My passion for working with dogs began while raising puppies for Guide Dogs for the Blind. As a puppy raiser, I was required to go to weekly classes with the group leader and other raisers to learn all about training and raising these puppies. At the time, Guide Dogs used “traditional” training methods and I was taught how to use choke chains and collar corrections to train dogs to behave appropriately. In one of our weekly sessions, we clipped the leashes to a chain link fence and practiced “popping” the leash to master our skills at applying a proper correction.
Fast forward to the start of my professional dog training career, working at Petco. There I learned that, in fact, food was also an important tool to use in training, so we could reward the dog for being obedient. In this “balanced” training program, we practiced “gentle guiding” techniques of adding pressure on the dog’s hips to force the dog to sit, then feeding the dog a treat once they were seated. I was hesitant to add food into my training program, since I had never needed it before, but it was required, so I played along.
I soon realized that the food really accelerated the training program: the dogs were picking up skills more quickly, the corrections were needed less often, the dogs were more focused on the handlers, the handlers needed to shop for treats, so there were more product sales during classes, everyone was happy. I was still resistant to being the “treat lady” and didn’t want to be thought of as a “cookie pusher” so I still refused to invest in a treat pouch, but I was seeing the benefits of using a balanced approach vs the traditional approach I was used to. Then it was time to start training Bindi.
Bindi already had sit and down figured out at this point (she was a border collie mix, after all), but “stand” was a brand new skill for her. I didn’t really understand the necessity of such a command, but it was part of the group class curriculum, so I needed to practice it with a demo dog. I held a treat in one hand, put my other hand under her belly while she was sitting, lifted up on her belly, and prepared to feed her the treat when she stood up. However, she did just the opposite. She melted into a tail tucked, belly up, down.
I tried this technique twice more before Bindi began to shy away from my touch and avoid the food in my hand. Even dropping the enticing treats on the ground would not motivate her to eat and she sat at the end of the leash, trembling. What went wrong? I followed the directions in the syllabus, I had practiced this technique with other dogs without any problems, I didn’t do anything painful or scary (I thought), I was offering her high value treats for a behavior that should have taken minimal effort. Why was my dog not figuring this out?
Luckily, the Petco training program was in the process of being updated. The new program removed gentle guiding and collar corrections from the syllabus. Now, we were supposed to teach the dogs how to go into positions with lures, encouragement, and a marker word, and they were supposed to somehow figure out what we wanted. I was skeptical. However, little did I know, this change in curriculum was going to save my relationship with my dog and change my entire career. I tried this force free approach one time with Bindi and she stood right up without any hesitation.
I had previously been so frustrated with my dog for not understanding this simple concept of standing up. She stands up all the time, why was this so confusing for her? Throughout the process of trying to train through pressure and correction, I lost my dog’s trust. She felt unsafe during training. She was confused and had no control when we were working together. When she became anxious after corrections, she was unable to understand the skills I was trying to teach, and she was often unsuccessful. These little failures led to a less confident dog and a more upset human. Once we switched to a positive training method, not only did Bindi learn how to stand up easily, but I learned how to communicate with her more effectively.
My years of hesitation and growing pains in my dog training career, as I switched from one philosophy to the next, was all completely worth it. The resistance to change and learn the new methods created tension in my relationship with my personal dog, but also with my identity as a trainer. I struggled to figure out what I believed and how to identify with my techniques and methods, but once I saw the instant change from my scared, trembling dog to an excited learner, I never looked back. Teaching Bindi to stand up was a pivotal point in my dog training career, and I can’t appreciate her enough for being the dog that pushed me to be a better trainer.