One Dog Trainers Path to Positive Training, No More Fear and Force

North Bend resident and pet trainer at Le Chic Pet, Melissa Grant, gets very personal in her latest column, explaining her path to becoming a positive dog trainer, which included injuring her own dog along the way .

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Thirteen years ago, when my dog was about 6 months old, I took her to a local facility for dog training classes. I had not yet decided to be a dog trainer, but was thinking about it as a career. The class was lively and fun; the trainer occasionally pulled puppies from the class to demonstrate her techniques. The trainer was always very nice and informative – and I have to say I liked her

As the class moved on I noticed her methods were sometimes quite harsh, but since I had grown up with compulsion training, which uses things like leash corrections, ear pinches or electric shock collars – I didn’t see it as much of a problem….that is until she used my dog as an example. 

She walked over, asked to use Lola as a demo dog for “Loose Leash Walking” and I readily handed over the leash. Lola happily trotted to the middle of the auditorium with her to help and they started circling the room together demonstrating how to walk together on a leash.

Suddenly Lola stopped to smell something exciting on the floor. After all, this was a dog training facility and had many exciting smells. The trainer stopped, wrapped the leash once tightly around her hand and BOOM…yanked Lola off of her feet. Lola looked surprised, but continued to walk happily with the trainer. A few steps later another smell captured her attention – and BOOM, she got another leash pop.

The first one surprised her. The second scared her and she tried to pull away from the trainer. BOOM, BOOM, BOOM. She was corrected three more times in quick succession for daring to be afraid.

I guess at this point my maternal doggie instincts took over. I gathered my things, stalked to the middle of the auditorium, took my dog and walked out. I never went back to the class. Suddenly dog training went from being fun, to being an extremely negative thing for me and my dog.

Lightbulb Moment

You’d think at that point I would have learned, right? After all I’m a nice person, dedicating my life to helping pets and their owners. I would take a bullet for my dog, but I hadn’t yet understood the consequences of the methods I was using. While I was learning to become a dog trainer, I had a mentor who had very mixed methods; some negative and some positive. She taught me to STILL give leash corrections, albeit softer, gentler corrections than the previous trainer. That was better? Right?

One day, giving leash corrections as I was taught, I injured Lola’s back. She weighed 12 pounds and it was horrifying. I did exactly what I was told – no more, no less – and I still hurt my sweet little trusting dog.

How could this be? These people who had been dog trainers for years and years were the experts and I was just beginning. 

In search of a better way, I began to seek out trainers who were debunking the whole outdated “Pack Theory,”  which is based on a study of captive zoo wolves conducted in the 1930’s and 1940’s by Swiss Animal Behaviorist, Rudolph Schenkel.

According to this theory, a happy healthy relationship with your dog requires you, the human, to be “alpha” and use force and intimidation to overpower your dog into submission.

These new trainers were finally making public the fact that his theories were based on non-related captive animals who behaved nothing like Wolves in the wild. More importantly, dogs aren’t wolves. Dogs are dogs and basing a whole model of training on a wild animal is just wrong.

It was all very confusing to a now almost trainer. I had people I liked and trusted on both sides of the issue telling me they knew the right way to do things – and I should listen to what they had to say. While I was pondering all this new information, I took all sorts of new jobs and volunteer positions to have as much contact with dogs as possible.

One of these jobs was walking a Giant Bernese Mountain Dog who lived on a golf course. There was no fencing allowed on this particular piece of property, so in order to keep this gentle giant from wandering, the owners installed an invisible fence. I understood that these fences were an electronic system designed to keep a dog within a yard without the use of a physical barrier. I was told the dog received a very mild sensation if they ignored a warning tone and got too close to the fence.  This large dog would not walk across the threshold of the yard to the street, so I would take off the electronic collar, load him up in a red wagon, wheel him (uphill) across the threshold and walk him.

Since I was told over and over the shock was so mild it seemed odd that I had to go to such extremes to take the dog out for a walk, but thought maybe this dog was just very sensitive. One day upon returning from the walk, I thoughtlessly loaded up the dog for the return trip down the driveway and forgot I had the E collar in my hand.

The shock knocked me down, made me throw the collar in the bushes and let go of the wagon; sending the dog down the driveway into the owner’s very fancy front yard fountain.

Mild sensation? Hardly. I guess feeling the effects of harsh training methods vs. just hearing about it was enough to convince me what these new people (Thanks Emily & Vyolet) were telling me was right and true.  I’ve never looked back and never used another leash pop again.

I’ve experienced firsthand the results of both kinds of training; punishment-based methods, and those that use positive rewards. I know now that while punishment based training can stop a behavior, it fails to replace it with a desired behavior and creates a behavioral vacuum. The dog never learns what is expected of him.

No fear, force or coercion is now the name of the game for me. Only positive training.

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