Positivity

So there’s a share-your-positive-reinforcement-training-journey blog hop going on; I found out about it via Tenacious Little Terrier.

I’m pretty committed to positive training for my pups. I’m only human; I raise my voice or pull on a leash more often than I’d like. But I’m as much as a practical purist as my developing understanding and skill set allows. It’s what we try to do. Some of my reasons are ethical and philosophical, but what got me started on this road is a little different than what seems to get most folks started, so here we go: the three factors that won me over to the R+ side.

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I don’t have any good training pictures handy, so here’s Lilo bushwhacking a gravel wash on the slopes of Clough last weekend instead.

I should maybe note, at risk of getting thrown out of the hop, that I don’t actually feel super-strongly about what methods other folk use with their dogs. For me? For my dogs? I’m cheerfully and stubbornly committed. And there are certainly hard lines of objectively-not-okay that I’ll draw. But if dog(s) and handler(s) are happy, both in their skins and in their work, then I figure that’s good enough for me.

I’m suspicious of many-roads-to-Rome claims because I don’t believe that the ends excuse all means and because I’ve too often seen it used to justify bad handling, but I’m also suspicious of one-way-true-way-isms because I’ve too often seen The Way turn out to be…well…not. So I’m mostly, within what I think are reasonable bounds, content to let everybody be where they are and get where they’re going in their own time.

And I kind of figure that my dogs are a better proof of my methods than anything that I could ever write or say.

…most days, anyway!

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It only took me seventeen tries to fit out heads in the same selfie frame.

Anyway. My three reasons for starting and loving training positively.

#1 is FUN. I didn’t start training positively because I had a timid, reactive dog, although I did (and do — same dog!). I didn’t start because I had a dog who is easily overstimulated, although I did (and do — different dog!). I started because I had, some months before Lilo came into my life, fallen in with a group of folks online who were using training techniques that I had never heard of with their obedience and agility dogs and because they were not only getting good results but having so much fun. I loved the idea of training as a game and I loved even more the idea of training in a way that actively engaged the dog’s mind in a creative way. I’ve always loved sports in which the animal is an equal partner; I’ve always been fascinated by watching animals think. So I was an easy sell on positive training. It wasn’t a way to fix my dog problems or a last resort: it was this awesome, exciting, interesting way to have FUN with my dog.

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Although I didn’t realize what a short step it would be from thinking her own thoughts to actively judging me!

#2 is having a physically really strong dog. As above, I don’t necessarily think that training with corrections is the very worst thing in the world. But also as above, I do have my personal lines in the sand. And Lilo — the dog that I started with down this road — is really strong, you guys. She’s smaller than you probably think if you’ve only seen the pictures in this blog — only knee-high on me (and I’m not tall) — but she’s seventy pounds of muscle and bone and low center of gravity and intense determination and for all that she’s a delicate flower about weather and shadows and such, she’s still a pit bull. By which I mean things like, she smashes into walls on a regular basis while playing and barely notices. She is the irresistible force and the immovable object. She is a kind and loving girl, but her baseline temperament is fairly hard. Simply put, trying to disincentivize this dog would require more force than I personally would find acceptable. So I just don’t do it. We went another way. We’re both much happier and more successful incentivizing her instead. And funny thing: once she (and now Titus) understood the game, the training is incentive in its own right…

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The transition from woods to open space is one of my favorite, favorite things.

And #3 is just that I’m kinda good at training positively. Which I think is an important consideration in any choice of training method. I do think that method matters! And I do think that we’re all students, always learning and developing (fortunately!). But I skill and timing count for a lot and I was, frankly, a crappy corrections-incorporating trainer. I tried and studied really hard. But I sucked. I had too much to think about, my timing was off, and my frustration tolerance was decidedly suboptimal. I’ve had and continue to have a learning curve with positive training, too, of course. There is always more to learn. But the basic idea catching the dog doing something right came quickly and easily to me. The idea of thin-slicing and reinforcing what I wanted to see more of, ditto. I had good timing with the clicker (or verbal marker) from pretty much day one. And reframing challenging moments from failures into hilarious surprises and/or questions to work through as a team made all the difference in the world.

That is, training this way isn’t just something that the dog and I can enjoy together or something that I think is kind, functional, and fair for the dog. It’s also something at which I can be successful. Which isn’t the absolute most important consideration; I do think the rhetoric about putting the dog first is important. So important! I do!

But I think that sometimes it’s easy to get so focused on what’s good for the dog — especially (but not only) when we’re talking about other people and their dogs rather than about ourselves and our own — that we forget that the human part of the team has feelings that matter, too. So I guess that’s the moral of my particular positive-training journey so far: the dogs and I do what we do because it’s fun and effective and good for us.

Emphasis on the us.

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3 thoughts on “Positivity

  1. I think that the innate knowledge of and experience with timing is HUGE. A lifetime of observational skills from working with animals isn't something that can be easily explained. That's one of the most difficult things for Matt and I while training Arya. I can read her a mile away and he can't see it until it's happening. I do think a lot of it (like a natural seat while riding) can be learned, but some of it is innate. People have to both have an intense desire to know and understand animals on top of the kind of mind that notices subtleties.

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  2. I’ve trained both ways too. The fun of positive training – having everything be a game – is what has hooked me too. I actually was good at the old way of training (I trained a SAR dog that way) but I didn’t particularly like doing it. It was like putting a prong collar on a kid and teaching them to read by yanking on the collar whenever they made a mistake. When I learned about another way of doing things that didn’t involve constant corrections, I was ready to try it. I’m still learning – in fact, I bet that I’ll be learning forever because every dog is different. For my fearful Shyla’s sake, I sure am glad that I learned about positive training before I met her!

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