Sunday, June 9, 2013

Your Dog

Most people who are active in the dog training world will probably receive conflicting advice at some point. This seems to be especially true for my students, who often see me for reactivity and focus issues while also working with another trainer for competition obedience or agility classes.

I recently got an email from one such student. Her dog- a reactive adolescent German Shepherd- has come so far since I first met them. Although the dog does still have some difficult moments, especially when there are sudden environmental changes, the dog’s ability to bounce back and work despite those moments has grown in leaps and bounds. I’m so proud of how far the dog has come.

In her email, my student recounted a recent obedience class with an instructor who uses very different methods than I do. The instructor did not like that my student was using the Look at That game to help her dog deal with triggers, nor the fact that she used the dog’s name when she wanted the dog’s attention. It culminated when the dog reacted towards the end of class; even though my student was able to quickly get her dog back under control, the instructor told her that she should have grabbed the dog, shaken her, and yelled. When my student pointed out that this would make things worse (so proud of her for speaking up!), the instructor disagreed, stating that my student needed to start "getting tough" with her dog. Dogs, the instructor said, need to work and focus when we want, for as long as we want.

But is this true? Should we expect this from our dogs? I replied to my student, telling her that I think that we can train our dogs to high standards without “getting tough.” I also told her that I think it’s reasonable to expect them to perform when requested. But I’m personally really uncomfortable with the line of thinking that says our dogs must comply.

Here’s the thing: my dog is a living, breathing person. (Well, dog, but you know what I mean, right?) She’s not a robot to be commanded. She has thoughts and feelings, though I’ll admit I don’t know what they’re like. She has likes and dislikes; she even has interests that don’t include me. And that’s okay! I know we have a strong relationship, and that we genuinely enjoy being and working together. But that doesn’t mean that I am- or should be- the center of her universe.

My dog.
It’s not that she’s “just a pet.” Although I will freely admit that I’m not as serious of a competitor as others, I do enjoy showing my dog, and I like high scores, placements, titles, and pretty ribbons. (Oh, do I like ribbons.) I also like having a dog that I can hike with off leash, that I can take places without worrying about her behavior, and that is generally easy for me to live with.

Because of that, I have to make it worth her while to do obedience routines instead of hanging out with Auntie Sara ringside, or to come when I call instead of blowing me off to play with her doggy pals. I do this by offering her great rewards. Food, play, and interaction with me, of course... but I also allow her to be her own dog sometimes. I respect who she is as an individual.

Other people choose to motivate their dogs differently. They take more of a “have to” attitude, with an unspoken “or else” at the end. Their dogs are expected to do what they are told, or suffer the consequences. The dog’s motivation, it would appear, is not the promise of good things, but the avoidance of bad things. There is a continuum with this, of course; some trainers are heavy-handed, while others are sparing with their corrections. This is true with positive trainers like me, too. I know that I have fewer rules and expectations for my dog than others do. I don’t demand that she earn everything. I laugh hysterically when she makes a mistake in the competition ring. My dog is admittedly spoiled beyond belief.

This doesn’t make me right, nor others wrong. All of us will misunderstand or misinterpret the science behind training sometimes. But all of us will learn over time. All of us will make poor decisions for our dogs sometimes. But all of us will have moments of brilliance. Instead, it makes us different. Because when it comes down to it, Maisy is my dog. I get to decide what I expect from her, and I get to decide how to motivate her to give that to me.

If you’re getting conflicting advice, remember that you have choices. While I believe strongly in my methods, I don’t get to make decisions for anyone but me. I know who I am, how I want to train, and what kind of relationships I want to have. So when my student asked for my thoughts, I told her this: This is your dog. You get to decide how you train her and what you expect out of her. Not that other trainer. Not me. You. 

She’s your dog.

Choose well.


Jen said...

Such a marvelous post!

Were I your former student, I would be asking my money back from the new instructor and becoming that person's former student as well. I find it hard to wrap my head around that kind of abuse being fostered in a dog training class. That isn't training. It isn't teaching.

There are times I feel Elka MUST listen to me; they tend to be on non-negotiable potential safety issues, like recall, or listening to a "sit" cue at the side of the road.

I find myself thinking of her as a person sometimes, albeit one who cannot communicate with me as clearly as she would sometimes like. She certainly isn't a robot, or my slave (regardless of what PETA would like to think).

Sara said...

All the cool dogs hang out with Auntie Sara ringside. True story.

SissySees said...

Great post! Do you do distance referrals? I'm in central VA and in need of someone like you...

Tegan said...

If I'm competing with a dog, or training the dog for competition, and the dog doesn't perform the way I think it should, there is two ways that I can approach this situation:

The first is to put my dog away, review the situation, work out where I have to go with my training, improve motivation, decrease distractions, whatever it may be to improve my chances of the dog performing.

The second is to punish the dog, believing that the dog is deficient in a particular task. This means I dismiss that this could ever be my short comings that resulted in the dog's misbehaviour.

A dog trainer who uses the second method really is illustrating who they are. The first trainer is almost certainly a more skilled trainer, using a variety of methods to get the most out of a dog, and undergoing a process of self reflection.

tideeyed said...

I was raised with old-school, choker-chain-and-corrections-based training. As I age, I take on more of what I like of the newer methods and leave more of what I've grown uncomfortable about with the older methods behind. That lands me somewhere in the middle. When I tell my dog to do something, I want it done. Now. But not because they are worried I will hurt them. Just because I've said so, and it's not an option. I suppose my dogs are like my children, since I have no children and probably never will, so I raise them as such. I don't put unrealistic expectations on them, and I make sure I have the commands thoroughly proofed as much as possible before correcting for a dog blowing me off, but it's not acceptable to blow me off. You have your free time to play, and you spend most of your time doing what you want. But when I ask for a behavior, it needs to be responded to. So the trick for me is... How to get the behavior I am used to receiving without using a choke chain, and without using a clicker (which I despise)? I've always enjoyed a challenge, so with my new (and reactive, unsocialized) puppy, we're both on the learning curve. I'm learning tons of new methods to deal with her lack of socialization and reactivity, and I'm learning to do it in a way that works for ME as well. It's been new and fun... as well as exhausting. :)