As much as I love and enjoy my job I would be lying if I said it was never stressful. The truth is, when you begin to understand dog behavior your eyes open and you are able to see into the intimate world of dogs. They say ignorance is bliss-and it can be, of course—but it can also be harmful. When you are able to read dogs the way I and many dog trainers can, you can see not only their body language, but feel the emotion attached to those physical gestures and postures, as well. There is a great sense of empathy and compassion that is, at times, nearly overwhelming. It truly saddens me to see a dog living a stressful life, scared of his actions and what consequences they might bring. Fear comes not only from physical abuse, but also from verbal and social pressure. It comes in all forms, from spanking or yelling to jerking on a leash or collar, or hovering over a dog’s personal space. I see these stress-filled in every context, not only in the sort of obviously wretched settings you see in those super-emotional ads from animal welfare organizations. These stressed-out dogs might be in your typical family home, or the world of dog competition, or in intense training settings from boot camps to service dog training. Punishment is still alive and well in dog training methods. Why? We have countless studies disproving the success of punishment in teaching and learning, so why are well educated people still using fear or pain or both to train their companion animals? I believe it is because we live in a society that is locked into using methods that will give us quick results with the least amount of effort.
When I was training my “new” dog, Lilu, I did not have a magic wand or a secret incantation that would magically transform her from typical (read: sometimes difficult) puppy into a perfectly behaved dog overnight. What I had was a vision and determination. My love goes beyond the notion of a “perfect dog”–I am in love with the process of teaching and building a relationship with Lilu, and with any dog, for that matter. My energy goes to training and helping them become their best selves. I set practical goals based on their individual strengths and challenges, and guide them in the process of reaching those goals. Every setback Lilu and I had was taken as a learning experience. I accepted every complaint (whether it was a sarcastic remark from a stranger, or a concern from Lilu’s doggie-daycare staff) as part of the solution. Without an awareness of the actual problem (or problems), how would I be able to troubleshoot and solve them? Success is not a straight vertical arrow; it comes with setbacks and “off” days. The trick is not to let the inevitable discouragement completely derail us from our goal.
I have seen and witnessed the long-term consequences of punishment—not only on dogs, but also on the human-dog relationship. It is for that very reason that I do not punish my dogs. I want behaviors in my dog that are healthy, solid, and lasting over the long term. I want a dog who lives her life blossoming, mentally balanced, calm, and relaxed. It is that state of mind that will eventually eliminate every misbehaving action in a dog. Without this ability to self-regulate and maintain composure, many behavior problems arise. No amount of punishment can help a dog self-regulate.
Positive dog training challenges the dog to think and solve problems in a manner that is holistic and organic. The ability to handle stress and be successful comes from shaping. Shaping is a widely used training method in which larger behaviors are broken down into “baby steps” which are then rewarded; the trainer is “shaping” a smaller, easier action into a larger, more complex or challenging action. The beauty of shaping is that the process itself changes the dogs for the better, and strengthens the dog-human relationship along the way. Shortcuts to our goals also cut us short from the benefits of shared effort and dedicated work. Take exercising, for example. Nowadays, a person can lose weight either by adopting healthier habits, or through surgery. Two different processes with the same outcome? Not necessarily. Even if the two hypothetical people achieved the same weight loss, during the process the person who learned some new healthy habits (thus investing more effort) will end up ahead. That person gained all the health benefits of healthy eating and the benefits that come through cardiovascular exercise (to read those benefits go to http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/staying-active-full-story/ ). The person who had surgery lost the weight, but didn’t learn any health-supporting habits along the way, thus placing him- or herself at risk for continued health problems.
By working though Lilu’s adolescence, we were able to achieve a strong relationship. Even for a professional dog trainer, Lilu was not a particularly easy dog. A typical miniature Australian Shepherd, she barked a lot, could be nippy, and has a strong prey drive. Lilu was intentionally bred to be a hard-working, highly active dog. This year I have seen a lot of our efforts blossom. Earlier this year, Lilu and I started competing in agility. On her first run, Lilu received the fastest time. The first weekend, she placed first more than once and impressed many spectators, including me. She earned three titles. Even in a highly stressful, fast, and stimulating environment, we were able to stay connected and communicate. Her ability to focus and read my body language—even when I blew it and got her disqualified. Her successes continued the next day.
This achievement was possible through positive training, not punishment. I live in a small condo with no back yard. Aside from our short practice sessions and once a week classes with our mentor, Stacey Hawk of Hawk City K9, Lilu does not live and breathe agility like my competitive dogs do. However, I have something many don’t: I have a highly stimulating city environment right outside our front door—an environment that requires Lilu to practice her self- and impulse control every single day. In order for her not to lose herself and let the city consume us, we are constantly working together as a team. We are a team.
More importantly than her achievements in agility and her progress in obedience is the fact that both Lilu and I are well balanced. Even when the world tries to pull us out of our calm, relaxed zone, it doesn’t pull us too far out, and we quickly find our way back. Today, Lilu can look out our window and stare at the bunnies and squirrels without affecting her emotional state (did I mention she’s a miniature Aussie?). When she sees them on our walks she can leave them on just a verbal cue. If they happen to run past her, the biggest reaction you will see is Lilu standing up on her hind legs for a quick moment before settling back down. She is now my helper in my reactive-dog lessons; she can stay calm and ignore dogs who are lunging at her. Her calm state often helps the emotionally aroused dog calm down. She can remain calm while watching me train another dog or conduct a group lesson. She can greet me with excitement without it hurting me or herself. I’d be lying if I said there are not any areas that still need improvement–there are, and I am sure new situations will arise in the future, as well. Lilu still feels fear and excitement, but she can self-regulate her reactions. I didn’t train her to be an emotionless robot and never react (that’s unrealistic); I trained her to learn how to deal and cope in this stressful and unpredictable world I brought her into.
Lilu is not unique in this sense. Dogs who have experienced the process of positive training for self-control have more tools in their toolboxes and are able to overcome new situations a lot more smoothly than their canine peers who haven’t been through such training. I am routinely surprised at the clever ways dogs like Lilu will apply what they’ve learned into solving new problems (see Applying Learned Behavior Post http://greaterthanthedog.wordpress.com/2014/05/10/applying-learned-behavior). More and more, I see Lilu—and countless dogs like her–self-regulating with no human influence, whether by napping at home or finding a quiet spot to rest while at doggie daycare. These dogs can speed up when needed, and slow down when life requires them to. The world is full of problems, and I have every confidence that Lilu and I—and others like us—will handle them all together, as a team.