Compulsive Training

If you took a training class 20 years ago, chances you good that you are familiar with compulsive training techniques. Compulsive training involves physically placing dogs in position (known by dog trainers as “molding”), using leash corrections when the dog makes a mistake, and using praise to reward the dog for good decisions. Compulsive trainers often use special collars, such as nylon slip, metal choke, or plastic or metal prong collars.

Paws Abilities doesn’t use or promote compulsive training techniques. Why?

Certainly, these techniques can be effective. A skilled trainer can use compulsive training techniques to achieve quick response to commands with little stress on the dog. However, we believe that clicker training works better and is less likely to cause unintended problems.

Prong collars are frequently used with compulsive training.

Compulsive training works based on punishment and negative reinforcement. The dog learns that if he doesn’t comply immediately, he will be punished. This punishment is something that the dog finds aversive, such as a leash correction causing a collar to tighten around the dog’s neck momentarily. Punishments can range from mild discomfort to outright pain. When the dog complies, he “turns off” the punishment and is praised. Praise serves to tell the dog that he’s safe for the moment.

We frequently have students ask to come to our upper-level classes after training with a local center that uses compulsive training techniques, including prong collars. They are surprised when I tell them that they cannot even bring their prong collar to class. There’s no need for uncomfortable, painful, or frightening training techniques in our program.

There are several drawbacks to compulsive training.

The biggest problem with compulsive techniques is the risk of fallout. Fallout is a term that refers to unintended consequences to a training technique. Done incorrectly or poorly, or done to a soft or anxious dog, compulsive training techniques can cause aggression or fear issues. We see this frequently with our Canine Behavior services. Many dogs become leash-reactive after being walked on a prong collar. This makes sense when you consider how dogs learn.

Dogs learn by associating two things that happen closely together in time. Consider a friendly dog who’s being walked on a prong collar. The dog sees another dog and wants to go say hi, so he pulls towards the other dog. The prong collar tightens around his neck, causing pain. He stops pulling. The owner thinks that they’ve solved their dog’s pulling problem, but the dog makes a different connection. After this happens several times, the dog learns that other dogs predict pain. This causes him to become reactive out of fear and anticipation of pain whenever he sees another dog, which causes him to lunge and bark, which causes more pain. A vicious cycle begins. This issue is incredibly common (so much so that we do multiple private consults for prong-collar-related leash aggression every month).

Compulsive techniques can also cause fear issues and sometimes result in a dog shutting down. When a dog shuts down, he stops moving or trying things and becomes very still. Sometimes owners mistake this for obedience, but a shut down dog is incredibly sad. No creature should be afraid to move.

Slip or choke collars may also be used with this technique.

Timing is a big issue in all training, but I would argue that it’s an even bigger issue with compulsive training. If your timing is a little off with clicker training, it may take longer for the dog to figure out what you want. That’s not a big deal, because the dog is still getting rewarded and enjoying the game. Contrast that to compulsive training, where a mistimed correction is not just confusing, but frightening to the dog. Occasionally trainers who have used compulsive training techniques will tell me that clicker training is too hard because their timing is off. Which do you think the dog would prefer, a mistimed click or a mistimed leash correction?

Compulsively trained dogs sometimes have a difficult time transitioning to off-leash work. If you rely on a leash and collar to control and train your dog, it can be a big step to let go of that control. Some dogs become wise to this, listening beautifully on leash and then running off the second the leash is unsnapped.

One of the biggest myths associated with compulsive training is that it is superior to clicker or other reward-based training because the trainer does not need to use food or toy rewards. Compulsive trainers say that their dog should work for them out of love or respect rather than working for food. While this sounds admirable, it’s simply not true. Compulsively-trained dogs work for praise, not because praise rewards their devotion, but simply because praise functions as a safety cue. These dogs learn that when they’re being praised, they’re not in imminent danger of an uncomfortable correction. Praise functions as negative reinforcement. It tells the dog he’s safe for the moment. A dog who works for praise is no more loyal or devoted than a dog who works for food or toys.

If you’re still using compulsive training, there are easier and more effective alternatives available to you. Contact us if you’re curious about learning more!

In future posts we’ll discuss other training techniques, including the use of invisible fences, e-collars, and common myths about clicker training. We’ll also discuss some potential problems with positive reinforcement training, and how to overcome them.

In the meantime, we want to hear from you! If you’ve crossed over from compulsive training to clicker training, what prompted you to do so? Did you find it difficult to make the switch? Do you have questions about compulsive training techniques or the difference between compulsion and clicker training? Please feel free to comment below.

10 responses to “Compulsive Training

  1. Dogs and human beings react to the world in relation to the primary emotions of fear and love. We must try to use as much of the latter, and as little of the former as possible.

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