History of a Trainer (Confessions)

(originally posted November 16, 2014 // Featured image is a painting entitled “I will love you forever” by Christine Norman (C) 2012)

A video shared by Jennie Murphy where John McGuigan explains why cognitive dissonance leads to resistance to changing one’s training paradigm prompted me to reflect on my own transformation of training techniques over the years. So, here is my confession and history of training, some of it is pretty, some of it is not; all of it paints a picture that mistakes are human but so is learning and change.
My experience with dogs date back to when I was 7 years old. That was when my family got their first pet (Nicky – a black tri Pembroke Welsh Corgi). Like most families, we picked our breed and pet based on looks and gosh golly my brother and I thought the corgis looked REALLY CUTE! (I still think they are adorable looking.) However, what we didn’t realize is that as a herding breed, and this breed in particular, can be a bit nippy. We always joked that any burglar could enter the house, but Nicky would never let him leave. We didn’t do any formal obedience, but I naturally took to training Nicky tricks, using his supper as treats. I had no formal training and we had a lot of fun spending time together, playing.
Nicky was a “nippy” dog, and by the time I was 12, I was the only one in the family who could trim his nails or take a beloved thing from him. We never paired the trick training to the other aspects of Life-With-Nicky; however, looking back, I can clearly see a trend. By the time I was 13, Nicky was charged with aggression as he had bit a sister of my brother’s friend (she required 3 stitches behind her ear – a very serious event). The vet deemed that obedience training was required and that as it was my brother who was “in charge of the dog at the time of incident,” he was the one to train him. **Enter the choke collar.** Naively, I studied the obedience classes and took to using the “Proper training aids” to work with Nicky. I was extremely careful about maintaining the drag in the collar and using the correct “pop” yet we continued with the fun trick training for supper. Five years later, no one in the family, not even me, could take beloved things from him, nor trim his nails. Our relationship had eroded to one of moments of distrust and defensiveness. I still loved him and he would still follow me around as best he could, but his quality of life in our family had been changed, and not for the better, in my opinion. But we were doing the best we could with the professional advice that had been given to us.
Half a year after Nicky passed away, I adopted my first dog, Brooke. She was only 5.5wk old and one of 13 in a litter (German Shepherd/Doberman/Lab cross). Needless to say, we adopted a LOT of socialization issues! She bit hard, she was fearful of children and men, and she had a general lack of dog-speak skills. At that time the pack-alpha-dog theory was all the rage. I was told to hold her on her back and keep her there until she relaxed. I was also told (by my vet) that to solve the biting, hold out my hand, when she bites it, smack her muzzle. Again, with good intentions, I followed the expert advice. However, I VERY quickly learned that the smack-for-bite led to harder bites with faster retreats from my hand. (Fortunately I only did that “training method” three times!) Fortunately, I found a reference that explained to yelp like a litter mate and refuse to play for a bit. This quickly and effectively fixed the biting.
However, we still had the fear issue which was quickly evolving into a fear aggression issue. Brooke would lunge to the end of her leash and bark and snarl as ferociously as she could to ward off strangers (men and children in particular). By this time she was 1 year old. I had done one obedience class (using the choke collar), and I HATED what I saw in her desire to work for me. I could see her shutting down in the classes and lose her smiley demeanor with me. I then looked for a positive-based obedience, and found one. We used the marker word “YES” with luring, and I loved the class! Brooke became more confident and we excelled. **Enter the positive reinforcement training.** I had found my training home, and the instructor introduced agility to me after graduating that obedience class. However, that’s not the end of my confession, you see I still had a fearful aggressive dog, and frankly it was embarrassing to me how she would act at the start of new classes and while we were out on walks.
That same instructor (who taught me the positive reinforcement training) suggested we set her up to fix this problem, which we set out to do. **Enter the alpha roll.** This is perhaps the darkest moment of my training history. The overarching philosophy of this technique was, “You don’t need to worry about them, worry about me. I will take care of those people, and you need to behave.” There was a period of about a month (3 weeks maybe 4), where I would alpha roll Brooke whenever she would express her fear through aggression. Did it fix her? Not really, it did reduce the frequency a bit, but my gut and heart hated what I was doing. Fortunately, I had also just taken a university course on Psychology of Learning. **Enter classical conditioning!**
I had said to myself, “There HAS to be a better way of dealing with this, so I can see her smiley face and joy all the time.” So, I knew she LOVED the tennis ball, and I realized if I paired men with the tennis ball, then that would change her opinion of them, which it did. Then I carefully did the same with children. I also paired demos around children with a LOT of hotdog treats, and would quickly leave the scene when they would get to be a bit much. (Short happy exposures!) After 2 years of this careful pairing, I had a dog that everyone loved (even those who were fearful of dogs). The club at that time had an award for most improved dogs, and Brooke was nominated, and while we didn’t officially win, I knew we won when the new members asked, “Why is Brooke nominated? She’s a fantastic dog with no problems!”
However, even that experience wasn’t quite enough to close the door firmly on positive punishment methods. I used a pinch collar on a strong-willed lab in ’97. Before I used it I put it on my leg and wailed on it to see how much it would hurt. I deemed it didn’t hurt, but I wore jeans AND I wasn’t willing to put it on my neck for the test. **That should have told me something right then and there!** Since Brooke’s first obedience class, I have refused to use choke chains and shock collars (yes I tested both on me and they hurt like hell and that’s not on the neck). I used the pinch for one week and got rid of it as I had gotten more progress through positive reinforcement.
The door didn’t close firmly for me until Baxter entered my life. With him, I was introduced to clicker training, which worked miracles on his confidence! (I was resistant to that too because “I wanted something that is always with me in the ring. I don’t want any artificial training aides!”) However, it wasn’t until Baxter’s second obedience class, when the instructors marched out the choke collars, that I actively said “NO!” and walked out of the class. I didn’t even ask for a refund. I considered that to be my fine for not researching the class enough.
Of all my dogs, Kelsey has been the most challenging for training because she is so darn smart and barks SO DARNED MUCH! I know that if I hadn’t had the above journey, Kelsey would be a very different dog today and we would have a very different relationship. Even with her I have been challenged and made mistakes in choices of training aides and techniques. We took a puppy class that used cloth choke collars and ‘pops’ paired with praise to define the boundaries of behavior – although I never used this method outside of class, I did use it in the class about 6 times. Watching her reaction to that collar should have told me something. There have been a few times of sheer frustration with her around year 2 that I know I yelled at her (quickly followed by me giving myself a time out).
The closest I have gotten now to the ‘old days’ is the use of the head collar with Kelsey, although I have classically conditioned it to be positive (she offers to put it on, and holds it on her nose even when not done up), and I won’t apply more pressure to her nose than my pinky finger can apply (I use a puppy/light lead, and hold it with my pinky and ring finger to avoid hard handling), there have been four instances of “fight” (Kelsey wanting to race after a squirrel and my moving her head away from the reinforce), and I use those as indication I have a lot more training to do on choice than to physically force her choice. Even this makes me uncomfortable, and my goal is to get rid of the head halter for all walks (even those with critters). I have used it once in the past month.
I don’t think training methods are done evolving. However, I am certain that my methods now are much more effective and fun. The joy of trick training that Nicky taught me is back in my life. A lot of professional “help” has been fixed, and while I am grateful for those lessons, they are ones I don’t intend on repeating.
As John McGuigan says, we all have our journey. For me, it has been the regret of feeling I could have done better felt when my dog(s) have passed away. With Brooke, I mourned so hard I felt I was going to lose myself to grief, and I vowed to never do that to another dog. With Baxter, I had no regrets. The only sadness was that he was gone and gone too early. He taught me to grab hold of every moment and hold joy in it… click-treat.
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