Starting out as a dog trainer

When I was living in Manchester, I missed my border terrier, Rusty terribly.

In an attempt to ease this pain, I joined the site ‘Borrow My Doggy’ – a platform where owners who’d like help with their dogs can connect with people who are unable to have dogs of their own but would still like some canine-time in their lives.

I soon got talking to the owner of a young husky and we arranged to meet. Maximus was incredibly nervous and for the first half hour of me being there he wouldn’t come anywhere near me. By the end he had let me stroke him, but it was clear that he was unsure, and he soon moved away again.

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Max

Our first walk was tough. His owner dropped him off at a park near me and then headed off to the gym for a couple of hours. It was late November, freezing cold and the light was fading, and I was walking a highly energetic, strong, skittish dog on an extendable lead.

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Walking in Platt Fields Park

Max was frightened of a lot of things: in particular, if we walked near the roads, the cars and buses scared him, and he would lunge away, diving into the end of his lead and nearly dislocating my shoulders in the process (yes, I did grip the lead with both hands!)

He was also very wary of me, so if I needed to reel him in to pass other people or dogs he would leap up and twist away, making it incredibly difficult to hold onto the lead.

Two hours is a long time to have to fill in an inner city park, so we ended up sitting on someone’s garden wall in the dark for about thirty minutes waiting for his owner to return. At this point I was considering the fact that maybe Max and I weren’t the best walking match… being dragged around by a dog that I couldn’t even make a fuss of wasn’t quite what I’d had in mind!

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Waiting for Max’s owner to return

However, I was undeterred and walking Max became a frequent activity. Four months later, on our last walk before I moved back to Norfolk permanently, we left the park, crossed Oxford Road (one of the busiest bus routes in Europe) and went for a long walk down a footpath heading to Highfield Country Park. Once there, we sat in the sunshine and I stroked Max’s head, tickling behind his ears as he keenly watched his surroundings.

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Close enough to cuddle! The final walk we had together was the best by far

Put like this, it all sounds rather idyllic, but this was the moment that I realised that I could train dogs. My other career prospects weren’t looking all that promising at that point in time, and this was one of the few things in my life that was bringing me enjoyment.

Following my return to Norfolk, I began to read books and research dog behaviour, and then enrolled on an online course to achieve my first qualification in dog training.

That was nearly two years ago now.

At present I am in the early stages of setting up my dog training business here in Lincoln. I have been trying to get the ball rolling with this for a few months now, and despite a few setbacks along the way, since the new year I have had a steady influx of clients.

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German shepherd I was working with a few months ago

There is unfortunately a huge amount of misinformation in the world of dog training, and as I frequently read books and articles relating to canine behaviour and training and communicate with other professionals who I have met through my studies, I have had to adopt a very objective attitude and apply everything I learn to my own ethos, considering it in light of the message I would like to deliver through my training.

Enter the four quadrants of learning – dogs (and other animals) can learn by all of these methods:

Quadrants

Here is an example of how each of these can be applied to dog training:

Positive reinforcement: dog sits on command, and is given a tasty treat

Negative reinforcement: dog stops pulling on lead, and pressure from the collar is released

Positive punishment: dog pulls on lead, and is smacked as a result

Negative punishment: dog jumps on owner, and owner turns and walks away

Positive punishment can often produce results much faster than positive reinforcement, but this is because it works with fear – the dog will behave out of fear of being threatened or hurt by its handler.

Imagine you are walking, and you are unsure of where to go. You have someone guiding you, but any time you put a foot wrong they deal you a painful jab in the ribs. You’ll soon start to step more cautiously and eventually you’ll be unwilling to move at all for fear of being hurt again. Nobody has shown you what they expect, and the punishments being administered are irregular and confusing.

Alternatively, imagine that your guide is feeding you a sweet every time you take a step in the right direction. You’ll be eager to learn, and the exercise will become a fun game.

Even if both methods will produce the desired results, one of them is clearly much more ethically sound and enjoyable than the other.

This sums up why I will not use positive punishment. It has no place in dog training and anyone who believes that it is necessary clearly does not have a sound understanding of canine behaviour.

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A gorgeous puppy I have been working with recently

I would like to think however, that the vast majority of modern trainers do not use positive punishment as part of their training repertoire.

The issue I would really like to discuss here is the rising wave of ‘positive-only dog training’.

Until recently, I would have described myself as a ‘positive dog trainer’. My techniques are almost purely reward based, and by this I do not mean shovelling biscuits down a dog’s throat to get it to behave. Rewards can come in many different forms – it all depends on the dog.

The other day, I read an article that completely bashed ‘positive’ trainers. The author of said article used many positive training techniques in their work, and like me was against forms of positive punishment, but seemed to feel that training that only used positive reinforcement was ‘wishy washy’ and ineffective.

They also made the excellent point that there are many aspects of our lives with dogs that fall into the other two categories (negative reinforcement and negative punishment) which we are often completely unaware of. As a result, ‘positive trainers’ are inadvertently using these methods as part of their every day routine, but are unaware of it (or ignoring it!)

I do use some negative reinforcement and negative punishment in my work. For example, recently when a client’s puppy was leaning into her lead, I paused, maintaining a steady contact on the lead (not pulling back, but not giving forward either) until she released the pressure herself. This is negative reinforcement.

Similarly, Behavioural Adjustment Training (BAT), which was highly recommended by my course provider to read up on (a method for working through aggression and related issues by providing more choice for the dog and encouraging the dog to release itself from a situation, without the owner hauling it away or feeding it a hundred treats as a distraction) works by use of negative reinforcement. If the dog makes a ‘good’ choice, the pressure it is under is released. (If you’re interested in learning more about this method, I’d suggest the book BAT 2.0 by Grisha Stewart).

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A dog walking client

This blog post has ended up being rather more long-winded than I had originally intended, but the point I am attempting to convey is that while I feel strongly about animal welfare and would like to see more respect in dog training, I do not think that working with positive reinforcement in isolation is the best way forward.

Dogs are highly intelligent, sentient creatures – their mental abilities have been compared with those of a two-year-old child – and a kind, compassionate method of training will go a long way to building a trusting, close relationship with humans. But sometimes, they need boundaries to be set.

This opinion may be unpopular with some, however I believe that we need to stop seeing punishing the dog using pain and fear as being the only alternative to positive reinforcement.

It isn’t black and white.

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