Tuesday, November 11, 2008

My Recent Experience as a Student in an Obedience Training Group Class

I recently signed up for an “advanced” obedience group class because it has been a while since any of my guys were in a group class as a “student” and I wanted to work on and improve skills in a group environment. I don’t know if this class was actually “advanced”, per se, but basic obedience was a “prerequisite”. I won’t mention where I took this class or who the trainer is.

Well, I was horrified – absolutely horrified. The people in this class were known to the trainer so it was pretty clear that they had taken her basic obedience course – whatever that might be. These people were yelling “NO” at their dogs left and right and using leash corrections like crazy! A 15-pound ShihPoo was on a choke chain and the owner was not afraid to use it viciously. One man with a very large black lab was bent over his dog yelling “NO” very loudly right in the dog’s ear. Perhaps he thought his dog was deaf? I think maybe the dog might be deaf after all that yelling in his ear – he certainly didn’t respond at all. I can’t believe people still train this way! The dogs were not happy AND, more importantly, they were NOT obeying. After your dog fails 3-4 times, you would think one would reevaluate the methods and ask himself if this is really working for him. I had to bite my tongue over and over again. I wanted to scream at the people who were yelling at their dogs and ask them how they liked it.

We mostly worked on stay and everyone’s dog broke their stays repeatedly. When the dog broke the people were told to yell “NO” at the dog from a distance then go back to the dog and put the dog back in position. This was generally accomplished with leash corrections because the dogs often did not “sit” or “down” when told. Not once did I see any praise or encouragement or (God Forbid!) a reward. To be fair, the trainer did briefly mention once that it was ok to praise the dogs when they were doing well (only AFTER she saw me petting and praising Shmoopy), but no one did it – that I noticed – and the trainer did not emphasize using praise or ever even mention using rewards. The only dog that didn’t break her “stay” was, of course, my Shmoopy – despite how uncomfortable she was around all these strange dogs. Here was a classic case of dogs who never learned to Stay because they were not taught properly (in my opinion) and they were pushed beyond their abilities so, of course, they failed. It was interesting to note that the trainer actually told everyone to call their dogs to them (“Come”) from across the room, AFTER having put the dog in a “STAY”! Another probable reason why these dogs couldn’t “stay” in the first place! NEVER weaken your dog’s stay by calling them out of it! That’s when we use “wait”. I walked back to Shmoopy, praised and petted her for a good stay, then told her to wait while I again walked across the room. Only then did I call her to me and, by the way, I just used the hand signal – no shouting for me!

We also did “heeling”. That was a joke because most of the heeling took place on a tight leash and the dogs were jerked around. Again, to be fair, there was one Cavalier that walked nicely on leash with its owner. I walked Shmoopy without picking up the leash. She was not “heeling” in the truest sense (I never taught it) but her Loose Leash Walking is closer to a Heel than any of those other dogs will ever be. She drifted out away from me just a bit when I got too close to a big dog but I know that was because she was frightened. She didn’t say anything but I think the trainer expected me to correct her for drifting but why would I correct her when she was frightened? What would that teach her? I simply continued to walk and she resumed her position next to me after we passed the dog. Not bad AND not on leash! She walked with me because she chose to – not because I forced her. I much prefer my dog to be a willing participant.

I will probably continue to go to the class because I already paid for it and I do want to refresh skills in the group environment but I won’t enjoy it. It actually hurt me to see these dogs being jerked around. But it was, for me, a validation of positive reinforcement methods – as if I needed validation of my methods. Shmoopy did so well in the class (better than even I expected) and I never raised my voice or corrected her beyond the occasional “uh uh” said very softly (she was reluctant to go into the down position a couple of times and popped up twice – again, nervousness). That’s all the correction she ever needed and all I ever want to have to do.

I share this because I want people to have a good relationship with their dogs and train with positive methods. I want your dog to WANT to obey you because you have a good relationship and your dog TRUSTS you and has learned that obedience can earn rewards. A dog that is repeatedly yelled at and jerked with leash corrections will not trust you and will not be a willing participant in obedience. In my opinion, my recent experience clearly illustrates that compulsion methods are not better and, in fact, often don’t work. When the owners were far enough away from their dogs that the threat of immediate punishment was no longer there, the dogs did as they pleased. Shmoopy was not happy to be left in a stay in the middle of a bunch of strange dogs (again, she’s very nervous around strange dogs) while I walked more than 50 feet away (it was a school gym) but she did it! She did it because she has learned that 1) I always come back (eventually) 2) She is rewarded for staying (as opposed to punished for failure) 3) She TRUSTS me. She walked with me because she chose to, NOT because I had the leash. In all my training with her I never once used force or yelled at her and she was the best behaved in the entire group. That is the real point I wanted to share with you. You can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar!

Let's keep our dogs with...

Happy Tails!

Helen Del Bove
Smarty Paws Dog Training