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Confessions of a Reformed Dog Trainer

The honest truth from a crossover dog trainer by Mel Ritterman from Cooper & Kids

Sometimes I feel ashamed to admit the truth. I look back at old photos and I think about my past and where I began on my training path and I wish it were different. I think about my beautiful boy Cooper and I wonder how things would be if I knew what I know now when he was a puppy…

But we can’t dwell on the past, rather we can look at it, reflect on it and learn from it. I guess I can now look back and reflect on how far I have come in my learning and understanding of all things dogs, behaviour, the science of behaviour change and how to use positive reinforcement training effectively in my training since having Cooper.

I truly believe that until you have the knowledge and the right information and education, that it’s really not your fault. And that’s something I need to keep reminding myself. So please do me a favour and keep reading. I want to help give you some insights today to really help you to make this shift and see the light like I have.

In my early days of owning Cooper, I was influenced by balanced trainers. 
I used methods on Cooper that I am absolutely not proud of. It makes me so sad when I think about it. 
If you’re thinking, "what is balanced training?", let me tell you... 

Balanced Dog Training
refers to any approach to dog training or behaviour modification which involves the use of both reward based techniques and aversive consequences

In other words, the trainer shows the dog that their choices and behaviours can result in either pleasant (for example a delicious treat for good behaviour), or unpleasant results (for example a correction from a choke chain or pronged dog collar when pulling on lead).

How did these methods impact my own dog?

I look back at Cooper, who is nearly 9 years old now and I wonder if some of his quirks and odd behaviour traits are based on these training methods we used when he was a puppy.

I wonder how different his personality and behaviour would be if I knew then what I know now. 

For example, we sent him to a lady to look after him one year when we went on holidays, she was a dog minder and a trainer too. At the time, he was still young and pulling on the lead. He came back from his stay there and no longer pulled on the lead. 
Great, you might be thinking? 

But I noticed that there was a big missing chunk of hair on the side of his neck from using a choke chain/ correction collar

I’ve always wondered what she did to him. I want to cry thinking about this...

Cooper is an incredible dog but he doesn’t love affection and pats from people he doesn’t know. If a stranger pats him on the head more than once, he will bark at them very loudly. Yes, dogs do have a blind spot so it is common for them not to enjoy pats on the head, but I do wonder if this also stemmed from that experience?

I also think about body language and how little I knew about that when Cooper was young and when my first two kids were born. I made my dog tolerate so many situations he wasn’t actually enjoying, because I thought it was “cute”. 

Now I look back at so many of my photos and I see how unhappy Cooper actually was. I literally want to cry thinking about this too. I am fortunate that he tolerated these situations and never felt the need to speak up for himself. Many of my clients dogs are past that point and are speaking up with growls, snaps and bites.

So I am here today, to say – we live and we learn! I want to make it my life mission to really help others. To use my mistakes to help you and your dogs! To help make dogs happier and safer and as a result to make our kids safer and happier too!

Dr Susan Friedman talks a lot about “the cultural fog”. And the need for us as trainers to really help to shift peoples mind set of the old school thoughts and theories on dominance and using punishment based methods to train our pets. 

We need to realise that using the least intrusive methods is going to be better off for everyone. If we can find a way to train our dogs in ways that helps to build trust, creates a bond between us and our dog, is fun and doesn’t hurt them, surely this is the method we should all be choosing. 

Fortunately, I only started working as a trainer once I had made this shift myself. I hope now that I am in this field that I can really help many others to make the switch too and to understand why it is so important.

Why do people use punishment? 

There must be a reason why people are still using punishment. And that is because it works. You can scare an animal into not doing something by eliciting fear. Yes, they might stop pulling on the lead because they are petrified of getting another correction. Yes, they might stop jumping on people if you kick them in the ribs every time they do it, because they are terrified of getting hurt again. 

But is this good for your relationship with your dog? Does this help to build trust? With these methods comes potential fall-out. 

A dog who doesn’t trust you, doesn’t trust humans. A dog that is fearful can lead to a dog who feels the need to speak up and protect themselves. And unfortunately, in my work, this is something I am seeing a lot of! 

A lot of my clients are coming to me with really anxious fearful dogs, that are growling at not only the kids but the adults too, dogs that have now snapped or bitten a child in the home.

Dogs that don’t like other dogs when out and about. Why is this happening? More often than not, this is the fallout of using punishment-based training.

Debunking dominance and helping you to shift your mindset too: 

Still to this day, many people believe that we need to be “the boss” of our dog. Show our dogs that we are “the pack leader”. That to get them to “behave” the way we want them to behave, we must dominate them and they need to be “submissive” to us. This is a regular conversation I have with my clients.

The idea of dominance in dogs comes from a misunderstanding of old wolf pack research that was applied to pet dogs. It’s not based on science, yet unfortunately, this idea has stuck. It was always likely to stick, because as humans we like to organise ourselves in hierarchies, so the idea seems totally believable to us. 

But even if the dominance principle applied to wolves, research now definitively shows it doesn’t as pet dogs are no more wolves than we are chimpanzees.

Why is the dominance theory not helpful in behaviour change? 

The term 'dominance' is a label, not a solution. Labels don’t help fix a behaviour. They often do the opposite. If I believe my dog to be dominant it follows that I must make my dog submit to me. This often results in an ongoing battle that is just unpleasant for both the dog and the human.

So, what can we do instead? A much more useful approach is to leave out labels altogether and simply describe what your dog is doing, decide what you want your dog to do instead, and then make a plan to help change the behaviour.

What we also need to realise is that most of these “unwanted behaviours” are just natural behaviours for a dog and we need to work out other ways to enrich our dogs lives and manage the “unwanted behaviours” by giving alternative behaviours to do instead.

And then giving them ways they can use their natural instincts in ways that we find acceptable. 

For example, instead of getting angry at a dog for stealing food off the kitchen bench, set yourself up for success and stop leaving things lying around that they can reach. 

And then realising that this is happening because dogs love to forage for their food, they are scavengers – so instead of feeding them food out of a bowl, we can rather scatter feed their food in the garden so they have an opportunity to forage and use their brains like dogs are meant to do.

How you can set yourself up for success with your dog:

What is important is the good relationship between you and your dog, and getting training results that allow you to live harmoniously together. A good understanding of training, behaviour and dog body language will set you and your dog up to both get what you want so everyone is happy.

Here are two tips to get you started:

✔️ Reward behaviours you like. That will make them happen more often.

✔️  Ignore behaviours you don’t like. That will make them happen less often.

With methods like these, everyone wins. You get a happy, well-behaved dog and your dog gets all the affection they want, they get to chase balls, sniff other dogs, and eat lots of treats, all of which are things dogs love!

Now we know how to train a dog without the need to hurt them – and how liberating is that? 

Just remember why you got your dog… To love them, nurture them and make them apart of the family. Not to hurt them and mistreat them. 

Once you are exposed to training dogs without using fear, force or corrections – there is absolutely no turning back! 

Let’s all learn how to train our dogs in the least intrusive ways. Let’s all learn to understand how to read body language so we can stop forcing our dogs to do things they don’t enjoy – and to do more of the things that love! Let’s build relationships with our dogs based on trust and respect, not force and fear.

Force-free, science-based, positive reinforcement is the way of the future. And I want you all to come on board too. Who’s with me??!!

If you live in Australia, the Pet Professional Guild Australia (PPGA) and the Association of Pet Dog Trainers (APDT) are two great resources to find a force-free trainer in your area.

Please don't hesitate to reach out to me at Cooper and Kids if you have any questions, would like help if your dog or if you need further help finding a local force-free trainer in your area.

written by Mel Ritterman, April 2021 for Australian Dog Lover.

You can also follow Mel on Facebook at  and on Instagram at

Disclaimer: Cooper and Kids will not be liable for anything that happens to you, your dog or children by following the advice and tips in this article. If you have real concerns or worries about your dog and/or safety of your children, please seek out a professional to come and assess the situation asap.

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