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.

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