For Linda and her Furkids!
The first thing I need to say is that you are an excellent dog mom. You have nothing to feel guilty about. I see people practicing the type of training you've described almost every day for years; their flaw is in an unflappable belief that the things they are doing are not only okay, but the one and only right way to do things. Training techniques become almost a religion to people--they are right and everyone else can be damned. They're doing something appropriate, wise, and necessary and they won't hear anything different. The fact that you're open to the idea that the way you paid someone to train your dogs may not have been the best makes you a smart, responsible, and selfless parent to your dogs and I admire you for it. Thank you for considering the possibility, no matter what opinion you may develop.
The truth is that the sort of punishment-based training we all grew up with works. If it didn't, we wouldn't use it. But there are a couple of fundamental problems with training any animal with punishment. The first is that by its nature, punishment-based training does not take into account the subject's motivations. "I don't care why he does it, I just want him to stop," or "I want him to sit immediately when I tell him to, no matter what's happening." It's not a cooperative situation. The communication goes one way, from the trainer to the subject. Which wouldn't be a problem if the subject wasn't a thinking animal. But there is no such thing as unmotivated behavior. I'll give you a couple of real life examples:
I worked with a dog named Bailey in Wisconsin. Bailey's mom had hired another trainer to teach him basic obedience. Her problem was that Bailey would only sit when she pushed down on his rear. It really bugged her that he wouldn't just sit when she asked. Her previous trainer had declared him "difficult and strong-headed" and used electric shock to "teach" him to sit. When the e-collar was on, he'd sit on command. As soon as it came off, he developed selective hearing. When I talked to Bailey's mom about the problem, I suggested she take him to the vet. His breed and the behavior she described taken in context with Bailey's day-to-day behavior suggested to me that he might actually have a physical condition that kept him from sitting down comfortably. Sure enough, he had a painful luxating patella (a condition involving the dog's kneecap slipping out of joint) that hurt him every time he sat. The previous trainer hadn't thought to have Bailey checked for a physical problem. They weren't interested in what motivated him to behave in the way they saw. They wanted him to sit so they could get their money and go home.
One more example: Some older folks called me about evaluating their young border collie, Molly. Molly had begun pulling out and eating her own fur. It was causing repeated skin infections and she threw up the fur daily. It was clear to me that she was very distressed, but I couldn't for the life of me figure out why. I spent hours with her family trying to discover the source of her distress. We eventually went outside to examine her environment--I was even considering that she had been eating some toxic plant or another substance that was making her ill. As we walked the property, I complimented the woman on her amazing flower gardens. She said, "Thank you! They sure look better now that Molly's not digging them up anymore." With a little further probing, I managed to discover that Molly had been quite the digger and had been destroying the woman's valuable flowers. A friend of theirs had told them to fill a tennis-ball can half-way up with pennies, hide behind the building, then throw the can as hard as they could at Molly whenever she got near the flower beds. They did it, and she stopped digging. But border collies are intensely intelligent, energetic animals. Denying her digging, although good for the flowers, was denying her an outlet for her almost boundless energy. The can of pennies, which was heavy, loud, and frightening, was causing her such anxiety that she didn't even want to leave the house. She sat indoors and turned her brilliant mind and energy to obsessive self mutilation, like a child chewing his nails in a boring class. We set about working with Molly to repair her self confidence. We built her her own little "sandbox"--just a frame of two-by-fours in the yard--in which she was allowed and encouraged to dig to her heart's content, on the condition that she was not to dig anywhere else. We also taught her to play frisbee, which she did with enormous enthusiasm. We got her some stimulating toys and got her moving on basic obedience to exercise her brilliant mind. The fur-pulling stopped immediately, and so did the infections and vomiting. Again, it came from understanding her motivations.
This leads to another problem with punishment training. Training this way has behavioral "side effects". I would suspect that this is at least partially responsible for Mango's unpredictable behavior. (More about this later.) When you use pain, fear, or other punishments to train an animal for a certain behavior, other undesirable behaviors often develop that didn't exist previously, such as Molly's hair-pulling. Many dogs develop aggressive tendencies from being trained with punishment, because they begin to fear people who may bring pain.
The last problem I'll mention is that animals frequently don't understand what's expected of them when trained this way. Frequently, punishment trainers force a dog into a behavior by cutting off all other options except for the one they want. If you give a dog no choice but to sit, he'll sit. But he's trying to learn through a process of elimination. There's a huge difference between this and actually showing him what you want him to do. It changes a "I think this is right" to an "Oh, I see!"
Positive training is so important to your relationship with your dog. Punishment training is adverserial--it focuses on what the dog's doing wrong and attempts to correct the problems. It "dehumanizes" the dog, if you will. In the trainer's mind, when the focus is on the negative they tend to see dogs in general as "lower" beings, stupid, and belligerent. Positive training is cooperative. It allows the trainer and the subject to focus on what's being done right. It's fun, exciting, and upbeat. Everyone learns faster when they're having fun. We all appreciate being told we're doing a good job when we're trying our best. A little encouragement goes a long way toward motivating us to do well. Dogs are the same way. When you train with positive methods, it shows your dogs that you appreciate them as individuals and respect them as friends and companions. It takes into account their motivations and so opens the communication to both parties. You listen and you teach, and lo and behold the dog learns faster.
You should be proud for second-guessing the methods your trainer used. If you're uncomfortable with something that's being done to your dog, there's no reason to continue. Punishment trainers like to convince you that their way is the only way your dog will learn what you want him to learn. That is absolute hogswallop. There are dozens of different ways to teach or discourage any one behavior. Anyone who tells you differently has little or no knowledge of training as an actual behavioral science. I tell my clients, "I find it works well if you..." or "Why don't we try it this way..." But by no means will I stick to a method that's clearly not working. It only wastes my time and my clients' money, and confuses the dog. This is the rule of thumb: Don't pay someone to do to your dog what you would prosecute them for doing to your child. There is always another way. Anyone that tells you different is full of it. Any trainer you use should consistently ask you: (a) Do you understand exactly what's being done and why? and (b) Do you have any ideas to contribute to what's being done? A good trainer will look to you for nearly constant feedback. Frequently a dog's owner has valuable insights into their dog's behavior and motivation, giving them an essential role in the training process. No one knows your dogs like you do, so no one can train them properly without your input and participation.
Instructor, Relationship Coach
Paws & Effect Training