Tuesday, September 29, 2015

5 Things Dog Trainers Should Stop Saying to Each Other

"The only thing two dog trainers can agree on it is what a third dog trainer is doing wrong"

We've all seen the T-shirt. Heck, some of us may own it.

For dog trainers, civil discourse with one another often feels impossible. Opposing ideologies and passionate supporters of them butt heads with frequently ugly results. I am blessed (or cursed, depends on the day) to moderate a group for dog trainers and training enthusiasts where members of all camps are expected to respect one another, sit around the campfire and sing "Kumbaya", and try to not shank one another with a marshmallow roasting fork when the admins aren't looking.

In my experience, both my cozy corner of nearly five thousand members, and in other, less civilized forums, I found the same statements repeated over and over, by all sides. I would like us, collectively, to put these ridiculous phrases to rest, at least if you expect to have intelligent conversation with other dog trainers, and have even a glimmer of hope that they may see your point of view.


5. "Every dog I've seen trained that way is horrible."  Please get out with anecdotal evidence. The sample size you have experience is directly related to how many dogs you're exposed to, and your geographical location. Some areas are hurting for any kind of decent dog trainer, so when your area is over or under represented in a certain style, of course the quality (or lack thereof) will representative of your area. Just because you don't see it, doesn't mean it doesn't exist. Here's another mind bender for my fellow professionals- maybe you're only seeing the poor examples of the opposite style because the excellent ones are happy with the trainer they have, and don't need to come see you?


4. "Well, maybe some trainers can do that method well, but no pet owner can." Any veteran professional will tell you just about every pet owner struggles with darn near every method in the beginning. If you're a trainer, it's not only your job to train the dog, but to also teach the owners. Really, you've never had a handler that was just awful at following instructions, that you had to really put effort into, but you can't believe that would happen to other trainers?


3. "Those dogs only listen because of (insert tool here)" or, alternately, "The dog will never listen without (insert tool here)." Training is a long, ongoing process. You know this. I know this. So why do we demand the finished product or nothing from those we disagree with? Why do we not consider the fact that some owners, due to time constraints, ability, or overall commitment may always need a tool to get a performance from their dog? Plenty of trainers who compete, or coach clients who do, set foot in rings and fields without their clickers, treats, prongs, e-collars, you name it- and still qualify. And win. 


2. "That's method/style/tool is abuse" Alright, I tried to keep this list method-neutral, but this really deserves a spot. Dragging a dog behind a truck is abuse. Putting a kitten on a barbecue grill is abuse. Dog fighting is abuse. And may I remind you, animal abuse is a felony crime in all 50 states. Yet, accusing people who disagree with you of felony crime is somehow perfectly normal when discussing training ideology. Of course, some training is abusive. When I see videos of a dog jabbed through a crate with a broom handle, kicked in the head repeatedly, and other heinous acts, I will speak up, and so should you. But remember, we are all dog lovers, to haul off and accuse someone of the most abhorrent crime a dog trainer can be accused of, without ever seeing them train a single dog, is not only ignorant, it makes you look like the bully, not them.


1. "That method kills dogs"  This is my #1 right here. STOP IT. Yes, I'm yelling now. STOP IT. Start putting blame where it belongs.  A clicker and a cookie do not kill dogs. An e-collar does not kill dogs. Failure to take responsibility for the education and actions of dogs- that kills dogs. Every method has successfully rehabbed dogs, and every method has failed dogs. Dogs end up euthanized because somewhere, a person failed them.


I don't expect dog trainers across the board to start agreeing with one another. I don't expect them to abandon their passionate ideals. I'm only saying, if we want to help the most dogs, if we want to not only grow ourselves, but help one another grow, our debate should be based on logic and fact, not rhetoric and overemotional reactions.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Why title?

Most of us know a title doesn't necessarily make the dog, but does it make the trainer? Why should a trainer, especially one who works mostly with pets, title their dog? Why should a pet owner title their dog? 


If you're like me, for fun and shiny things, obviously, but not everyone has a passion to compete, and that's ok. For a moment, however, consider what it means to earn one.


A common concern for owners and a common debate amongst trainers is "Will the dog still perform with out the tools?" Set foot in a ring, and you are stripped of everything. Correction, reward, lures, training collars, clickers, and in most cases, even verbal encouragement. It's just you and your dog, and the mutual respect and teamwork between you, in an unfamiliar environment, with many distractions, and a pair of unbiased eyes judging your performance. 


For the professional, a title is the means to put their money where their mouth is, to prove that their skills are enough to get the job done, that their work can stand alone without any extra help. I truly believe every dog trainer owes it to themselves to set foot on a ring or a field, and really see what their skills will yield, even just for one title. Consider your clients. Think of that elderly gentleman who struggles to stay on his feet on icy winter pavement, or think of that busy mom with a child in arms much of her day. They need a dog who will respond, ultimately, without the tools. In an emergency, or simply the bustle of daily life, our clients can't always reach for a lead or a reward. The dog must simply respond. Can you achieve that without earning a title on your personal dog? Sure you can- but why not test yourself? 


For the pet owner, it gives them a goal. Something to work toward, a reason to work their dog every single day, even when they're tired, even when they think, "what's one day off?" If a client can walk into that brand new place, step in the ring, and their dog stands perfectly still for a stand for exam, I'd say the chances of that dog sitting still while the neighbors say hello is quite high. The goals in performance rings are a more finely tuned, realized version of the goals most clients will come to you with in the first place. 


Now, let me pick apart some excuses I hear frequently from fellow trainers:

"I can, but I just don't want to." Can you? How do you know? The truth is, you don't. Give it a whirl. When you're teaching a client your training methods, don't you expect them to have an open mind?

"I'm not into showing." You might as well say you aren't into taking your dog anywhere and working with them. Training titles are not about grooming products, walking in circles, and/or hideous polyester suits.

"It's too expensive." Entry fees can be as low as $25 each. If you can afford dog food, you can afford an entry fee every now and again.

"My clients aren't interested in showing." Neither were mine, until I told them about how fun it was, and how they could do it, too. Eventually those successes brought competition clients to my door. Grow your business while you grow yourself. 

"I don't know how to get started." You're already on the internet, aren't you? Get ye to Google, friend! 


Expanding your repertoire really can help you see your current knowledge in a new light, and inspire you to push yourself toward a defined goal. Titling will help you develop an eye for detail that will serve you and your clients incredibly well.  Performance and companion events should be supported and encouraged, particularly by those of us who make a living training dogs.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

If Jon Snow were a dog trainer, he'd still know nothing

"Mediocrity knows nothing higher than itself, but talent instantly recognizes genius."
-Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

A personal favorite quote of mine, so incredibly pertinent for dog trainers.

Dog training is a vastly unregulated industry, mostly because of the infinitely complex logistics of doing so, and lack of resources through the appropriate agencies which regulate other fields. This allows for a disparity in paid dog trainers wider than the Grand Canyon. From an average owner reading a few books, taking a few classes, and hanging out their shingle as a professional with less dogs trained under their belt than they have fingers, to international level competitors admired the world over, the kind other professionals pay hundreds to thousands of dollars to work with, and everything in between.

To the trainer seeking dog owners of the world: Who does your potential trainer admire? Whose books do they read? Whose seminars do they attend? What do they aspire to achieve with their own dogs that they have not yet? Do not take your trainer's passion to learn as a sign that they are less capable, in fact, truly open minded trainers seek out even more talented and accomplished trainers to build their repertoire, and they do so regularly. The very finest trainers have not only pet owners as clients- but other dog trainers.

To my fellow dog trainers of the world, be you fresh and new sweet summer children, or grizzled veterans, leashes in hand while I was still playing with my She-Ra dolls: Who do you learn from? Are you still learning? Are you seeking out the company of other trainers, to share ideas with, to be your series of checks and balances when training in solitude prevents you from seeing your own bad habits? Are you still attempting brand new things with your own dogs?

The beauty of dog training, to me, has always been the never ending learning process. You may train dogs your entire life and have more to learn. The mind is a sponge, and it never dries up when you keep running it under fresh water.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

A picky handler is a fair handler

Today, I'd like to address a common problem in dog training, for owners and even for many trainers- inconsistency, particularly the reinforcement of sloppy obedience.

First, I want to get out the way immediately that when I grip about precision, I'm not griping about shaping. Naturally, in shaping, we are building up a set of behaviors that are often not even named yet. Creating desire and familiarity with these behaviors is, to me, an independent process (at least initially) from what I want to discuss today.

Let's understand first why precision is important at all. Our dogs are truly brilliant animals capable of well beyond even what the most loving of owners already realizes, and can understand exceedingly precise behaviors and positions well and promptly. By keeping our standards for obedience high from the very beginning, we send a clear picture to the dog of what we will and will not reinforce. The rules should not change out from under the dog constantly.

Many of us have heard this from clients:

"I don't really care if he sits straight at heel, hes sitting, right?"

"I don't need a perfect heel, she's not a show dog."

There's no lack of trainers who will accommodate that thinking, either, but let's think about the picture we present to the dog. If we do not set parameters to our expectations, for ourselves even before the dogs, how do we ensure we are being fair? Here's an example from a handler who is attempting to teach correct position with food reward.

Rover sits about 20 degrees crooked from his handler after being told to heel. Last time he sat about 40 degrees crooked, so the handler rewards this sit. On the next sit, Rover is about 90 degrees crooked and stretching his head over the handler's leg to look at something. The handler regains his eye contact and rewards him. The next sit, Rover now swivels a full 180 degrees and has completely left the heel position. Now the handler addresses the issue and takes measures to return Rover to their side. Rover returns halfway, and is at a 90 degree angle. The handler does not reward this, but tries again until Rover is completely straight, then rewards him. The next repetition Rover is back to being about 20 degrees crooked, which the handler still rewards.

Does Rover know where the correct position really is? If he does, he doesn't know he must be there 100% of the time to earn reward. Not knowing exactly what must be done to earn reward will create confusion and eventually lack of interest for an activity Rover simply cannot understand due to inconsistent reward. In spite of the handler trying to make it a fun and positive experience, we have still left Rover with an unclear picture, and potentially devaluing the reward. If Rover is a sensitive dog, he may become frustrated or stressed when he wasn't rewarded at the second 90 degree crooked sit, when he was on the first one.

Here's another example, this one from a video I actually have watched, from the perspective of a trainer using collar pops to teach correct position (I know, I know...it's a topic for another day).

Max's handler is walking back forth and telling Max to "heel". Max goes approximately a foot ahead of the handler, and is popped back and told "heel". He returns, but is slightly too far out, and is told "good boy". Handler turns sharply while Max is somewhat lagging, and when Max is about three feet behind, receives a pop and is told again "heel". Max drops his nose to sniff and is popped up "heel". Max drops his nose again and is told to sit. He sits about 70 degrees crooked. He is praised. Forward they go again, until Max is about two feet ahead and he is popped "heel" again. On the next sit, Max is straight and correct for the first time in the session. Handler is neutral.

Does Max know where the correct position really is? Chances are, he is also utterly confused. The corrections came inconsistently, and at differing positions from the handler, so Max does not know when corrections appear, or what is expected of him. Max, as this point, is certainly frustrated and more stressed than Rover.

The moment we name a command, it should be with a crystal clear, precise picture of where the dog is meant to be each and every time the handler utters it. There should be no doubt in the dog's mind- this is it! I've got it! I've earned my reward! For those of us who use correction, please understand the power and implications of your tools, to use them with inconsistency will create problems greater than those you seek to rectify.

How does precision work affect the average owner? Many of my clients are pet owners, and every one has heard me say, "You may not need flawless obedience, but you will want the dog it creates." Focused, respectful, engaged, calm, willing. Precision obedience creates a concise, highly rewardable, safe position for a dog to maintain. This is highly useful when working with various social problems, such as barking at dogs, spooking at cars, etc. Sloppy obedience can create a far foggier picture for the dog, one they will float in and out of at will.

Now, I am certainly not saying that a dog must live its life in heel, nor am I saying dogs cannot master more vague concepts such as loose-lead walking without heel, or a casual recall. What I am saying, if you're going to train in obedience, train it with pickiness, and train it fairly.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Training doesn't fit in a box, and neither should our language when discussing it

What kind of dog trainer are you?

This seemingly simple question, with an infinitely complicated answer for many, has been plagueing dog trainers, and in my opinion, the entire dog training community for decades, but only since the broad spread of the internet has it truly begun to have a powerful impact on the dog training industry.

Balanced. Postitive reinforcement. Force Free. E-collar. Natural. Clicker. Science based.

These, and more, are the tiny, restrictive boxes dog trainers are expected to fit their entire craft into. A craft that is also expected to encompass a lengthy list of abilitites, problem solving capacitites, titling venues, every breed of dog and type of owner under the sun. Decades of experience, wrapped up into one or two words.

We, as a training community, need to stop. Stop choking one another with stereotypes and cliches, and stop limiting ourselves. These labels are not industry standards, and even their meaning varies from person to person- and therein much of the problem lies. Let's break down what each of these names is meant to represent, and what they really say about everyone else.

"Balanced" training is meant to represent a style that utilizes all quadrants of operant conditioning, in very basic lay terms, discipline and reward. But what type of discipline? That distinction remains somewhat vague, as it has become a broad catch-all term for any trainer who incorporates physical correction. One "balanced" trainer can be vastly and shockingly different from another. This particular label presents two unfavorable assumptions. The first being that the "balanced" trainer uses all four OC quadrants equally. I have found this to be patently false in most cases, in fact, the quadrant most actively in use by them is positive reinforcement. It also implies that other methods are unbalanced. What are some synonyms for unbalanced? Unequal, unhinged, unstable. Like most of the training labels I'm discussing today, the name itself carries a subtle insult.

"Positive reinforcement" (R+) and "force free" are two terms that often are lumped together but can have small, but distinct differences. Many of the R+ trainers I've had the pleasure of talking to and learning from are quite open about their training being primarily positive reinforcement, but of course will acknowledge that even the withholding of reward can no longer be considered R+. "Force free" trainers use the same methodology (training without physical correction or molding) in most cases, but is the name accurate? Withholding reward until correct action is offered is certainly sound thinking, but many argue that mental coercion is still a form of force, therefore the label itself is incorrect. Let's break down the implications of these names. "Force free" says, "I don't train with manhandling or harsh punishment", again, a very sound philosophy, but carries the implication that any other method is unkind. "Positive reinforcement" is better, I think, but as I mentioned earlier, this school of thought certainly doesn't have the market cornered on high value reward.

"Science-based" is not far away from the previous two, however, every trainer of every school of thought uses the science of animal behavior every time they train a dog, whether they know it or not. Dog trainers were doing incredible things with dogs long before animal behavior studies existed. While modern science has given dog trainers incredible insight and food for thought, the assumption should not exist that a trainer who doesn't work the way a "science based" trainer does is an uneducated cretin.

"Natural" training, to be entirely honest, is the foggiest to me in terms of direct application to teach specific tasks. It seems Cesar-esque to me,without the use of training collars or food, and is meant to be based on relationship without tools or tangible reward. If anyone out there can send me some videos on this style teaching very specific commands, I'd be grateful. I'm sure you can see where I'm heading now- the opposite of natural is of course "unnatural", to me an unfair and false way to label both "R+" and "balanced" work.

As for "e-collar","clicker" etc., I refuse to label any trainer based on one tool of many they may use. I am not a prong collar or a piece of Red Barn.

Now the labels get uglier. Punishment trainer. Shock trainer. Cookie-pusher. I will be frank, when you see these labels, walk away. If you're an owner looking for a trainer, walk away. If you're a trainer or a training enthusiast trying to have a discussion, walk away. These are more than labels, they are insults, and those using them likely do not care a whit that what they choose to call themselves also carries a demeaning undertone to others.

The sooner we abandon labels, the sooner we can spread our knowledge to one another with respect and open minds, and do the most good for the ones who really matter- the dogs. To do this, we must absolutely own the fact that a great deal of very poor work is being done in every style. Defeatist, permissive "FF/R+" training; harsh, unrewarding "balanced" training; "natural" work that accomplishes next to nothing- it's everywhere, and we know it. Rather than attack the worst of every other style, try representing the very best of your own.

Some of you may be looking at this laughing to yourselves, thinking, "Hey! I'm a PositiveReinforcementBalancedCookiePushingScienceRespectingECollarClicker trainer!"

No, you aren't, my friend. You're a dog trainer.