|Where's my cookie?|
I grew up riding horses. My first horse was a red Welsh-Arabian mare called Tinker, and had previously been my grandmother's mount. She was sturdy, steady and safe - the perfect partner for a young girl to learn and grow with. At some point Tinker developed what is known as "barn-sourness," when a horse is reluctant to leave or in a hurry to return to its herd-mates, employing any number of evasive behavior tactics to achieve this goal. Tinker's evasion of choice was to pull the reins out of my hands on the way home, by lowering her nose to the ground and shaking her head, all the while increasing her speed. One day she ran away with me up the driveway to the pasture gate in such a manner, and in an adolescent tantrum, I leapt yelling off her back and slugged her in the neck. Her chestnut head shot up in shock and her deep brown eyes widened in surprise. I was immediately horrified by what I had done and threw my arms around her neck sobbing my apology into her mane. I promised to never do such an unfair thing again, to let my emotions get the best of me or to physically punish an animal.
My continued interest in horses led to an education and early career spent riding and training them. It's true that you can't avoid the physical with horses - we're sitting on their backs, they outweigh us tenfold and even the gentlest training methods use a leather conduit to a noseband or a metal bit in their mouths - but I was always drawn to the "ride with your mind" and "less is more" philosophies, the trainers who employed soft hands and low voices. I was easily offended by horse professionals who jerked on horses' mouths or smacked them with lead ropes, and I endeavored to avoid those methods.
By now you're asking "Isn't this a dog blog?" and I'll transition from the equine to the canine, although it's surprisingly not so different. The horse is a prey animal and the dog is a predator, but both experience the same range of emotions, and with reactive dogs we are so often dealing with fear and insecurity. Until I got Ruby I was not so interested in dog training. I was happy for my dogs to be my constant companions, and so long as they were not destroying the furniture or nuisance barking, I wasn't concerned with tricks or obedience. I'm going to make another confession now...despite my early experience with my horse Tinker and my vow to be a kinder, gentler animal handler, for a while I used a prong collar for my dog, Lasya. She was a bad puller, and it was suggested to me by someone - I can't even remember who, now. As Lasya got older, she became easier to manage and I eventually switched her to a regular slip-lead. She had a very thick coat and that big Chow Chow lion's ruff, but I'm still sorry I used that medieval collar on her, because I know better now.
When I adopted Ruby I knew that I wanted to work with her using purely positive, force-free training methods, and hired a trainer with a philosophy in line with my own. I had heard of clicker training and even had a clicker lying around that a friend had given me, but for some reason I always thought of it as cheating. My first experience with it was in Ruby's group obedience class (which we promptly flunked out of due to her emerging reactivity), and I quickly realized it was not a gimmick. It is simply a more efficient bridge between the cue and the behavior, a quicker, more consistent way to say "good dog!" Ruby picked up on it immediately and I nearly always use the clicker to introduce new tricks. I take treats on walks and a squeeze bottle of peanut-butter in the car. If a problem behavior develops, I ask myself what I'd rather see her doing, and take the steps to reach that goal. I offer alternatives and encourage her more desirable choice. Positive reinforcement is more akin to essays than true and false, and the results are not as fast or as flashy as certain celebrity trainer methods or the increasingly out-dated pack/dominance theory. Positive reinforcement feels more fair and honest to me, it's a conversation instead of a diatribe. It's funny to me that the same trainers who keep choke chains and e-collars (a sneaky name for a shock collar) in their toolbox consider clickers and cookies "crutches." Wouldn't you rather your dog work for the currency of treats and praise instead of out of fear of discomfort or pain?
As I've gotten older I'm able to more closely articulate the kind of relationships I want with my animals. I am not interested in being the boss, in receiving a rehearsed answer to every question I ask. I want a partnership in which my horse or dog thinks for itself, offers questions of his or her own. It's in the moments where we're listening that the real magic happens. Existing with and training dogs is a learning process, and it is our responsibility to evolve with the knowledge available to us, to better ourselves and our relationships.
Why Dogs Are More Like Humans Than Wolves from Smithsonian
De-Bunking The "Alpha Dog" Theory from Whole Dog Journal
Dominance Myths from the Association of Professional Dog Trainers
The Power of Positive Dog Training by Pat Miller
Reaching the Animal Mind by Karen Pryor