Train with Your Brain, Not Pain

Just a few years ago, most positive trainers began their dog-training careers using force-based methods—jerking on choke chains and otherwise physically or verbally intimidating their dogs into submission. Happily, more and more trainers today are “first-generation” positive trainers, growing up in a world where dog-friendly training is readily available and never experiencing the trainer who insists that they have to hurt dogs in order to train them. Most trainers who started their training careers using coercive methods but who have since crossed over to positive training had an epiphany at some point, often triggered by an experience with one of their own dogs. Mine occurred in the early 1990s, thanks to our terrier mix, Josie. Josie was always a joy to train. Although terriers are generally known for being strong-willed, Josie had always been willing to work very happily with me and showed little of the independence that is a characteristic trait of the feisty Terrier Group. Heeling, coming when called, and staying were no problem for her. She breezed through her CD (Companion Dog) title with ease, never scoring below a 192 out of a possible perfect score of 200 points. (A dog can earn an obedience title at each level by passing, with a score of 170 points or higher, three separate competitions scored by three different judges. The dog/handler team enters the ring with a perfect score of 200 points, and the judge deducts points for errors as he instructs the team to perform the various exercises.) But we hit a bit of a stumbling block when we began working on her CDX (Companion Dog Excellent); Josie was never what trainers call a natural retriever. In the Open class, dogs must retrieve a dumbbell on the flat as well as over the high jump. Josie simply wasn’t interested in picking up the dumbbell. My trainer at the time convinced me to use the ear pinch, a training technique that involves pinching the ear over the choke chain until the dog opens her mouth to protest, then popping the dumbbell in her mouth and releasing the ear. This is a classic example of the learning principle that behaviorists call negative reinforcement, where the dog’s behavior (opening her mouth) makes a bad thing (the pain in her ear) go away.

Josie, being smart as well as sensitive, soon learned to pick up the dumbbell on command in order to avoid having me pinch her ear. That obstacle conquered, she excelled in the Open competition and earned her CDX in three shows, including at least one High in Trial and an impressive best score of 197.5. The retrieve problem came back to haunt us, however, as we prepared for Utility. This class includes a scent discrimination exercise in which a dog must select from among a group of similar articles the article that her owner has touched. The exercise is done twice—once with leather articles, once with metal. The leather articles presented no problem for Josie. In no time she could easily find the article with the proper scent from among a group of several. But she hated the metal articles. She refused to put them in her mouth. We tried coating them with plastic spray to make them less offensive, but she still refused. My trainer urged me to pinch Josie’s ear harder, so pinch I did. Still, she refused. Then one afternoon when I got out the training equipment, Josie, who had always been a happy and willing worker, hid under the deck and refused to come out. Josie’s behavior was a rude awakening for me. What was I doing to my dog? Were a few scraps of satin ribbon and a certificate to hang on the wall worth the damage I was doing to Josie’s psyche, our relationship, and my soul? I quit training and didn’t do any serious training for several years. Then I started hearing about a new method that used treats, not choke chains. I checked it out for myself and liked it. I was back in the training game. Josie never got her Utility title. Somehow it never again seemed that important. We said sad farewells to her in the spring of 2001, when old age took her from us. In the last years of her life, however, when I got out her training toys, her eyes again sparkled and she would dash in happy circles around the yard. She was always a willing worker, even when I used old-fashioned methods. But after she eloquently showed me the errors of my methods and I learned new, gentler ways, she was again my joyful partner in training. I’ve realized that ribbons and trophies are just not as important to me as they once were. One of these days you may see me in the obedience ring again with another canine partner, maybe even on the agility course, in the rally ring, or the canine freestyle dance floor. We may even win a ribbon or a trophy or two. But that won’t be our goal. Our goals will be to have fun and to enjoy each other’s company. That’s worth far more than all the trophies in the world.