I’ve gravitated to animals my entire life. As a kid living on a farm, I had gerbils, fish, cats, and dogs. They all had names and unique personalities. I would watch them for hours, trying to figure out what they might be thinking. I remember wondering how amazing it would be to speak their language. When I wasn’t watching them in real life, I was watching them on TV. To this day, I can still hear David Attenborough’s voice narrating “The Living Planet” series on BBC. My passion and love for animals has never faded and one of my favorites has always been the dog.
Throughout my life, I have had wonderful relationships with my own dogs and those of others. When I found myself in Baltimore six years ago, in a shelter, surrounded by hundreds of barking dogs, one amazing Pit Bull calmly stared back at me. I fell in love with her joyful spirit and playful nature. It took some convincing but my wife finally agreed and we brought her home. We named her Lexi, short for Alexandria “defender of man.” She quickly captured our hearts with her rambunctious love of life and her amazing capacity for forgiveness. Lexi became my teacher and my friend. Her persistent playfulness won over our pug Henry and they became buddies. Then came the training.
I began teaching Lexi all the basics I knew using my old tried and true methods. From the beginning, despite my prompt leash “snap” corrections and handling, I struggled to teach her to walk on leash. I began to get frustrated with her overly excited responses to other dogs and worst of all her insanely intense response to squirrels. I resorted to stronger corrections, body blocking, and harsh verbal reprimands. Our walks to the park became stressful and filled with a battle of the wills. I desperately tried to analyze my training procedures and criticized myelf for not getting through to her.
I began taking a serious interest in dog behavior and I immersed myself in all things doggie. I read books, watched dvds, and volunteered at the shelter. I researched training methods and read all of “The Monks of New Skete” books cover to cover. I watched every episode of Cesar Millan and I embraced dominance theory, the idea that I should be the “pack leader” by walking through doors first, eating first, and various other rigid procedures. I believed that by establishing myself as the “alpha” my dogs would respect me and, therefore, do what I asked of them. I used food lures to teach new behaviors and then supported this technique with leash corrections or verbal reprimands for noncompliance. As my leash handling skills improved and the timing of my corrections became spot-on I began to believe that I was a humane and effective trainer.
Over time, confidence in my own abilities began to grow and I spent more time at the shelter. I would seek out the strongest and most unruly dogs, then take them for a walk and pit my will against theirs. Occasionally, I would have success and in my own mind truly believe that I had taught the dog something. Then the day came when I met a dog named “Red”. He was a large American Bulldog mix with botched ears from a home crop job and a beautiful rust colored coat. He stood at the front of his kennel with his chest puffed up and his huge head within inches of the wire door. I grabbed my slip lead, took a deep breath, and slipped quickly into his kennel. With a quick flick I put the slip lead over his head and moved quickly down the hall to the door. As I approached the exit he began to forge ahead; “snap” I gave him a quick correction with the rope lead. He paused and pushed on towards the door. I was impressed by his strength and confidence but knew it would take some hard work to get him under control.
Once outside, Red continued to pull and lunge on leash. “Snap, snap, snap” I corrected him several more times and each time he used his body language to communicate his dislike of how I was treating him. I was persistent and so focused on teaching him to walk properly on leash that I ignored or missed most of his subtle but clear communication. He forged ahead one last time so I instinctively snapped the leash again. I corrected him much harder this time and he stopped in his tracks. He gave me a long hard stare and moved his body to face me. As I leaned forward towards him he jumped hard and fast into my chest muzzle punching me so hard in the nose I nearly fell over. I felt wet hot blood coming from both my nostrils and my eyes began to water. When I got my bearings and my vision became clear again I remember thinking to myself “there has to be a better way.”
That day, I learned the hard way that force is not compatible with mutual respect. It took him breaking my nose for me to fully appreciate the impact that punishment has on the learning process. I learned that punishment and the adversarial relationship it fosters erodes a dog’s trust and dramatically stunts or stops true learning from occurring. I learned the importance of observing and understanding dog body language and I finally realized that effective training had to be a cooperative reciprocal relationship between dog and human. With this epiphany, I began to seek out other ways of training and luckily I stumbled across Patricia McConnell’s book “The Other End of the Leash.” I devoured her book and it served as a catalyst to propel me on my journey to understand the science of animal behavior. I worked hard to learn all the scientific jargon like operant conditioning, classical conditioning, and desensitization. I embraced the science and began to apply it in my training. I learned about clicker training and the many benefits of using positive reinforcement to communicate with my dogs. I began to see them transform into unique intelligent thinking animals. It was a miraculous shift in thinking that affected my entire life.
So far, my journey with dog training has led me through many seminars, an intense six month dog training program, and hours upon hours at the shelter. I’ve helped family, friends, and co-workers learn to better communicate with their beloved four legged friends and I’ve witnessed first hand the magic of positive reinforcement and clicker training. I’ve seen a dog's eyes light up when it makes the connection between a “click” from a clicker and the forthcoming reward. My lens for observing life has changed and I spend as much time looking for desirable behaviors in the people around me as I do in my own dogs. I wait for that moment when a friend, client, or co-worker does something great and I’m ready with some sincere encouraging words, a pat on the back, or a piece of chocolate if appropriate. When challenging or undesirable behaviors in dogs and people crop up I look for ways to manage them. If possible, I eliminate any reinforcement that may be keeping them strong and I think to myself, what behavior would I rather see and how would I want to be treated if I were in their shoes.
Today, we have a chance to teach our dogs amazing things through positive reinforcement training. We can work on changing reactive old habits focused on punishment and learn to be proactive. We can use clear communication like the clicker to pinpoint the exact constructive behaviors we want to see in our dogs. We can make the choice to build a long lasting relationship built on trust, communication, and love. If we use this love to fuel positive reinforcement training, we will have evolved to become a more thoughtful, gentle, and enlightened species.