Why? That is the question! Why am I a +R trainer? Is it because of a stance of moral superiority? Is it because I am afraid that one little unpleasant experience will ruin my dog? Is it because I think that everything has to be nice for my dog all the time?
Well . . . no!
Back when I got into dog training, I knew nothing. Zero. Not a thing! I did not purposely seek out a +R training facility. I didn’t even know that such a thing existed! I found the nearest training facility, signed my dog up for Basic Obedience, and off we went. I just wanted to learn how to train my dog to sit and give paw. I knew nothing about training philosophies, training methodologies, behavior theory, reinforcers, aversives . . . any of it!
Two things that I had absolutely no control over really shaped my future path as a trainer. First, the facility that we stumbled into was, for the most part, supportive of +R training. Although there were dogs in prongs on the premises, all of the training was introduced through +R methods. The only techniques that I learned there were +R based.
Second, my first dog, Speedy, was a highly fearful, extraordinarily soft dog who was not wired correctly in the head. He required a notable amount of positive reinforcement. He had to learn that being out in the world was a good and safe thing. I spent the first several years of his training building positive associations with . . . pretty much everything!
When we moved and I changed to a second training facility (which I did leave about 5 years ago), it was a facility that I would now refer to as “balanced” even though they call themselves “positive”. They introduced everything using +R, mostly using treats, but students were taught to “enforce commands” through physical manipulation (example: stapling sits) or verbal corrections. Dogs who barked were squirted with vinegar water.
At that time, I didn’t really see anything wrong with any of that. The vinegar did worry me a bit because of the idea of spraying an acid, even a weak one, into the dog’s eyes, but I had no objection at that point to the idea of applying mild aversives in training. However, I didn’t do any of that with Speedy because he was so soft and fearful. Nobody expected me to because of who he was. The fact that others were doing so didn’t really phase me, but it was at that point that I started to notice that my dog who had quite a lot “wrong” with him was perfectly capable of learning without any of that. In fact, I often noticed that he mastered new skills faster than the dogs around him who were receiving verbal corrections and mild physical corrections. And I liked what I was seeing in my own dog’s learning.
Because Speedy was fearful and reactive and so easily ovestimulated, I began to read books to try to find more and more ways to help him. I read many of Patricia McConnell’s works. I read Emma Parson’s Click to Calm. I read Ali Brown’s Scaredy Dog. All of the authors that I happened to choose promoted a +R approach to helping dogs like Speedy. I set out to help Speedy through clicker work, and through desensitization and counter conditioning. I can’t say I did it with a lot of skill, nor without making a lot of mistakes, but I watched, amazed, as Speedy transformed from a dog who hid when people even looked at him and went into a barking, lunging frenzy when dogs got too close into a dog who could function with people watching and deal well with the presence of dogs around him.
I wish I could describe what I saw throughout that process. The change was literally visible to me in his eyes! I could tell that things were happening in his brain and he really was learning to respond to things differently because the look in his eyes began to change. This didn’t happen quickly but I could see that he was changing and growing every step of the way.
And, after a while, other people began to notice. They told me that his whole face, and his eyes, looked different! His expression had softened. He had more “open” expressions on his face in situations where he used to lose control.
And all of this happened without one correction, without one reprimand, without one training collar, without one application of any aversive. This was all accomplished with a clicker, treats, and patience on my part.
Of course, by this time I had learned a lot. I used to refer to Speedy as my “college education” in dog training and behavior. Everything is harder with a dog whose brain does not function properly. But I studied, I worked, and Speedy and I got the job done.
And it seemed to me . . . how much more could a normal dog accomplish through that kind of training?!
When we adopted Dean I faced the question, “do I incorporate corrections into his training?” I decided against it. If Speedy could learn through +R based training, so could Dean. At that point I consciously made up my mind about the kind of trainer that I am.
The process, over time, through which I chose to be a +R trainer had nothing to do with moral superiority over anyone else. I had to do what worked for my own dog, and after doing so I found that I wanted to keep on training as I had trained him. It had nothing to do with avoiding unpleasant experiences – I know full well that it was extremely unpleasant for Speedy to experience the degree of fear that he had to deal with over the first few years of his life. I never had to apply an aversive to teach him that life is tough. He knew that all too well. And it wasn’t about making everything nice for him all the time. Again, he had a highly fearful temperament. Life wasn’t very nice for him whenever he left our home.
But I will say this. The experience of helping a dog move from a point where he would literally be crippled with fear in the face of ordinary things like people looking at him, seeing other dogs, being around people living life around him when out and about to a point where he goes about in the world radiating joy and savoring every possible adventure did have a profound effect on me.
While I do not shy away from the fact that life is hard at times – even for our dogs – I do flatly refuse to apply even the tiniest bit of discomfort to my dog if it is not necessary.
For example, while I was absolutely willing to administer an Adequan shot to Speedy (which was necessary to alleviate arthritis pain), I am not willing to put a prong collar on a dog. This is because I know that anything that can be taught with a prong collar can be taught through +R based methods. I know this because I have watched +R based training make some truly incredible things happen.
I know that there are those who would object to my reasons for choosing to be a +R trainer because Speedy is “just one dog” and not all methods work on all dogs.
But there is something that only I know. Speedy may have been “just one dog”, but he was a dog who was “miswired” to an extreme. He was a dog who had issues that were far beyond my depth as a new trainer (at one point he was very close to being fear aggressive), and I managed to help him become a pretty darn near “normal” dog through +R training techniques. When Speedy and I started, I would never have believed that he could have changed and progressed to the degree that he has.
Speedy went on to become a Freestyle dog, who loved to dance in front of an audience. He went, many times, to an off leash dog camp and ran loose with 40+ other dogs without a single incident. He, who at one time would not let anyone touch him, was x-rayed unsedated without a problem! He danced in front of 500 people, twice, and had a grand time doing it! He played every summer off leash on the beach with children and other dogs playing around him. By the later portion of his life, he didn’t even act “a little shy” with most people.
That experience taught me that things that I would have thought impossible can be accomplished through +R training.
And now that I know that, I can’t “un-know” it . . .
Although that is my main reason, there are many other reasons why I remain a +R trainer, even now that Speedy is no longer with me. I find the discipline absolutely fascinating. I am convinced of the effectiveness of the training. +R based training is continually growing and changing, and there is always more and more to learn about it.