbors’ dogs. At that time there were few dog magazines, no computers, and no internet. It was not easy to find material, and people as a rule were not in touch with each other.

What I am going to cover in this article is my experience training dogs from the 60s on. I lived on the East Coast (New Jersey), so I was not aware of what may have been going on in the rest of the U.S. and abroad; if I have left anything out or my experiences are different than yours, it is because I had limited information.

Books were the most reliable means of finding out information, and there were not that many available. The first book that influenced me was Training You to Train Your Dog by Blanche Saunders, which was printed in 1952.

In the 1950s Blanche Saunders traveled across the United States promoting obedience training for pet dogs. At that time most people did not train their dogs beyond a few basics. She was an advocate of the leash jerk training method. She believed that dogs should be punished for not obeying and rewarded for obeying.

Also in the 1950s, some of the trainers from WWII started training dogs for the general public. Almost all trainers at that time used similar methods. One of the more famous trainers was William Koehler.

In the 1960s and 1970s, Koehler published several dog training books. He was partly responsible for making several philosophies in dog training popular, such as: no food rewards, dislike of dog psychologists, no verbal commands, very hard leash jerks, throw chains, sling shots to shoot the dog, and very high-intensity electric shocks. He also used rubber-covered dowels to hit a dog on the nose and would hang them for aggression until they passed out, or airplane them, which is to swing a dog in a circle with all four feet off the ground by the neck collar. These methods were based on the notion that the human had to be the dominant one.

These are the methods that I read about and learned. However, I did not use any of the really harsh techniques, I did use the leash jerk method. I did not like it, so I started trying to use food bribes (and yes, I mean bribes) on my own dog Pal, (a German Shepherd/Collie mix) who was my trick dog. Because I did not know how to properly use a treat in training, it became a bribe. Pal would not perform unless I gave him his favorite human cookie first!

At that time our community had a pet dog show every year. One of the categories was trick dog. For a few years in a row Pal and I won first place.

When I was in ninth grade, we had a talent show and Pal and I were in it. His routine for the talent show was to go up and down a special ladder made for him that had steps on both sides, jump through a hoop covered with paper, and bark in time with “How Much Is That Doggie in the Window.”

We had rehearsed his act a number of times in the school auditorium with no problems. He did his routine flawlessly. A student played the piano and would stop at the appropriate time. At that point Pal would bark twice and then the song would continue. I had told the student not to play until Pal barked twice. Pal’s signal to bark was when I raised the pinky of my right hand; he had learned to stop barking when I lowered it.

The day of the talent show came, and it was my turn to go on stage. Pal worked off leash. My props were already set up. The first act was to jump through the hoop. I sent Pal to the end of the stage and gave him the command “Through the Hoop!” He ran across the stage at full speed and then went under the hoop. The audience roared with laughter. He had never done that before. I was not sure what to do and was embarrassed beyond words. I told Pal “Go back and do it again.” He went back to the end of the stage and I re-commanded him “Through the Hoop!” Pal looked at me, looked at the audience as he sauntered across the stage, walked up to the hoop, looked at it, and then leaped through it. Again, the audience went crazy clapping.

Next, he had to climb the ladder. He did that almost as he should, with the exception that he paused at the top and looked at the audience for a minute. I swear I saw him stick his chest out a little, and then he went down. Whew, I got though that one. Next was the “song.”

Pal and I walked across the stage and stood near the piano as we had rehearsed. The student started playing and stopped at the appropriate time. I raised my finger, Pal barked twice, I lowered my finger. At the next point in the song where Pal had to bark, the music stopped, I raised my finger and Pal barked once. Everything stopped, since I had told the student not to continue until he heard two barks. What to do? I raised my finger, no bark. How violently can you raise a pinky? Finally, after what seemed like forever, I said, “Pal, where is the other bark?”  Pal looked at me and barked one more time. The audience roared and clapped. I died. Everyone thought that I had taught Pal to be a comedian, but he did it on his own. I learned to never underestimate my dog.

This experience also taught me how intelligent dogs are, contrary to the popular scientific theories. At that time most trainers and scientists did not believe that dogs felt emotion the same way as humans, and that dogs operated mostly by instinct, with little cognitive ability. This had a strong influence on how dogs were trained.

Because I was too young to drive, I started training dogs when I was in high school by walking around town and going to people’s homes, offering one-on-one training. This was unheard of at that time. There were few dog training clubs in my area, and I did not go to them. I had tried to contact a club, and I did talk to a trainer. I was told that I was too young to join and train dogs.

Once I got a car, I was able to go to obedience trials to watch how they handled the dogs, and I talked to people about how they trained them. Without exception, it was some version of Saunders or Koehler’s methods.

A turning point for me was when I was at an obedience trial and a man and his German Shepherd were going through their paces. He man bellowed the command “Come!” The dog slinked across the field with his head and tail down. I can still see that dog in my mind today. I decided that when I trained dogs, they would come with their heads up and tails wagging. But I did not know what method would ensure that every dog would be happy with training. I realized trainers who used Koehler’s methods were not the answer. I decided that using psychology and communication was the way to train a dog. This decision led me to go to college and study psychology, because psychologists studied Pavlov and the other early ethologists. I also took courses in education because I felt that you needed to be able to teach the owner just as well as the dog. I had not determined how to learn about canine communication. Few if any people studied that. I began to pay close attention to the way dogs interacted.

During the 60s John Paul Scott and John Fuller identified the critical periods for learning and social development in puppies, and published Genetics and the Social Behavior of the Dog. This book verified for me that I was going in the right direction. As I talked to other trainers and read articles in magazines such as Dog World, I noticed that some dog trainers were considering a change in their training methods and philosophies based on this information.

In the 70s, one of the more popular training methods resulted from the book published by the Monks of New Skete, who bred and trained German Shepherds. They did make a step in the right direction by promoting understanding and communication as keys to success in dog training. However, they believed in strong punishment, which we now know can cause aggression. Despite this, the idea that other people were promoting understanding and communication reinforced my philosophy about dog training.

In the late 60s and early 70s, I was asked to train a Siberian Husky, which at that time was considered a rare breed of dog. This was another turning point for me. This dog was very willing to communicate vocally, and his body language was easy to read. I was amazed. This led to a rather comical situation: The owner was rather inept at handling his dog, and the dog would not put up with this for long. When the dog had had enough, he would flag his tail a specific way, and that meant the exercise was over.

This Husky would not tolerate leash jerk training, and I quickly started to use treats as a reward, not as a bribe. I was so taken by this dog that I purchased a Siberian Husky. Shortly after that I moved into a house where I could have an outdoor dog pen in full view from my living room window. I had gotten a few more Huskies and would study their behavior from my house, which prevented the Hawthorne effect. For 12 years I showed, raced, and trained Huskies. I learned a great deal about canine communication and a dog’s social life from them.

As Huskies became more popular, other trainers in my area would not accept them in their classes because they could not successfully train them, so they sent them to me. I feel this was mostly because Huskies did not respond well to leash jerk training, and this was still the method of choice for trainers. The dog trainers I talked to still felt that if you used treats, the dog would not be reliable and would only work for treats.

One of the first dog training shows aired on television was in the 80s, Training Dogs the Woodhouse Way, by Barbara Woodhouse. She, like most trainers of her day, rejected the work of those people who used psychology to understand dogs as foolish. She felt that people were too sentimental about their dogs. Her popularity and philosophy helped stifle the advances that were being made about the mind of the dog.

A breakthrough came in the 80s with animal behaviorist Ian Dunbar. He instituted training for puppies and developed his Sirius Dog Training Program. Dunbar took a whole new approach to dog training, using positive training methods. He is responsible for today’s puppy kindergarten classes and continues to advance positive training methods for dogs.

Also in the 80s a marine biologist, Karen Pryor, brought positive dog training methods based on operant conditioning to the forefront. Pryor’s book Don’t Shoot the Dog was a huge success even though it was not specifically about dog training. Initially she teamed up with Gary Wilkes and introduced clicker training to the general public. The time was right for this mindset, which has been growing ever since.

In my experience it wasn’t until the 90s that more trainers started to understand and embrace positive training methods, and contrary to prior practices, to use treats. I was excited and happy to have my own ideas supported by these two wonderful trainers. When I attended seminars and workshops with Dunbar and Pryor, the enthusiasm and acceptance of their methods by other trainers was heartwarming for me. I think part of the reluctance to embrace positive methods was because trainers were afraid to be criticized for using them. After all, the big-name established trainers of the past rejected positive methods as silly and sentimental. I know that I was laughed at for suggesting and using positive methods. I recall one person joking about it, saying something like, “Ha ha, you’re a dog psychologist. Don’t you know that dogs are not allowed on the couch?” I feel that attitudes like this hindered the use of “dog psychology” in training.

I was and still am delighted that the old myth that dogs are tame wolves and that you must use dominance to train them has been dispelled. It saddens me that still today trainers use these methods.

You may question why trainers who really love dogs continue to use methods that are not conducive to the dog’s mental well-being. The answer is simple: It is hard to change the mind of someone who is a devotee of a particular method or philosophy. One of the things I stress in my dog training program for future trainers is that everything works some of the time and nothing works all of the time. These unsound methods still work enough of the time to convince the uninformed trainer that they are correct in using them.

Understanding the harsh methods is important for today’s behaviorists. As I have found out in my practice, you will get dogs that have behavior problems as a result of owners who use have used methods they’ve learned about via TV, DVDs, or trainers who employ them. What is not readily apparent is the number of dogs who fail these programs because they could not take the harsh training. The controversy still exists about how to train a dog.

In the past 15 or so years, more studies have been done about the minds of animals. As a behaviorist I urge you to read about all living things. For example, scientists just found out that not only do bees understand the concept of zero, but that they can perform simple addition and subtraction. If bees can do that, imagine what our dogs, cats, and horses are capable of. I will often print a copy of such studies to give to my clients so that they can see, from a source other than me, how intelligent their dog or cat is.

Looking back from the 1950s to today, there have been huge changes in our culture. In the 1950s, few if any people had their pets neutered. Dogs and cats could roam free in many areas, and the newspapers always had ads for free puppies and kittens. It was more common for dogs to be tied to dog houses outside. Shelters like we have today did not exist; there were dog pounds, and if you did not claim your dog in seven days they were destroyed. There were few rescue groups.

Over the years I have seen people become more aware of their dogs’ feelings. Dogs have become a part of the family in a way that they weren’t back then. I believe this is because people have become aware of the depth of feelings, the level of intelligence, and the emotions that animals have. As people realized that dogs are not tame wolves that function only on instinct, they realized that the way animals are treated is important. It is up to all of us who work with animals to keep educating people.