Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Lessons learned

It's hard to believe it's been over a week since I last posted. I vowed to be better, to write more, to keep up with things, but it doesn't always happen.

At any rate, this has been a rough week for me and most of it centers around a new training class I recently signed up for. Dahlia is a fantastic dog. In fact, if I were a normal pet owner I probably wouldn't ever have taken her to one obedience class. She came to us completely housetrained (in the almost two years we've had her she has had only a couple accidents in the house and both of those times she was ill). She didn't jump up on people, walked fairly well on the leash, was able to be left alone in the house with nothing untoward happening, was good with other dogs and people and kids and cats. Really, for the average pet owner, she's a dream.

But I'm not average. And I enjoy doing things with my dog. To date, I've been fairly careful about finding places that focus on positive training. Or, if they don't specifically focus on it, are open to working with Dahlia in a positive way.

I took classes at Petsmart (as much as some people "poo-poo" big box store training, we had a great experience there and they do promote positive training), a CGC class at the local SPCA (the instructor was mainly positive but willing to work with those who were less so), and then an Agility for Fun class at Blue Prints Dog Studio (100% positive). I hadn't done anything with Dahlia like that since last May and decided it was high time to get back involved.

I wanted a place that did real agility, maybe rally. I want to have fun with Dahlia and I think those classes tend to be more fun. I'm not so into the obedience side of things. It's too strict, too structured for me. It was difficult finding a local place that did agility and/or rally. I found some really nice looking ones 45 to 90 minutes away from the Syracuse area, but around town? Nothing.

Then I stumbled upon a local school, just a 10 minute drive away from me. I was somewhat hesitant as their website didn't list any sort of solid training philosophy. At least at the Syracuse Obedience and Training Club (SOTC) they straight up tell you they require "training collars" (read: choke chains), so I knew that was a place to avoid. This new school I found mentioned something about working with each individual dogs to meet their needs.

It left me feeling a little bit nervous, but I signed up anyway, hoping for the best.

Instead what I got was a class with three dogs on choke chains and prong collars, owned by three people who wouldn't even look at me much less speak to me. The first day in class was so utterly unwelcoming that I felt a little bit lost. Where was the camaraderie I had experienced in previous classes? Nowhere to be found. One of the dogs was severely reactive to other dogs, even from 20-30 feet away, and would bark and snap and snarl at any dog that so much as looked at him. Every time he would bark at another dog, the owner would yank him hard on his prong collar. Every single time. And every single time he would bark more and whine more until he finally would stop after a particularly hard yank.

No one stopped her.

The instructor approved and pointed out why it was "working."

I cringed but continued on, trying my best to ignore what this woman was doing with her dog. The other folks were continually jerking their dogs as well. And Dahlia? She was getting more stressed all the time, which worried me. A lot.

Then I discovered that the room itself was distressing to my dear, gentle, super soft and sensitive dog. There were mirrors across the back of the room and Dahlia was freaked out by them. When we would walk near them she would shy away from them, try to pull me away from them. The instructor told me to keep going and drag her along, that she was controlling me by acting fearful. Acting. Yes, my dog is acting fearful to dominate me. She didn't use the "d" word, but I think the concept was the same.

And the next time we walked around by the mirrors, she sort of forced me to walk closer to them and drag Dahlia past them.

This is a technique called "flooding." It's not something I agree with and I was uncomfortable with it. All week it bothered me that allowed her to manipulate me in such a way. The choke chains, the prongs, the flooding, the leash pops. It all culminated in me walking out of class the following week after only 10 minutes. I had begun the class that day with the honest intention of giving it a second chance. I tried to show Dahlia the mirrors weren't scary but I was unable to continue with my positive training as the woman with the reactive dog insisted on coming to the back of the room and standing on one side of it. I'm sure it was clear that I was trying to acclimate Dahlia to the mirrors, but she didn't seem to care. Ultimately, the instructor told me to drag Dahlia again and I stopped. I told her no. And then said I couldn't deal with a class that was so completely the opposite of all I stood for.

And I left.

It was the best decision of my life.

So what lesson did I learn? I learned that if a website doesn't state up front that they do positive training, then they probably don't. In the future, I'll be avoiding any place that I'm hesitant about. I'll go with my gut.

Lesson learned.

In the mean time, I found another place slightly outside of Syracuse, just about a 20 minute drive from my house, called It's All About the Dogs. They do all positive training, no chokes, prongs, or shock collars allowed. It's all about fun. It sounds like the perfect place! We start there in June.


  1. thank you for giving me the guts to actively evaluate my "certified" trainer. She said my puppy GSD (bright and willing as can be) needed a high prong-collar and "corrections" (pops) to learn to heel properly.
    It broke my heart, but what do I know, I'm not a dog trainer, right?
    Wrong. It turns out Baby-girl just needed more exercise. She heels just fine.
    And this was a trainer that advertised in BOLD that she is 100% positive reinforcement, no questions asked.
    "Corrections" are NEGATIVE reinforcement.

  2. Thank you for the message, Anastasia! Neither am I a dog trainer, though I know a lot more about dog behavior and training the average owner (I'm an avid reader and observer of dog behavior!).

    I'm glad you decided to reevaluate the trainer you've been working with. Sometimes it's for the best!

    Just a note, though: Corrections (i.e. leash pops) are actually positive punishment. Not positive as in good, but positive as in "adding something in." So in positive punishment, you ADD punishment. Negative reinforcement is actually much worse. An example of that would be continually shocking a puppy until it laid down, then stopping the shock, therefore "rewarding" the puppy by removing the bad stimulus.

    I use a combination of positive reinforcement (rewards) and negative punishment (i.e. stopping play when a puppy bites my hands or turning away and ignoring a dog who is jumping on me).

    The four quadrants are actually rather confusing, aren't they?