Monday, August 18, 2014

Positive Dog Training

Like every dog owner I know, I have had moments where I get extremely frustrated with my dogs.  Even though I know that being positive is the best way to get results I have yanked a leash or yelled at my dogs during tense moments.  Not too long ago it felt like there were more tense moments than happy ones so my husband and I sought help from the professionals.

First we contacted a local dog training company that came highly recommended.  Two trainers came out to our house and observed our reactive dogs and recommended cages and pills right off the bat.  I understand that these are tools that might be necessary.  But to recommend these tools before trying anything else, was extremely troublesome to my husband and I.   They didn't ask us how much exercise our dogs received.  We didn't go for a walk or do any obedience.  Yes, my dogs are highly reactive but I have seen worse.  I thought were were going to come away with a plan of action but instead we were even more frustrated and out $180.

I consider myself a pretty experienced dog owner.  I grew up with dogs.  I have volunteered with animal rescue.  I have read more books and articles about dogs than may seem normal.  Not to mention my years of watching The Dog Whisperer, It's Me or the Dog, Animal Cops and just about every other show or documentary involving dogs.  People come to me with their dog problems and I can usually give them solutions.  But I cannot control my own dogs and that is something that I am not proud of.

After our negative training experience, we gave up for a few months.  We just accepted that we were the house with the bad dogs.  The dogs that bark maniacally at every noise, shadow, mammal that comes any where near them.  The dogs who bark at the UPS guy even when he's not at your house.  

After a few months of this we contacted a new dog trainer that we saw advertised in the local paper.  He promised quick results for even the most reactive dogs.  We went in for our free consultation with our dogs, hopeful but skeptical that he could help us.  He explained to us that they used training collars to reinforce verbal commands.  So that when you say sit, you hit the button and the dog receives a physical correction to go along with the verbal one. 

Neither my husband nor I are advocates of training collars but we had to admit that it made sense.  The dogs were extremely responsive to these collars during our one on one sessions with him.  We could achieve results on fairly low settings and were able to be in a room with 2 other dogs without constant barking.

When we were back at home we found that we had to put the collars on higher settings to achieve similar results.   Walking around the neighborhood still presented a challenge.  Everything that passed them warranted barking and lunging.  The worst incident occurred when we passed a family riding bikes while their dog ran beside them.  I had to turn the collar up to it's max level to get my one dog to respond.  He yelped and whimpered as I continued to pull him away from the family while giving him corrections.  My other dog continued to bark and lunge at the family despite being shocked at the highest level. 

When we expressed our concerns that the shock was actually sending a negative message to the dogs the trainer disagreed.  He indicated that the dog yelped out of frustration not out of pain.  He said the dogs would become less reactive with repetition of the training over time.  There was no way I ever wanted to repeat this incident and I could tell by my dogs' body language that the collars were having a negative affect on them.

When we attended group training classes with our dogs it was obvious that the trainer was very knowledgeable about the collar but not very knowledgeable about dogs.  None of the standard animal behavior and training methods were ever discussed.  Maybe Rover just needs some more exercise.  Maybe he's just being a puppy and you need to be patient and teach him basic obedience.  Maybe he's bored and needs more stimulation.  At times he said things that seemed to completely contradict "doggie common sense"and basic animal behavior.  This guy was shocking dogs into submission without teaching them anything.

We decided to stop attending group classes and work with the dogs on our own.  We lowered the collars to the vibration setting and turned off the shock completely.  The dogs were immediately more responsive to training with the minimum amount of correction.  We felt much better about using the collars and, as a result, used them more often. 

We moved out of our house for a month during renovations and saw it as a chance for a fresh start with our dogs in a new location.  In our temporary housing we didn't have a large fenced in back yard to let our dogs run in.  We had to walk them multiple times a day, every day.  For the first week we put the collars on the dogs every time we went outside.  We even used them inside to work on the barking at the windows.  By the end of the week it seemed like the dogs were having a negative association with the collars so we stopped using them. 

There happened to be an article in our monthly issue of The Whole Dog Journal that reminded us that positive reinforcement is always the best way to go.  So we clipped on our bags full of high-value treats and shoved treats in our dogs' faces every time we ran into an obstacle.  For our dog who is not responsive to treats, an obedience command and lots of praise on a loose leash did the trick.  And you know what, the past 4 days have been significantly more peaceful than the previous 7. 

Yes, I still have highly reactive dogs but I also have hope that they can be less reactive if we are consistent with the training.  Maybe we'll even keep walking them once we get back to the big backyard.  Maybe a pet store one day.  Or dare even dream of a concert in the park or outdoor cafe.  All things that I have gotten to experience with previous dogs that I haven't been able to do with my dogs.....yet.  As always, dogs are capable of learning new tricks, as long as their humans learn how to teach them. 

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