Dog training is a dynamic field (although probably not as dynamic as dogs themselves), and at the annual national conference of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers (APDT) in Louisville, Ky., in mid-October ’08, it was fascinating to witness the ways in which the field continues to evolve. Following are, in my opinion, some of the most notable trends in dog training, all of which figured prominently in conference talks, workshops and dinner conversations.
1. An emphasis on people. Historically, dog trainers have paid more attention to canine ethology than to the behavior of their clients, but now, these instructors are also looking at how people learn, how to encourage them to practice at home, and how to most effectively communicate what they need to do to accomplish their dog-training goals.
2. An intense interest in play behavior. For years, play has been considered a fun topic and very enjoyable for dogs, but with the exception of its relevance to socializing puppies, it has not been widely considered to be worthy of serious attention. Now, canine play is a hot topic in dog training on several levels: establishing and maintaining the relationship between people and dogs, maintaining a high quality of life, and even solving serious behavioral problems. This year’s conference devoted an entire day to a play symposium, during which all of these topics were explored.
3. Fewer crossover trainers. The change from coercion training to positive reinforcement is not new, but what is new is that now, most positive trainers have always trained that way. Fewer people are learning coercive techniques in the first place and therefore, there are fewer trainers to cross over.
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4. An emphasis on science. For years, scientifically based training principles have been gaining ground in the dog-training world. This trend continues, with more trainers than ever coming from a scientific background or pursuing continuing education with a scientific basis and an emphasis on the critical thinking skills that allow trainers to distinguish anecdotes and opinions from facts based on scientific evidence.
5. Training as a profession. Many trainers have left careers in business or other professional fields and brought that professionalism to dog training. As a result, more people are training full time rather than doing it part time as a second job or as a hobby.
6. A broader range of information to offer. Instead of focusing narrowly on dogs’ responses to cues such as sit, heel and come, dog trainers now consider what is necessary for dogs’ overall well-being and to improve their quality of life. As a result, most trainers are able to help clients directly (or indirectly, through referrals) in the areas of canine massage, nutrition, exercise and enrichment activities.
7. A focus on family dogs. Dog training used to be directed toward competitive events, primarily obedience and dog shows. Now,many dog-training schools are focusing on teaching pet dogs the skills necessary to be mannerly members of society—walking nicely on leash, greeting others politely and coming when called. These skills are different from competition skills such as a perfect heel, a formal recall and a long sit-stay.
8. Relationships as a top priority. Training is universally considered to be more effective and more quickly accomplished when a strong relationship exists between the person and the dog. As a result, that relationship has become a bigger part of the equation. This recognition means dog trainers are emphasizing ways to develop and strengthen those relationships in connection with the way people train, play and interact with their dogs. Along with that understanding comes the idea that dogs are members of our families. This view, which used to be expressed timidly, almost apologetically, is not only widely accepted now, but unquestionably mainstream.
So, what’s the take-away message? Here it is: It has never been easier for you and your dog to get quality training from a highly skilled, educated professional who focuses on your needs as well as those of your canine companion. And what a great combination that is.