OverviewThe Koehler Method of Dog Training produces a dog capable of performing the following exercises: Heel, Come, Sit, Down, Stand, and Stay, both on & off-leash in about 13 weeks; all exercises conform to American Kennel Club standards. Your dog will perform these exercises willingly, happily, and with uncompromised reliability. More importantly, the method will provide you with an understanding of canine behaviour unclouded by today’s petty insecurities. You will be able to employ this understanding to achieve other training goals. Best of all, you will be able to confidently enjoy the companionship of a well behaved dog.
This is achieved by recognizing your dog as a living, breathing, thinking animal who possesses the God given right of choice. You will learn how to “naturally” influence his behaviour by concentrating on a sequence of essentials. Your dog will learn from this experience, that his own comfort or discomfort is the consequential result of the choices he makes...naturally.
A dog can be made accountable for his own misbehavior and, at the same time, responsible for his own good behavior. Koehler was right, then and now.
The bases of the philosophy, simply stated, is that a dog acts on his God given right of choice. Mr. Koehler once explained that a dog’s learned behavior is an act of choice based on his own learning experience. And that when those choices are influenced by the expectation of reward, the behavior will most likely be repeated. And, that when those choices are influenced by the anticipation of punishment, they will most likely cease. This is Nature’s recipe for learning.
This one statement: “that when those choices are influenced by the anticipation of punishment they will most likely cease” is the genesis for most criticisms of Koehler’s methods. The critics argue that teaching a dog to anticipate punishment will produce a condition of anxiety which will permanently colour his behaviour; and that the anxious dog will become, at best ‘apprehensive’, or at worst ‘afraid,’ of his own behaviour.
I would like to debunk this argument by analyzing a part of our own human behaviour where an action is, in fact, motivated by the anticipation of punishment ... stopping for red lights.
Everyday on every street in every city you will see pedestrians, bicyclists, and drivers stopping for red lights. How did this come to be? We are not born with a gene that predisposed us to this behaviour; we were programmed by punishment, or the threat of punishment, to do so. Once we have learned that not stopping for the light produces punishment, but that stopping for it somehow prevents punishment, we simply learn to stop in the presence of the stimulus (the red light) to avoid punishment. Therefore, when we approach a red light we do not feel apprehension nor fear for the stimulus, we feel instead, only the need to stop.
Stopping for red lights is really a matter of choice. You may choose not to stop for the light, in which case you will then have to endure the anxiety which follows. Or, you may choose to stop for the red light, in which case you will feel the calmness which follows right action. Either way, it is a matter of choice.
The Foundation (chapter 3) for The Koehler Method of Dog Training is a process using the dog’s own “right of choice.” Allow me to outline the foundation work for those not familiar with it (it’s a real attention getter). As early as day number three, the dog is brought onto the training field from a place of solitary confinement where he has been for about two hours. He has not eaten in 4 hours, nor has he consumed any water for one hour. He is wearing a properly fitted choke collar and a fifteen foot longe line. You arrive at a predetermined position on the field, which you have selected as a starting point.
While at the starting point you place the thumb of your right hand into the loop of the longe line and close your fist around the handle. Place your left hand directly under your right and close a fist around the line and let the balance of the line drop to the ground. Now, silently move toward a fixed object of reference 50 feet ahead. Oh but wait, you exclaim, does this author not understand that if I drop the fifteen feet of slack to the dog he will move directly toward anything that might distract him? Yes, and so did Mr. Koehler. We fully recognize, as should you, that the dog who goes toward the distraction does so as a matter of choice.
You too are granted the right of choice, and in this case, your choice will be to turn away from the dog’s line of travel and move, with equal determination, in a direction opposite his. Before long the slack is consumed and the dog is made very uncomfortable. His good senses will tell him that the resulting discomfort was something other than what he expected when he chose to go in the direction of the distraction. His instincts will be to somehow lessen the discomfort around his neck, and when he finally moves toward you, also an act of his choosing, the line will indeed slacken and the dog will have made a more correct choice; one which results in comfort.
With only six days of longe line work, the dog has learned that moving in your direction is more comfortable than moving toward the distraction; or the dog has learned that moving toward the distraction results in discomfort. This experience will teach your dog that comfort and discomfort are the direct results of the choices he makes.
At this point Koehler will have you teach your dog how to make decisions based on exercising his new understanding of choice making. A dog making decisions? Yes, and we can prove that a dog is capable of utilizing his decision making process with as little as a single learning experience.
Once the dog has learned that his choices result in comfort or discomfort we can teach him to make desirable decisions with the expectation of reward by simultaneously teaching him to anticipate punishment as the result of an undesirable decision. This is done by teaching the dog that there is a place where all good things happen and that staying in that place is a very pleasant thing to do. The dog learns also that being away from that place results in something less than pleasurable. What is taught is free heeling.
Now wait just a dog gone minute, surely this author doesn’t propose to teach a dog to heel free if he does not yet know how to heel on leash, or does he? Yes, he most certainly does. By intention, the teaching of the heel exercise has nothing at all to do with teaching the dog to heel on, or off-lead. The fact that the dog learns to “heel” is a matter of the process, but the intent is to teach the dog to use his decision making powers to remain in a place where he expects comfort and reward. Mr. Koehler once told me that teaching a dog to perform an act (such as heeling) means little, you simply end up with a dog subordinate to the act itself; but teaching a dog to make decisions which result in good heeling means much more, as the dog then becomes subordinate to right action.
To teach the decision making process we bring the dog to a location where we have plenty of open space. The dog must have his choke collar, 6’ leash, and a foundation in choice making. Place the dog on your left side and allow the leash to hang loosely from the collar into your right hand where only as much of the slack is collected to allow you to walk without tripping over it. Place your right hand on your belly button and put your left hand on your head (a euphemism for ‘keep it off the leash’).
Take ‘mark’ on an object about two hundred yards ahead of you, give your dog a single heel command while simultaneously stepping forward with your left foot and start moving in the direction of the ‘marker.’ Ideally, your dog will stay comfortably close to your left side, the dog’s head traveling along with the centerline of your body.
This position is what Mr. Koehler called “pleasant heaven” (for purpose of illustration I shall refer to it as the ‘zone’). Your dog will likely do one of four things; he may forge, that is to say he will move ahead of the zone, at which point you will drop the slack in the leash, execute a right-about turn, and move quickly in the opposite direction, collect up your slack as you move toward another marker straight ahead. The dog is now aware that he is not to move in front of you. He may then try to move into you, in which case you will execute a left turn directly into the head of the dog, now take a mark on your new direction and proceed toward it. Your dog is now aware that he should not be so close as to feel you (so that he may “keep tabs” on you through his sense of touch) and thus moves wide, or starts to lag behind, in either case you will drop the slack and execute a right turn, collect up your slack as you move toward another marker straight ahead. Your dog is now aware that he may not drop back, or move wide (so as to keep you focused in his peripheral vision).
Let’s stop here, as most of our critics do, to examine one of the great non-truths that this method is shrouded in. That “all the jerking around, in order to establish the heel pattern is not necessary and will make the dog afraid of the handler.”
First of all, we are not interested in establishing a “pattern of heeling.” We are interested in the dog’s “pattern of learning.” If the critics would simply read beyond page 61, they might come to this conclusion for themselves. As far as the “jerking around” is concerned, this is fool hearted attempt to find fault in the logic of the longe line and the initial leash work. The fact is, we don’t jerk the dog...the dog jerks himself. Semantics, exclaim our critics! Well, it maybe “semantics” to our critics, but it is a very real distinction to the dog; remember, we started this lesson with a dog that has a foundation in choice making. The dog comes onto the training field with the knowledge that he is responsible for his own comfort and that if his decision to forge results in discomfort, then forging will cease. It is really that simple. The same goes for crowding into the handler, lagging behind, or moving wide. The dog is not made afraid of the handler. In fact, quite the opposite is achieved. Here’s how.
With the dog now aware that he should not forge, crowd, lag, or move wide, we must provide him with experiences that will teach him where he should be. For this we will reward him for maintaining at least some semblance of the heel position; but, in order for him to receive this reward he must first learn to sit.
Days 1 & 2 of the second week
Give the dog the “Joe-Heel” command and move in a direction of your choosing. As you make the proper turns the dog will correct himself for forging, lagging, crowding, or heeling wide. When the dog has maintained “Pleasant Heaven” for 10 - 15 paces, slide your left hand down the leash and stop at the stitching. This will also stop both yours and the dog’s forward motion. Now, replace your left hand with your right and use your left hand to position the dog into a sitting position facing the direction you were heeling. Relax the leash and praise the dog. Do this 25X per night ... use no ‘sit’ command.
Days 3&4 of the second week
Proceed exactly as above except to start giving the dog the command “Joe-Sit.” He should hear the command just before his rear end hits the ground. Relax the leash and praise the dog. Do this 25X per night.
Days 5&6 of the second week
Bring the dog to your starting point and give him the command “Joe-Heel,” after 10 paces slide your left hand down to the stitching ( stopping the dog’s forward motion) place your right hand next to your left hand (you should now be grasping the leash with both hands) bend a little at the knees to put some slack in the collar and give the command “Joe-sit.” Wait 2 seconds for a response, he will either sit (as he has done 100 times previously) for reward, or he will not...in which case you will jerk straight up with both hands thus causing the dog’s head to go up, his rear to go down, and as soon as he is sitting...relax the leash and praise the dog. Repeat this procedure 25X per night.
By the end of the second week your dog should be in the heel position, on a slack leash, and responding to your command to “Joe-sit.” He will have learned, by experience, that maintaining the heel position will cause you to stop and praise him. His decision to remain, or not to remain in “pleasant heaven” is ultimately his to make. Let him. His decision to sit within 2 seconds of your command is also his to make. Let him. Your only duty here is to correct for wrong decisions, and praise for right action.
The training sequence outlined above is for discussion reference only; refer to the book for complete detail.
Question: Regarding the first week’s work, I have heard that you must continually repeat a command in a pleasant tone of voice in order for the dog to understand what you want him to do. You advocate that I say nothing to him, yet expect him to pay attention. How is this possible?
Answer: Your dog at this point does not understand your articulations of want or desire. He does, however, learn that you may change direction and speed without a moments notice, and that if he is caught unaware then the result is something less than comfortable. And don’t be drawn in to thinking that your dog must hear what you want him to do, many deaf dogs have successfully completed our classes. In fact, a deaf mute attended one of our 10 week courses in Stockton, Ca. A local charity provided a “signer” to interpret my instructions. At the end of the course he graduated with a score of 194 out of a possible 200 (we use the AKC Novice ring format and rules for our graduating exercise) without ever saying a single word!
Question: The method seems a bit drawn-out, you don’t even start the recall exercise until about week four. Other methods seem much faster, couldn’t the process be sped up, and made more enjoyable for the dog with treats.
Answer: If the “process of the training” is your focal desire, as it is for many hobbyists, then I suppose you can speed things up with treats; that it is more enjoyable to the dog depends on how motivated the dog is in wanting the bribe. But, if the focal desire is to get the dog trained, as it is for most of our students and clients, consider this; on occasion I have met private training clients at Pier 39 in San Francisco to return their dogs. I’ll demonstrate my confidence in their dog with a quick novice-dog routine, then hand the leash to them. We make our way from the Embarcadero to the financial district on-leash. We then proceed off-leash through Chinatown back to the Maritime museum where we work on sit and down stays. Over to the pier for some recall work, and back to the parking garage. A street trial, if you will, which takes about 90 minutes to comfortably complete. Our private training program, like our classes, is 10 to 13 weeks, this is fast enough for us. As far as the enjoyment factor goes, I can only say that we prefer to get the dog beyond contention so that we can enjoy the companionship of the trained dog, not the process of training him.
Question: I have heard that you emphasize too many leash and collar corrections and that your use of punishment is your primary training tool. Could you comment.
Answer: Simple, those who have formed this opinion...can’t read. First of all, if you were to read the book and follow its content to the letter, you will realize that leash corrections, when correctly administered, are minimal; and infrequent beyond the seventh week ... the dog’s not wearing a leash anymore! In our classes (and outlined in the book) we test the adequacy of your leash and collar work before moving on to off-leash. You do this by connecting a 6” piece of common sewing thread, looped and knotted, to the running ring of your training collar and snap your leash on the loop. We then do about 10 minutes of “scrambled heeling,” sit, down, and stand stays, and recalls. If you made it through without breaking your thread you’re ready for off-leash. This test is given at week five. A dog who has had too many leash corrections (thereby making him ultimately dependent on the leash as a controlling influence rather than being influenced by the reward of right action) is likely to fail this test.
Question: Still, the book seems to focus more on the aspect of punishment for wrong action rather than the use of positive reinforcement for right action, why?
Answer: Without the use of positive reinforcement the longe line (the very foundation of our training) would not work. Perhaps you should try reading the book aloud to the “man in the mirror.” If your definition of positive reinforcement is to offer a treat to the dog for correct performance you are probably more than a little confused. If you were to give a Koehler trained dog a treat for every act of right performance the dog would be very fat. Click on the “Pattern of Learning” link, located on the navigation bar, to learn the dynamic relationship of positive and negative reinforcement, reward systems, schedules of reinforcement, primary reinforcers, secondary reinforcers, the use of delayed secondary rewards, and the use of modified punishers as reinforcers.
Question: I adopted my dog, a 6 months old Chihuahua/Terrier cross, from a rescue organization. They told be that he had been badly abused by his former owners and cringes every time I show any kind of authority. Can your method help this dog?
Answer: This dog would definitely benefit from our method. By not fixating or focusing on this display we can eliminate it as an undesirable behaviour from the dog’s repertoire of displacement behaviours. By remaining fixed and focused on our intended goal we can teach desired behaviours instead. For instance, let’s say that we are starting day 1 of the “Sit,” as we slide our left hand down the leash to stop the dog’s forward motion, he goes belly down. We simply replace our left hand with our right, pull up with the right, push down on the rear with the left, thereby mechanically placing the dog into the sit position and praise for the sit. Proceed as scheduled with the heeling & sitting. The dog will learn that cringing does not discourage you from proceeding toward your intended desire, but sitting quickly (in response to your desire for him to do so) will result in earned praise. The quicker he complies...the quicker he is praised. You will see that your desire becomes more compelling to him than his need to cringe. As the cringing lessens you intensify the praise.
Question: I’m going to use the book as my tutor, any helpful advice?
Answer: Read the entire text before you start. Once you start, follow it along and do the exercises exactly as they are presented and in the order that they are presented in. Do not shortcut the process or you will fall short of your intended desire...a well mannered, off-leash dog. When done correctly, you and your dog will soon be able to responsibly enjoy the freedom of an off-lead relationship.
We hope that this insight into The Koehler Method of Dog Training was informative and educational. Your comments, and criticisms are invited. Please forward them to Tony Ancheta. The only criteria is that your piece be signed, and that contact information is provided. Be advised that you may be quoted, if you want your name withheld, then please indicate so.