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 These three people helped me throw out my outdated beliefs and led me towards a gentler way of teaching a dog the skills necessary to be good companions.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