Learning shouldn’t hurt

Alyson Brown is the companion animal trainer and behavior consultant at Mountain View Veterinary Health Center in Providence, UT.  She is a Cache Valley native, and considers herself a professional student, always on the lookout for good continuing education opportunities.  She shares life with her husband and their many critters, from horses to hamsters, all of which she enjoys training.

Last week I stopped at a pet supply store where dogs are welcome.  As I was looking for the items I needed, a beautiful blue bully breed dog came around the corner of the aisle I was in, admittedly, pulling his owner behind him.  He stopped at my feet and then my husband’s just for a friendly sniff, we said hello and told him how handsome he was.  His owner pulled him on past us to the men I assume they were shopping with and one of them immediately placed a choke collar around the dog’s neck.  My heart sank.

 In recent years there has been a resurgence of old school, “dominance” style training when it comes to dogs.  Early on in my adult life with dogs I bought into the “magic” achieved through dominance training that I saw on TV.  I treated my own dogs and their behavior problems accordingly.  I popped the leash, I used a slip lead, I pinned them down, I jabbed their necks with my fingers.  I still feel guilty about it.

Some problems can be suppressed with force, but it never gets to the root of the problem.  In the case of my dogs, whose problems were based in anxiety and insecurity, they only got worse.  So rather than continuing to base all of my training on a reality TV show, I went looking for more.  What I found wasn’t hard to get to, and a whole new world opened up to me.  The first book I got on the subject of positive training was a little hard for me to apply. I struggled with the mechanics of clicking and treating.  I moved too quickly, or worked in environments with distractions that my dogs were not ready for yet, but I didn’t give up.  Dogs are family. 

I kept reading, I found other trainers who applied the principles of positive training not only to the animals in their care, but to the people they helped as well.  I finally figured out what I wanted to do in school, and with the rest of my life.  The rest is history.  Now I have the privilege of helping others with their canine and feline family members.  I caught the training bug and it changed my whole life for the better.

More dogs have joined my immediate and extended family since those early days, and the relationship I have with them is much different than it is with my first two dogs.  I have never hurt them, physically or emotionally. They trust me. They’re happier and so am I.  They’re also better behaved.  The first two dogs who joined our household are great. They have come a long way. They trust me. They do what I ask, for the most part, but some part of that relationship is still missing.  They don’t have the same joy in training that the other dogs do, they’re not as comfortable offering new behaviors.

The cultural shift toward the use of positive reinforcement for teaching both people and animals has been slow at times, but it has been steady.  Dog training may have suffered a setback when TV shows popularized training techniques long dismissed by science, but the movement is still there, always struggling forward.  The best people I know are behind it.

I have learned that learning doesn’t have to hurt, and if it doesn’t have to, why would you want it to.  Zoo animals are trained using positive reinforcement.  They have been shaped to perform not only tricks for the public, but behaviors that allow husbandry procedures to be done safely without sedation.  Really, if a whale can be trained to pee in a cup with positive reinforcement (and I don’t know how you could possibly do that with force), a person should certainly be able to train their family dog to sit and walk nicely on leash the same way.

Choke chains, prong, and shock collars may work for some dogs, but there is only one way they work.  They work through pain, plain and simple.  They don’t mimic a correction from another dog, they aren’t a gentle reminder, or a light touch.  If they didn’t bother your dog they wouldn’t work at all, and sometimes when they don’t work to change behavior quickly, people escalate to the point of doing serious physical damage.  Even without physical damage, you put your dog’s mental and emotional well being at risk, and his relationship with you.  A correction happening at the wrong moment can lead to a fear of anything present at the time.

You do not need to hurt, scare or intimidate your dog to train him.  Training with positive reinforcement is easy, quick, and fun for all involved.  Your dog won’t have to wear any special devices that if misused can do serious damage.  Your dog can still be trained to listen to people who would be unable to physically over power him, including children and the elderly.

Your dog knows that you’re not a dog, and people are not very good at imitating dogs.  He is not out to take over the world or your household.  You already control when he eats, where he can go, even when he can poop.  You have opposible thumbs; you can do all kinds of awesome things your dog can’t do, like filling the food bowl and opening doors.  You don’t have to intimidate your dog for him to know that you’re in charge.

Change can be hard, I’ve been there.  We’re all taught that certain things are done certain ways, and when they work we tend not to question them much.  I’m just asking that anyone who’s training with force, pain, or intimidation recognize first that they are using methods that can and do cause harm, and second, that there is a better way for them and their dogs.

Be kind to your dog.  For more information you can check out the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior’s position statements on dominance and punishment on our website: <a href=”http://www.mtnviewvet.com/training/recommended-reading.html”>http://www.mtnviewvet.com/training/recommended-reading.html</a>

Find a force free trainer at <a href=”http://www.PetProfessionalsGuild.com”>www.PetProfessionalsGuild.com</a>

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