Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Positively Pit Bull

When I adopted my first pit bull, Scooby, I received all sorts of training advice, some solicited and some not. Among the advice I was given by 'experts' was "you need to alpha roll her to show her who's boss!" and "put a choke collar on that dog!" and my favorite, "you need to have Schutzhund control of that pit bull!" That last comment was blurted out to us by an instructor in our first agility class, where Scooby had trouble focusing because of her reactivity to certain dogs. I left that last class in tears and went home and looked up Schutzhund because I had no idea what the instructor was talking about. I didn't know much about training methods yet, but the idea of sitting on my dog or choking her didn't sit well with me, and I knew there had to be some other ways I could train my dog. I was a new dog owner with an adolescent pit bull who was high energy, highly prey-driven, intermittently reactive to other dogs, and stormphobic to boot. Not exactly the best mix for a first time dog owner. Sure, I lived with dogs throughout my childhood; a German Shephered that reportedly taught me to walk, and later, a Shih Tzu. I don't remember the Shepherd as I was too small. And what little responsiblity I had as a child growing up with a Shih-Tzu certainly didn't prepare me for the 40 lb, muscular, intelligent and strong willed female pit bull I had selected for my first dog ownership experience.

Scooby and I later enrolled in a local obedience class and the trainers there used treats and praise as rewards, and I felt like my dog and I were learning and having a good time. It felt GOOD and it confirmed what I knew in my heart: I don't have to use force or intimidation to control my dog's behavior and I don't have to hurt my dog when teaching a new skill!

Now, a little background may help explain why I was so pleasantly surprised to find out about
the use of rewards in dog training. For many years, I worked with people with developmental disabilities, specifically with youth and adults who engaged in self-injurious and aggressive behavior. I worked in clinic settings where functional behavioral analyses were conducted to determine the motive or gain for a behavior so that a treatment plan could be specifically designed to change it. The treatment plans were based directly on the analysis, and the result was that the patient learned new behaviors and new ways to communicate that were not harmful to himself or others, but that also earned him the desired reinforcement. In both my clinic work and later in schools, where I taught children with emotional and behavior disorders, I found repeatedly that consistent application of positive reinforcement does work and can result in changes in behavior! And, in addition, the use of positive reinforcement not only helps when teaching new skills, but it also helps build relationships.

Building Relationships...
(Todd Adamson photo credit)

People who truly love their dogs, and who love to train, know that training your dog isn't just about learning a new trick...it's about building a relationship with your dog. Creating new ways to communicate. Working new muscles, firing the neurons, and opening a dialogue between human and canine. When you use positive reinforcement methods to train, I believe it encourages you to think about your dog - what makes him happy? what does he like? what is motivating to him today? It forces you to think about your dog in a way that other methods don't. The positive trainer is proactive. On the other end of the spectrum, when you use aversives, in my opinion, your training is reactive based. The aversive trainer is trying to stop behavior that he/she finds undesirable. And the mindset is to correct, not to prevent, not to teach. Aside from being damaging to the dog physically and emotionally, this type of training - to me - reflects a real lack of creativity and flexibility.

Let's give an example of something I observed recently. A handler was walking a dog and the dog began to bark in an unpleasant manner as another dog walked by. The handler - a reactive one who has clearly been schooled in using punishment - immediately began popping and jerking the dog's collar and hissing like a snake in the manner of a well known TV celebrity. The dog continued to bark. The handler continued to pop and hiss. This cycle was repeated; it was as if the reactive handler was stuck and could not think of another option to try, so the handler kept repeating a method that clearly wasn't working. A positive trainer - and a really good one - is proactive. He/she is thinking ahead: there's another dog, er, another training opportunity.
The proactive trainer thinks of possible scenarios....'the dog I am handling may bark at that passing dog, what can I do to prevent this behavior?' He/she may turn the dog around, work on some attention, ask for a sit, play a hand touch game, play a find the treat on the ground game. Many, many possibilities - and none of them result in hurting the dog, and they all engage the dog in a task that is rewarding or building a skill that is desirable.

Training doesn't have to mean spending lots of money or going to a class. As a dog owner, you have access to all the fun things your dog wants and needs: food, water, treats, toys, walks, play time, grooming, snuggling, etc. All of these things - and more - can be rewards that your dog earns for simple obedience in your daily activities.

Over the years, I have taught my dogs many things using positive reinforcement. I'm sure, they have taught me much more. I encourage dog owners to train, whether it be in class, at home, on the sidewalk, in the park, wherever you choose. The skills you teach and the activities you do with your dog are up to you, and frankly, are secondary to the real objective: the quality time spent with your dog. Smile at your dog, praise your dog, treat your dog, walk your dog, love your dog and have fun together learning something new. ~Andrea Kilkenny

No comments: