Just about every dog trainer in the world is going to say that they use “positive reinforcement” as their training method and style. It’s a phrase that gets thrown around so much that it almost really doesn’t mean anything anymore. Even trainers who use more traditional methods are likely going to say that they use positive reinforcement, because they offer praise to the dogs that they are training, and therefore offer “positive” reinforcement to the dogs. It’s “politically correct” terminology.
To really understand my own evolution into positive reinforcement training, I think you almost have to know some of my history of training methods and styles, because they have really evolved over the years, and are headed in a really good direction! The more that time goes by, the more science teaches us just how very smart dogs are, and my training methods have evolved to adjust to that.
Back in the early 1980’s when I was training my very first dog, the training methods used by my local kennel club were traditional, and harsh in my opinion. The dogs were “corrected” into the behavior that the trainer wanted, and “made” to do the specific behavior. The idea was that if the dog was consistently corrected when they stepped outside the boundary of the specific behavior, over time, they would simply give the trainer that given behavior in order to avoid the correction. UGH!!
Those were the methods that I used with my very first dog. No rewards other than pets and praise were offered at all, because the thought was that the dog would become dependent upon the food or toys and never willingly choose to provide the given behavior on a consistent basis. The only positive aspect that I was allowed to use was to pet and verbally praise the dog. That was it.
When I was showing Schatsi, almost all of the top obedience dogs in the Midwest were Golden Retrievers….the love sponges of the canine world!! They were so happy to work for pets and sweet talk! However, my independent thinking, creative, problem solving little Corgi wasn’t having any of that petting and praising business! He was far too independent to work for those things, so our early training experience was very frustrating, and involved my trainers blaming me for a whole lot of Schatsi’s independence, because I was just too “soft” with him. *sigh*
My Schatsi was ridiculously food motivated! He would have stood on one ear for three minutes if he could have gotten a bite of something tasty! However, all I was allowed to offer him was a bit of fetch with a tennis ball or Kong toy when he did a really great job. Otherwise, it was only pets and verbal praise for him. Don’t get me wrong….he didn’t mind the pets and praise, but he wasn’t especially willing to work for them, either. As a result, training had a whole lot of correction and a very negative bias to it, because Schatsi wasn’t willing to please me out of the goodness of his little Corgi heart! He wanted to feel like he was getting a good paycheck for hard work, and pets and praise wasn’t enough pay for the work he was giving me. As a result, he hated working, and I really hated training him, to be perfectly honest. It was just no fun for either one of us.
When I started training and showing him in conformation training….think Westminster Kennel Club Show….I found as if I had hit my sweet spot in training! It was so happy, positive, and encouraging to dog and owner! I got to use the yummiest treat Schatsi wanted, and I could dish out treats any time he was doing exactly what I wanted. I actually taught him by “baiting” him right into the specific behavior that I wanted from him, and guess what? Shatsi happily did anything and everything I wanted, without my having to be cross or give harsh corrections! He quickly learned to provide the specific show stand and stay, even while a judge was doing a physical exam, and he gaited nicely and self stacked easily for me. He was so happy working, and we both really had fun with it! In the ring, I could let his little personality show itself just a bit, and there were no points deducted for that!
In short, it was such a positive, happy, and fun experience for us both! I kept thinking that there shouldn’t be such a huge difference between training for obedience, or training for conformation. In both venues, all we really wanted was a well trained dog who would be a team with their handler, and perform specified behaviors on a consistent basis.
Why was that so hard to accomplish? To be honest, I was frustrated with the “war” that I saw going on between those two dog sports, largely because of the methods of training. The obedience people thought that the conformation people were too soft on their dogs, and disliked the use of bait in the ring to show the dogs. On the other hand, the conformation people thought that the obedience people were harsh and rough on dogs, and frankly, I had firsthand knowledge that this was definitely true at times. It was why I left our local obedience club. I just didn’t like the methods to get to the goal.
Now to be sure, when you compete in a dog sport, no matter what that sport is, you do have to have a dog who is more well trained than the average dog! Performance trainers can be a bit hard core to be sure, just as Olympic athletes are serious about their training too. However, for me, it came down to realizing that all my Schatsi wanted was a mama who loved him, food, water, shelter, predictable days, toys, fun, exercise, etc. He didn’t ask to come live with me. He didn’t ask to be a performance dog who had to “Heel” perfectly. He just wanted a great life, and I am so glad I came to my senses to give that to him!
LOTS have changed in how dogs are trained today, and I’m so happy to have the opportunity to give countless other pet owners the same fun and relationship building experiences that I’ve had with my own dogs over the years. I absolutely take a positive approach to my training, and work with each dog as an individual who has a unique personality and learning style. At the end of the day, it’s such a great feeling to keep dogs out of shelters and gifting owners many fun filled years with their dogs.