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The History of Modern Dog Training

March 11th, 2010

The History of Modern Dog Training

There was a time that we lived, worked, and depended upon dogs and their skills, their intelligence, their very presence, for our livelihoods, safety, food, and companionship in our daily lives and, sometimes, lonely and wild places.

There was a very practical aspect to the dogs we had, much like the spouses we chose, the friends we made and the lives we led.  Anything less led to a higher chance of not surviving.

Because of this, we were very aware of the dog as an individual.  We studied each dog’s strengths and weaknesses, talents, drive, intelligence and willingness to work with us.  They truly were our partners and we had to have complete and utter trust in them.  We also had to define what their place was in our lives, the responsibility we put on them, and the behavior that we expected of them, both while working and as a member of our family.

They went to war with us and fought, and died, beside us.  They were left at home with wives and children as primary guardians.  They had jobs that increased the overall quality of our lives; herding and guarding livestock, killing vermin, babysitting, sentries calling the alert to strangers, and emotional companions.

It is often depicted as dogs were “things” to be owned and used.  The idea promoted was that dogs were viewed as a tool and dispensable, not as a loved companion and valued partner.  It is often portrayed that dogs were not allowed in the house, the place of love and haven from hardship, and sometimes this was true, but it stemmed from a far more practical point; often the dogs carried fleas and ticks, had rolled in something, were covered in burrs, and generally made it more difficult to keep houses clean.  While this still holds true today, it was not the standard for most dogs.

Dogs with skills were highly valued, loved and cherished, well taken care of and their death was a cause for grief.  Throughout history there are examples of people cherishing their dogs, feeding them when they, themselves, had nothing.  Ensuring the dog(s) had comfortable housing; we included them within the family and allowed them in the house and in our lives.

As early as Pharaonic times, as well as in China and Persia, there were laws protecting dogs and defining what constituted good care and treatment.  Dogs were identified by collars and had legal status.  Persia punished anyone who maimed or killed a dog; even feeding bad food to a dog could result in the punishment of 50 to 200 lashes.

Delta, a victim of the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 C.E. (Common Era, now replacing A.D), was a smallish dog whose remains were discovered lying protectively across the body of a young child.  However, this was not the dog’s only selfless and remarkable act.  With her remains was found a silver dog collar upon which was engraved her name, her owner’s name, Severinus, and listed and honored the fact that she had saved his life three times.  First, she pulled him from the sea when he was drowning.  Second, she fought off four attackers who attempted to rob her owner.  Third, she fought off a wolf which attacked them near Herculaneum.

Sir Frances Drake, 5th Baronet of Buckland Abbey (1723-94), began to improve the manor after the death of his mother.  He installed a new, elegant staircase leading to extensively remodeled upstairs rooms.

He balanced his love for his pack of Irish wolfhounds against potential damage to the new staircase by installing a dog gate in the main hall, thus only allowing the dogs to reach the second floor via a back stair.

The gate was custom-made and a doozy, in my mind.  It clearly shows that our current child-gates are poor reproductions of an old, old idea and that owners have been including dogs in a select manner for long time.

Susan Overfield Behavioral Obedience Dog Training

Drake made certain his beloved dogs were included in his life, yet had no qualms about defining where they were allowed to roam and their behavior within the house.

Our inclusion of dogs in our lives is clearly shown in the examples above.  But HOW we included them and led them to be partners is rarely examined.  Many of the methods and equipment used today on our dogs came from a period of time in which the dog was an integral part of our daily work and life.  Much of that equipment was originally used to protect the dog and has now been perverted into training equipment for use ON the dogs.

Owners seeking training for their dogs today fail to realize that very few of the methods being taught NOW come from this much earlier, physical, and practical period of mutual existence that simply is not applied to our lifestyles, on the whole, today because it has been forgotten.  These successful methods predated modern training as it is known today.  They incorporated the whole of the dog, along with a practical application FOR the dog and his successful integration into the human unit.

Let’s look at some collars, as examples of what I’m talking about.

To the left is a pair of Scottish silver coursing collars, 1830.  They’re lined with red leather, adjustable with three slits, joined by a ring and two links with snap fastenings.  This allowed multiple pairs of dogs to be controlled by a single handler in the course of field work.

Susan Overfield Behavioral-Obedience Dog Training This is the modern equivalent to the above.  The materials have changed, but the concept has not.  Nor has the basic restraint method altered.  The difference is only that an owner has more than a single dog and those dogs, usually, have no real working  purpose to their lives, nor are receiving behavioral directives.

Susan Overfield Behavioral-Obedience Dog TrainingTop: A German medieval iron collar consisting of eight linked W’s ending in spikes with ring for lead attachment.  c. 1400s

Middle: German iron collar of almost stirrup-shaped links each with a spike, original leather lining. 1400s

Bottom: German iron hunting collar with two rows of iron elongated oval links and clasp.  Early 1600s

Note: on all three of these collars, the prongs point outward for protection of the dog from aggression.

Bullmastiff wearing an iron collar for bear or wolf hunting. 1500s Susan Overfield Behavioral-Obedience Dog Training

Today’s collars (below).  I don’t see much physical difference, yet the practical application is vastly different.

Susan Overfield Behavioral-Obedience Dog TrainingSusan Overfield Behavioral-Obedience Dog Training Susan Overfield Behavioral-Obedience Dog Training

Up to approximately the late 1700s there had always been, throughout history, informal competition between handlers and their dogs, regardless of the practical application—be it sled dogs, herding dogs, field/bird dogs, hunting dogs, etc.  These competitions took place, primarily, to determine a) the quality of the handler/trainer, b) the quality of the dog and his/her skills for future breeding purposes and specific uses/jobs, and c) to learn new and better ways to handle dogs and increase both human and dog skills and abilities.  They were also, of a secondary nature, social get-togethers for like-minded people in order to share information, knowledge and self-improvement.  It was peers judging peers and assisting novice handlers.

This format, now formalized, is only seen today in working Border collie and bird dog field trials, where it, too, is being co-opted into a “weekend warrior” show, not an assessment of handler and dog for improvement of human competency and technique and dog genetics and capabilities.

By the 1800s many of the informal competitions had morphed into a show at a local tavern (England) where a favorite dog had supporters.  It was primarily held for the toy dogs, still, these dogs were demonstrating some form of skill, usually in the form of a trick performed for an audience.

Then, in 1859, the first formally organized dog show, which was comprised solely of bird dog breeds, was held. It was only fourteen years later that the first official dog show was promoted by The Kennel Club (England).  The emphasis was on breed conformation, temperament, and to maintain stud books.

This timeline and format was closely paralleled in the United States, with the formation of The American Kennel Club happening in 1884.  Still, both England and the U.S. Kennel Clubs were focused on primarily the maintenance and promotion of genetically sound dogs for work.  Those handlers dealing with these dogs still had a practical application to supply to their canine companions and were interested in ensuring the best dog for the work.

Throughout this long relationship with dogs, competent, skilled and intelligent handlers knew better than to beat a dog, but reward it with personal attention and physical and emotional inclusion in the daily life.  They knew that food could be used in some cases as a training/reward aspect, but could not take the place of the human-dog relationship bond.  The majority did not endanger their most valued companions and partners with stupid displays of risk, such as bear-baiting, dog fighting and the likes, nor did they knowingly or willingly endanger their dogs in the act of work.  The majority did not ask their dogs to do what they, themselves, would not.  The majority valued their dogs as companions, friends, and working partners and loved them.  The majority of handlers did not behave inanely, clap their hands, jump up and down and squeak excitedly at their dogs in order to get any type of results.  The majority was quiet, calm, and sensible, common-sense filled people, and as such, they created quiet, calm, sensible, common-sense filled dogs. The majority of quality handlers succeeded in having a personal, intimate relationship with their dogs, who were well-behaved, and had practical work skills—and all without obedience training.

In America, these handlers and their successful method became a dying breed due to the hubris of one woman.

Before beginning this next part, as an aside, let me give you an idea of what poodles were originally intended to do as a job. poodle 1825, from Ger. Pudel, shortened form of Pudelhund “water dog,” from Low Ger. Pudel “puddle” (cf. pudeln “to splash”) + Ger. Hund “hound.”  Probably so called because the dog was used to hunt water fowl.

Originally from Germany (NOT France), they were bred as water dogs, retrieving foul for hunters.  Poodle-like dogs go as far back as Roman times where it is recorded they were used as a pointer in falconry.  Their scent skills were utilized to hunt truffles in Italy, Spain, and France.  A quote about poodle-like dogs in Hans Fredrich von Flemming’s “The Complete Hunter”, 1749, states, “They retrieve well in reed field and fast rivers: They also hunt out foxes, otters, and wild cats from the reeds.  Such Water Pudel is of great service to the Fowler” Hoyt, p. 24

The Beginning of the Long, Slow Decline of Our Dogs and the Crisis They Now Face:

Col. Konrad Most, a German, was training dogs and explaining, from a dog trainer’s perspective to other dog trainers, how dogs learned.  He began, in 1906, to train police dogs while serving as police commissioner at the Royal Prussian Police Headquarters, Saarbruchen.  In 1912 he became director of Berlin’s State Breeding and Training Establishment for police dogs.  He headed the Canine Research Department of the Army from 1919-1937.  In 1931 he helped form the German Society for Animal Psychology.

Long before the publication of B.F. Skinner’s The Behavior of Organisms, Col. Most had a rudimentary understanding of the relationship between consequences and behaviors as applied to dog training for specific tasks, though he still approached the dog through the submission of the body, while primarily dismissing, or perhaps not even recognizing the intrinsic social, and necessary integral, emotional and total-dog aspects of learning and behavioral responses.  Many of his methods or procedures are considered “heavy-handed” by some trainers today.  Most’s belief was, “The order of hierarchy can only be established through physical force”, so dogs he trained were forced into the sit, down, or heel position.  He explained the reasoning and goal behind his training method was, “The object of compulsion is to obtain the paramount and unconditional surrender of the dog”.

In 1910, Col. Most’s manual Training Dogs became one of the foundation books for “how to train” dogs, a manual for training dogs whose primary purpose was for use in police work and war.  The dogs that couldn’t cut it, make the grade in Colonel Most’s training regime, were discarded.  So, right there we have a SELECTIVE OPERATIVE that has no bearing on the vast majority of dogs, and yet, we’ve adopted a training technique that’s based on two primary objectives:  complete subservience without thought and the willingness to be aggressive upon demand.

Now, I ask you folks, WHAT does that truly have to do with the majority of dogs?

Two of Most’s students, Josef Weber, The Dog in Training, 1939, and Hans Tosutti, Companion Dog Training, 1948, brought Most’s training methods to England and the United States.  Weber, in his book, states that he “wanted to bring to the American dog owners the practices used by experts in international schools.”

In 1933, a woman named Helene (Helen) Whitehouse Walker, a socialite who bred Standard Poodles at her Carillon Kennels, was miffed that people didn’t take her dogs seriously.  Under the AKC rules her poodles couldn’t compete in AKC-licensed field trials.  She’d read about obedience tests in English dog magazines and her main objective became to introduce to America the growing English sport of obedience “trialing”.  To this end she traveled to England and studied the “sport” of obedience and its training methods.  She spent a total of six weeks learning how to train HER dogs.

Walker studied under trainers the trials, techniques and methods being utilized by the Associated Sheep, Police, Army Dog Society (ASPADS).  This group held specific trials within the working parameters of each job specification in order that the dog progress through ascending stakes (levels); Utility Dog (UD), Working Dog (WD), Tracking Dog (TD) and Patrol Dog (PD) in which the following must be demonstrated by the handler and dog duo, Control (heel, recall, stay, etc), Agility (jumps and scaling a wall), and nosework (search square and tracking) to demonstrate mastery of specific tasks in order to qualify as competent within their working job description.

The obedience and methods she studied was that of Colonel Most, as it was his training method being implemented upon dogs participating and competing in these English trials specifically geared to show the competency of dogs in demonstrating MOST’S method at a JOB designed for specific temperament dogs trained to be competent within a limited job performance demand.

Walker focused on the dog training techniques being displayed, which were heavily predicated on the police and army concept of training, all of which were foundationally replicating Col. Most’s training techniques.  These techniques were rote learning for specific tasks and had little, if any, variables within the context of learning.  The dogs were taught a specific response to a specific command and no deviation or personal thought by the dog was allowed to enter the equation.  Trainers were taught in this same manner.  Say “this” and the dog must respond by doing “that”.  It was a connect-the-dots training technique that failed to include the real dog.  It still is accomplished in this same manner today, be it by positive or negative training influences.  It is training for a specific task.  You are an army dog, you are to help control and put prisoners on trains and not let them revolt, run, or attack your officer. Once you finish your job, you are most probably kenneled until you are needed for work.  As a dog, you have one task, outside of doing that task, you do not truly exist.  And when you can no long perform your task, you will be put-down, as you cannot integrate into a normal household.

As you can clearly see, this has NO basis in the majority of our dogs’ real, daily behavior, it is a JOB, and training only FOR a job.  Not communication of behavioral expectations coupled with social integration into a human/dog relationship.

Walker returned to America and laid siege to the AKC.  As The AKC web page states: “In the mid 30’s, Helene Whitehouse Walker was instrumental in establishing obedience tests. She submitted a pamphlet of procedures to the AKC in December 1935, and three months later the Board of Directors approved it in principle. In April 1936, AKC published the first official “Regulations and Standard for Obedience Test Field Trials”.

Now here’s a little back-story on Helene.  Her maternal grandfather was Sir George Duntze, 4th Baronet Duntz, in…….(please hum the Jeopardy song here)…..ENGLAND.  This gave Helene an “in” to ASPADS that she would not, otherwise, have had.  It meant her mother was LADY Ethel Maude Duntze Whitehouse and, as such, when Helene stood before the AKC Board to ask for the inclusion of the “sport” of obedience trialing, she had money, social standing, and, for some, an enviable heritage.  Now please, tell me if that, possibly accompanied by a hefty financial donation to the AKC (though I can’t prove it), wouldn’t be enough to get the all-male Board in 1933 to move heaven and earth and accept her request in the very short documented time of three months.

In the fall of 1932, Walker placed an ad for kennel help.  Blanche Saunders, a farm hand on the Dell-Howe (aka Green Chimneys) Farm, in Patterson, New York, got the job.  Walker taught her all she knew about dog training—all six weeks worth—and  Blanche went on to study at the feet of Josef Weber, who had been taught by Col. Most.  The link was now set for today’s crisis.

The first American Obedience Trial was held by Helene Whitehouse Walker on her father’s estate in Mount Kisco, N.Y., an extremely affluent and influential community, in 1933, with the assistance of Blanche Saunders, kennel manager and Mrs. Walker’s dog trainer. Saunders later wrote a book called The Story of Dog Obedience.  The old pictures in this book—particularly of Saunders in riding breeches—give the enterprise of dog training the feel of an English period novel—estates, entitlement, kennel managers.

It is also most interesting to note that the woman most intent upon proving her dogs’ abilities did so with the barest minimum of on-the-ground experience in training dogs.  She then passed that responsibility over to her kennel manager and dog trainer.  But, using her social standing and resources, forced through a form of training which is now proving as an abysmal failure—to the tune of almost five million dogs euthanized annually and fully three generations of Americans that now incorrectly handle dogs—all for a bit of hurt ego, she wanted to prove her dogs were not “sissies”.

This form of cookie-cutter obedience training grew fairly steadily.  Then, in 1937, in a bid to gain wider acceptance and participation in her chosen sport, Walker and Saunders took three standard poodles, a travel trailer, and a Buick, and set off on a 10,000 mile cross-country trip aimed at promoting her budding “sport” of choice.

From that point forward ALL OBEDIENCE training based their premise of training on the body, NOT the entire dog, and it all stemmed from the foundational teachings of the police and war dogs of Colonel Konrad Most.

In the 1940s, Keller Breland, best known for operating the Arkansas tourist attraction IQ Zoo, which featured trained wild animals, began using the clicker as a method of training.  He and his wife, Marion, were students of B.F. Skinner, a behavioral psychologist.

The popularity of this zoo brought Keller to the attention of the commercial animal training industry in the 50s.  The Kellers developed the first operant-based (positive or negative consequences following a behavior to increase or decrease the occurrence of the behavior) bird and mammal shows for Marineland of the Pacific.  Animal trainers from all over came to them to learn this method.  This program was interrupted due to WWII, but the methods he pioneered are used today in oceanariums and theme parks all over the U.S.

Fast-forward to 1984.  Karen Pryor, founder of Sea Life Park in Hawaii, a Cornell graduate (1954) with a background in zoology and behavioral biology, was a pioneering dolphin trainer.

We all know how this form of operant conditioning works.  Clicker makes a noise, dolphin does a trick, and dolphin gets a treat/reward for performing the trick.

Here’s something to think about.  At the end of the SHOW the dolphin does NOT go home with the trainer.  He returns to the other dolphins and (learns) his normal dolphin behavior.

In both the cases of Breland and Pryor, these people were teaching WILD ANIMALS tricks—NOT behavior.  NONE of these animals went home and LIVED with the trainers.  Therefore, the animals were capable of returning to their normal behavioral patterns upon cessation of the job/trick.  And while I agree this training method is wonderful for tricks and/or jobs outside the normal range of daily behavior, it has nothing to do with the dog with which you live.

In situations where one is working with wild animals, the operant training method is probably the most effective and humane way to train.  If one is speaking of dogs, however, one must remember that selective breeding for compatibility with, and connection to man has altered the dogs’ inherent response structure to work WITH us and to respond to our emotional state.  Dogs read this very quickly and can interpret whether their behavior pleases us or not.

Food, while nice, is not the be-all, end-all for the dog.  Inclusion, emotionally, psychologically and physically is very high in their world.  Whether the interaction between human and dog within these parameters are met under on-going stressful interactions, or under stable, quiet, and secure daily interactions is truly important and should be approached on a relationship-based premise.  Obedience training does not address the core emotional needs of dogs and, therefore, does not truly fix the problems.  Behavioral-relationship handling does.  It is on-going, fluid, takes into account the individual dog, allowing personal expression within the behavioral expectations of the group and most resembles the family/pack.

Humans are animals.  Animals function within the set laws of nature.  Many of the behaviors cross species.  Minute-by-minute, day-by-day, we communicate to our families what constitutes good behavior in our group.  Include your dog in that and you won’t need obedience training.  He’ll be well-behaved, relaxed, and secure and work with you.  He may make mistakes, but he’s not looking for a fight.  It’s not enjoyable to live in a family filled with tension and dogs pick up emotions so easily.

Watch your dog and learn to see what he’s saying with his actions. Allow him the necessary outlet of expressing himself as an individual, as long as he does it within the limitations of behavior you set for your family.  Help him to be the best dog he can be and you’ll find he has much more to offer, intellectually, socially and emotionally, than you ever thought possible.

(This is a reprint from Psych-O Analysis Newsletter, Susan Overfield, author, editor, and publisher)


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    I wanted to thank you for this excellent read!! I definitely enjoyed every little bit of it. I have you bookmarked your site to check out the new stuff you post.

  3. From pest control, March 30, 2010:

    Great. care to talk about your sources :) ?

  4. From Susan Overfield, March 31, 2010:

    Sources: ASPADS, AKC, Peerage Book, Green Chimneys History, Leeds Castle Collars History,
    Various bios/papers/library searches for Breland Keller, Conrad Most, Helene Whitehouse Walker, archives from the time periods for these individuals, etc. Books by these individuals, various science/animal/behavioral study papers by individuals around the world.

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    From years of successfully working with dogs while those that call themselves “trainers” failed. I had owners coming to me in droves to fix the problems created by the flawed and failing format of obedience “training”

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    dog is not under physical restraint.

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  64. From kenny white, July 12, 2015:

    you quoted “col.most” out of context and then extrapalated it on all his dog training.WOW! i’ve been doing relationship based training for 30 years, so that we can agree! liked your article. peace..

  65. From Susan Overfield, July 12, 2015:

    Most’s comments are not out of context. They are a direct statement as to how he perceived the training of a dog, for his form of WORK, needed to be trained to do the job. This was no different a mindset than that of a military leader of the time training recruits. However, his method for job training has no bearing on training a family dog, or dogs not suited by temperament to his kind of work. Most’s method is as applicable to the family dog as saying that all women in Denver shall be trained to be ballet dancers. Fine, if one fits within the parameters of dance through talent, inclination, focus, and ability. But of no use and little success if one doesn’t.

  66. From kenny white, July 19, 2015:

    konrad most worked originally with gsd,dobermans,rottweiers and risenschnauzers. hardly man’s best friend in early 2oth century. he also trained guide dogs for the blind. doubt he beat them with dominance.also dogs are alot weaker now because of breeding. times change….i like ballet “padisha-step of the cat’ peace

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