Thursday, September 9, 2010

Love the place you train

Last April, as some of you may recall, I signed up for a class I was hesitant about taking.  Something about it made me nervous and it wasn't until I walked in the door, felt the unfriendly atmosphere and saw the amount of leash pops and jerks on both choke chains and prongs that I realized why I felt so uncomfortable before even going to the class: The website listed no solid training philosophy.  They had the "teaching philosophy" page, as most do, but nothing on it gave a specific method.  Their basic training philosophy was this: 

Instructors will help you to understand your unique dog and how to communicate clearly with him. And they have many methods in their "toolboxes" for teaching certain skills and for help with problem-solving.

There was nothing specific there, no one belief.  I had hoped, when I signed up for the class, that their teaching would be rooted in the "positive first" methodology.  Instead, I discovered quite the opposite.  While no one told me to put a choke chain on my dog, it was clear I was to treat her as if she had one on: use leash pops, drag her into areas she was afraid to go.  Dahlia was nearly shut down on the first day of class.  I walked out of the second.

I will not lie.  Finding an awesome place to train is hard and it's especially hard for those who want to train using positive, force-free methods.  A quick search in any locality will find you many places whose training philosophies do not revolve around positive methods.  In a search of one city, I found the following training philosophies cited on various web pages:

1. Our concept of canine training as we define it, begins when the puppy is born. Training is not simply a set of exercises (loose leash walking, sit, stay, down, down-stay and so on) that a dog must learn when he has reached a certain age. Instead, we approach training holistically as an integrated process that spans the dog's whole lifetime and includes many different facets of the human-canine relationship.  

This says very little about how they actually train.  Holistic probably sounds good to most folks, but then I start noticing Cesar Millan terminology like "calm submissive pack member" and I'm quickly turned off to the whole thing.  This is going to be dominance-based training and it's going to be utter nonsense.  Next!

2. My philosophy is rooted in the fundamental idea that companion animals are social beings, and they need to be treated with respect and dignity. Specifically, dogs are pack animals and need to understand the hierarchy of their social group. Dogs aren’t little kids in fuzzy coats, and I believe that they understand best when communicated to in their own canine language.

Unfortunately, this "fundamental idea" is entirely wrongFor an excellent article on this, check out Ian Dunbar's recent article, Let's Just be Humans Training Dogs.

3. Our natural approach uses positive encouragement to reinforce behaviors we find desirable. It associates commands with these behaviors to develop conditioned responses, so the dog truly understands what you are trying to communicate.  (Sounds good so far but then...) At the same time, a natural approach means understanding that dogs naturally make a lot of mistakes, lose their attention, or are sometimes downright defiant. In those cases, the use of correction or negative reinforcement is necessary, to discourage and stop or modify behaviors we find undesirable.

This makes the training not quite so positive all of a sudden, doesn't it?  Many people are taken in by the idea of a "natural approach" but frequently that begins and ends with the erroneous ideas of dominance, submission, and who's going to be the alpha or pack leader.  Sure enough, if you continue reading this site's philosophy, you ultimately end up with a discussion of "wolf pack theory."  Here's a hint to people who don't realize it: Dogs are not wolves.  And not only are they not wolves, but they're not pack animals.  Those who have studied feral dogs have discovered that they form loose social structures, but not a strict hierarchy (check out the work of Raymond Coppinger).

That leads me to the training philosophy of where I'm now training.  I began training a little while ago at a place whose main focus is agility, but whose training can also spill over into obedience or general training to be a good citizen.  I found the place through an awful lot of searching.  One thing's for sure, places based in positive training are hard to find!  It's much easier to find places like the ones listed above, who were among the first to come up in a Google search.  The new place I go to has the following training philosophy:

If the dog can have a positive experience, then you will have positive results.  The training approach is based on positive training methods,working to build desire and drive... 

They go on to state that they do not allow the use of training collars (choke chains, prongs, or shock collars) and that their entire philosophy is rooted in having fun.

Now doesn't that sound better?  It sure did for me, which was why I signed up with no hesitation.  On top of the lack of training collars, I have noticed a distinct lack of some terminology in this class.  The word "dominance" has never been used.  Not once.  Neither have the words alpha, submissive, or pack leader.  My dog is not out to take over the world and I like that!  During the classes, Dahlia has learned to play tug for fun and has, rather quickly, become an even more confident dog than she was before.  It is fun and that's the most important thing.  Beyond basic obedience (sit, stay, come, etc.), dog training is not ultimately necessary.  So why subject your dog to something stressful and painful simply because you want to do it?  I'm a firm believer in having fun with my dog and this class has been perfect.  

I love the place I train.  Do you love your training facility?  If not, maybe it's time to look elsewhere for someplace you will love.

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