Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies™

Training Tips from the 1950's

By Mary Burch, PhD, originally posted on March 10, 2014 by Canine Good Citizen

Just when I thought I was tired of Facebook, during the holidays a few months ago, Facebook gave me a great reinforcer.

Through the miracle of the internet and social media, I found a friend who lived next door to me when we were 5-years old. Around Christmas time, I wrote to her and told her that even though my family had moved to another state, I always remembered her. And I told her that I remembered her dad, Mr. Raia. He was a kind, wonderful man. Even though he had his own children, he always made sure he gave me a Christmas gift when I was a child.

“You won’t believe this,” I wrote to my friend, “but I still have the present your dad gave me when we were 5 years old.” Back then, at the ripe old age of five, we had a family dog, but I certainly had no well-formed plans for a dog-related career. Maybe Mr. Raia’s gift was a premonition.

Mr. Raia gave me a dog training kit in a box, complete with tiny agility equipment that was to be used for training a 6-inch tall plastic Lassie. Over the years, a myriad of toys and dolls came and went, but for some reason, I always kept this gift.

After I located my childhood friend, I went to the closet, pulled the toy from the box where it had been stored for decades, and for the first time ever, looked at this toy through the eyes of a dog trainer and animal behaviorist.

In the box is a booklet on how to train your dog. It was written in the 1950’s by Rudd Weatherwax, Lassie’s trainer. Because positive reinforcement training didn’t become popular until many years later, I expected a heavy dose of advice about the need for corrections in training. While there were certainly trainers at that time giving out correction based advice, here are 10 tips from Rudd Weatherwax (circa the 1950’s) that may surprise you. Tip #6 shows evidence of food rewards in training.

1. Train on a regular schedule.

2. Keep training sessions short-not over 15 minutes.

3. Have one person teach the dog initially; gradually involve other family members.

4. Work in quiet, non-distracting surroundings.

5. Be consistent (same tone, etc.) when giving the dog commands (such as, “Sit.”)

6. Encourage your dog when he performs correctly by petting him, speaking in a friendly tone, and rewarding him with a tidbit.

7. Don’t rush training, have patience.

8. Teach one trick or skill at a time. As you teach new ones, review what the dog has already learned.

9. If your dog is not feeling well or is out of sorts, give him a vacation from training.

10. Never shout at or strike your dog. Your patience, understanding and kindness will be rewarded.

By the way, I called and spoke to 93-year old Mr. Raia on the phone. He was delighted that I still had his gift, and we ended the call with him saying he may have had an influence on my career. Maybe so, Mr. Raia, maybe so.