The dog training conundrum

Dalcash Dvinsky
The Bunny Years
Published in
5 min readJan 5, 2024


Recently I was asked what my dog training philosophy is. I didn’t really know how to answer that, because it’s complicated. My first encounter with dog training happened in the 1980s, in East Germany, firmly in the age of yank and crank. It was brutal to watch. Everybody had a choke chain, everybody was jerking their dogs around. That’s how it was done. In the 1990s, I spend a lot of weekend afternoons with the dog training club. I learned clicker training, today a hallmark of force-free training, but I also learned the ‘alpha roll’ — throwing your dog on its side, a kind of power move to establish your leadership. I read a lot of books. Most people trained with a mixed bag of methods. There was a lot of talk about wolves and what we can learn from them. Then I took a break from dog training for a decade.

When I got back, dog training had turned into a business, and the internet had turned that business into a battle ground of influencers, between so-called force-free training, and so-called balanced training, both misnomers. In reality, the lines are often hard to draw, and there is more than two ends of the spectrum. There has been considerable progress, almost nobody is choking their dogs, and almost nobody is beating them anymore, at least not for training purposes, and at least not in public. Almost everybody does reward based training, with food, at least some of the time. The scientific knowledge about wolf packs and dogs has certainly advanced, but the practitioners have their own interpretation of what this means. Animal welfare laws have improved by a lot, at least in some countries. On the other hand, there are more dogs than ever, and, in absolute terms, more than ever turn into problem dogs.

Training with tame deer

Most dog trainers today have their patented methodology, everybody claims it’s unique and innvoative, but very little of that is really new. Just the mix is different. Trainer X works almost entirely with food rewards. Trainer Y works with food rewards, but adds leash correction and the occasional use of the prong collar. Trainer Z uses food, e-collars, and confinement. Some use science or ‘science’ to back up their methods. Some don’t. And so on.

Almost everybody has strong opinions. Dog training is an unregulated business, as long as you are not breaking any laws, you can offer whatever nonsense you want. Dog trainers are not really training dogs, their clients are humans, and what humans want is certainly different from what dogs want. So, they promise quick or convenient solutions. There are exceptions of course, people who have genuinely new ideas, who are really focused on the dogs, and who have innovative methods that are not just relabeling something from the last century. But overall, my view of dog trainers is quite cynical.

You still can learn something, from almost everybody. I picked up a lot of things along the way. Bunny is such a pleasantly complex and forgiving creature that he gave me the opportunity to try out lots of ideas and methods. The usual templates often didn’t work, and I had to find a different kind of implementations. Every dog is different. You may have success with one method, for lots of dogs, but it won’t work for everybody. You have to figure it out on your own. At this point I feel that I know my dog best, and no dog trainer in the world can teach me anything that is exactly new.

Training the ability to relax in every possible environment

I am fond of force-free training, and learned a lot from people who practise this idea creatively. I think it’s should be the aspiration, but it can’t be the only method in the book. Almost all our dedicated training sessions are based on a force-free philosophy. I use food to reinforce a behaviour, because it’s so simple, but once a behaviour is established I offer freedom and choice and fun as reward and phase out the food. Everything is loose and relaxed and interactive. It’s how it should be.

In the real world, I’m certainly not able to cope without force. I often create pressure with my body or the leash or with my voice. I do subtle leash corrections, and growling or lunging at me for no good reason has enforced consequences. Force-free trainers would classify all of this as intimidation or punishment, and that’s fair. I also use barriers and brief timeouts. But none of these things is ever painful or even stressful for my specific dog, at least not intentionally. I don’t use devices that are designed to cause pain. I don’t withhold food or affection for training purposes. And I certainly don’t use confinement and isolation as a training method.

Overall, I subscribe to the idea of ‘Least Intrusive, Minimal Avervise’ (LIMA) in dog training. Positive reinforcement should be the first route, the foundation, whenever possible, and alternatives should only be considered beyond that. I should qualify that this does not simply mean ‘give the dog a cookie’, reward based training can be incredibly creative and complex. It’ also doesn’t mean that the dog is not taught boundaries and limits and rules. Again, this is nothing new. Many dogs won’t need more than that. The flipside is that I would not exclude e-collars or prong collars for training purposes, on principle, and I have certainly considered both for my dog. It’s just that when using such a device, it needs to be clearly established that there is no other way, for the safety of dog and owner, or to keep the dog alive. If this is the case, the device or method should still only be used for a transitional period, until the problem is mitigated.

First and foremost, I like simple methods, and simple tools, or no tools at all. The clicker is nice, when introducing new behaviours, because it makes the communication easier. Leash and harness are critical for safety and as a physical connection to the dog. But beyond that and a pocket with food I really don’t use anything. It’s just me and the dog really, and I like is this way.