Reflections of an old school dog trainer
Reprinted from March 18, 2013 (slightly modified)
I’ve been around awhile. I have spent many years training horses and dogs. I’ve been around since the days of dominating your dog, jerking the lead for corrections, using shock collars, etc. It’s quite sad now to read the old style hunt training and obedience training books. Most of the old books leave me wondering how anyone could have thought those methods were acceptable, but that was a different era. I’m happy to say, those are days long past - nowadays, there are many more positive options for training any animal. It seems like every year there is a new popular trainer on the scene selling books, DVD’s, seminars and on-line training programs to help you develop the ultimate performance dog. Personally, I love that we are progressively understanding dogs at a deeper and deeper level. What’s tough for an old fart like me is that I have to keep re-training myself. It’s not just the dog that needs training! I need to keep myself in a continuous learning mindset, carefully evaluating and planning every signal I’m giving off, and perfecting the timing of each reward. I have to believe I’m not the only one who is questioning everything I have ever learned. (I don’t mean to go off on a rant, but all that I have learned about training dogs has really got me questioning the “classic dressage training” in horses - I’m more and more convinced that getting stuck in the ‘do it or else’ mindset is the reason so many horses appear to be very very unhappy at the shows and clinics.)
While Perp is in mommy mode, I’m busy working on some agility foundation re-training. It’s REALLY hard for me to re-train myself - I’m used to luring with treats (old style of obedience training), correcting mistakes (like saying “uh uh” or physically placing the dog back in their stay position), or sometimes repeating commands that are being ignored. For my re-training, I’m schooling myself in classical conditioning and operant conditioning. Some of these concepts are commonly used by almost everyone, while some of the concepts require a bit more time to absorb. Positive Reinforcement (getting a treat for doing something right) is well known. But what about Positive Punishment (jerk the dogs collar for pulling on a lead), Negative Reinforcement (using a shock collar to get the dog to return to you - the cessation of pain is the reinforcer), or Negative Punishment (removing something desirable to suppress the behavior, like putting your dog in a crate for jumping up on a guest - and the dog really really wants to jump up to get attention). If you study these concepts carefully, you can start to put your own training into each of these categories.
Positive reinforcement is by far the strongest training aid. Any animal that is working in a happy frame of mind is much more willing to learn. Better yet, any animal that is actively THINKING THROUGH and CHOOSING to do the things it is learning is going to have a great deal of drive and accuracy in its responses. Shaping behaviors is a whole ‘nother universe of learning. Clicker training, for example, is a method used to help shape a behavior. All you need is a dog that is willing to experiment and doesn’t worry about failure, and an enormous amount of patience. Oh, and you need exceptional timing of your “marker” whether it’s a clicker or a word that you say, such as “yes”. Shaping behaviors is an amazing method of getting a performance dog to work towards the goal you want. The key is to “create value” of anything you are asking your dog to do - the value of the treat or the tug toy gets transferred into the value of doing the work itself. So, an agility dog trained via shaping behavior LOVES the agility equipment - running agility in and of itself is fulfilling for the dog. My Cassie was trained using some older methods, and although she will run agility and loves to do it, she doesn’t have the drive (love of and total focus on the equipment) to get it done at high speed. Bindi was trained with some shaping behaviors, and at least at home, will run like a crazed border collie (she gets overly stimulated at the trials). Perp has also been trained with shaping methods, and is just starting out in her agility career - I’m anxious to see how she does when I can spend more time trialing her.
If you are just starting to delve into learning about training by shaping, I would recommend any of the many books and DVD’s by Susan Garrett. Susan has improved some of her methods over the years, but I still think Shaping Success (book) and Crate Games (DVD) are a rock solid foundation for any dog, whether it’s a little puppy or an older dog. Other great trainers that I use to base my foundation training include Sylvia Trkman, One Mind Dogs, Daisy Peel, Linda Mecklenberg (these are all agility trainers), and Kyra Sundance (lots of fun and thought-provoking books as well as a great podcast). The key is to keep current with what is out there, because methods seem to always be changing.
One more thing - in addition to taking the time to learn about various methods, you really need to spend a LOT of time with your dog. AND, you need to spend some time tracking your training and your progress. I know that in my own training, I sometime videotape myself so I can not only train the dogs, but also I can self-critique how and what I am doing. Yes, it takes a lot of patience to train animals. But, they certainly aren’t born with the ability to do all those great tricks and performance events! It’s a TEAM exercise - you AND your dog need to learn how to train. Go for it!