Study shows difference between dog training with e-collars and positive / negative reinforcement techniques / via Perfect cocker spaniel dog blog / all about English cocker spaniels, puppy tips, grooming, diet, training, breed information (C) Natalia Ashton

No pain, no gain? New study begs to differ

When I was five, I got really interested in physics – and electricity, in particular. My dad had a degree in it and could make or fix anything from a mesmerising microelectronic plate to a car. Naturally, one day I asked him what the electricity was exactly. He explained that there are loads and loads of tiny “bubbles” called electrons and protons that run through a copper wire and create energy for tv, radio and other things around the house. This sounded solid enough. The only missing part was the actual electrons. I really wanted to see them… In a way a kid wants to meet gnomes or some other mystical creatures.

So one cosy winter evening I pinched a pair of scissors and used them to quietly un-do a few screws on a lamp switch. Somehow I thought that the switch was the destination where all the electrons and protons would meet up and sit around swinging their tiny legs and having a chat.

Sadly, the reality was a bit of a shock, a combination of initial disappointment and an actual crisp painful hissing ache that left me crying. But nothing a chocolate wouldn’t fix. I forgot about the incident quickly and filed the story in the back of my mind for future reference.

Never in a million years I would imagine that one day I’d link it to an e-collar! I’ve learnt about them pretty late in life. In 2010, to be precise. Some woman in the neighbourhood used one to stop her dog barking. The collar was recommended by the dog’s vet. Until then I was completely unaware that some people use aversive devices to train their dogs. E-collars, citronella collars, collars that cause physical pain… the list went on. It felt so wrong and made me wonder what these people would be like if they experienced the pain and shock of such a device themselves just like I did when I played with that lamp! Alas, the collars are still around despite campaigns, legislations and previous studies that show their negative impact on dog’s emotional and physical health.

Before we move on, allow me to explain how these collars work.

Imagine you visit a foreign country and don’t speak the language. You are excited and looking forward to the experience. You have no idea what people are saying to you, it’s just noise. You want to find a place to eat, but you can’t read the signs or ask for directions.

You pop into the first place that looks good. As soon as you walk in, the person inside jumps at you out of nowhere and punches you in the face. As far as you are concerned, you’ve done nothing wrong! You are stressed out, in pain and still hungry! Your brain struggles to understand anything because the stress naturally stops it from processing any new information efficiently. So you try another place and the same thing happens… and again… and again… Eventually you get it right, book a table and order a meal. But you are in pain and frightened. You can hardly remember how you got here and why. You swallow the food because stress affects your digestion, so you can’t really taste anything that well. For the rest of your life you remember this day as a nightmare and do your absolute best to prevent it from happening again. You suppress the memory and never return to the area unless you are made to. This is how an e-collar works.

But what if it was a different scenario? You walk in, a person appears with a smile, maybe gives you a hug (people hug a lot in my native country, especially if you are a lost foreigner) and even offers you a snack (people do this a lot where I am from), then tries to show you directions… If you get it wrong again and walk into another place by mistake, you meet another person who comes out with a smile and does his best to help…

For the rest of that day and beyond you will not only remember the place where you ended up having your meal and everything you ordered, but you will be able to recall everyone you met on your way, what they did and maybe even their names. You are also likely to return to this place because you felt so good and made some wonderful memories!

This is what dog trainers call “positive reinforcement” – a type of training that involves praise and rewards whenever something (even the tiniest thing) is a step in the right direction towards the goal. There is no pain or stress involved here, only love, endorphins, oxytocin and a handful of biscuits!

Imagine how delighted I was to see another research that compared the use of e-collars and positive reward-based method for training dogs. Conducted by Daniel Mills, Lucy China and Jonathan Cooper, the study included 63 dogs that were split into three groups and trained recall and “sit” with the use of e-collars and training techniques (including both positive and negative reinforcement) (e-collar), same training techniques but no e-collars (control 1), and positive reinforcement (or rewards-based) coaching (control 2). Each group was trained for 150 minutes over 5 days in total.

The study clearly demonstrated that even though all groups achieved results, it was the “Positive reward” group that not only succeeded but also developed higher long-term response to the cue without unnecessary suffering and risks to the dog’s well-being associated with the use of aversive devices.

Now, all we need is to get them banned for good.


Image credit: robot dog by Kittipong Jirasukhanont via

How much training is too much for your dog? How often and how long should you train your cocker spaniel for? Puppy training tips? Training mistakes and how to make training sessions most effective / Perfect cocker spaniel (C) dog blog / English cocker spaniel guide to the breed, grooming, diet, nutrition, puppy tips / Natalia Ashton, canine dog nutritionist & pet nutrition coach

How often should you train your dog?

A couple of weeks ago I talked about a few points of training a cocker spaniel and was absolutely thrilled when so many of you replied, shared your thoughts and asked questions.

One of the most popular requests was about the frequency and length of training, so I thought I’d talk about it today. As I’ve always trained my dogs myself I got to experience quite a few views about the process.

Years ago, when I first got into dog life, the training practices were very different compared to today’s ones. The former were almost military-like, very strict, very precise, more focused on the results and the owner. The dog was there to achieve and perform no matter what and the ones who didn’t were regarded as useless. I never really got too much into that and trained my first boy to suit our life and have fun more than anything else. To be fair, he was a poodle, one of the most intelligent breeds. He never needed much work as everything was learnt and remembered based on a few little lessons (and his own canine experiences).

These days it’s all about positive training. A wonderful way to ensure that the dog does not only learn something, but feels like a happy confident genius and builds a strong lasting bond with his parent/trainer.

But what about the duration of the training? When is the best time to start? Where is the perfect place to do it? When is the ideal point to stop? It can be confusing.

To get your brain buzzing I’ll start with a wonderful and very straight-to-the-point quote by Heini Hediger, a Swiss biologist and the “father of zoo biology”…

“Good training is a disciplined play”

In other words and in my opinion, a training is only successful if it is fun and leaves you and your dog feeling liberated, joyful and content about achievements, however little they may be.

I think that training a dog should also be perceived as a work out (for the brain, in our case, but still… the mighty grey and white lamp of fat has feelings, too). Imagine, you decide to strength train. You have two options – do a series of exercises based on your personal goals, every day, for a short period of time, consistently. Or you go to the gym once or twice a week and absolutely kill yourself there for hours, performing every workout routine known to man, to “compensate” for all the days in between.

If you choose the first option, you are likely to achieve fantastic results because you will pay attention to every muscle group in your body, you will not overwhelm your immune system (every physical activity depletes the body from essential nutrients that must be replaced for proper recovery and rejuvenation) and you will not experience the aches and tiredness that make you collapse.

On the other hand, spending a few hours at a time will most definitely leave you exhausted for days, give you a stinking cold (because that’s how your immune system is likely to respond to your efforts) and probably put you off working out in a week or two.

Same with dog training. Do it in short regular bubbles – and it will be a fun way to keep moving forward. Keep it to one or two long sessions a week – and see your dog feeling tired, frustrated and possibly reactive as a result.

So my ideal training is a consistent daily routine made up of a few quick sessions based on individual dogs and their personal abilities and needs.

We have a bunch of tricks and cues to practice or learn, but never really schedule or time our exact lessons. Each little “burst” takes about 5-15 minutes depending on our location and time of the day. We train in whilst boiling a kettle or during advert breaks on TV to practice “sit”, “down”, “stay”, “fetch”, “paw” etc… Or learning to “wait” for the food or food toys to be prepared and served. We train during our walks to perfect “heel”, recall, “stop”, “stay”, “paw”, standing on objects, “look”, listen”, “let’s go”… the list goes on…

At home we learn new tricks in the afternoon or play “find food”, “leave”, obstacles, brain games, not barking (work in progress, but we are slowly getting there) in the garden or house. Whenever the boys run to me from the garden I use a recall cue and treats. Currently, I am also teaching boys to take turns while we train, so ensure that one is happy to calmly wait on a sofa or “mat” while I am busy with the other one. I don’t like separating them during training times, let alone keep one crated, so this is our way to be together always.

It is also very important to always keep an eye on the dogs’ body language and facial expressions to make sure that they are enjoying the process. Stress isn’t a great helper when you train because it literally blocks the brain from getting the messages or remembering anything. That is why any sign of over-excitement (which can happen in 5 minutes or 20 minutes, depending on the type of exercise, timing and location), annoyance, boredom or tiredness is a signal to stop, ask for a much-loved and well-known cue and conclude the session with a treat and a calm cuddle.

One more point to bear in mind is to never train when you are not feeling your best. You may try to fool yourself, but the dogs will always pick on your emotions and physical state and react to it.

And what if you are trying to train a puppy? I’ve got it covered in my Perfect cocker spaniel book. Each chapter in the Practice sessions comes with puppy training tips based on his age and needs. I just thought I’d mention it in case you’re new here.


Photo credit: image by Tumisu from Pixabay

Why train your dog / cocker spaniel training explained / Perfect cocker spaniel book & pet blog / dog diet, nutrition, grooming, training, health tips / (C) Natalia Ashton

What is the point of training a cocker spaniel?

Once upon a time I knew a cocker spaniel. He was a wonderful guy, a perfect specimen in every way – kind, friendly, and absolutely stunning. He was also incredibly well-trained and obedient. In any dog parent’s eyes he was a dream!

And then one day we saw a different side of this perfection. We were having one of our walks, somewhat crazy, somewhat calm, and most definitely a happy “messy-hair-don-t-care” walk for the three of us to enjoy. Suddenly, that spaniel appeared out of nowhere. He was running down the street, unleashed and free. I felt worried. We were on a side of busy road. We stopped. I looked around for his owner.

Eventually he appeared, slightly red faced. He called the dog – and the dog obliged to perfection. He went over, sat nicely and waited. A scene that would have been absolutely beautiful to watch if it wasn’t for one simple fact… The boy’s body language…

As he sat there, his body got tensed, the forever wagging tail – tucked under the bottom, and the ears pinned tights against his head.

Yes, the spaniel did what was asked of him… but he did so not because it was unthinkable for him not to please his owner out of love – it was unthinkable for him not to please his owner out of fear. He was perfectly obedient, but from that moment on I wouldn’t dare let my mind think of the methods used to train that dog. Even though he was perfect in comparison to my lot, I’d be heartbroken if my boys reacted to me and our training like that.

And we do take our training seriously (well, as serious as one can do when surrounded by cocker spaniels!) Anyone who knows me, read my blog or book, is aware of the fact that we love a bit of training here. I train my dogs from puppyhood and throughout their whole life without hardly missing a day. But we train for as long as everyone is enjoying it because for me, the point of successful training is far beyond a basic response to the cue word achieved at all costs or being able to perform every single imaginable task out there.

So why do we train our dogs then?

It helps the dog to live with his human family in harmony. We are all unique and have our own ways and habits, which the dog needs to be aware of. Teaching him what’s ok and not is like teaching a little child that sticking his fingers in an electric socket or playing with matches isn’t a good idea, but putting his toys away or kissing his mum really-really is.

As far as your household is concerned, you are the one who sets the rules as long as they are safe and sensible for everyone. If you are comfortable with your dog sleeping on a sofa – so be it. If you’d rather he slept in his own bed – teach him. If you want to avoid accidents and destructions during puppyhood – prevent them by proofing the house. Not keen on your dog stealing food from the table – don’t leave it there! If you absolutely have to have your dog jumping up when you come home, it’s your decision. But if you’d rather your dog politely sat by the door – it’s another lesson to learn.

It keeps the dog safe and welcomed within the community. Teaching your spaniel recall will ensure that he won’t run away chasing birds, live stock, a little kid or a fearful dog. Asking him to walk next to you down the street means that people around you will feel comfortable. A dog who knows how to stop or come back is less likely to run under the car if he gets distracted. And any spaniel who can resist picking up garbage on the street or spit anything he did pick, won’t have a bad tummy accident or worse…

It’s a way to instil your cocker spaniel with confidence. The more your dog learns, knows, observes and experiences, the more confident he will be. Positive training doesn’t make the dog smarter (all dogs are smart, it’s a matter of perception, not comparison) – it works with his cognition, enhances his intelligence and improves problem-solving skills.

It helps your dog be more dog. Cockers are workers. These dogs need to get busy before they can eventually relax on a sofa feeling utterly satisfied. Even if they are show dogs and look like total divas. They still appreciate something more labour-intensive than a blow-dry.

It builds a human-spaniel bond. Training together creates many moments of fun (and sometimes frustration – but then they become fun, too), and helps you tune into each other’s behaviour, habits and signs that will strengthen your relationship. Throw in an endless supply of treats to please the brain all the way from the gut – and you will conquer the heart of your spaniel forever.

It makes you a better human. Training can change your priorities, unearth some feelings and traits you thought you didn’t have – and get rid of the emotional junk that’s not worth drugging around. It teaches patience. It encourages you to learn, too. It gets you to the point when you see your dog through a completely different set of spectacles – and fall in love with your pooch all over again, day after day, more and more.  You know, it turns you into a person your dog always thought you were.


Image credit: Me and Coop photographed by my husband once upon a time