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Book Review
The Power of Positive Dog Training
by Pat Miller

Review by: Kate Connick, Dec. 2002

Probably the best book in its genre, Pat Miller’s The Power of Positive Dog Training is a comprehensive manual for training pet dog obedience, tricks and manners via clicker training. Divided into three sections, the first part of the book deals with basic theory and principles. The middle section offers a 6-week lesson plan. And the final section discusses common behavior problems.

The author begins by acknowledging the effectiveness of traditional training. She had competed successfully in obedience trials using traditional training methods. She then ran into a problem when her utility-level dog refused to retrieve metal articles, and repeated ear pinches served only to turn the dog off from training altogether. She found herself doing some soul-searching, and her commitment to positive-reinforcement training was the result.

One could argue that abandoning traditional training methods that had worked so well is tantamount to pitching the baby along with the bath water, but Miller is convincing that her experience caused her to re-evaluate her training style and resolve to approach training from a “positive” perspective. To her credit, Miller tends not to pontificate in the brutish way that many positive trainers do. Her personal journey is believable. The reader can accept the sincerity of her good intentions, irrespective of the reader’s own approach.

Miller writes in a very readable, organized, comprehensive way. She expresses herself clearly, effectively, succinctly, and often humorously. One gets the impression that she would be perceived as earnest and helpful by her students. Unlike a Jean Donaldson who reads like someone who flatly prefers dogs to human beings, Miller comes across as someone who cares about both.

One of the strengths of this book is its breadth. Miller accurately defines basic terminology and principles. She advocates clicker training and explains it well. What makes this book noteworthy is the logical organization and clear progression throughout. She outlines a 6-week obedience protocol, focusing on core exercises, as well as offering up fun extras in the form of “bonus games.” Particularly useful are the troubleshooting notes.

This is an enjoyable book to read, with both the general comments about training technique and the specifics of teaching particular exercises being well-expressed. She also discusses a variety of other issues ranging from house training to counter-conditioning/desensitization to adding a baby to the household. Many helpful thoughts and creative training exercises are contained within. Black and white photos, often of her quirky-looking terrier mix, illustrate the ideas contained in the text.

Miller’s approach, in a nutshell, is to reward (most typically, with food) desired behaviors and ignore or prevent unwanted behaviors from occurring. Although she comments, “positive trainers believe that it is our challenge, as the supposedly more intelligent species, to be able to get our dogs to voluntarily offer the behaviors we want without the use of force,” the goal of a typical pet owner (i.e., to install desired behaviors and remove unwanted behaviors as efficiently and expediently as possible) may not necessarily be best served by a purist “positive” approach.

In that respect, this is not necessarily the most practical book. One has to really want to devote a significant portion of their life to training their dog in order to find this book useful. In that respect, it’s more a book for the quasi-hobbyist than the regular pet owner who just wants to be able to take their dog for a walk around the block without having to make a career out of teaching him how to do it.

For the most part, Miller avoids a lot of heavy-handed moralizing. She reasons that is it more palatable for a pet owner train using food rewards, that less harm is likely to come from injudicious use of food than corrections, and that it is an intellectual exercise for “positive trainers” to attempt to devise ways to train that involve positive reinforcements alone. Although she is clear that she prefers to attempt to avoid aversives in training, she admits that sometimes they are necessary and they can be effective training tools. I give her credit for exercising some honesty there, although I regret that she didn’t discuss this in more depth. The one example she uses to illustrate punishment involves a very noise-sensitive dog who chases livestock - a situation that the average pet owner may not relate to. Why not talk about teaching come, down, or focus to a highly independent or reactive dog who doesn’t have a strong bond with his owner and isn’t food motivated?

On the other hand, Miller does not totally avoid the them-vs-us trap. One chapter title, for example, is “train with your brain, not pain.” In truth, I don’t buy the all-or-nothing premise of positive-only dog trainers. Questions like, “Would you rather hurt your dog to train him - or feed him treats?” strike me as emotionally manipulative and intellectually dishonest. It serves no good purpose to make a pet owner feel guilty about using conventional training techniques, as no small number of “positively” trained dogs present as out-of-control brats. In fairness, the overwhelming majority of dogs trained without purely positive-reinforcement methods love their owners and respond to them well. They are not shell-shocked victims of overwhelming abuse, and it is unfair to paint non-clicker methods with that broad brush.

Positive-only training is great IF a dog has a suitably compliant temperament and if an owner is capable of providing meaningful structures and limits in other areas. Realistically, most dogs and owners do benefit from judicious use of corrections in training, and this is nothing immoral or shameful. Perhaps then the key is to focus on what makes a correction a fair one, which this author chooses not to do. Instead, she hastily discusses corrections but dismisses them as “an admission of failure on the part of a positive trainer.” The reader ends up shrugging and asking why. I am, in fact, a big softie in my own training methods, but I simply don’t buy the premise that the goal of training should be to avoid all corrections. There is no logic to that.

As a result, I think that this book is best used as a complement to other training books. I do think that this is a good book that contains a great deal of fun and useful information, but I’m not convinced that it is all a pet owner needs to train a dog. There are too many what-if’s that a strictly positive approach fails to address well. A good example relates to the large, powerful dog that isn’t sufficiently focused on food or the owner to respond well to Miller’s method of teaching leash-walking. If this dog cannot be restrained by a halter (and she admits that some dogs cannot tolerate halters), what is the owner’s recourse for walking the dog? If leash-corrections and/or upgraded equipment (e.g., choke or pinch collar) cannot be employed, then what’s the owner to do? This is a relatively common situation, and it is one where positive approaches may falter.

Another omission is a clear explanation of when and how to wean a dog off constant clicks and food rewards for simple behaviors. At what point can a dog be asked to sit and expected to do it, without the owner needing a pocket full of hotdogs? And what if the dog is asked to sit and doesn’t do it? In that particular instance, is it ever appropriate to make a dog do something that he’d rather not do? These are significant omissions.

Sometimes the positive methods seem unnecessarily cumbersome. Miller presents “excuse me” as an exercise where the dog “willingly backs out of your way and politely allows you to proceed.” She teaches it by holding a treat toward the dog’s chest, clicking and treating when the dog backs up one step, then two, and building from there. This may work well in teaching a dog to walk a straight line backwards, but if all you need is to teach a dog to get out of your way, the simplest and quickest way to do it is to simply walk into his space after issuing your “excuse me.” He’ll get out of your way out of necessity, and he’ll learn quickly in a very practical, natural way. When I read all of the steps involved in teaching some of the exercises that seem so self-evident, I find the labor-intensiveness puzzling.

In the end, yes, this is a good book, and I enjoyed reading it. It explains the basics of clicker training well, offers useful general tips about training, and outlines the way to teach a variety of standard obedience exercises and fun tricks in a very clear, step-by-step way. If someone is drawn to clicker training, this is the book to acquire. Even if clicker training isn’t one’s particular cup of tea, this book still offers enough to make it a worthwhile read. A pet owner will particularly enjoy the clear index, glossary, resources list, excellent organization and warm writing style. I regret that the author chose to avoid a more balanced presentation, because with her excellent writing ability, she could have produced a genuinely indispensable book.

The Power of Positive Dog Training by Pat Miller.
Published by Howell Book House, 2001. ISBN: 0764536095

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