My dogs, my friends and teachers – training new ways


Spicy beagle taught me to let a scent hound hunt and find me. It was the turning point in our relationship; the time when I finally quit trying to find her and reprimand her, and she quit thinking I always would. I was 13 and she was the first dog I trained myself. I had tried the aversive stuff my dad said to do and it hadn’t worked, so I got creative and thought of what she would like.

Fleet GSD taught me about loyalty and increased my understanding of how fearful some people were of dogs. She was unafraid, friendly and absolutely a guardian willing to barricade entries if she thought someone was uninvited. She enlightened my thoughts about others in relationship to my dog.

My first two dogs were very different from each other, charming, irritating, and inspiring. They started a lifelong compulsion for learning, training, playing and relationships with dogs. I was taught in the 4H dog training traditional, jerk ’em, push ’em method and it makes me upset that the science on behavior and learning was available back then and wasn’t listened to 40 years ago. Maybe the time just wasn’t right, or maybe too many weren’t brave enough to show the way.

Monday evening, on a very humid, Wisconsin summer day, was the last class (number six) for puppy kindergarten and dog (older puppy) obedience classes.  I have small classes so that it’s almost individual training. The next classes start next week and the most common question asked is, ‘What do you teach in puppy kindergarten?’

I know what I try to teach. Teaching is such an interactive thing and in this case there are, at least, three participants (me, you and the pup)…and anyone else who influences me, you and the pup.

My key goals are: 1) to explain in a simple clear way behavior theory and how to use rewards as a key way to train. 2) to name the risks of using punishment so my students understand what they are doing if they decide to use something aversive.

What do I teach? All the standard cues (sit, down, come, heel, stay, stand, back) are demonstrated and practiced using rewards – luring, shaping and capturing. Other items include; name game, touch/target, greeting – dogs/people practice – which includes aggressive behavior and how to socialize, tug, beginning scent work, puppy obstacles, tricks – paw/shake, spin/twirl, play dead, roll over, sit pretty, barrier games – can you sit behind a gate, and picnic politeness. And, of course, we talk about problem solving, prevention and management. I want students to have a lot of tools and ideas to continue with on their training journey.

What are the results?  Since this is an overview, try this, kind of class with a different kind of approach than many people think of as dog training the humans struggle to get the new mindset. The biggest barriers are humans wanting to criticize and make the puppy do stuff instead of letting the pup discover what will get rewarded. The younger the pup, the shorter the relationship and the less prior training in traditional methods, the easier it is for the people to learn and do. The humans like this method of training, but have a hard time remembering it, as it is not intuitive for most.

I urge people to hand-feed their dog and use that time to play training games for the food they are offering. Some people feel that they don’t want to do that. There is an odd aversion in our society to using rewards and also an acceptance of using punishment. This kind of culture makes understanding reward based, proactive training more difficult than it would be if the preconception weren’t there. Despite my urging to use the primary rewards often people free-feed, which denies them the consideration and gratitude that would be forthcoming if the dog actually knew where the food came from.

Often I suggest to humans who have difficulty keeping disappointment, ‘no no’, other criticism out of their training to just use hand signals/body language and silence. But our education system and our parents have told us that criticism is a form of loving care, so we continue to want to use it despite evidence that it slows learning.

The pups like the reward based training even if it is only partially applied and are very enthusiastic about coming to class and the things they tend to do best at are the obstacles as both the dogs and the people are very interested in these – since neither has earlier experience with them the outlook is fresh and uncluttered.

What is the meaning I make of all this? I think it is worth it to keep on trying to get the breakthroughs in understanding. Even partially applied it’s better than the traditional methods. I hope this model will keep gaining traction, I fear that, as with so many good ideas, there may be a backlash because of poor implementation and also because the aversive system has more potential profit with e-collars, training tools and techno systems and product marketing will push for their use.

When was the last time your concept of how to do something had to change radically? Were you able to keep up the ah ha? Were there great ideas that vanished even though they worked well if they were understood?

Who has been your favorite teacher? And why?

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