Two years ago, I decided that I wanted to be a dog trainer. Again. I had done a program 10 years prior, practiced for a few years and then found my way to another career. The decision to get back into dogs came 2 years ago when I was at a particularly low point in my life. I had lost my father a few months earlier and was at a true crossroads. After doing lots of research and deciding that most schools didn’t fit my needs, I applied to Jean Donaldson’s Academy for Dog Trainers. When I say I had no idea what I was in for, I was literally clueless. I thought I’d be perfecting my down-stay. Well, I did that. And so much more.
To say that what I was in for was mind-blowing is an understatement. The truth is that it was life- changing. Yes, that is correct: a dog training program and the training of dogs that went along with it, changed my life. In more ways than I can count. It made me stretch my brain. It made me strengthen my skills. It made me look at dogs in a totally different way. And, in looking at dogs in a different way, it became clear that I needed to adjust my approach. So, I adjusted my approach and opened my mind. By opening my mind (and my books), I started to see dogs as more than merely pets or animals, I began to see them as living beings, with functioning brains whose potential for learning I had not even begun to tap into. Classical conditioning? What was that? Proper understanding of the quadrants of operant conditioning? Yea, I had no clue. What I had learned previously was mechanical skills and how to use those skills as part of a process of both reinforcement and punishment, as well as the importance of being a leader. Oh, boy.
Anyone who is at all familiar with Jean Donaldson and her work knows that leadership is not part of her teachings. When I first started in The Academy program, I had only heard of the leadership model, was brainwashed into thinking I needed to be Alpha and was quite sure that this was the correct way of viewing dogs and thus, trained them accordingly. My reactions when I first heard and read otherwise ran from outright incredulity and thinking this woman was crazy to “What if?”. The “What if?” question was the life-changer. It was the question that I asked myself that allowed me to start to grow and to change and to be open. I don’t think that is unique to me or to dog training.
1.) What if everything the dog does is not about me?
2.) What if things that I think should be punishing to the dog are actually seen as reinforcing by him?
3.) What if my role is that of teacher or partner in a learning experience and not that of a leader?
4.) What if a dog’s “desire to please” is actually about acquiring things he likes and not about pleasing me, but rather about pleasing himself?
5.) What if that is a cycle of communication that feeds us both because we are, after all, social beings?
6.) What if I can omit causing pain, fear or startle from my repertoire completely?
7.) What if I can accomplish the same goals I had before (training dogs to be proper companions) by using my brain and not pain?
The answers I have found are as follows:
1.) It’s not and that’s okay.
2.) They can be, such as pushing a dog away when they are jumping to greet. For some dogs, any attention is good attention.
3.) I now consider myself a teacher and no longer think leadership plays any role in what I teach. Not in the way we have typically been told. I am not a pack leader. I don’t need to be. I am a human, dogs are not. They know the difference.
4.) What we typically think of as eager or desire to please is usually the result of the simple fact that dogs are domestic, social beings who evolved around humans. It’s about the attaining of something the dog wants and likes: food, attention, affection and safety. We, as humans, can provide those things. A dog who doesn’t seem so eager to please is not displaying dominance or disobedience, he just likely has never experienced the benefits of those things. Maybe humans have proven unpredictable and maybe safety has never been part of that dog’s life. Maybe humans have proven aggressive and dangerous and the dog feels no option but to keep his distance or to be sure to not be hurt again by aggressing himself.
5.) It does. We are in relationships with dogs. We are communicating with each other in every interaction. We can choose to do that negatively or positively. We have bigger brains and opposable thumbs, it’s up to us to use both appropriately to teach the dog what we want. The feedback we get from the dog tells us whether we are doing so effectively.
6.) I can and have.
7.) I can and do.
Since crossing over, I have trained dozens and dozens of dogs. Not one of them has gotten a leash correction from me; not one of them has been pushed into a sit. Not a single reactive or upset dog has had their behavior suppressed. Rather, they have been taught loose leash walking with the help of some tasty treats (because I need to be more rewarding than the environment – dogs are not born knowing how to walk properly with a 6′ leash and a person attached to them) and anti-pull gear. They have been lured into a sit and reinforced for doing so, or for doing successive approximations of behavior that will lead to a sit. They have been counterconditioned to associate the sight of formerly scary or threatening things with things they like: food, happy talk and a relaxed, non-freaking out handler. Is counterconditioning easy? Not always. It takes patience and skill. It takes really understanding that Learning Theory is not just theory, it truly is Theory- with a capital T. This means it has been tested and verified to be a valid explanation. To me, this makes things like leash corrections not only unnecessary, but potentially dangerous. You can cause the dog to make negative associations with the scary or threatening thing and shut down and become fearful or become frustrated and/or aggressive. And, that can be done much easier than we think. Fear is easy to install, not so easy to uninstall.
This applies to all dogs. Animal learning is not breed specific. I am sticking to that line until Science tells me otherwise. I have seen the same results with Poodles, German Shepherds, Pit Bulls and Pomeranians. Sometimes, I have to try a bit harder. By trying harder, I don’t mean using a prong collar or alpha rolling. I mean making myself and my reinforcers more rewarding, I mean backing up and meeting the dog where he is. That sentence actually makes a complex process sound simpler than it is and I think it’s part of why people get confused about what Reward Based training is. For me, this is as much about Science as it is Ethics. My ethics no longer allow me to cause pain or fear to the learner. It has become part of who I am and I will always strive to be better at it. It’s no longer about control (mine), it’s about behavior (the dog’s.)
I am not perfect. I make mistakes. But, I am keenly aware that they are my mistakes and not the dog’s. This excerpt from The Culture Clash was what really got me thinking 2 years ago. It is one that once read and understood, you are not likely to forget. Read it, let it sink in and then look at your dog. I promise you will see him differently.
Among the things I am most grateful for is the fact that in adopting Hazel when we did, I had the chance to get it right with a dog from the beginning. With us, Hazel will never experience pain or fear in her training experiences. Among the things I most regret is that the dogs who came before, Taz, Rocco, Sugar and Savannah didn’t have the same opportunity. With Rocco and Savannah, I have seen the changes, though. Rocco no longer freaks out over other dogs, bicycles, strollers, etc. Instead he stands calmly and wags his tail and looks at me when I speak softly to him. Truth be told, Savannah has always just been a “good” dog who is happy to see and experience most everything and will do whatever is asked if there is food involved. I am also grateful for the clients who “get it”- the ones who are willing to try to do things differently and the ones who acknowledge that there is a type of relationship they want to have with their dogs and that it is one that doesn’t involve fear or pain.
So, ask yourself: “What if?”. Ask yourself if perhaps the problem lies not within the dog, but within your approach. This needn’t be a blameful thing, it needn’t be a thing full of regret, though it may be. It was for me, but I have moved past that. I did what I did the way I knew how to do it.
Lori Nanan is a certified pet dog trainer through Jean Donaldson’s Academy for Dog Trainers (CTC) and Animal Behavior College (ABC-DT.) Lori owns her own business, La Dolce Doggie, in New Hope, Pa., sits on the board of the non-profit Philadoptables which benefits the Philadelphia animal shelter and is the co-founder of Your Pit Bull and You. She lives with her husband, Paul, their 3 dogs and 3 cats. She is committed to creating a world in which all dogs are trained without pain.