Friday, October 31, 2014

What do I want from my dog?

The last post I shared was about why I prefer positive reinforcement. I spent awhile thinking after posting about the dogs I have trained through various methods. One element that I realized is that my most recent dog, Andreu, who has had more consistently positive training in his life than any of my other dogs (partly because I started with him so young and partly because I previously utilized more aversive techniques), is the most charismatic, happy, goofy dog I have ever had.  This made me think about what it is that we all want in a dog. I have loved every dog I have ever owned, and all have been amazing examples of the human dog relationship. 
However, Andreu has made me laugh every day he has been with me...his goofy antics bring a smile to my face, and I can't help but wonder, if I had trained my previous dogs with the same methods, would they have been able to express their own personalities more? 
This may seem like a silly concept to some, but really, what is a dog there for? Why do people want to have dogs in their lives? Is it so that we can show that we have a trained companion that can do whatever we tell them to at any moment? Don't get me wrong, Andreu is very well behaved, and has received compliments in the Rally Obedience ring for his exceptional training. He also competes in agility and has been very successful, also receiving comments about how fast and willing to work he is. But Andreu is a character; he is goofy and happy all the time, sitting on the couch with his paws up like a person would, licking the face of the people he knows and likes, jumping straight up in the air when he is excited about something. He will rub up against you like a cat so that you will strach the spot just above his tail, he will randomly go into the bedroom and start rolling around on the bed barking at himself in a random game he likes to play. He loves other dogs and will play with them if they are willing, he gets excited in new places and wants to interact with any new dog around.  All of these antics could easily be distinguished "ill-behaved" but they make me laugh, none of them are breaking his rules of my training, and they all make him happy.
So, the question is, what do I want in a dog? I have some particular specifications being a dog trainer. With Andreu, I wanted a dog who likes other dogs, and can help me work with dogs to understand social manners. I also wanted a dog you loves agility and would perform for me when asked. Above all, I wanted a dog who I enjoy spending time with, and Andreu is absolutely all of those things. 
I see many trainers, and training videos/shows, out there that advocate having a well-behaved dog, and believe me, I love having a well-behaved dog too, but more so, I prefer having a dog who I enjoy spending time with, who makes me laugh, and makes each day more enjoyable.
A dog doesn't need to be trained as a soldier to enjoy life, actually the opposite, a dog can be well behaved and also exuberantly happy. 
The problem that I have seen recently in the dog ownership community is that people have a tendency to see a "trained" or "well-behaved" dog as one who does nothing other than follow orders, and others see misbehaved and wild dogs as comical. 
There is a happy medium. You can have a dog that is well-behaved and goofy/happy/exhuberant at the same time! However, this is gained through positive reinforcement training. 

One of the biggest issues that I face as a positive reinforcement trainer is that many of my clients have already implemented aversive techniques, based on tv shows, or recommendations by their friends, neighbors, or random strangers. If they are using some of those techniques, and some of mine, it can become confusing for the dog, and often leads to mediocre results at best, because the dog doesn't really understand what to do. 
I know, everyone thinks they are a dog trainer, because they have trained their own dog, or watched a show. Everyone is willing to doll out advice as if they know what they are talking about. I understand that this is a controversial point that will hit home for a lot of people, but here is the reality; just because your neighbor/friend/ect. has trained 1-6 dogs in their lifetime, does that mean that they are an expert? I can easily say that I have trained about 3,000 dogs (on a conservative estimate), and I have probably used the methods that have been recommended to you at one point or another. If I don't use them now, it's because I have found that although they may be effective in some cases, they are not in all, and more so I may have found that the fall out of these methods are not worthy of their use in the first place. 
This is why people hire a trainer, to gain their expertise. 
To be fair, I am a very lenient dog trainer; I try to not be pushy about how to do things, but please, don't mistake my consideration for lack of knowledge. There are thousands of people who will tell you that they have the answers for dog training, and you can try their thousand different methods, or you can hire an expert who can tell you the upsides and downsides to the different training methods. 
Ultimately, my point is, I would rather have a dog who I enjoy living with, and is well-behaved. I have made my mistakes, and I am the first person who would encourage people not to do the same thing. 

If you want a dog who is a soldier, shut down, and only listens to orders, then by all means, be as harsh as you like, as much as it pains me for the sake of the dog. But, if you want a dog who is well-behaved, and also happy, charismatic, funny, and enjoyable, then call a REAL trainer, who will help you find a way to create that kind of a relationship. Take their advice...don't mix your own experience with their recommendations, just try it out for awhile and see what you get.

Thank you for listening to the struggles of a dog trainer.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Why I Train With Positive Reinforcement

I started training at a very young age. Not that my family was involved in training, or even had dogs, but I was drawn to working with dogs from the time I was young. I wanted a dog more than anything, but my parents didn't want the responsibility of taking on a dog at the time. Both had grown up with them, but knew the difficulties entailed with keeping a dog in a condo with a child and many different responsibilities to uphold.
I ended up with cats, who I learned how to train, and I also ended up in the horse world, working towards goals in the hunter jumper ring. I eventually ended up working as a horse trainer's assistant, and an exercise rider.
When I finally convinced my parents to get a dog when I was 11 years old, I had already done intensive research on dog training, dog breeds, and dog health.  I had begun working with a rescue and adopted a year old dog who had issues with bolting out the door and running away, and I was told that he was "untrainable" and "not very smart".
Using the skills that I had at the time, I did a combination of aversive and positive reinforcement training, although I mostly focused on the aversive as that was the vast amount of knowledge I was able to find in the library. 
His training went well for the most part; I stopped him from bolting out the door, and taught him various behaviours that were very useful. However, there were a few things we had problems with...he would pull on the leash, no matter how manny corrections, and he always seemed slow to respond to the basic cues, like sit or down. It was also difficult to engage him in new behaviors, as he would prefer to just sit still if uncertain. Ultimately, I really wanted to do agility with him, but after awhile he refused to do the sport. It took me quite awhile to figure out why. He didn't think that training was any fun.
I fostered many dogs within this time, and had very good results with potty training and teaching basic household behaviors.
My second dog, a rescued border collie, was much more excited about agility, but health issues kept us out of the competitive ring. A bad experience in a dog park led to some serious aggressive issues with other dogs, and this is where I learned my most valuable lessons about dog training.
No matter the punishment I issued, my border collie would still attack any dog that came near, and my frustration grew. During this time I had also taught her many tricks and behaviors, and unless she was around other dogs, she was an amazingly well behaved and very impressive dog. However, her dog issues were such a problem that I didn't know what to do. She would stare at the other dog, completely ignore me, and attack if the dog came near. No amount of corrections I gave ever seemed to make a difference, and often sometimes made the situation worse. I had worked with some other dogs with similar issues, and been successful with corrections, but my own dog would not respond. 
Finally, I decided to try something different. I utilized my clicker, and when a dog was present I waited for her to change her intense stare from the dog to me, and I would click and treat. I soon saw a dramatic improvement in her behavior, and came to realize that her intention had never been to defy my authority, but instead it was about her trying to ward off potential threats for the both of us.
She had been trying to keep us safe, as she saw other dogs as a threat. No matter how much I had punished her, she was always clear that other dogs posed a threat and she was doing her best to ward them off at all costs, even if I scolded her (and probably more so because she knew that another dog present meant a scolding, so she wanted to tell them to "get away!!")
When I started rewarding her focusing on me around other dogs, her behavior began to change. She started to become much more calm and confident around other dogs, understanding that her job was to look to me to handle the situation, rather than trying to handle it herself.
I started to implement these methods with other dogs I worked with and saw much better results...not always immediate, but much more satisfiing and sustainable in the long run. 
She became my best demo dog, never showing any issues with other dogs, and in fact starting to LIKE some of the dogs she encountered. 

I decided at this point that I needed to implement a much more positive approach to dogs. Even though it sometimes took a bit longer, the overall results were phenomenally more successful, and led to happier (and I may venture to speculate), more heathy and long lived dogs. Happy and healthy dogs, much like people, will often live happier and longer lives, as they have less stress and fear to deal with. 

This realization encouraged me to train in a much more positive way, and the results I have seen in my dogs, as well as my students, has been dramatic. I now have dogs who are always happy to work, are never reluctant to perform behaviors, and enjoy every moment with their people.
That, to me, is success in dog training. 

I still get to have all of the obedience that I want out of my dogs, but I also experience so much more joy in working with them.

Overall, the results with my students have improved vastly.
Whereas I once had dogs who would sometimes respond well to aversives, and be well-behaved, I now have a much higher rate of success with training. I never have dogs who "lash out" aggressively in response to their training, instead, I have dogs who are exuberant and happy about working, and I only need to deal with curbing their enthusiasm, which is an issue I would rather deal with any day of the week. 

Ultimately, I choose to train with positive reinforcement methods because it not only works better, but it also creates a better training experience and relationship for the person and dog.

I have used aversive training before, and I have had a lot of success with it, but not nearly as much as I can have with positive training.

I am not naive to the methods of aversive training. I have utilized them successfully, and I know how they work. But I choose a different method, because I believe that it can work just as well in getting the behaviors that I want, and better in getting to have the dog that I want to live with. 

I hope everyone can embrace training their dog in a way that makes both the dog and the person happy. After all, what is the point in having a dog if it's not an enjoyable and wonderful experience?

Thank you for reading.