Why I Switched to Positive Training

Why I Switched to Positive Training by Pamela Dennison
As printed in the Blairstown Press, © 2000. May not be reprinted without written approval.

Many people ask me why I switched to positive training. As I look back over the years, I see it has been a gradual process of continual learning, trial and error (many of those!) and a very deep seated belief that I CAN get the behaviors I want from my dogs (for home life and competition) without using any kind of physical or verbal punishment or traditional types of corrections.

My first encounter with positive was through Carolyn Wilki Holmgren, who teaches sheep herding. We met when I took Carrie and Cody to her farm for a herding instinct test. I was so enthralled with my dog’s reactions to the sheep, that I decided to take lessons. After a few weeks, Carolyn started to talk to me about positive reinforcement training. I didn’t want to hear it. In my mind, I was using positive techniques – I used food, petting and praise – along with leash pops (on a prong collar). Anyway, all I wanted to do was herd sheep, not listen to all of this stupid stuff. “After all,” I thought haughtily, “What does SHE know about competition obedience?”

Four months later, she asked me a simple question that was to change my life. “What do you do when Cody looks away while you are heeling?” I then demonstrated – we started heeling, he got distracted, (of course he got distracted – we were on a SHEEP! farm for dog’s sake! :o)) I popped the leash and when he looked at me, I told him “good dog,” and gave him a treat.

Thus started my “great adventure.”

Carolyn told me that she was going to give me a demonstration, by walking me through some simple behaviors, no talking – just hand lures. If I made a mistake, she would tell me. “OK,” I said grudgingly, “I’ll do it.” At first, I thought I was supposed to touch a hat. “NO!!!” she screamed in my ear. I was startled and backed up. She lured me to the hat again. I reached down to touch it and then paused. “NO!!!!” was bellowed at me again. I tried one more time and reached down to pick up the hat – Hallelujah! I finally got it right! Whew! No screaming! We continued through a few different behaviors and each time, my responses got slower and slower and by the end, I flatly refused to look at her.

Then we tried the flip side. I would only get a “yes,” when I got it right, but nothing happened if I got it wrong. It certainly was more pleasant and I made less mistakes, but because of all the prior screaming, I was unable to get over my fear of her. I would not look at her directly and my responses were slow and reluctant. I felt I could no longer completely trust her.

I was terrified. Pure and simple.

Then she asked me how I felt. I told her. She then informed me that was what I was doing to Cody. I was upset and went home to think about my experience. Everything I had learned up until that point was suddenly threatened. I called her to ask more questions. Carolyn lent me a video by Ted Turner, the head trainer of SeaWorld. I watched it in amazement. One part that particularly impressed me was a scene of killer whales in the wild, hunting sea lions. It was an awesome, chilling, frightening sight. Then the video panned back to a training session, teaching the whales to accept handling for animal husbandry, complicated behavior chains, fancy jumps, etc., all without the use of punishment. Wow! I had goose bumps! I was being exposed to an entirely new way of thinking and it was darned exciting!

I was now hooked – hook, line and sinker.

I didn’t know “how” I was going to get precise competition behaviors without the use of a collar pop, but I was determined to find the answers. I spoke with Ted Turner and two things he told me have stayed with me ever since. He said, “If we can teach a killer whale to pee in a cup, you can train your dog without the use of punishment.” He used to train zoo animals using punishment and on his last hospital stay after being mauled by a bear…, he thought to himself that there has to be a better way.

I read a few books, among them, Karen Pryor’s “Don’t Shoot the Dog,” and Kevin Behan’s “Natural Dog Training” and still didn’t see the “how.” Then I went to a Leslie Nelson seminar on positive proofing for competition. Eureka! NOW, we’re cooking with gas!

I investigated further, read more books, watched more videos, went to more seminars, learned to THINK for myself! Words like operant conditioning, associative learning, primary and secondary reinforcers, variable reinforcement schedules, Premack Principle, displacement behaviors, learned helplessness, bridges, topography, antecedent and more, all came alive for me as I learned how to relate them directly to behavior problems, pet training and competition. I was able to make an educated decision to use positive reinforcement to reward behaviors I liked and to ignore those behaviors I didn’t like.

As my education increased, I became more aware of the harmful side effects of using punishment. Positive reinforcement does NOT mean mindless permissiveness. I became adept at manipulating the consequences for the dog to get the behavior I wanted. I allowed my dogs the freedom to think, to get it “wrong,” to “fail,” for only by failing can the dogs truly learn what will yield them reinforcement. I learned to stretch my mind and not my dog’s neck.

I discovered different techniques and learned to discard them if I didn’t like them or adjust them to make them work for me. I learned to trust myself and to listen to my dogs. I know now that if my dog isn’t doing a behavior, it isn’t because “he doesn’t WANT to” or “he is stupid or stubborn,” he just doesn’t genuinely understand the behavior, my timing is off, my cues are not consistent or I haven’t practiced in enough varied locations and distraction levels.

Learning is often described as a change in behavior due to experience. It is my goal to make sure that those experiences are pleasant ones – for me and my dogs.

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