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Friday, July 10, 2009

Why use one training method when dogs are as individual as you and I?

Growing up I remember seeing my neighbor training his hunting Labs using the popular and possibly at that time the only method of dog training known as choke training. This is basically giving the dog a command, and if the dog responds appropriately great, give praise, if not, a quick jerk on the choker is given so that the choker tightens on the dog’s neck causing discomfort. The premise being that the dog will not want to feel that jerk on the neck again so the next time the command is given the dog will listen.

Does it work? Well most certainly it does for many dogs when done correctly, however some dogs are very resistant to it and some even become fearful of it. My Newfoundland Chance was a good example of being fearful of it and his father Bentley was a good example of being resistant to it. So it makes me wonder why some trainers are still locked into that one method of training only, especially given the importance we are putting on our dogs in today’s world. We treat them like members of the family, take them on vacations and buy them everything from luxurious beds to clothing!

I was recently asked to test an already trained Search and Rescue (S&R) dog for Therapy dog work. One would think that a trained Search and Rescue dog would pass a therapy dog test without any problem, wouldn’t one? After all, a S & R dog must be great with commands in order to perform such a job.

I am not in the S&R business of training so I must admit I know very little about it other than what I have seen on Animal Planet. However, I do have a knack for picking up things in a dog’s mind or at the very least; I position my own mind to think about what a particular problem would be for a dog in a certain situation.

For instance, my dogs can be sleeping on a crowded floor while Peter and I are settled in for a good movie, and all of a sudden one dog will pick up its head and start barking seemingly at nothing. This act gets Peter a little pissed off as he is missing a portion of his movie with all the noise, so he will angrily tell the dog to shut up. I on the other hand, want to figure out why the barking is occurring in the first place.

Usually in these instances the barking is used as a distraction. The barking dog wants a drink of water, but another dog is sleeping too near the water dish and the barking dog is worried that passing the sleeping dog is an invasion of the sleeping dog’s space and could warrant a bad reaction. So the dog barks to wake or alert the sleeping dog, then waits for the sleeping dog to get up and go see what all the commotion is about. At that time it is considered safe for the barking dog to move toward the water dish. Seems simple enough to me, but to Peter, it’s a nuisance, so he just ends up yelling at everyone! If I can catch the barker right off the bat I will body block the sleeping dog thereby making a safe passage to the water dish so the dog can get water without invading the others space and everyone is happy!J Well possibly with the exception of Peter who now has to rewind the movie a bit!

So, to get back to the Search and Rescue dog, it was my understanding that this dog had been training in obedience class for a number of weeks in order to take the therapy dog test. The particular training in this class was based on the tug and jerk of the collar as I described above.

As I was ready to begin my testing, the owner asked if she could take the test with the dog off lead. On a therapy visit however the dog needs to be on a buckle collar and on a lead at all times unless there is a special demonstration going on. So I explained to the owner that the dog must be on a lead for safety issues. As the test progressed I could see that the dog was getting increasingly nervous with certain aspects of the test. ‘Heeling’ was a big problem for the dog as she was constantly pulling on the end of the leash, ‘leave it’ was another problem, as was the ‘come’ command which was interrupted with a stop and sniff of the ground by the dog in the middle of returning to its owner. When I approached the dog with medical equipment or a loud voice the dog cowered and backed away from me and its legs were actually shaking. This very act could very quickly turn into something ugly if the offending person did not know enough to walk away from the dog.

So I had to ask myself, how could a dog that was so well trained in Search and Rescue have such difficulty with a therapy dog test?

Well, I believe the answer lied in the way the dog was suddenly being trained. I started to ask the owner a few questions about the dog’s work in Search and Rescue. The dog is usually not on lead being asked to stay by the owners side during a search, hence the problem with the heel command, the dog is used to picking up scents and stopping, hence the problem with the come command and the dog is used to following the scents of what it is searching for, hence the problem with the leave it command when I showed the dog a treat and then tossed it on the ground. As to the fear the dog was displaying, I thought maybe it was because of the medical equipment, but the owner assured me that the dog has gone on visits to a nursing home and had never displayed fear of the equipment before. As well, during the last part of the test where the owner is required to leave the dog with me and walk out of site for three minutes, the dog sat nicely and was quiet, but his body was shaking every now and then.

Now granted I know I sometimes put out a persona that is a bit authoritative, as seen in my preschool kids when after five minutes of me working in their room they are asking when their mommies will be picking them up, but I was nothing but gentle in my interactions with this pup, so it was a bit hard to understand.

I must admit, I really gave pause to this one, so I asked the owner which was more important, to continue Search and Rescue or do therapy dog work. The owner’s reply was that the dog be able to do both, but mostly, do therapy dog work.

After a little more thought and conversation with the owner it dawned on me that a dog training for search purposes is not generally given a correction by a leash for ‘not getting something right’, but rather they are given praise and reward for ‘getting it right’. The more they get it right the bigger the fuss that is made over them.

As the dog, I imagined how it would feel to be praised and rewarded for every little thing I did right with no reprimands, even though it may have taken me many baby steps to get where my owner wanted me to be. Now, all of a sudden my owner is asking me to do things I used to be rewarded for but instead I am now getting a form of punishment for doing them.


Okay, I thought, so how do we make this work without confusing the poor dog?

Looking at this beautiful creature, I was able to come up with a plan, but would it work? I had asked the owner to try clicker training with the dog at home rather than the training she was currently doing with the class. Clicker training is based on reward for the behavior you want to see, and for the behaviors you don’t want to see you ignore the dog. Also, having been made aware that the dog knows and is ready to Search as soon as her search vest is put on, I suggested that each time the owner trains the dog for therapy that they use a leash and put a bandana on the dog so she can differentiate between the two jobs.

It has been a couple of days since I had given the test to this beautiful, intelligent and loving dog and I have recently heard from the owner. She wrote to thank me for taking the time to explain what I thought was going on and to tell me that this once very agile search and rescue dog who worked with all her heart and might, had hurt her hip badly enough to possibly end her career in S&R. Due to the dogs love of people, the owner wanted to keep her active in some capacity so she chose therapy dog work.

The owner further told me she had made the dog a bow from an old piece of satin material and places it on the dog’s neck before taking her on a walk. The dog has already picked up on that cue and now looks forward to her walk once the bow is placed on her neck. Furthermore, the owner intends to get a clicker and start training commands in that manner.

I have asked the owner to keep me updated on the dog’s progress and I hope she will do so. But even if she does not, I could tell by her letter that her intentions are to work with the dog until the dog passes the therapy dog test and for that I have to commend her.

This is why I say, as a person who has trained and owned several different dogs and breeds for quite some time, not every dog responds to one method of training and it is important to see each dog as an individual.

For more information on how to clicker train please visit the site below

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