Crossing over to positive training can be frustrating. Abandoning old techniques for new is uncomfortable. Especially when you aren’t good at the new stuff. Dog trainer Eric Brad has found that sticking with positive training is well worth the effort for the rewards that come later!
Moving to training based on behavioural science and positive reinforcement seems to require a major shift in thinking and philosophy for a crossover trainer. Many of the things we believed before we crossed over are hard to get past. They seem so simple and insignificant and yet they can have a major impact on our ability to succeed at a new way of training. Starting with the language we use around dogs and dog training.
A good example is a comment made by professional dog trainer Karin Apfel on Facebook. Karen writes, “I found my thinking changed from ‘I must make my dog do XYZ’ to ‘I’d like to help my dog want to do XYZ.'” That’s a tremendously important observation. It marks a shift in responsibility. It changes the scenario. It’s not about making a “stubborn” dog do our bidding but about teaching a dog who doesn’t understand what we want that working with us is a good thing. We become a teacher instead of a taskmaster.
Through The Looking Glass
Making that first step into a different paradigm for training can seem simple enough but it brings with it many unexpected changes for many crossover trainers. It can seem like every time we turn to our old familiar tool kit for changing our dog’s behaviour that we have to see if that approach is still valid if we are teaching instead of tasking. And it’s frustrating when the tools we used to use aren’t really appropriate if we have nothing new to replace them.
Let me give you an example. An important part of dog management is keeping the dog from bolting out of doors from either the house or the car. More traditional training models frame this problem as one of “dominance” or “leadership.” The “pack leader” needs to be the first one through any portal when leaving or entering the house according to that approach. So working on getting the dog to wait for you to go first becomes a win-lose proposition; if I go first and the dog waits I win, if he bolts out first I lose. If we move to positive training, how do we reframe that training issue?
If we are to “teach” our dog to wait for us to go out first instead of making them wait, we have to change how we go about the process. If I was “making” my dog wait, it would be a process of physically preventing him from getting out. I could use a leash, my body, or even gates or fences to help me restrict his ability to get out the door first. Will my dog learn from that approach? Sure, eventually. But if I were to give up all of that, what’s the alternative? How does a positive trainer go about this?
The first step is to recognize that the dog wants to be outside. That’s where the fun is! Waiting is, well, not as much fun. So how do we raise the value of “waiting” for our dog? There are two things at work here. First, the longer we wait to let our dog out, the more frustrated he’s likely to get. Second, we need to provide a good reason to wait for permission to go out. And in this case, it’s unlikely that a pat on the head or a kind word is as exciting as a run around the yard to your dog.
As a positive trainer, I would begin by asking for a brief pause and reward the dog with a great food treat for cooperating. As we progress, I would do two things; ask for longer waits before releasing and gradually reduce the quality and frequency of the food treat. If I do this correctly, my dog should patiently wait for as long as I need before I release him to go outside in a very short time.
Thinking back to the days before I crossed over to positive training from more traditional methods, I remember feeling like it was all about controlling my dog. He must do my bidding or face the consequences. That’s a simple and easy to understand relationship. But it also has a tremendous blind spot. It assumes that my dog understands what’s expected of him. And that just might not be true, especially with young dogs.
These days, if I ask my dog to do something and he doesn’t respond, I know he’s not just being stubborn. There is a good reason he’s not responding and I know that it’s in my power to change that. I have more behavioural tools at my disposal change the situation. Best of all, it doesn’t have to be a fight. In fact it’s more like a game; figure out how to motivate and/or teach my dog what he needs.
Clumsy Trainer, Sad Trainer
Getting great results from positive training didn’t happen overnight. After reading the books and taking some classes, I understood what I was supposed to do as a positive trainer but I have to admit that I wasn’t very good at it in those days. My timing was awful. I frequently forgot to have appropriate rewards with me when I needed to train. And to be honest, I kept finding more and more training challenges that I didn’t have a good plan for with these new positive methods. Many of those challenges seemed so simple when I was using more traditional methods.
I guess when all you have is a hammer, all the world is a nail. In my case, my hammer was “force training” and every training challenge could be solved with it. Crossing over took my hammer away and I was faced with learning to use a completely new set of tools. It was very disheartening at times. My usual response was to tell my dog he was a “good dog”, put him in his crate for a few minutes, and try to figure out what to do next. It was by turns amazing fun to train and incredibly frustrating.
Learning, Acceptance, and Zen
I remember going to my first ClickerExpo weekend training seminar many years ago. World famous author and animal trainer Karen Pryor was doing a demonstration with a dog and at one point said, “Don’t get frustrated, it’s just behaviour. It’s not personal.” That short thought hit me straight between the eyes. It’s not personal! There is no benefit to my dog in willfully disobeying me. He’s not stubborn, he needs my help to be successful.
I was new to positive training and Karen Pryor’s words helped me to accept my dog’s behaviour without getting angry or offended. If my dog didn’t respond to my request the way I expected, it just meant I have more work to do with my training. That idea, “it’s not personal”, helped me also be more accepting of my clumsy positive training skills as well. It’s not brain surgery, it’s dog training. And I knew I was going to improve as a trainer if I kept practicing and working with my dog.
Stay The course
Those of you who are crossing over to positive dog training (or are considering it) may very well find yourself frustrated or disheartened as I was when I started. I can only offer you this advice: Stick With It! The science and principles on which positive training is based are sound. They have proven to be repeatable on many different dogs, dog breeds, and even different species of animals (including lizards and goldfish!). It will take some time to let go of old habits but there are lots of people out there in your community and on the Internet who are on the same road that you are. Ask for help, it’s out there.
When you know how to use a hammer, hitting a nail is easy. But there are only so many things that can be built with only a hammer and nails. Learning positive training has given me a much richer toolkit and has opened up training possibilities with my dogs that I never dreamed were possible. Yes, it was frustrating at first and I considered going back a couple of times. But I’m glad I didn’t. The calm and easy life I live with my dogs now would never be possible with a confrontational style of training. You could say I found my Zen with my dogs. There’s a peace in working together that I didn’t have before.
If you’re crossing over to positive, behavioural science based training, keep at it. It will pay off in many wonderful and unexpected ways. I promise.
Until next time, have fun with your dogs.
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