Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Book Review: How to Be Your Dog's Best Friend by the Monks of New Skete

Title: How to Be Your Dog's Best Friend
Author: The Monks of New Skete
Year published: 2002 (revised updated version)

Part II in my "Know Thine Enemies" series.

I know...this sounds strange. Monks? Non-positive dog trainers?

Well, I found a bit of a conundrum in this book. I wanted to like what they had to say. I wanted to gloss over the stuff I didn't agree with and look to the good stuff. But I had to look at the book as if I knew nothing about dog training and nothing about dogs, as if I were the kind of person who would turn to this book for advice. And therein lies the problem.

There is a LOT of positive stuff in this book. It's the 2nd edition of their book, so the Monks are more up to date with modern dog training ideas than they were in their previous installment. They talk a lot about the human-canine bond and how deep and strong it can be, about how you can learn and grow as a person because of your dog.

Their sections on specific training give various ways of accomplishing each goal. For instance, in teaching the sit they discuss luring with a treat as well as positioning your dog using the collar and a hand on the dog's rump. The major problem with their methods is that they first suggest old-style methods using more force, but then say "a sensitive dog might not respond well to this." I'm not sure why one should begin with force and then retract it if the dog does not respond well. A more positive way would be to begin with luring and move onto something more physical if needed (I don't believe it generally is). They especially advocate the more positive approaches with puppies, but these can easily be used for older dogs as well, both ones who are even-tempered and ones who are more out of control. Clicker training (which they mention briefly) has done amazing things for many dogs of all temperaments.

They point out several myths around house training (push his nose in it, etc.), which I was glad to see. They don't make a huge deal out of dog's living in the moment, but it's a strong part of their training methods.

So all this sounds decent, right? It all falls apart in Chapter 10 on discipline. I found myself scratching my head in amazement as I read this chapter as it takes one far away from the building of a good human-canine bond that they reference many time in this book.

They describe two major methods of discipline: the shakedown (which requires the handler to grab the dog by either its jowls or the skin on the neck, lift their front feet off the ground and shake them while saying "NO" in their face loudly) and hitting the dog under the chin. To the latter, they say How hard do you hit the dog? A good general rule is that if you did not get a response, a yelp or other sign, after the first hit, it wasn't hard enough. That's right -- hit your dog until it yelps. And only then it will understand that it has done something wrong. Not only are these methods potentially dangerous (a dog who is a fear biter or has the potential for aggression is likely to snap or bite in these situations), they are also very detrimental to the human-canine bond the Monks seem to stress so highly. In fact, they mention how the dog may be shaken up mentally and physically and will not approach its handler after such a correction, which is not entirely surprising. Physical punishment is a surefire way to damage the bond.

I do agree with the Monks that a well-placed correction can be valuable feedback, but many dogs respond to a verbal correction. A quick "eh-eh" and my dog freezes and returns to what position she needs to hold.

I was glad to see them retract the suggestion of the alpha roll, though their reasoning for it was a bit off. Yes it's dangerous to owners. There is no doubt there. But it also does not work as discipline, though they seem to think it does and likely still use it in their training.

They also recommend "leash pops" using a training collar (generally a metal or nylon choke collar), which is a quick yank and release type of correction. If used correctly, it's not dangerous (though it is in the hand's of someone doesn't know how to use it), but neither is it a good method for corrections. Dogs who are jerked around are often frustrated and the fact that it can damage their windpipes is enough for me to recommend against them!

So all together, there are some good things here, but also some bad. If you can walk away from it with just keeping the positive stuff in mind while ignoring Chapter 10 and the other more negative, correction-based ideas, then it's not a bad book. But otherwise, I suggest a book more geared toward positive training, like Pat Miller's The Power of Positive Training or a more developed book on the human-canine bond, like Patricia McConnell's The Other End of the Leash or Suzanne Clothier's Bones Would Rain From the Sky.