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Training approaches broader than a catch-phrase

October 22, 2009 1 comment
Operant Conditioning
Image by The Pack via Flickr

Carol Lea Benjamin, trainer and author, once wrote in her AKC Gazette column “Dog Trainer’s Diary” that when she was stuck in a training challenge with her own dog, she’d ask herself how she would solve the problem for a paying client – someone who was expecting effective and lasting results. Benjamin continued that considering her personal dog’s training issue in that light always crystallized a solution and gave her a direction that got the job done.

That advice, a couple thousand class and kennel dogs, and two decades of work with various purebred rescue groups molded me into a solutions-focused trainer almost from the beginning. I provide skills and solutions — I show owners how to resolve/improve behavior issues, develop specific skills to raise a good canine citizen or a reliable competition performer (or both!), and make decisions about what and how to train next. When I’m directly working with a dog, I provide a language bridge through which we can each communicate. It helps to remember that dogs don’t speak human. I am always asking myself whether the information I’m giving the dog is meaningful to him.

So when another blogger asked me whether I would describe myself as more of a hierarchical/dominance trainer, or more of a positive reinforcement trainer, I had to stop and think for a couple of days. Ultimately I replied, ‘Neither.’

I have trained my own dogs to 18 titles in the US and Canada in obedience, agility and rally, pointed dogs in conformation, performed intake skill evaluations for a board-and-train business, managed a boarding kennel where I walked every dog at least three times daily and provided grooming, taught hundreds of group classes and private lessons. Five of my eight personal dogs have been what Benjamin called ‘second-hand dogs’ – two rescue dogs, two young dogs who came to me to be grown up (and never left), and a retired breed dog who’s now working on her performance skills while being my cuddle bug. My private-lesson specialty is ‘difficult’ dogs – creatures whose owners have been told by vets, kennels and groomers that their dog’s behavior is a problem. My own dogs, and many class situations, were and are training for the sheer joy of training. But I’m not afraid to admit that my name is Pat and I train dogs for money. Training for a paycheck means that my training solutons must consistently produce reliable results for which my human students are willing to spend money.

When a trainer’s priorities are effective communication, providing solutions and developing reliable skills, s/he learns to adapt many approaches in order to provide a custom solution appropriate to individual dogs, owners and situations. Characterizing those individualized solutions with a couple of tightly-focused adjectives does the entire teaching process a disservice. I can’t boil my training approach down to one adjective – or even five!

Hierarchical? Since most of my clients come to me because I’m more experienced in the training process than they are, yes – there is a hierarchy to the process of learning. Eventually, the learning process will shift from hierarchical to synergistic, as teacher and student learn from and enrich each other’s pool of experience – but it takes time to develop synergy. In my house, the hierarchy is me, the cat, the young dog, the old dog. The hierarchy shifts a bit from time to time – my young dog and my old dog having recently shifted within the hierarchy. But I’d be oblivious to reality if I didn’t recognize that there’s a pecking order in my house. And I’d be wasting a naturally occurring, elegantly effective training tool by ignoring it. By recognizing that hierarchy exists, I can use it to enhance synergy and make our days together more enjoyable.

Dominance-based? Absolutely. Whether in private or class lessons, my primary student is the human being, and his/her dog is my secondary student – who will learn based on how effectively I teach my primary student. To both humans and dogs, I first focus on teaching them how to learn, and then offer training in specific skills. The human student gives me money and I give him learning tools and training skills. The canine student gives me attention and I give him learning tools, some (new) reliable behaviors and a human-dog interaction from which we’ll both benefit. However, I determine the depth and┬áscope of the relationship, whether the student is human or canine.

From the beginning, I tell students that I won’t waste their money or attention if they won’t waste learning time by ignoring what I’m teaching. I tell them that I’ll work just as hard to help them succeed as they do. I also tell my human students that I can’t work harder at training their dogs than they do because I’m not their dogs’ primary trainer. As long as the (humna) student keeps coming back, he or she has accepted that agreement.

Canine students don’t have the same choices their humans have about participating in my training. They are brought to training and they can’t leave unless their human drives them away. Dogs learn whether we’re teaching them directly or not – in my presence, my priority is to ensure that they learn what I’m teaching. Every skill we humans directly teach our canine companions involves things they wouldn’t do if they weren’t domesticated – display self-control in the face of exciting stimuli (like cats, squirrels, tennis balls, bikes, kids); control their bodily functions to times and places we direct; stay when they’d prefer to move; move (in specific directions and patterns) when they’d prefer to stay put. That our dogs continue to perform the skills we teach them means they accept that agreement.

Sure – we provide food, water, regular vet care, mental and physical stimulation. But we also use leashes, collars, crates, and regulate when things like food and water appear. Dogs aren’t in total control of the array of choices they can make – and their lack of control implies that they are submissive to the choices we make about their lives with us. If dogs are submitting to their humans’ choices for their lives, then who is dominant in the human-dog relationship?

Am I focused on positive reinforcement? Not to the exclusion of other techniques which may be more effective for that particular dog or human or training situation. Positive and negative carry the emotional baggage of “good” and “bad” (respectively) among non-trainers. But in training language, positive doesn’t mean “good” – it means doing or adding something to a situation. Negative doesn’t mean “bad” – it means not doing, or subtracting something from the situation. Taking the (human) emotional baggage out of training language frees that language to help the trainer elevate the human-to-human communication between teacher and student. It allows both trainer and student to create solutions without getting hung up on the method(s) that creates those solutions.

In the end, I’m none of hierarchical or dominant or focused on positive reinforcement. And I’m all that – and more. It’s my job as a trainer to elevate my human students’ understanding of training language and training skills by using them all correctly. By paying attention to solutions, I can most effectively help them develop better relationships with their dogs…using the method(s) that work best for each owner and dog and training situation.

Can you describe your style of dog training in one or two words? Do you focus on making your preferred method(s) produce results, or do you adjust method(s) to suit the human, the dog and/or the training situation?

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