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Book Review
Dog Logic: Companion Obedience
by Joel McMains

Review by: Kate Connick, Jan. 2003

One of a great many books in the basic obedience training genre, Joel McMains Dog Logic: Companion Obedience aims to be a how-to manual for the novice pet owner. It sets forth the author's basic principles for understanding dog behavior, then guides the reader through a 5-week obedience course. The overall effect is one of good organization and thorough treatment. The perspective is, however, very traditionalist and will not appeal to all owners or their dogs. I would not encourage the average pet owner to attempt to train their dog this way.

Based on pack theory, the author's overriding theme is that obedience training is as much about teaching respect as it is about teaching basic commands. McMains asserts, "If you permit him to run you, he will. If he sees you as dominant, he'll accept your self-proclaimed status." Obedience to commands thus flows directly from a dog's respect for its pack leader. Disobedience to known commands is tantamount to disrespect and must be dealt with firmly. The author presents this as a means to deal with a dog on his own level, one that the dog will instinctively understand.

Whether or not one agrees with that philosophy, there is validity to the notion of being a responsible leader and decision-maker in one's dog's life. McMains takes great pains to discuss the mutual respect, love, and bonding that one should share with one's dog. He discusses the dog-owner relationship at great length and with great romance. He attempts to make a very clear distinction between fair and unfair discipline, between instructive corrections and abusive displays of power which might undermine one's relationship with their dog. In fairness, he repeatedly asserts that dogs should not be corrected if they are willing but confused and that correction should be just enough to get one's point across and no more.

Unfortunately, a lot of this is based on the reader's ability to subjectively determine whether their dog is honestly trying to be compliant or defiantly disregarding them. Such distinctions are not always so clear-cut in real life, and the real risk is that an owner will punish a dog for stress, confusion, and lack of understanding. Ultra-positive schools of training have developed as a reaction to the abuses visited upon dogs by often well-intentioned handlers who genuinely believe that an escalation in punishment is the key to getting through to the dog. McMains is all too aware of this trap, as he repeatedly warns the reader not to over-correct and to be attentive to not damaging their dog's trust in them. Yet the method itself could be viewed as the weak link, as it fundamentally relies on compulsion - the avoidance of punishment - as its motivator.

Poetic to the point, perhaps, of being corny at times, McMains is convincing that he holds a deep and abiding love for dogs and genuinely believes that this is the kindest, most humane yet effective way to train. Intelligent and literate, McMains scores points with his humility. He discusses what works for him and what he has personally seen not work for others. He never claims that his method is the best or only, and he repeatedly encourages the reader to be flexible and allow their dog to be their guide. He encourages the reader to explore other books and training techniques and evolve an outlook that makes sense to them. That attitude alone is one of the book's greatest strengths.

He does lose some credibility with inconsistencies. On the one hand, he argues against anthropomorphically treating dogs. He sensibly points out that dogs are not children and that it is a mistake to attempt to treat them as such. On the other, he continually discusses dogs in the most anthropomorphic manner himself, often to the point of silliness.

In most bizarre display of anthropomorphism, he advocates praising a dog to a third party for a good day's lesson. Two dogs named Mickey and Kee had been left with McMains for training, and he explains how after having a good training session with Mickey, he took the dog to Kee's kennel run and "began recounting: 'Mickey Good Sit,' 'Mickey Good Fuss,' 'Mickey Good Stay' and so forth, looking from one to the other during the recital." No, the dog was not performing these behaviors at the time. Rather, the author was telling the kenneled dog that his cohort had done a good sit, fuss, stay, etc. during that day's training lesson. He continues that "The first time I reported to Kee on Mickey's progress, Mickey seemed a trifle confused and perhaps slightly embarrassed by it all," but eventually "his overall countenance radiated pride." Sure, a dog will respond to cheerful vocal tones, but McMains actually believes that "an effective manner of praise is - with the dog present - telling another person (preferably a family member) how well your pal just did a particular piece of work." I love dogs, but I don't for a moment believe that they can make these sorts of mental leaps.

Other inconsistencies are evident, as well. On the one hand, he warns that one should not praise a dog in a situation where a correction has been given. For example, if one tells a dog to sit and the dog refuses, is corrected, and then sits, McMains does not believe that praise is earned. "Approval should be given for things a dog does, not for things that he is pressured to do." Yet, after advising a smack under the chin for leash-chewing, he recommends, "a few seconds after any disciplining, follow with a quick pat on the neck and the word 'Good' to demonstrate that you haven't taken a dislike to the animal." Isn't that, in essence, correcting leash chewing and then praising the absence of it? I'm not entirely sure how it differs from praising the corrected dog who then sits.

The specific mechanics of McMains's method involve a pinch collar and a reliance on compulsion-based training. Food and toys are not an integral part of the training process; verbal praise is the reward of choice. The dog is physically guided into performing each behavior until it appears to grasp the idea. At that point, non-compliance is punished. Taking into consideration that the author himself appears to be most involved with Schutzhund and working police K-9's, his methods are not necessarily unreasonable. They would probably work well with hard, driven, dominant yet biddable dogs - in short, the dogs for which these methods were originally developed.

On the other hand, these same methods appear unnecessarily tough for the average, soft-tempered, rather submissive housepet. And frankly, his techniques would be flatly unappealing to the average pet owner, especially in lieu of gentler, more motivational styles of training. In my years, I have owned one dog who might have trained well under this style. The others would have struggled, because their temperaments were too soft or too independent. Happily, there are alternatives that are often more suitable for family companions.

There are some practical limitations to McMains's methods as presented. For example, under his system, formal training cannot begin any sooner than when a dog is 6-8 months of age and able to cope with the inherent stress of being trained. While this might be a doable way of grooming a working dog, the family person who wants to mold a family dog may find that they have many unanswered questions - like what to do for the first 6-8 months, aside from housetraining and teaching retrieving and tug games. McMains resists the idea of training puppies, because he so strongly believes that all commands must be enforced and that puppies cannot cope with the stress involved in serious training/corrections. I'm not entirely sure how somebody is supposed to raise a puppy in their home for the first 6-8 months if they can't begin teaching it some basics, however imperfectly.

Another significant drawback of his style of training is that it requires a handler to be physically more powerful than their dog. For that reason, McMains notes that children should not be involved in training. "A child who is physically or psychologically unable to back up his or her commands should not work a dog. A canine that perceives incapability can learn to ignore the giver's commands and may come to resent his or her attentions." Um, so what is somebody with children supposed to do if the training cannot be transferred to a child? Other methods that rely more on positive-reinforcement could have a dog eagerly complying with basic obedience for even a small child, in the hopes of winning a treat. That, in fact, is a huge advantage of more positive methods vs. more traditional ones. There are many ways to control a dog, and physical force is certainly one, but it is not the only or necessarily best way.

Although disdainful of using food to bribe a dog, McMains hints at a grudging respect for the potency of food rewards in training, especially for exercises like recalls which require enthusiasm. He does not introduce food into training until after a lesson is learned, which gives him the opportunity to assert his dominance and avoid the appearance of bribery. Even then, he recommends only occasional food rewards and expresses ambivalence in allowing for this. "Present the snack not as a bonus but as a gift between friends: 'Why look what I just happened to find in my pocket - have some.' ...your pet's reward is that coming to you allows him to be with you." I dare say that to the dog, that food is a bonus beyond simply getting to be with the owner, and I don't see the harm in being honest about it.

For what it is, this book covers its topic reasonably well. The author writes well enough to make the book engaging, although I don't abide by his philosophy or methods myself. The approach that he takes to training is far more confrontational and hard-line than required by the average pet dog, and the underlying perspective is too adversarial, even given his flowery praise of dogs and the dog-human bond. I find that his style of romantic anthropomorphism tends to set owners up for disappointment in their only-too-canine charges. That being said, I do believe that McMains loves his dogs and is a capable trainer. If someone seeks a more traditional training style, this book might be worth looking at. McMains sums it up best himself:

There is no perfect training method, no single correct or foolproof approach to teaching each and every dog each and every exercise. This accounts for the proliferation of books on the subject. Were there an ideal method, there'd be a single obedience text instead of the many currently in print.

Dog Logic: Companion Obedience by Joel McMains.
Published by Howell Book House, 1992. ISBN: 0876055102

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