Teaching Bubba


Once upon a time, many years ago, I devoured every book I could find on dog training.  I paid for private training lessons with one of my dogs, and I totally bought into the “alpha” theory.  I believed in “corrections”, choke collars, and using my will to force a dog to do what I wanted. I thought that flooding was an acceptable technique to get the results I wanted. That was the way dogs were trained in those days…..that was the standard training methodology.

Fast forward years later, to a time when I became incredibly lucky enough to work with the first of the four Vicktory Dogs I eventually helped train.  These dogs had already been damaged emotionally and physically by their abuse at the hands of dog fighters.  Even as ignorant as I was, I knew that the training methods I was familiar with would be damaging to dogs like this.  So I was ready to listen to the message of Positive Reinforcement Training….or as I like to think of it: trust based training.  Looking back, it is embarrassing that I had to learn these methods…..this message of trust and respect should have come naturally, you would think.

The basic premise of this type of training is two-fold:  1) if you have developed a relationship with a dog based on respect and trust, he will be more invested in learning what you have to teach and 2) if you can help your dog use his problem solving skills to understand the behavior you are looking for, it will be much easier to teach almost anything.  What it comes down to is whether dominance is an acceptable training method.  Do you really want to rely on fear, pain or force to make your dog do what you want?  Or would you rather take joy in the learning, and view it as a partnership?

One of the tools of +R training is a clicker.  You can use that tool to mark the precise instant a dog offers a behavior you would like to reinforce.  Clickers have been used effectively with species as diverse as dolphins,bunnies, parrots, cats, dogs, and horses.  It is a “bridge”, a “marker”, a way of communicating with you dog with no drama or force.

Because I work at Best Friends Animal Society, I have been incredibly lucky enough to work with some of the most amazing dog trainers in the country.  Three who were the most influential in my learning process were the late Pat Whitacre, Tamara Dormer, and Jen Sevrud.  These three people helped me throw out my outdated beliefs and led me towards a gentler way of teaching a dog the skills necessary to be good companions.  There were no other methods that would have worked with the Vicktory Dogs.  They needed to believe the people who interacted with them would treat them well.  A stern voice or a “correction” would have ruined hours of relationship building.  The time I spent with these people trained me in methods designed to help a dog choose to cooperate with me.

A couple of months ago we added a new family member: Bubba G.  This is a young, rambunctious, undisciplined, clumsy, sweetheart of a dog.  He is amazing.  He has so much energy that it is almost scary.  He is mouthy.  He is stubborn.  He is…in short…a handful.   And he is basically a blank slate.  Working with Bubba is a million times different than working with Ray.  Bubba wants to learn.  He expects good things to happen.  He is energized by learning new skills.  This is when I can really see the benefits of teaching him in the way I was taught.

Just as importantly, Bubba has things he needs to “unlearn”.  Somewhere along his path he made the determination that it was ok to chew on people….not aggressively, but in play.  Let’s face it…with a mouth that big, even play bites hurt.  So we are working hard on learning more appropriate ways of interacting.  It is too late for Bubba to learn bite inhibition (where a dog knows not to put any pressure behind his bite).  That is a skill that is learned early in life or not at all.  Instead Bubs will need to learn to not ever set his mouth to human skin.  And we are working on it…..

Right now Bubba is in class 3-4 times a week.  He has individual sessions, obedience sessions, advanced obedience sessions and therapy/service dog training.  As often as not, we end up in “time out” at least once during a class.  Bubba either gets bored and starts acting up, or he starts play-bowing and trying to entice the other dogs to act out with him.  More than once we’ve spent a good portion of the class sitting on the sidelines and watching.  Our ultimate goal at this point is to have Bubs pass his Therapy Dog test.  He has an amazing personality, with no aggression towards people or dogs.  He also is a dog who needs something to do, a job if you will.  This will help him find an acceptable way to interact with people.


Dog training is all about relationship building.  It is learning how to communicate with each other.  It is about promises and expectations.  Training helps my dog to learn what to expect from me and allows me to learn what to expect from my dog.  This is a lifelong journey that we have embarked on together.  Don’t fool yourself by thinking a one time class is all you need to have a well-behaved dog.

As Bubba G. and I move forward on this new enterprise I will share what we’ve learned together.  All I can say at this point is that I haven’t been bit in the butt for more than a week.  LOL



9 thoughts on “Teaching Bubba

  1. As a second-time pibble adopter, I love the idea of +R training, and have seen it work well without issues. My first girl, Lacey, was smart and learned fast, even though she was a 4-year abuse survivor when I got her. My present pibble, Maggie, looks very much like Bubba. I have no idea what her life was like before we found each other as she was running loose. I bought a clicker to use with her, but very quickly learned that it was not her favorite thing – just the sound of the clicker makes her cower and shake from one end to the other. The only other thing that I have found that upsets her that way is a raised voice – anyone’s raised voice. But Maggie is also very smart and has learned a lot of things with just one or two training sessions, with her only reward being a snuggle. She has no interest in toys of any description – not even tennis balls or stuffies! But she will turn herself inside out to make me smile and tell her what a smart girl she is. It has been just over 2 years since we adopted Maggie, and we have successfully taught her to bark no more than once when someone comes to the door, to sit beside me until she is released when someone comes in, not to jump up, and how to open the outside door when she is out and wants in (our house door has the lever style handles – if she is just going out to potty, we put her on a rope and let her out; if I am not right there to let her back in, she can successfully jump up and pull down on the level to unlatch the door so she can come inside out of the rain, snow, or heat). She has a typical pittie smile, but when I smile at her, she will look me straight in the eye and lift her upper lip to show her front teeth just for a second before she drops the lip and does the pittie smile – as if she is mimicking my smile. She doesn’t do that to anyone else! Her best friend after me is my 19-year-old cat, and she has not yet met a dog of any size that she didn’t love at first sight, and she seems to know exactly what to do to please me and get praised.


  2. I think you and BUBBA are doing great–this is so much like teaching our human kids–it all takes time and patient–this big, wonderful boy is worth all that you are giving him and LOVE will be the gift you both get


  3. I love this method. I also learned at a late age, “unlearning” all preconceived notions. What a difference! And so exciting when they “get it”. I am working with a dog adopted from a shelter. He now goes to work several times a week but suddenly became a bit aggressive when people knock, come in &, of all things, leave. Since he was an 85 lb laid back “couch” potato, he has never had ANY formal training at 7 yrs. old. I decide we would start by teaching “place”, where he sits on a mat away from the door, then “stay”. Nope, nope, & nope some more. I observed the three “handlers” and watched. I changed the placement of the mat X2. I noticed he “looked”, took 1 step into the receptionists area, & decided -nope- on the 2nd move, so I changed where the handler stood & lo & behold he marched to that mat & gave a huge smile! Talk about a room of applause. They will now practice & I will go back in a week for any questions and/or minor adjustments. It is about working with the dog & observing. I remembered he used to be put in the receptionists office if he was not listening when guests there (and he LOVES her), so by positioning the handler so they blocked the door he had no more excuses, really. Much better to work with an animal than by forcing an animal. I could barely sleep that night I was so exhilarated!


  4. Wow, shock collars and choke chains and dumb-founded dominance… that must of been 40 years ago.
    Just remember there is a difference between “ALPHA” and Leadership, and… dogs are not from the human culture.
    Keep that in mind and its hard to go wrong.


  5. My dog is a play biter too. I try hard to be patient. Sometimes if too excited it will hurt, but she immediately calms down. I think mine needs a job also. Please keep posting, I love his stories.


  6. LOLOLOL- I’m so glad I’m not alone. Our first pit bull mix was a butt nipper if she was behind me and I was not going fast enough or of she felt the need need to “direct” me.


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