When I first got my Shiba Inu, I had a lot of troubles with him. He is a stubborn, independent minded guy, and I was expecting a more Disneyesque kind of dog. Instead, I got an aloof thing that looked like a dog, but acted more like a “terror that flaps in the night”.
Because Sephy was so confident, stubborn, and independent, I started with aversive training techniques. In this article, I talk about three common dog training methods that I used on Sephy, and why I have stopped using them.
- Touching the dog’s flank.
- Leash corrections, collar corrections, or leash jerks.
- Holding a dog to the ground (also known as the alpha roll).
1. Touch the Dog’s Flank
This technique is commonly used to stop a dog from obsessing on an external stimulus (e.g. another dog, a cat, a person). Reactive or aggressive dogs often start by actively searching for something to focus on. Once a target is acquired, the dog gets extremely still, and will stare unblinking at the object.
During this time, the dog will not give attention to anything else, even food.
From here, the dog can explode in a burst of energy and lunge after his target when it gets within range.
I try to stop my dog as early as possible, and redirect him onto something else. If I wait too long, he will lose control and practice reactive/aggressive behavior, that he will then be more prone to repeat.
Initially, I was able to break my Shiba Inu from focusing on objects by touching his flank (startle response). After a few times however, he got habituated to it and would just ignore the touch.
The best technique, I have found, for avoiding reactive/aggressive triggers, is to ignore those objects myself, and just move my dog along. There are a variety of other techniques for dealing with dog-to-dog aggression and other aggression triggers.
A variation on the touch, is what is known as the finger jab. Instead of a touch or tap, some trainers direct clients to apply a hard jab to the dog. While the two techniques may sound similar, they actually work quite differently.
Unlike a touch, finger jabs are very dependent on the amount of physical force applied. We want to apply the right amount of force, so that our dog has an aversive response. Too weak a jab and our dog will just ignore it, and too strong a jab may cause stress, fear, and more.
Finger jabs are a pain based technique, and as such, all the risks of aversive methods are present as well.
2. Leash Correction, Collar Correction, Leash Jerk
Leash corrections are very difficult to implement with the proper timing, with the proper force, and with the proper technique. I received many private lessons on how to perform leash jerks, and I was still not doing it correctly.
Firstly, and most importantly, the collar correction has to be a quick jerk or snap. There is only tension for an extremely short amount of time (a quarter-second or less), and then the leash should be loose again.
Most people tend to do tugs rather than jerks, which have very little effect on the dog. Instead, it may exacerbate the situation, because there is continuous tension on the leash, causing the dog to get more tense and frustrated.
Secondly, we must be properly positioned for the jerk so that the force is always to the side, rather than directly back. Jerking to the back, may encourage the dog to lunge forward to oppose the force.
Finally, the leash jerk has to be implemented with the proper amount of force so that our dog exhibits an aversive response. It cannot be so hard that it causes our dog to break down, and it cannot be so soft that our dog does not notice it or gets habituated to it. For me, this was the most difficult part.
My leash jerks were always too soft, and my Shiba Inu quickly got habituated to it. Instead of improving his behavior, my dog just got frustrated and aggressive whenever I did a leash correction. He would jump and bite on the leash. Ultimately, it got so bad that he would jump on me and bite on my jacket sleeve.
Some people use a martingale collar, prong collar, or choke chain to help them perform more accurate leash jerks, with greater force. I used both the martingale and the prong. However, as with the flat collar, results were good at first, but degraded after my dog got accustomed to the increased force from the prong.
The collar correction may be more appropriate for a less strong-willed breed, but it did not work well on my stubborn Shiba Inu. As with other pain based aversive techniques, leash corrections can also cause our dog to lose trust in us, and develop other behavioral problems, including aggression.
3. Alpha Roll
The alpha roll involves holding or pinning our dog down until he surrenders, gives up, or shuts down.
It is extremely difficult to implement an alpha roll well and in the proper circumstance. In the hands of most pet owners, alpha rolls frequently gets overused and misused.
My Shiba Inu got really stressed (wild eyes, mouthing, screaming, flailing) whenever I did this on him. Even after he relaxed, he got very detached afterwards, and it did not seem to have any effect on his bad dog behaviors. In fact, alpha rolls made things worse because my dog became extremely sensitive towards human touch.
After a lot of counter-conditioning work, he is a bit better today, but is still skittish of heavy handling and restraint. I am slowly working to gain back the enormous amount of trust I lost by using the alpha roll technique.
Even the Monks of New Skete, who were the first to popularize the alpha roll, have recently said that they regretted putting this technique in their book because it has been misused.
Alpha rolls should only be used by expert trainers, who are really good at reading dogs, and only as a last resort for dealing with dogs that do not respond to anything else.
Unfortunately, this technique has gotten more popular again, because of television training shows.
I see many people using it in dog parks, dog trails, and vet offices for minor offenses, or not even real offenses at all. The most frequent case of alpha rolls occur when a rude dog runs up to invade another dog’s space. The invaded dog naturally starts vocalizing to warn the rude dog off, and tell him that his rude behavior is unacceptable. This is all perfectly natural canine behavior.
Nevertheless, the growling dog gets alpha rolled by his owners, in front of the rude dog. This can erode our dog’s trust in us, because not only did we not protect him from the rude dog, but we are also punishing him for trying to protect himself. It also teaches our dog not to growl in the future, and to go directly into an attack or a bite.
Alpha rolls are dangerous, erodes trust, and may cause additional dog behavioral problems.
I have never seen it make things better, and have seen many instances of it making things worse. Even when expert trainers did this on my Shiba Inu, he did not respond well. It did not stop his bad behaviors, and only encouraged more aggression. Violence begets more violence.
Alpha rolls make for a good television show, but given the extreme risks, both physical and mental, to the dog and the trainer, I would stay away from this technique. I would also stay away from trainers who recommend its use.
What Worked Best with My Shiba Inu
Resource management techniques combined with a consistent set of rules and a fixed routine has worked well for Sephy. He is not perfect, but his behavior has improved significantly, and he is happy and relaxed.
I no longer use finger jabs, leash corrections, or alpha rolls on any of my dogs.